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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Sketching from Life in Airports

This past week, I travelled from our little island in the Canadian Maritimes to Georgia to visit family. Part of the trip involved several hours in the Detroit airport. These days, what with the constant presence of CNN and cell phones in airport waiting areas, I find it difficult to read. Reading had always been a favorite way to pass the time in airports, but it's increasingly hard to find a quiet spot. This time, I decided to sketch instead.

Detroit's a busy airport, and people scurry like ants from gate to gate with their bags. I positioned myself in one of the busier terminals and caught people as they came out the gate. It was challenging, as I rarely had more than 30 seconds per figure. I had no time for a meticulous study of correct proportions. Instead, I was forced to capture only the essence of a figure hurrying along.

It didn't take me long to discover the secret. It's the BAG that anchors the dynamics of each human figure. I found that if I tried to capture the solid weight of the bag right off, I could easily build the human figure around it, and accurately. Mass in the bag, and all the thrusts and lines of direction created by arms, legs, spine, shoulders and hips follow from that.

To give you an idea, here's a sample page. (As always, you can click on the thumbnail for a larger version.)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Studio Painting from Plein Air Sketch

The weather turned wet and nasty again yesterday, but I wanted to paint. Rather than paint the scene from my window, I decided to go through my stack of "not-ready-for-prime-time" plein air paintings to see if I had anything that still excited me.

I found this 8x10 of Liberty Point, which is in the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park here on Campobello Island. Although it suffers in a number of respects -- colour too extreme, composition could be better -- it still takes me back to the moment. I loved the drama of the evening light slanting across the rocks and lighting up that little lookout deck. I felt it had enough potential for a nice studio painting.
I had no reference photos, so I had to work exclusively from the plein air piece and memory. I decided to go with an 11x14, which is not a huge leap in size, and to take my time with it. It took about four hours to finish this piece, including an overnight stay on my "viewing mantle." I think the painting works quite well, and I'm very happy with it.

Here is "Evening, Liberty Point." I took step-by-step photographs as I worked, and I have posted them as a new oil demonstration on my web site.Click here to go to the demonstration. (And, as always, you can click on the thumbnails here to see larger versions.)

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Ray Roberts - Workshop Retrospective

I thought it'd be fun to see all the paintings I did this week all together. Sometimes it helps to see progress on a single page, rather than over several.
Day 1
Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Ray Roberts Workshop - Day 5

For our last day, we painted about 5 miles from the school. Ray chose a vacant city lot to paint in. Yes, you read right -- a vacant city lot! When I got out of the car, I was confronted with about 20 acres of creosote bush and views of low-rise hotels. Fortunately, Ray pointed out the beauty of this place. Camelback Mountain was waking up to the warming sun with beautiful shadows on its slopes. The creosote bushes would be a great final exam to see how well we could organize seemingly-random foreground shapes into meaningful patterns that support the center of interest.

I did two paintings before we broke for lunch and critiques. One is of Camelback; the other of a nearby mountain with palm trees. I used artistic license both to organize the creosote bushes and to edit out the hotels. Ray's contributions:

- Make sure the bush shadows get a little bluer as they get farther from the bush that casts them, because a little more skylight bounces down into this area, and not so much closer to the base of the bush; and
- Try to keep shadow patterns irregular and not repetitive.

(As always, you can click on the thumbnails to get a bigger picture.)

My favourite, though, was his contribution to the palm trees. "Palm trees, unless you're really close, are just a silhouette against the sky. They may have some brighter spots, but those are just accents." He proceeded to take my brush, darken the tops and "cut in" the shapes. "After 15 years as an illustrator and doing palm tree after palm tree," he said, "I promised myself I'd never do another palm tree."

During the week, I stuck to Ray's approach to plein air painting. I wanted to see how he did it and what benefit I might get from it. His approach involves using a great deal of white. I've always laid in an underpainting with transparent color and held back on using white until I was ready to apply some opaque paint. (I enjoy the contrast of transparent v. opaque paint.) Ray goes for the white right off, using it to get the values he wants rather than using the untoned white canvas with transparent paint to do so. For me, I found his method does give you more control over value from the start. It will take a little more practice for me to avoid the "chalkiness" that can result for using so much white.

It was a good workshop -- refreshing to try a different approach, inspiring to see some of Ray's work in person, and as always, fun to get somewhere warm in the winter!

Friday, March 2, 2007

Ray Roberts Workshop - Day 4

Today was a marathon -- I did three paintings. After the mixed weather of Wednesday, Thursday's sun and calm were a blessing, and I had to honour the day by painting till I dropped.

We drove out to Lost Dutchman State Park where we had an 'in your face' view of the Superstition Mountains. The hiker in me wanted to hit the trail and wander up into the spires and cliffs, but I was there to hone my painting skills. I got there early, so I started a study of a saguaro with the mountains for a backdrop. It was good I picked the subject I did, because when Ray arrived, he asked us to work on foregrounds -- and most of my painting was foreground.
Foreground can be especially troubling in the desert where you have a chaos of vegetation and rock. Ray made a quick oil sketch (he doesn't call his outdoor work 'paintings,' but rather 'sketches') to show us how it's done. Find the patterns of dark and light and try to create a movement for the eye to follow to your center of interest. I ended up wiping out my start and re-doing the foreground. Ray contributed a little warm dark to my cactus. I was trying to capture the reflected light that bounces into the shadow. He pointed out I was making this light too bright. "Any value in the shadow should be darker than any value in the light."
About this time, two schoolbuses arrived, packed with 8-year-olds. We were all a little worried about this, but they had plenty of chaperones and the kids were actually curious about what we were doing. Four came up to me and told me about their art teacher and how they liked to colour. Then they went off on a hike -- and again, I wish I could have joined them!
But I had to start my next painting. I attacked the mountain. Ray noted that the shadowed sides of my rocks were too cool. "Unless sky light -- which is cool -- is reflecting down into he shadows, keep them on the warm side." This surprised me, as I was seeing the shadows as cool blues and purples. But I took his advice, and I found that putting in greys that were just a tad warm really made the mountain come alive.
My final painting of the day was of -- what else? -- the rocks. They were just getting more beautiful as the day went on. I got a little caught up in the patterns of lights and darks in the rocks. Too much detail, and Ray made a subtle change that helped my rendering of them. With a small brush, he smoothed out some of the detail on one cliff. This made them a little less busy and more restful for the eye.
(By the way, I do know most of this stuff Ray's been talking about. But when you're out in the field, trying to learn some new things, sometimes you forget and you need to be reminded. It's also good to have an extra pair of eyes check your observations. Shadows -- cool or warm? I had trouble telling.)

By the end of the day, I was beat. I'd made three paintings while standing all day in the full sun. Still, I managed to rally enough to go to the Thursday night Art Walk. I wanted to visit an opening at the Scottsdale Fine Art Gallery for two friends. Carol Swinney and Jeanne Mackenzie, two pals from my Sedona Plein Air event last October, have work there. It was good to see them again.

Tomorrow, we'll paint in the morning and have critiques in the afternoon before saying our goodbyes.

(As always, you can click on the thumbnails to get a bigger picture.)

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Ray Roberts Workshop - Day 3

Cooler temperature and high winds today forced us to seek more sheltered areas. Our first stop was the marina at Saguaro Lake, where I found a spot with a nice view of boats and the volcanic tuff cliffs reaching high above the reservoir's dam. I found it ironic that I'd travelled over 3000 miles from the harbours of the Canadian Maritimes to paint boats in Arizona! The irony was short-lived, however, as the management politely asked us to leave. It turned out the marina was private property.
Our group drove off to the public picnic grounds about a mile away. The distance rendered the boats into a small, colourful smear at the far edge of the lake -- too far, obviously, to continue what I'd started. I wiped out my 30-minute underpainting. Since I'd already spent considerable mental energy in capturing the nooks and crannies of docks, I wanted to try something broad and simple. My eye went immediately to the wonderful clouds that dwarfed those towering cliffs.

Ray liked this painting. He made no corrections but suggested that I modify the pattern of light in the water to support the eye's movement to the center of interest, which I did.
A few of us had a quick lunch with Ray. One student asked Ray about how to get into galleries. Ray said that, because he had a family to feed, he started off doing outdoor fairs. "Not only did I sell a lot, I also got to keep all the money." Galleries found him through these fairs. We also asked him about plein air festivals. "They're a lot of work and expensive to attend, but I really enjoy meeting up with old friends."
After lunch, we went back to the picnic ground. The cliffs that rise up right over the parking lot are plastered with lichen of many colours -- lime green, burnt orange, mustard yellow. The clouds had been building all day, and now the fleeting light made for some very dramatic scenes. I picked out one good rock to paint. I was so focussed on colour and value, I forgot the basic rule of composition and put my center of interest smack dab in the middle. Ray noted this and suggested cropping the painting. I've included the full original here plus two alternate croppings, either which is an improvement over the uncropped piece.

Ray also wanted me to improve the contrast between lights and darks and to increase the drama of by lowering the value of the entire painting except the center of interest. This was not the way the scene was, but these artistic enhancements helped a great deal. I was having some trouble with the water -- the water was wind-tossed and rough, which I rendered quite well, but the land didn't sit on it properly. Ray smoothed out the water and added some reflections, which unified the land and water nicely.