Sunday, August 26, 2007

Painting a Series

Recently, I was commissioned by our parish to paint two small works in pastel, one of St Anne's Anglican Church, and another of the parish hall. These were to be for our retiring priest as a parting gift. Here is the church. (As always, you can click on the small image to see a bigger version.)

"St Anne's Anglican Church" 5x7, pastel

Because of the difficulty in finding a good vantage point that was not in the middle of a busy road, I ended up taking several photographs of the two buildings to work from. (I know, this is a blog about painting en plein air -- but sometimes we have to humble ourselves!) I picked two photos for these "architectural portraits."

When I finished the first painting, I wanted to make sure the second one had a similar look and feel to the first. The best way to do this, I figured, was to use exactly the same palette. So, I took the sticks from my "working palette" -- a plastic jar lid -- and put them away in a Ziploc bag. When I got around to the second one, I simply pulled out the bag, dumped the sticks into my "working palette," and got to work. I also put the first painting within view of my easel so I'd be able to match the colour of sky, grass, shadows and so on. Here's the second painting.

"St Anne's Parish Hall" 5x7, pastel

This system works well. Anytime I do a series, I try to keep a certain number of things the same: painting size, subject matter, and palette. Keeping the palette the same is easy with pastel, since you can have handy the exact hues and values you've been using, but it's harder with oil. With oil, it helps to keep near your easel the other paintings in the series, and to then match the colours you mix against them.

Below is the "palette" I used for these two pieces. I don't use many sticks for paintings as small as these (5x7.)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Perspective - The Grand Illusion

Lately, I've been pondering drawing and how it's the foundation for all painting. One helpful tool in drawing is perspective. If you've taken any basic visual art course, you've been exposed to perspective. Vanishing points, two-point perspective -- terms you most likely have heard and concepts you most likely have used.

But perspective is just illusion. It's a product of how the lens of our eye projects light onto the "picture plane" of the retina and of how our brain interprets the resulting pattern. Railroad tracks don't really converge three miles away to a single point.

The rules of perspective are a framework we painters impose on what we see in order to make our paintings look real. The rules of this "grand illusion" were first invented by goldsmith Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) and later codified in a treatise by humanist Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472). (For more on the history of perspective, see http://www.math.nus.edu.sg/aslaksen/projects/perspective/theory.htm.) Artists have been using these rules ever since.

But you don't really need to apply these rules to make your paintings look real. Like almost everything else, getting your paintings to look real comes down to observation. Observe the illusion, and simply paint what you see. Compare the relationships of lines and shapes, angles and directions, to record the slope of a roof.

The painting below, of the Roosevelt Cottage in the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park, is an example in which I purposely did not draw a skeleton of perspective lines before painting. I simply painted shapes, and compared what I painted with the actual cottage before me. Surprisingly, one doesn't have to take out a ruler and compass to measure line and angle, since the trained eye is pretty good at estimating these things. Just draw and compare -- constantly.


"Roosevelt's, Morning" 9x12, pastel, en plein air
(click on image for larger version)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Drawing - A Painter's Lost Art?

As many of you know, I teach workshops every week at my studio on Campobello Island. Over the weeks, I am struck repeatedly by one observation. Many students can't draw very well.

You might respond that painters should be painting, not drawing. But drawing is all about getting shape relationships right -- exactly the same thing that painters should worry about. As a painter, though, I tend to create these relationships with a brush rather than a pencil, and with shape alone rather than with line. In fact, I rarely paint lines; they come into existence automatically when two shapes share an edge.

It's hard for a student to learn to draw when he's also learning to paint. Getting perspective right is tough when you're also trying to deal with color and the sometimes-intractable nature of your materials and equipment. Best is to make the drawing practice a separate event, and with pencil and paper.

Lately, I've taken to sketching after I've done my demonstration painting and I'm going from student to student, offering help at the easel. If the class is small and I can spare the time, I'll take my pad around and do quick, 5-minutes sketches for my own amusement and practice. (The pad is also handy to have so I can draw on it to illustrate a point for the student.)

Below are some of the sketches I did recently at a workshop on Ministers Island, in St Andrews, New Brunswick. They are rough, but I'd rather work out the lines of some of these very complex barns on paper before I take paint to them! (I've also included a photo of one of the barns, build by Canadian rail magnate Sir William Van Horne.)