Oil paint has many unique qualities, including variations in texture, from light, watercolor-like washes, to impasto strokes of full body oil. Lately, I’ve been exploring the latter, painting with a fully loaded brush that creates bold strokes of color (called “impasto”, the technique of laying on paint thickly so that it stands out from a surface).
I’ve found this technique to have many benefits: it gives painting a sculptural “presence” that reminds the viewer this isn’t a photograph, it’s made by a hand with passion; it allows for richer color and interesting edges, as the loads of adjacent paint strokes combine at the edges, creating a marbleized co-mingling of color; using impasto for foreground elements makes them move forward in the picture plain, especially if you paint the distance in a thinner wash; and finally, there’s something more about it that’s difficult to describe….I think it’s perhaps the fact that the painting’s fluid surface gives it an organic quality.
Here are a few recent seascapes painted in this vein:
To help fellow artists achieve their color goals, I’ve documented how I approached a recent painting in terms of color and composition.
I’ve taken many workshops, read many art books–but at the end of the day (at least for me), practicing the craft by covering miles of canvas is essential. It’s funny too how I’ve not really grasped much of what I was told (or read) until later in my art career. There are many skills I thought I learned years ago, but I find myself now revisiting them, developing a deeper understanding.
An essential book on painting is Charles Hawthorne’s “On Painting“. He wrote,
“Painting, is just getting one spot of color in relation to another spot…. Let color make form, do not make form and Color it.”
Sounds simple, right? If you’re a painter, you know better! I keep coming back to his advice because it’s so powerful. Simple ideas always are. I followed Hawthorne’s advice in this painting.
To get started, the first priority for me is design/composition. A strong design will attract the eye when the viewer is across the room. It will draw people in.
My first step was a simple charcoal drawing on paper, where I could adjust and experiment with ideas easily. Since the subject is architecture, there are design constraints. Unlike a cloud or seaside white water, I don’t have the complete freedom to create shapes that play well together. So for this image, the architecture needed to be solid, but I had to ensure all the components (trees, sky, etc.) supported a coherent design.
In this sketch, I thought about the big shapes and how they related to each other. I considered principles I first learned by reading Edgar Payne’s “Composition of Outdoor Painting“: creating balance among large shapes; balancing organic, loose forms (trees) with architectural elements; ensuring there’s a comfortable amount of space between primary shapes; avoiding repetitive shapes; etc. For example, I shifted the bush in the lower right of the painting leftward, so I could intersect those greens against the garage door’s complementary reds.
Next, color. Given this subject is primarily architecture, it’s a bit easier to find the right color. Flat planes like walls don’t have a lot of variation (like a tree). Even so, I approached mixing color the same way. I mix a pile of color (see pic below) for each of the major areas of the painting on the palette before I touch the canvas, one pile for an object in light, the other for the shade side of the object.
To get accurate color spots, I use a technique I’ve written about before here called “brush in front.” Also, to increase vibrancy, I started with a single color that is key to the scene, and built the rest of the painting around it. For this painting, I started with pure Cadmium Red Light for the garage door in light, and then mixed a completely different color for the door in shadow. I’ll often apply this to other paintings: start with the most exciting color, place it on the canvas, and then make all the surrounding colors relate to it.
Another point about color I’ll make here. In nature, true color in a scene is rarely duplicated across objects–unless of course the objects (tree type, whatever) are the same. Think about the hillsides you’ve seen with various types of trees and vegetation. If you observe closely, none of the colors are the same among disparate objects, so why use the same base pigments to represent them?
To make objects stand out (my goal was a sunlit-colorful design), I use color separation and avoid repeating color formulas for objects of the same hue. So, for example, the greens in the building were mixed using a different set of blues and yellows on my palette than those of the trees, and the grass was yet another combination of pigments. This becomes apparent when you look at the final painting below. See how the character of each green is distinct.
After drawing the design on canvas, I applied spots of paint to key areas where I could judge the adjacency of color. For example, if you look at the garage door and driveway, I placed the three spots together in the drawing so I could ensure they relate before painting the entire area. In the upper left, I placed the sky color right next to the tree, and so on. Placing these spots allows me to further adjust color as needed on the palette, because as Hawthorne wrote, it’s the relationship among colors that’s important. An alternative is to paint directly on canvas and then continually adjust paint there, but I find that that muddies the color. I’d rather get the color right the first time on the palette, and this mixing technique does it for me.
After making some adjustments, I filled in the drawing with paint, keeping things as simple as possible. I believe that simplicity results in a more powerful image. While I did model the tree on the right a bit with some dark and light colors, in general I kept the planes of color flat. If I’ve mixed the correct lit and shadow colors, form will happen.
I’m happy with this one. I was able to recreate the feeling I had when I saw this scene. I hope you see the same, and that you found this demonstration was useful! Feel free to ask questions or provide feedback in comments below. This painting is available for purchase here. Happy painting!
“Isn’t it intensity of thought rather than calmness of touch that we are seeking? And in impulsive working conditions such as these, out on site and of this nature, is a calm, well-ordered touch always possible? Dear Lord, it seems to me no more so than when on the attack in fencing.”
Vincent VanGogh in a letter to fell artist John Russell
VanGogh captures perfectly the essence of a struggle plein air painters face: balancing the heart and head in the battle to create art on the spot. When you’re painting, how do you balance the impulsiveness driven by the excitement of the moment, with a deliberative approach that substitutes intuitive painting for thoughtful—and some would say “tight”–painting? Or is this a false choice and do both?
Painting and studying with some of the best in our field inform my opinion. Of those teachers, the great Ken Auster comes to mind. In short, his approach was that you start with the head (deciding what to paint and why, designing the picture, drawing…), move to the heart (reacting, for creating the kind of expressive brush strokes and sophisticated grays he’s known for) and end with the head to thoughtfully consider the painting from an objective standpoint, and ask yourself, “is it done?” Judge it.
I agree with much of what Ken taught me about this question, but I have a slightly different although complementary take: Painting en plein air is possible through building a solid foundational of skills that make automatic as much of the process as possible in the moment.
Have you ever commuted home from work, realizing when you got there you were on complete auto-pilot, barely remembering the drive? That’s what building a skill means to me: having the most complete toolbox of artistic skills so that I can be intuitive and responsive to nature without thinking about it. I want to use my heart completely in a picture. This is my goal, but I’m not quite there yet. I’ve worked in the corporate world too many years to escape a structured, self-critical mind.
But like Ken, I do start and end deliberatively. Perhaps this is my failing, or an essential truth to live with.
This is a painting of mine that represents for me this principle. I started with a careful design—especially large shapes, light and shadow—and switched to a complete intuitive state (athletes call it “the zone”). I skipped the evaluation, self-judgment phase until the next day. I’m glad I did. I like it just as it is.
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.