The problems most growing artists try to solve often boils down to a lack of singular purpose. For example, a common question plein air painters ask is, “how much time should I take seeking a location to paint?” I’ve been there, all too often taking longer to find a scene than painting—a frustrating experience I know many of us share.
Seemingly simple questions never have simple answers, but the solution depends on the goal for going out: are you out painting today to work on a particular technical skill, like color or drawing? To prepare for a show? To commune with fellow painters? Do it all? When I go out, even though like anyone I’d prefer to be inspired by a scene, I: choose a goal; quickly narrow my visual choices to achieve that goal; and then focus on it alone.
The most common goal for me is understanding natural light, and with that, accepting the constraints of plein air painting. Most of the time, we only have about 90 minutes to finish a picture before the natural light shifts to the point where the scene has changed enough to require a new start. The skills I’m most focused on is composition and color—and sometimes just one of the two. I try not to expect too much from one 90-minute painting: draftsmanship, color, selling, or winning a competition (or “likes” on social media).
Plein air painting is
an essential tool for understanding natural light. When I judge a show, I
can easily distinguish between a painting that captures natural light and one
where the artist spent too much time and “followed the light” too far, for
example, spending 3 hours on a scene where the light has moved far past the original
light moment. To illustrate this, I’m sharing two plein air studies where I had
the singular purpose of capturing the effect of light. Capturing light can be achieved
by mixing small, exact color spots. I learned this from reading Charles
understood how to capture natural light through color spots. If you’re a
plein air painter and haven’t read “Hawthorne
on Painting,” by Charles Webster Hawthorne, you’re missing out! Buy his wisdom immediately! He describes an essential truth in painting
in general, but especially true of plein air,
“Painting is the mechanics of putting one spot of color next to another. That’s the fundamental thing.”
This is a simple, essential truth often missed by painters who expect too much from a single painting session.
Here’s a color spot example. I was out on a beautifully clear day in San Francisco, a city where subjects to paint are endless. I ended up at a favorite, Crissy Field, where I could have painted architecture (including the Golden Gate Bridge), beachcombers, rocks and surf, long city views, hillsides, etc, but I was struck immediately by the dramatic color of this building.
I started a color notes journey by painting small color spots for each element: the main structure walls in light and shadow; roof; lawn; sky and distant bay water behind the building (see below). I didn’t fill in the broad shapes of color until each spot related first to each other. And if one color note was off (I first painted the roof too dark), there’s a domino effect and adjacent colors notes change too. In this study, I repainted the sky color spot several times after all the other spots related correctly.
To keep focus, you’ll notice the building has no windows or doors. Of course, it actually has, but painting that detail would have taken time away from my singular goal. Having captured these key colors in this study I can later paint a larger studio work that includes this detail, but there was no need to do so in the 90 minutes I took to capture color notes here.
This is another example, a Pacific Grove scene of color notes I painted last week.
Impressionistic realism has been the foundation of my art for many years, but that’s starting to change as I explore mixing identifiable forms that are relatable to abstract forms that work on a different level. Abstract art has merit, but I hadn’t pursued it until now because I struggled with how to communicate with it.
For me, the human figure is the most relevant symbolic subject in art. People are complex: outwardly transparent, but inwardly hidden. We respond to the Mona Lisa because while her body is drawn to perfection, her veiled thoughts through her smile intrigues us and draws us to this painting. So how can a painting be both approachable and mysterious?
Fast forward 450 years from Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to the 1950’s Bay Area Figurative movement (lead by David Park), when an intriguing fusion of figurative art combined with Abstract Expressionism. Painters in this school ( David Park, Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff, Wayne Thiebaud…) had different reasons for mixing figurative representation and abstraction, but many found a dead end in Abstract Expressionism’s ability to communicate. They resisted being constrained by a formal “school”, but instead believed in taking freely from both figurative and abstract traditions.
I’m working on a series now that uses the figure as an anchor, like this movement. In one of these paintings (“Green Shorts”, below), a solitary figure stares out at an abstracted plane, resembling the sea. (or, is it a clouded sky?).
The figure is used as an entrance into this world of sunshine and contemplation. He stands on the picture plane as if an observer himself to the alternating bands of blues, violets and grays. It’s designed in such a way that his surroundings are open to interpretation: he could be in a museum (barefoot—probably not allowed!) surrounded by a large painting himself.
I had a lot of fun with this one. While the reference photo I used is in fact of a man at the beach, the viewer can have fun with this and imagine other scenarios. For example, he could be standing on flat land, looking out at distant snow-capped hills, sky, and clouds above. If you were not told this was the sea, could you see alternative realities like this for his view?
This ambiguity is what interests me, because I believe strongly that the best art requires participation by the viewer. Just as decoding the Mona Lisa’s thoughts are the viewer’s creation, I seek to give the viewer the opportunity to find their own meaning. This makes the painting theirs through co-creation between viewer and artist.
So that’s what I’m working on. It is fun creating these worlds, but not easy—art never is!
Postscript: This series will probably be shown in San Francisco at Spark Arts, in April, but specifics TBD.
I will be leading a 2 hour color and design workshop in San Francisco on Saturday, May 19, 10am-Noon. It is free. No need to bring materials, this is a 2-hour slideshow discussion. In this donation-based class, you’ll learn and discuss with other artists:
I was speaking to someone on a airplane last night about the visual arts and how they relate to music. Here’s my analogy: In high school, I played jazz trombone. Key to that genre is the ability to improvise. It’s a beautiful thing to hear a musician create new music on the fly during an improvisation. What may seem to be a beautiful, but haphazard, run of notes is actually the result of playing within the composer’s written sequence of cord progressions. The jazz musician creates in the moment, but she does so based on what’s in front of her: sheet music (in a sense). The same is very much true of those artists that create variations based on a theme. The subject is the theme (sheet music) and the art is the variation (improvisation).
For me, a recent theme has been Moss Beach, here in Northern California. The series of paintings below shows how I’ve studied this area, and created variations on this landscape. The first three paintings are based on the same spot, but with different mediums–oil, watercolor–and different perspectives. The last 4 are looking in a different direction, but again, studies of the same view using different mediums and ideas. From these studies, I’m learning to record and compare my feelings for the spot so I can later determine what resonates and where to build upon–as, for example, a larger studio work.
I hope you enjoy these improvisations of Moss Beach. More to come.
After a great plein air painting trip, I’m back to the studio and focusing on the figure. I took snapshots of my progress on this painting so you’ll be able to view as a demo on YouTube.
I know this is an unusual composition, but I like that. This was a great study in warm colors (hence the title, “Warmth”). One of the key objectives I had was to represent warm/cool warm colors, and find a way to have the figure stand out from the rocks behind. It’s a figure, so of course it will always stand out visually, but I also wanted to use color to accomplish the same objective. I typically do that through “color separation” (which I first wrote about on this blog in 2007). The basic idea is to use completely different colors from my palette to represent a color of the same hue family and value. For example, to separate the color of grass in shade and light, each of those two mixtures will have different blue and yellow mixtures (eg, green in shade might be Ultramarine Blue + Yellow Ochre, while in light it might by Cerulean Blue + Cad Yellow). Both make green, but the fact that different base colors are used to mix each helps further separate light from shadow.
In this painting, I kept his flesh in shadow based on Mars Violet, while the base for the rocks was Alizarin Crimson. This was also a fun study to do in terms of brushwork. I was able to get the contrast I wanted by keeping the rocks loose and free-form, while the draftsmanship of the figure is tighter (too tight, actually, I’d love to be able to paint a figure as loose as Dan MacCaw. Someday! The other challenge in this painting was representing the direction of color of light. There’s a cool reflection from the sky in his hair and chest for exmaple, and a very warm reflect light coming from the ground to his chest and parts of his face. That’s always fun to paint!
You may see a larger studio version of this painting as it’s one of those studies that resonates with me. What do you think?
In these two studies (painting at Asilomar, just north of Carmel) I was focusing on the use of dark transparent colors to represent the ocean. click on the paintings to see the detail. Notice how the use of transparent Ultramarine Blue gives it a nice watercolor-like glow. Even though it’s a dark color, it reflects the white board underneath, so it gives it the feeling of both being dark and light at the same time. To create the reflection of light on water, I wiped away more of the paint to show the white ground, rather than paint a second color on top. BTW, pure Ultramarine is too intense to represent the Pacific, so I deaden the color, generally with a Cad Red, or sometimes with Gamblin’s Chromatic Black–a great transparent Black that will reduce the chroma of any color.
To work on this skill, I selected a reference photo with as few shapes and color variations as possible. This painting was done from a reference photo I took in Big Sur, CA. Notice in this study how there are very few shapes and only about 7 main color mixtures. I could have rendered this more fully and modeled the clouds or other shapes, but I think (at least for this composition and study) it would have detracted from the impression. Of course, this is also somewhat a matter of personal taste. It fits the bill for me, as I strive towards more abstraction in my work. Simplification is part of that path.
I used a reference photo of “Indian Canyons” park in Palm Springs, Ca to study shadow color. The color of shadow on a surface is influenced by it’s local color, as well as the environment: objects facing the sky tend to have bluer shadows than shadows that don’t reflect the sky. A good area of the painting to observe is the top left quadrant. The large boulder there has a striking blue shadow. The color of the rock is near white (with some blue in it), but the reason the blue is so strong is the influence of the sky. That sky color reflects into the shadows. Compare that top shadow with the shadow on the left of the boulder, as it hits the river bed. There are several shadow colors there. The side of the rock is a warm shadow, it doesn’t face the sky plane, but instead has warm palm tree leaves to reflect. Yet the side also takes on an orange hue reflecting from the water below it. That same cast shadow of the boulder’s left side hits the water, and and a smaller boulder behind. That small rock is facing the sky at an angle, so has a deep blue shadow.The cast shadow on the water is more violet, as it is not getting as much sun as the top of the rock.
Revisiting the colors of the desert landscape. I had some trouble with the distant shadows, and kept alternating darker/lighter. This photo seems to show them lighter than they appear in life. In the end, the distant shadows are probably a bit too light, because when I removed color from this image to make it black & white, the shadows and light of the hills appear the same value. It’s interesting to see how color temperature can telegraph shadows as well as value. I guess that’s where the colorists of the Henche School are coming from.
I was once asked to give a talk about “thought leadership” in media. Two creative people I spoke about where Julia Child and Bob Ross. The former revolutionalized American cooking at home by introducing us to the “mystery” of French cooking, and the later did the same for art. I think a lot of artists look down on Bob Ross, and while his painting may not be to your taste, he made art approachable by taking the stress out of it. He de-mystified painting, as Julia did cooking. What does this have to do with Colley Whisson? Two things, first, his manner is calm, re-assuring, yet precise. Second, he’s introduced me—and most people in his workshop—to Australian art as Julia introduced us to French cooking. I hope you make some discoveries, too, after reading this.
I fouund his approach to be quite similar to other tonalist painters, and in contrast to the Henche school (taught by John Ebersberger, Camille Przewodek, etc). I didn’t get great pictures of any demo start to finish (except for the video below), so the illustrative photographs below go back-and-forth between various demos. I think you’ll still get the general idea.
Materials. Good painting starts with the best materials you can afford. I’ve tried the cheap stuff, and fighting poor quality isn’t worth it, especially when you consider the many challenges you face in bringing together a painting. A couple of notes about his materials:
Brushes. Two things drew me to Colley’s work: his dramatic sense of light, and his brushwork. Realizing that great brush work has a lot more to do with precision and sensitivity (that only comes with experience), you may want to try these brushes, but don’t expect a miracle. One book dedicated to brushwork I like is Emil Gruppe’sBrushwork for the Oil Painter. It’s out of print, but you can find used copies on Amazon.com. That said, Colley used some brushes I hadn’t seen anyone use before. They look like house painting brushes: quite wide, razer shart, short handle. He uses them both for the first wash-in (see below) as well as throughout the painting to add beautiful calligraphy. Someone told me he used Langnickel 283’s, which apparently you can buy in a three-pack for $15 (I haven’t purchased mine yet, so can’t confirm….I will update this post after I do UPDATE 12/10/2010, from Colley: “Brushes are in a pack of 3: Royal Langnickel “Large Area Brush Set” White Taklon (Medium) Item # RART-150”). He also showed us how to use a razor blade to trim back brushes that are too thick for his technique. Holding the blade with your thumb and forefinger, push the blade down from the ferrule to tip.
Support. He paints on wood board, Mahogany, I believe. When using canvas, he tones with Yellow Ochre. The board is a good choice for his technique, because he often uses the palette knife to cut-back or trim light colored paint to review dark undertones, a techique he learned from Richard Schmid.
Medium. He uses an Alkyd medium, but tried Turpenoid during the class and really liked it. He thought it probably dried faster than his usual medium, although he was somewhat concerned about cracking. He said in the past he painted dark undertones/accents with a cool mixture (Utramarine Blue + Alizarin Chrimson), but said that mixed cracked over time. His boards seemed a bit warped, so I wonder if he neglects to prime both sides? In any case, he now ads a Cadium Red to his darks to prevent cracking.
Rags. Interestingly, he rarely uses paper towels, but instead rags that you can apparently buy in large bags at second hand stores in Australia. I don’t often use rags, but will try it to see if there’s a difference. I do use Viva paper towels exclusively, because they are rag-like and very absorbant. Soneone had blue shop towels with them, and he seemed to like those as well.
Concept. If art is revealing something that’s never been seen or said before, then you should start with a concept (unless you’re painting quick studies to improve skill, like value, drawing, etc). Colley said he paints the picture first in his mind, and things tend to go wrong when you forget that or stray in another direction. There are exceptions. I’m sure we’ve also started with one idea and discovered something new while painting, but I think this idea of keeping the focus on your original impression is good rule of thumb.
Design. Colley starts by marking with dots the vertical and horozontal thirds of the painting surface, and draws a mental (sometimes physical) circle connecting the dots. He believes the center of interest and closely subordinate interests should be within that area. You should also think of the circle in terms of how the eye should move within the painting. Since the subject of composition is so complex, I will refer to the many great books written about composition (eg, Edgar Payne’sComposition of Outdoor Painting is a personal favorite).
Drawing. Start with small dots indicating the boundaries of the large masses. Ensure the relative position, size and shapes are there, then start to draw them in. Like almost any artist I’ve studied with, he emphasized the importance of drawing and doing so whenever/wherever you can. He also demonstrated a nice drawing aid: he uses an thin/light frame as a horizontal and vertical maulstick.
Underpainting. Colley loves strong contrast, so he usually started his paintings with a very dark mixture, although once in a while I noticed he started with midtones, and added dark accents later. He discourages the use of thinner at this point, but rather pure medium (even to clean the brush). In general, I noticed that he tended to paint whole areas dark, even if they would later hold lights. This helps the lights “pop” against the dark background, but of course, this technique requires you give the underpainting time to dry to avoid picking up the underpainting later. I noticed that even with 20 minutes of wait time, my underpainting wasn’t completely dry. He’d often take a paper towel and remove excess underpaint to ensure the next layer could be applied cleanly. This is something I need to continue to experiment with and learn. This may be especially challenging in a “plein air” situation where time is short, so we’ll see. Please share your own experience in comments!
Masses. He’ll first place the lightest light as a small spec of a stroke to ensure it will pop against the dark underpainting. He then focuses on the large color masses, going for accurate value and color on the first stroke (rarely working back in to adjust later). At this point, he stesses an “attack and retreat” technique, ie, lay your strokes in with confidence, and step back often to check your overall color/value relationships.
Painting. He works the canvas all over, drawing the work to completion together, rather than say starting at the center of interest and working outward. He uses the large (4-5″) brushes throughout the painting process, to generate interesting caligraphic strokes and lines using the brush tip. His brush strokes follow the contour of the shape (and not gravity, as some artists like Ken Auster do). He ties the types of strokes he paints in relational to sky (should be a thin veil, like panty hose); mid-field (more texture); and foreground (shag carpet!). As he paints towards completion, he continually asks himself whether the painting is far enough along to communicate his original concept. We all risk taking paintings too far, so I think this is great advice. Let a painting sit a few days before you call it done. He’ll also photograph his work and then flip it on the horizontal axis. This new perspective helps you see mistakes.
Many thanks to The Tucson Art Academy (and their gracious hosts, Gabor and Christine Svagrik) for hosting this workshop, complete with fresh baked scones and cookies! Also, I hope to followup this post with one on the Australian artists Colley referred his students to in class.
I painted a demonstration for the East Bay Plein Air Painters last Saturday. Ikuko Boyland (Administrator of the EBPAP) was kind enough to take the time to photograph the demo and put together a PDF file. Thank you, Ikuko! The 5-page PDF should be loaded below (it’s 6MB, so may load slow depending on the speed of your connection). If you have trouble viewing, you can either click the full screen (box) icon in the top right of the viewer below, or click here to download the full PDF file (6.15MB). Be sure to view the color-corrected final painting below (the demo photos are a bit too cool).
This painting of Timberfield model Chase sat in my studio for a while, unfinished (I thought). I like to work “ala prima”, wet into wet. I wasn’t able to finish this one that way, so it sat a few weeks. But it grew on me as is, so here it is.
This painting is an exploration. Art is a viable pursuit for me as long as I have the opportunity to push myself through experimentation and growth. Having just finished Door County Plein Air, I was reminded that I need to avoid creating works that veer on “trite”. Yes, I like to capture beauty, but I want to create works that are more intellectually stimulating. That’s how music evolved from Bach to Portishead :-).
What you don’t see, is that Chase is jumping out of a tree, so his body is contorted in an unusual way, you don’t see the tree, but you probably get some sense of movement. This is similar to Robert Longo’s“Men in the city” series, who I recall used to photograph his models while throwing rubber balls or rocks at them. Their contorted bodies made for an interesting subject, and without the balls for needed context, the viewer wonders what instigated the movement. Mystery in art…it’s a good thing.