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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Reference Photos - Help or Hindrance?

I don't have a classical art background, so I never learned early on the benefits of working from life. When I first started painting and was looking for something to paint, photographs were the obvious choice. In a photograph, everything keeps perfectly still and there's always a wealth of detail available to copy. What more could a painter want?

But although I painted as much as I could, my work never really made any progress -- other than to become more detailed and photographic. My paintings just didn't look like those of the artists I admired, such as the Impressionists, both French, American and Russian, and some of my contemporaries.

My self-study painting course involved taking workshops from the best artist-instructors and reading many books. Through them, I came to understand the value of painting from life and how it is different from painting from photographs. Here's what I learned:
  • Painting from photographs improves your skills in handling a brush and mixing color.
  • Painting from life improves your skills of observation.
Photographs, because they can't record the range of value and color that the human eye can see, simply don't contain all the information you need in order to render the landscape realistically.

Once I started to paint from life, I came to understand that photographs, though perhaps a great teaching aid, quickly become a handicap to the student. Because I could see a greater range of color and finer differences in value, I was free to observe them, and thus to use the skills I gained while painting from photographs -- brush-handling and color-mixing -- with more satisfaction.

As I painted more and more from life, I began to question the value of taking reference photographs. A reference photograph has two uses. First, the artist can use a photograph as the sole basis for a painting. He can go from start to finish with the photograph. I did this when I first began painting. Second, the artist can take a photograph of his subject, and then refer to it later. Perhaps he didn't have time to finish the painting, and there's some detail he failed to add. Perhaps he isn't quite happy with the value or color relationships, and the photograph will show him where he went wrong.

I've already covered the first situation. The second situation, though it's a technique often taught by instructors and used by their students, has its problems, too.

Again, the photograph has insufficient information to do all that the artist may require of it. Value ranges are exaggerated. If he's trying to fix a value relationship, the photograph won't help, because the darks will be too dark and the lights, too light. Colors are inaccurate. Even if the camera was properly balanced for the color temperature of the ambient light, the color will still be off. Neither film nor digital media can capture the full range of human color vision.

Really, photographs help only with shapes and details.

I used to take reference photographs while on-location. But the few times I actually pulled out a photograph to help with some "fix-up" work in the studio, I was unhappy with what I saw. Inevitably, I put the photograph away and worked solely from memory.

Let me pause for a moment and describe what happens to my eyes when I paint outdoors. Initially, I spend a lot of time looking at my scene -- even before I open up my pochade box. I try to figure out right away what draws me to a scene. I determine my focus and points of interest. I compose and re-compose mentally and try to find a design to help my main point of interest. Finally, I observe value and color relationships. It's at this point that I open my box and begin my initial sketch.

As I paint, my eyes dart back and forth from canvas to my subject. Early on, I re-evaluate my first decisions and either confirm or discard them. Once I've established on canvas the foundation for the painting, I start looking a little less at the subject. I look only to observe and confirm a value or color relationship or the placement of a key element.

But I found out that a strange thing happens to me here. One of my students noticed it first. I stop looking at my subject entirely! By now, the painting has enough in it that it stands on its own. From this point on, I adjust the elements I've put down, referring only to their relationships and to my internal checklist of what makes a painting good. There's no need to refer to my subject unless my painting needs certain details recorded accurately, such as the architectural elements of a lighthouse or the exact shape of a well-known landscape feature. Otherwise, the painting is my self-contained playground, and I could just as well take it back to the studio to finish it. If I get cold or hungry, that's exactly what I do!

This observation freed me. I realized that, since I stopped referring to my subject about half-way through, there was no point in taking a reference photograph. So, I no longer take such photographs when on-location. I'm much happier adjusting what I have on the canvas until it's a harmonious, balanced whole rather than struggling to make it mirror my subject. (I'm more intent on mirroring the emotional quality of the subject, and not its precise physical characteristics, anyway.)

Only once have I regretted not taking a reference photograph. A client wanted a particular painting that was already sold. She asked me to paint another just like it. I didn't have a good photograph of the scene, but only a photograph of the sold painting -- which I was forced to use as my sole reference. Although my copy turned out just fine, I spent many more hours on it to make it perfect than I did on the original! My client really got her money's worth on that one.

Here's the painting. "Eastport Salmon Festival," 9x12, oil/panel.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Fireweed and Snow - Two Paintings

Hard to believe, but today it's 40 degrees with heavy rain. This storm was supposed to be a classic "nor'easter," and perhaps for those further inland, it has been so. Our 10-14 inches of predicted snow, however, have become an inch of rain. Prior to this, we had two days of near-zero weather with a windchill approaching 30 below! What a rollercoaster.

This kind of weather makes it hard to paint outdoors. However, yesterday the temperature rose to 30, and I was itching to try some of my new 5x7 panels. What better opportunity to try a quick study? I gathered up the oil painting gear and headed out into the yard, where at the time we still had abour 5 inches of snow from the last storm.

I painted the fireweed thicket between our house and the in-laws' next door. This time of year, fireweed shows its best colour when it's overcast. Yesterday it was a gorgeous mixture of alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue and just a touch of cadmium red light to warm it up. This painting, "Fireweed in Winter," has a thick impasto to it. The white I use, Permalba White, which is a mix of titanium white, zinc white and a tad of lead white, grew stiff and tacky in the 30 degree air. It was like trying to paint with toothpaste and using a clumsy toothbrush.

I wanted to do another 5x7 today, but the rain kept me in. Undeterred, I found a nice view from our warm living room. This is more fireweed, plus blackberry canes and wild roses -- and again, that wonderful, rich color -- with a view of Friar's Bay and, in the far distance, Eastport. The light had a colder cast to it than yesterday, when a bit of warmth touched the snow. Today the snow looks bone-cold.

Here's "Red Brambles." (You can click on the small images to get a bigger picture.) We'll see what tomorrow brings!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Plein Air as Performance Art

Plein air painting is a type of performance art, much like music and dance. Performance art is, by its very nature, something that cannot be revised and thus, cannot be "fixed" if something goes wrong. The modern dancer stumbles and falls; the solo pianist loses his place. The dancer doesn't go back and try again, but simply continues. The pianist doesn't flip back a page, but keeps on going.

I've found that it helps in my outdoor painting to take a similar approach. Although, unlike these other script-driven performers, I have an opportunity to exploit my errors and to improvise, if I think of painting as a process instead of as a means to an end, my work inevitably turns out better. And I'm much happier. As I paint, I assign a high value to the act of painting, and not so much to the finished product, which one might consider a souvenir program guide or a memento of the event. Because of this approach, I don't do much "fixing" as I paint. If I do make corrections, they are surreptitious and most likely done later in the studio.

Of course, the patrons and the public assign a high value to this memento and a lesser one -- especially if they aren't witnesses -- to the peformance. And rightly so. I do the same when I've finished painting. The wet panel I hold in my hands is worth so much to me that I carry it in a special box and take great care to not smear the paint. (If not, I'd simply wipe out the painting and use the same panel over and over again!) Once I put down my brush and have a nice memory of my day at Lake Glensevern, I change my perspective, draw back from the act and focus more on the end product. (See accompanying image, "Ice Comes to Lake Glensevern," 8x10, oil. Click on image for a larger view.)

The point of considering plein air to be a performance art is this. Like any performer, the more you perform, the better you perform. Granted, you're becoming a better painter under certain circumstances -- within a two-hour time slot because of the changes in sunlight, on a smaller canvas than you might use in the studio, and under the critical gaze of passersby. But you'll paint better under other circumstances, too -- in the studio, at a demonstration, anywhere. You'll just get better, period.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Knife Work

As much as I like the feel of a brush, sometimes a knife is called for. For me, this is especially true when two needs coincide. If I need to cover a vast amount of area in similar value or color quickly, and also if I want that color to be "pure," I'll grab my painting knife.

I keep one small painting knife in my paintbox. Although I use it mostly on-location to scrape the palette when I need a clean mixing area, I don't hesitate to use it when I need to lay in an expanse of sky or water. This is especially true if the weather or light conditions are changing rapidly. "Grand Manan Reflection" (9x12, oil/panel), which you see here, is an example. Not only was the weather changing fast, so was the tide! (You can click on the image for a bigger version.)

Although the sky is filled with clouds, both cloud and sky are mostly the same value with related colors. The purples of the clouds are very close to the blues of the sky, both on the color wheel and on the value scale. (I really enjoy a cloud when its values are so close to that of the sky that it creates a barely perceptible, soft edge.) To create the different effects, I piled up pure white on my palette and stirred in bits of Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson and, to warm up the mixture, a speck or two of Cobalt Blue and Sap Green. I didn't add these colors all at once, nor did I mix this pile completely, as I scooped up the mixture and applied it to my panel.

I added Grand Manan, the island on the horizon, while laying in the sky with the same paint and technique. It's got just a little more Ultramarine Blue and Alizarin Crimson in the mixuture.

For the water, again I used the same pile of paint, but I added more Cobalt Blue and Sap Green to make the water warmer than the sky. Enough cool colors -- Ultramarine Blue and Alizarin Crimson -- remained to allow some of the sky and cloud colors to "reflect" in the water. The knife made it possible to make this mix of warm and cool complementary colors without also making "mud."

Finally, once the patterns of color and value in both sky and water pleased me, I used my #8 bristle flat to adjust the texture. I didn't want the distinctive knife texture to call too much attention away from the rocks, which I painted with a brush.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Gallery Portfolio

One of my New Year's goals is to get into more and better galleries. To make this task a little easier, I decided to create a small, professional-looking portfolio that I could publish and then mail out to prospective galleries. I wanted to self-publish with a "publish on demand" printer so I would have both total control over the content and layout but without a big initial layout of cash. I am quite pleased with the result. So pleased, in fact, that I've decided to make my gallery portfolio available to collectors and others for a very reasonable price. (Click on the thumbnail above to see a bigger image.)

If you're interested in my little project, please click here to go to my website for more information, as well as for how to order. (In case the link doesn't work for you, go to my web site,, and click on the "Paintings for Sale" menu item. On the Paintings page, you'll see a link for the portfolio.)

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Roller Coaster Weather

We've had a few days of rollercoaster weather -- one day with two inches of snow; followed by a day of sleet, freezing rain and then just rain, which melted all the snow; next, a day of howling winds and whitecaps on our normally placid bay; and today, near-50 degree weather. What's a plein air painter to do?

Roll with the punches, and be prepared for anything!

The day we had the rain, I stayed in the studio. I decided to do another in my series of self-portraits with hats. Here is "Big Red Hat (Self-Portrait)." This 8x10 oil-on-panel was a lot of fun to do. Not strictly plein air, of course, but certainly done from life by natural light in front of my big picture window. I still have a few hats waiting in the wings for future self-portraits.

Today, I couldn't resist going out. However, because of some house renovations we're involved with and the fickleness of contractors, I couldn't go out for long. I was given one hour and 15 minutes -- which included walking from the car, setting up, breaking down and walking back again. I think my actual painting time on this 8x10 was about 45 minutes. It was done so fast I don't even have a title for it yet! I'm very pleased with it. Sometimes, being under the gun can make you paint better. In this case, I had to follow the rules I give my students: Paint big shapes with a big brush and exaggerate the value contrast. (I do try to follow these basic rules of plein air painting, but sometimes other issues present themselves, and one is forced to compromise.)