Saturday, March 3, 2018

Painting Edges

Baby Doll

Students of painting who come to me for workshops or classes frequently tell me that there are 2 things that they want to learn: looseness and creative colour.

Colour is a lifetime's occupation and I learn more about it every day in the studio, but looseness is actually pretty straightforward.  Looseness happens at the edges of a shape, where it interacts with another shape.  Becoming a looser painter simply takes a bit of courage and a lot of unlearning.

We start our artistic lives by being praised for colouring within the lines in our colouring books.  It's a mark of hand-eye control and our parents and teachers applaud it.  But that can be the start to a lifetime of drawing and respecting outlines, and it can be a hard habit to break.

Working from photos only reinforces this dependance on the outline, especially with the crisp quality that modern cameras can achieve.  If you look at a digital photo, you'll see that everything, no matter how far apart in distance, can seem in focus.  So the foreground flowers are as crisp as the distant foothills, and even the mountains.  And that way of seeing is only possible through the lens; our eyes can't do it.

Cameras also have one lens - a single point of view - which flattens the world.  Cover one of your eyes and you'll see how flat everything becomes.  The photographic world is not our binocular world.  Add to that the fact that we, the viewers, are never perfectly still: we blink, breathe, shift our weight and viewpoint slightly and constantly, and you'll see that the camera view isn't our experience at all.  We live in a world without outlines; one in which the edge of objects is ambiguous and shifting, and in which objects have 3 dimensions. 

So, how do you loosen up?  For a time, work from life, and really analyze what you're seeing.  An apple on a table can teach lessons that no amount of photo reference work can.  Examine it's edges and you'll discover that some are lost against a similar value in the background, or crisp where there's a big value change. 
Picnic detail


Look at the apple set up out of the corner of your eye instead of directly.  That's how we see the world: it's a series of relationships between patches of colour and value. 

Talk to yourself in abstract rather than object terms: Not: I'm painting an apple on a plate on a table, but: I'm painting this big patch of red which is the same value as the blue disk under it, so it will have ambiguous, lost edge potential. 

It's all about training and trusting your eyes.  You don't see the world like a camera does, and, with some thoughtful looking and painting, you can train your eyes to see and your brain to understand what you're seeing.  The lessons that life painting teach you can be applied to the photo reference later on, but I'd advise spending a few months (or years), just working from the real world.

I also said you need courage to be a looser painter, and that's because once you see the amount of lost and soft edges that the real world contains, you have to paint it that way.  Lose the notion of a world made of precisely outlined things, and paint a world in which outlines are slippery suggestions of location that are impossible to firmly pin down.  Get those kindergarten teachers out of your head, and know that colouring outside the lines - and knowing that there aren't any lines - is a valid way to work. 

Happy painting!

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Painting on rigid supports

18 x24" oil on birch

detail 1

detail 2

Finally, after years of trying and failing miserably, I've figured out how to paint on panels.  This is big news in my studio!

Smooth, rigid supports like wood and metal have defeated me in the past because I struggled to work in an alla prima fashion on them.  Getting past that first, scruffy, scratchy layer was a trial as my hog bristle brushes tended to remove more paint than they deposited.  I also found it hard to make the large variety of edges that I could on oil primed linen. 

Things I tried in order to make wood work for me:
- adding alkyd mediums to the paint (often too smelly and/or toxic and/or slippery)
- switching to soft or synthetic brushes (changed the consistency and amount of paint in each stroke)
- and thickening and drying the paint slightly by squeezing it out onto cardboard overnight (helpful, but too thick and dry for first layers).

I'd almost decided to give up on the idea of rigid supports, but, since my oil primed linen comes to me from US suppliers, and the exchange rate for our Canadian dollar is abysmal, I was motivated to give it another go recently.

This time, it's working, and it comes down to changing the one thing I didn't try in the past: the way that I work.  Over time, I've become a slower, more patient painter - willing to let layers dry between painting sessions - and that change in working method has, finally, allowed me to enjoy working on smooth supports.  In fact, I've discovered that there are more possible textural effects available to me on wood than there are on fabric. 

The images above show the complex textural surface of "Pike", done in many layers, and using my usual medium of 50/50 oil and OMS in the first layer, and then either straight paint, or paint with a bit of linseed oil.  Because I use OMS sparingly and only in the first layer, and I don't clean my brushes during the working day, this limits the amount of toxic fumes in my studio (and odourless mineral spirits are toxic despite the name).  The rigid surface means that I can pile on the paint without the worry of future cracking that is a drawback of flexible supports. 

I've learned to never say never when it comes to painting, and I'm glad that I persevered in this. 

Happy painting!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Group Exhibition, Calgary, AB

Swinton's Collection Exhibition

These are some of the 10 pieces in the "Swinton's Collection" exhibition currently showing at Art on 9th in Inglewood, Calgary.  The show features work by many of the instructors at Swinton's studios, and it's a diverse and rich display. 

I hope you'll go and check out the work and see what we've all been up to in our studios.

Happy painting!

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Workshops: composition and portraiture - Kelowna, BC, Feb 24, 25, 26

Creating Dynamic Compositions
February 24
Kelowna, BC

Painting the Alla Prima Portrait
Feb. 25/26
Kelowna, BC

A well-composed painting is one in which the eye moves easily and fluidly, pausing and exploring,  finding the intended focal area, but never slamming to a halt or - perish the thought - drifting out of the picture altogether along some unintended shape.  And maybe 1 in 1000 photos are strong enough to need no redesigning to make them into good painting references.  So, for the other 999 photos that you'd like to paint, I'm offering a 1-day composition workshop through the Federation of Canadian Artists in Kelowna, BC in February. 

This will be a rigorous and fun workshop that is open to any medium, and that uses your own photos as the starting point for exploring successful composition. 

I'll follow this with a 2-day alla prima portrait workshop which will be done from life.  Working from a model, oil and acrylic painters will learn a logical, shape-based approach to painting a portrait.  We'll address proportion, mixing skin colours,  and layering wet-in-wet.  This is a stand-alone workshop, but there's a lot to be gained by taking the composition workshop first. 

I hope you'll join me.  These workshops are designed to give you a lot to think about and apply to your own painting practise, no matter what your usual subject matter. 

To register, please contact the Federation of Canadian Artists Central Okanangan Chapter

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The difference between student and professional paints

Waiting for Waves
12 x 9
I taught a couple of still life workshops in the Vancouver area recently, and, as always, they were open to both oil and acrylic painters.  I bring - and demo in - oils, but, during the workshop, I make a point of working on someone's acrylic painting as well, to show how my method can translate to that medium.  The other acrylic painters watch the demo, and, frequently, they comment that it was invaluable to see how I get the richness and luxurious handling of oils.

Sounds so successful, doesn't it?  I wish!  Sometimes, I start to work on a painter's piece - whether oil or acrylic - and discover that I can't make the paint do what I want it to at all.  I can't achieve strong colour or robust paint surfaces and coverage, and, in the case of acrylics, I can't work wet-in-wet, as the paint is drying the moment my brush hits the canvas.  Invariably, it turns out that the paint on the palette is student grade rather than professional.  And, often, the painter didn't know that they had purchased student grade, as paint companies don't like to label it that way on their displays - choosing instead to call it "economical".  But it's not! 

Student grade paint may use the same pigments as professional (so an ultramarine blue in student is often the same pigment as in professional), but the amount of pigment is considerably - noticeably - smaller.  As well, there are a lot more fillers put into the tube to bulk it up and extend it.  These fillers are like a diet rich in potato chips.  They fill you up, but don't make you healthy - quite the reverse (rats!)  In paints, fillers take up a lot of space, but often result in weak colour, colour shifts, and poor paint films.  And some of the layering and edge effects that I take for granted with professional paints, can't be achieved at all with student grade.  What that means in practical terms is that the workshopper who has these paints, is handicapped by them, and that's frustrating.

So here's my case for professional quality paint:  though it's more expensive to buy, it's the more economical choice overall, because you'll use a lot less of it to make great colour.  I can use a tiny bit of cad yellow light and cad red light to make a rich, high-chroma, opaque orange.  In student grade, I've piled on many times more of both colours and never obtained an orange that was as bright, or had the same level of coverage.  There simply isn't as much pigment by volume, and all the fillers act to mute and distort the colours.  Everything ends up grey.

I always talk about paint in food terms, comparing its rich consistency to frosting, butter, and mayonnaise (the real stuff, mind),  and, with student grade, the comparisons are more like skim milk, tofunaise, and egg replacements.  Some of us may eat those things, but a painting made up of them would definitely feel less luxurious than one made with the full on fat stuff, and we'd have to make all sorts of accommodations for their weird working properties in a recipe. 

For the painters who aren't aware that what they have isn't professional grade, it's a simple matter to read the tubes and choose ones that say "artist's quality" or "professional quality".  But, for others, there's a psychological barrier that they have to overcome. 

I've come across a lot of painters who say that they're just learning, or aren't selling, and can't justify the expense.  In my experience, professional paint wouldn't actually break their bank accounts, and, I think, if they delved deeper, it's not about their accounts at all.  It's about recognizing that they're worth the expense - that their art is meaningful to them, and they have the right to spend more money to give their paintings a chance at success.  They need to stand up to their inner accountants, and say, "yes, it costs more, but I'm worth it!"  Because we all are worth it, and our art is worth the expenditure.  In non-food terms -not my comfort zone, but here goes - if we yearn for a silk scarf, will we really be fooled or satisfied by a polyester imitator?  Neither one is a necessity, but, if we're spending on non essentials, I figure we should get what really lifts our soul.  And, in truth, the price difference isn't that dramatic. 

So, take up some space, ditch the cheap stuff (and that includes those flimsy, absorbent, Michael's canvases, BTW!) and claim the right to good quality materials.  I can guarantee that you'll start loving the process -and the results - as soon as you make the switch.  Refer your miserly accountants to me.

I wish you happy painting!