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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Vision Thumbnail Sketch

You've heard of a thumbnail sketch. It's a rough value study, usually done in pencil on a small scrap of paper, in an effort to work out design issues before you put brush to canvas. There's also the color thumbnail sketch, which allows you to work out your color scheme. The idea is to keep your artistic feet from wandering when you start to work on the real thing.

"The Persistence of Sugar Maples"
6x8, oil, en plein air

There's a third kind I haven't run across before. It's the 'vision thumbnail.' I'm sure you've read that it helps if you can envision the finished painting before you begin to paint. I find this is so true. I have much more success if I can visualize, in detail, my destination.

On the bright side, wrong turns may create something truly remarkable. But these serendipitous paintings are rare, and you'll plow through a lot of paint to get them. And if you're painting outdoors and thus against the clock, such wrong turns will cost you precious time. (And to take the longer view, if you're a late-comer to art, you may not have much time left.)

With practice, you can develop the skill of quickly seeing where you want to go and the best route to it.

You can't put this 'vision thumbnail' down on paper with pencil, paint or pastel. It's something you have to work out in your head. But you'll want to have it so clear in your mind that it's almost as tangible as thumbnail sketch on paper.

I created the painting above with this in mind. I wanted to capture the shape and age of this tree, and I envisioned it pretty much as you see it here.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Painting the January Nocturne

I'm researching nocturnes these days. In case you're not familiar with the term, these can be studio or plein air paintings of night scenes. Whistler, who is well-known for his nocturnes, came up with the term as an homage to Chopin; his original term for nocturnes was "moonlights." (See how much I've learned?)

I've never painted a nocturne, either in or out of the studio. I thought I should attempt one so I'd share common ground with the artists I'm studying.

I paint en plein air, so of course I went out. I'm also a very early riser, which explains the title of this painting. Five a.m. was perfect, and so were the conditions: full moon, good snow cover, 27 degrees F and a dead calm. A great horned owl kept me company.

I took a 5x7 Gessobord and my usual plein air gear, but also a little LED light that clips to my hat. Even though a full moon on snow seems incredibly bright, it's only relative. I knew I would need more light to see the colors I was mixing.

"5 A.M."
5x7, oil, plein air

Even with perfect conditions, I really struggled. Here's why:
  • My light wasn't bright enough to truly see the color of my paints. Of course, I always place them in exactly the same position on my palette, so I knew where the Alizarin Crimson was. But I could just barely tell it apart, color-wise, from the Ultramarine Blue! Next time: brighter light.
  • My format was too small. I never thought that I, Mr 5x7, would ever consider a 5x7 too small. But I just couldn't see well enough to make accurate brush strokes. A bigger panel would have been an easier target. Next time: at least an 8x10.
I was truly afraid to look at the painting when I came back indoors. In fact, it wasn't until lunchtime when I finally got up the nerve to open my pochade box.

I was quite surprised. The painting wasn't bad at all!

The color was a tad too red in the darks. No doubt this was the result of using a lamp with a cool, bluish LED. To compensate, I unconsciously pushed the palette to the warm side of the color wheel. Next time, I'll consider using two lights, a cool LED and a warm, incandescent bulb. Still, I easily corrected the color balance by putting a little blue into the darks. I also cleaned up my brush strokes. It didn't take much work to bring it to the state you see here.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Value v. Temperature

In my last blog, I made this statement in regards to my use of the "extreme" limited pastel palette:

It forces you to think about your color choices, but perhaps more important, to learn how to use color temperature rather than value to describe light and shadow.

You, as some readers did, may have wondered how this could be possible, having always heard that value describes light and shadow.

I didn't mean that you should use color temperature to describe light and shadow at the exclusion of value. But quite often, beginners, in order to distinguish light from shadow, will push the value contrast too much and make the lit areas far too light. A more satisfactory approach is to not push the value contrast, but to push the color temperature contrast instead.

For example, on dark green conifers, I've had students put some incredibly light greens in the sunlit areas. I show them how much more effective it is if, rather than make the light areas so light, they instead warm up the light and cool down the shadows. Rather than use such a light green, just use a warmer green or even an orange.

If you really look at sunlit conifers, you'll see that the value contrast isn't as much as it appears at first glance. The contrast you're seeing is enhanced by the temperature differences.

This concept is a powerful tool that lots of beginners don't use.

I offer you two examples from the painting, "Walk Through Fire."

Here is the conifer with light and shadow. The light isn't as light as you might expect (see the greyscale version beside it to see the values better). But I've warmed the light considerably to intensify the feeling of light. (Ignore that patch of flame-red blackberry cane below it!)

Second, here is the patch of blackerry cane itself. Except for that one, intense spot of light, the rest of the lit areas are quite dark. Again, I've pushed the temperature to increase the illusion of light and shadow.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Extreme Limited Pastel Palette

"Walk Through Fire"
5x7 pastel, en plein air - SOLD

As I work on my new book, Backpacker Painting: Outdoors with Pastel & Oil, I find myself revisiting assumptions I've made over the years. One of those assumptions is that the absolute minimum number of pastel sticks one needs is 60. I arrived at that number by considering my traditional split-primary oil palette. For the pastel version, I use a warm and a cool version, in five value steps, of each of the three primaries and three secondaries. Sixty isn't bad, but I wondered if I could do with fewer.

I took a closer look at my oil palette. I don't have 60 colors there. I have only six: a warm and cool version of each of the primaries, plus white. Could I actually use so few sticks of pastel? I decided not, because if you need a secondary, it's hard to mix it from the primaries and get intense chroma. I do sometimes put the secondaries on my oil palette, so I decided to do the same for my "extreme" limited pastel palette.

I began to pick out pastels. I wanted to make sure I had good darks, so from among my NuPastels, I picked out blues, greens and violets that were as dark as I could find. I also wanted good lights, so I picked out reds, oranges and yellows that were as light as I could find. Finally, I wanted to be able to adjust the value easily, so I included black and white. Pastel manufacturers use black and white to create shades and tints, so why couldn't I?

All told, I ended up with 14 sticks. Here's a picture of my palette:

These are, in temperature progression:
  • 285 - Indigo Blue
  • 405 - Blue Haze
  • 298 - Bottle Green
  • 308 - Palm Green
  • 217 - Lemon Yellow
  • 257 - Deep Cadmium Yellow
  • 222 - Burnt Orange
  • 226 - Scarlet
  • 256 - Crimson Red
  • 206 - Carmine Madder
  • 234 - Red Violet
  • 224 - Violet
and Black (229) and White (211).

The painting at the top is one of several 5x7 plein air pastel I did with this "extreme" limited palette. It thrilled me to think that I could do this with just 14 sticks!

I'm going to play more with this and see what tradeoffs are necessary for this "extreme" limited palette. Stay tuned!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Pushing Yourself

Unless I'm teaching a workshop or on a painting holiday, I rarely paint more than one piece a day -- and that's whether it's a 3-hour painting or one that takes only 30 minutes. Sometimes, my reason is that I like to spend "quality time" with each piece. I want to savor the experience, meditate on the painting as it sits on my viewing mantle, and then ruminate on the possibility that it might need an adjusting brush stroke or two. More than likely, though, my reason is that the business of being an artist calls for my attention. There's always e-mail filling up the hopper, phone calls to return, brushes that need to be cleaned.

Yesterday, though, it was such a warm and gorgeous day that I decided to push myself. We drove over to Friar's Head, where I caught the last scraps of snow retreating across the meadow and into the trees, and then I walked down into our own field to paint the evening light on the blackberry canes. (By the way, I don't think it's the last of the snow. They're calling for another Nor'easter for tomorrow!)

"January Thaw"
oil, 5x7, en plein air

"Path to the Yellow House"
oil, 5x7, en plein air

Friday, January 11, 2008

Why Paint in Different Sizes?

Before I go out to paint, one of my last decisions is whether to work on a large painting or a small one. By large, I mean anything bigger than 9x12; by small, anything 9x12 or smaller.

The choices have major implications on time commitment. Although with a big enough brush I can do a 16x20 in the 30 minutes I do a 5x7, I prefer to take more time with a larger painting. Because it costs me more in materials, I prefer to come out of the session with a finished painting (or as close as I can get to one in the field.) To accomplish this goal, I may choose to work on the painting over several sessions.

Also, a larger painting gives me an opportunity to explore farther into sometimes uncertain territory. It gives me a broader area in which to play with composition and what I will call "subplots," minor centers of interest that work together to make the painting a richer one. In a small painting, you only have space enough to work with the main plot, the main center of interest.

A small painting, although it can be a real "gem" as a finished piece, really should be an opportunity to work on a single thing. For example, I may want to work on color temperature and not think too much about brushwork. Certainly, all the elements that make a good painting may come together -- it does happen, and more frequently as you gain experience -- but that is rarely my goal. When it does happen, though, it's a good feeling.

For the little painting below, I wanted to focus on capturing the color harmonies that happen in the early evening in winter. Even though I was just focussing on one thing, I think all the elements came together in it nicely. The task was doubly-difficult, because I was shooting a video at the same time. If you give painting demonstrations as I do, you know how hard it is to get both halves of your brain to work in concert. It's like harnassing two mules with differing ideas about which way to go. And I had to go and throw a video camera into the mix! Still, this one took very little touch-up time in the studio. I think it's a keeper.*

"Aspen by the Sea"
5x7, oil, en plein air

*This one might make it into the companion DVD for my book, Backpacker Painting: Outdoors with Oil and Pastel.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Keeping Up with Technology

As we rush headlong into a New Year, thoughts turn to buying new things at a discount in after-Christmas sales. Right now, Trina is thinking about buying a new sewing machine for one of her fabric projects. She's finding, though, that buying one is a bit like buying a car. Why is this year's model more expensive, and how is it different from last year's? Suddenly, what should be a simple purchase becomes a research project and, sometimes, an important, life-changing decision right up there with having children or moving to Kathmandu.

We go through this every time we decide to purchase some high-tech item. We recently went through it with the digital video camera and video editing software and, not much longer ago, a digital SLR. You've been through this process. New models with new features don't always have some of the old features you liked, and if you simply prefer the old model anyway, you may find it's no longer available at any price.

Painting, however, doesn't seem to be like that. They haven't stop making Ultramarine Blue to replace it with Bob's Pretty Good Blue. I can still get Ultramarine Blue oil paint. Sure, they came out with a water-miscible version, but no one forces me to use it. They haven't stopped making natural bristle flats. Sure, they invented synthetic bristles, but there's a strong and probably undying demand for the naturals. Nor have they stopped making canvas, even though they've come up with a variety of other surfaces to lay paint on. For whatever reason, the materials are still in the marketplace. They haven't been discontinued, subjected to a close-out sale, or the last of them sold in bulk to Sam's Club and Wal-Mart.

(By the way, I do believe it's important for an artist to try new materials or at least to become knowledgeable in them. You might discover something that allows you to express yourself better. You may find your voice not in traditional soft pastels but in the new PanPastels. "New" isn't always "better," but the possibility is always there.)

Some will argue that formulations change and manufacturers go out of business. True. The Ultramarine Blue you get today is no longer made with lapis lazuli. I don't think Liquitex makes oil paint anymore.* There are other examples, but generally, things don't change much in the lifespan of an artist. New things may be introduced -- acrylic paint has had the most impact -- but you can still get most of the traditional materials.

One place our fascination with the "new" comes into play is in the equipment arena. More cleverly designed pochade boxes, tripods with more levers, umbrellas with new-fangled clamps -- things like this are the painting technophile's meat. I'm guilty of it. But even though I'm always trying new equipment, the materials I use remain essentially the same.

Below is a painting made with traditional materials: oil paint and natural bristle brushes. (I do have to confess, though, that the ground is acrylic. But, since Liquitex invented acrylic gesso in 1955, I can safely say that the stuff was around before I was even born.)

"Fire in the Field"
5x7, oil, en plein air -SOLD

*After posting this, my curiousity got the better of me, and I had to ask Liquitex about their oil paints. I have many painter friends who lament the fact that they can't find them anymore. Liquitex responded, "Liquitex discontinued oil paints in the mid 1990's in order to focus on producing the highest quality acrylics available." Maybe someone out there has a stash of old Liquitex oil paints and is sitting on gold. Who knows?