Friday, August 28, 2009

Everybody needs some support

Artists love to experiment and one of the things that painters often play around with is different types of supports. That's technical language for the things that you put the paint on. Canvas is common and there are many different types and weights of it. For smaller paintings - under 24 x 24 - I usually buy ready-made canvases which tend to be lightweight but for larger works, I buy a heavy-weight cotton by the roll and stretch it myself. It seems daunting but it's actually easy. All you need are the stretcher bars (the four wooden frame pieces that you knock together with a mallet), a pair of canvas pliers, and a staple gun. Stretching the canvas as tight as a drum and planning what I'll paint on it later is very satisfying, meditative work. Unwrapping a purchased canvas is anticlimactic in comparison.

Linen canvas is a traditional, sturdy support which makes smooth, durable canvases but it's very expensive.

Another common support is a piece of wood. I've seen masonite and birch used as painting surfaces and recently painted on a piece of shellacked plywood which was given to me by Sharon Williams, a terrific plein air painter and teacher. Rigid supports like these have the advantage of not moving with changes in temperature or humidity and so preserve a painting against cracking better than canvas does. The important thing to remember is to seal the wood so that none of the colour and adhesives used in it can migrate into the painting over time causing "support induced discolouration". Good sealants include shellac and GAC 100 (by Golden).

Because I like the way that paint adheres to fabric better than the slick way that it slides over wood, I sometimes make canvas boards by gluing canvas to a piece of masonite with lots of acrylic medium. This gives me the best of both worlds: the rigidity and portability of a board and the sympathetic surface of canvas. These canvas boards make great plein air supports. You can buy ready-made canvas boards and I can recommend the RayMar brand which comes in lots of sizes and surfaces.

I've also seen gorgeous work done on copper and aluminium sheets.. The gleam and colour of the metal shows through in the final painting. Like wood, these sheets need to be sealed first to stop discolouration of the metal and to provide a "tooth" for paint to adhere to. Before sealing, the metal has to be very well degreased - some people give it a light sanding and washing and then rub it with an onion for this!

Each of these supports allows you to make different types of marks and it's refreshing to try a new one once in a while and see how your manner of applying paint changes as a result.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Painting Support

I love a very smooth surface when I paint because it allows me to make long, elegant marks and calligraphic details without the strokes breaking up on the canvas weave. I have no interest in the actual texture of a tree, it's the big picture stuff: the value, shape and placement of that tree that grabs me. If I use big brushes on a smooth support, I'm more likely to produce the big picture and avoid the tightness of strict representation.
My usual support is a canvas with 4 coats of gesso on it. If I've stretched the raw canvas myself, I put the first 2 layers on with a credit card (knew I'd need that Sears card for something) to ensure that there are no pinholes in the gesso which would allow the paint to rot the canvas over time. A credit card also makes the surface quite smooth but you have to watch out for the slight raised drag marks from the sides of the card. After the final coat, I lightly sand the surface and wipe off the gesso dust. The finish is luxuriously smooth and inviting.
After all that work though, it's really a drag if I blow the painting!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Painting with Water

I recently searched an artist who was a huge influence on me when I started painting, the Australian watercolourist Joseph Zbukvic, and discovered that he's posted a beautiful website. It's well worth a look.

Like so many new painters, I started out in watercolour. It seemed more accessible than oils which have the intimidating mystique of the Old Masters clinging to them. I wish I'd known then that I was choosing the most challenging medium there is. Watercolour painting is an edge-of-your-seat art: you lay down a stroke of wet paint, making it much darker than you want because it lightens by 30% or more when drying. While it's wet, you drop in other colours, soften edges in key places and tilt and move your paper to achieve runs and bleeds. You blot, splatter, spray the mark with water and generally do everything that you can to make that mark final and interesting but not overworked. And you do it all in the minute or two before it dries. If all goes well, you end up with a something that glows in a way that no other medium can. Often, it doesn't go well.

Zbukvic's book "Mastering Atmosphere and Mood in Watercolor" is filled with glow and a logical system for achieving it. More than any other resource, this book taught me how to paint in watercolour. Unfortunately it's skyrocketed in price and is now listed at $185 US on Amazon. Check your local library!

I've since switched to the leisurely medium of oils but I still admire those who practise the exhilarating art of painting with water.

I've posted one of my watercolours from back in the day.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A Painting System

Recently I taught an introductory oil painting workshop in one of the bright, new studios at Cactus Art in Calgary. There were 10 students of varying ability but huge commitment and we had a wonderful day.
We painted 11 x 14 landscapes alla prima on gray-toned canvases that I'd prepared earlier in the week by adding 2 extra coats of gesso and a gray ground.
One of the things that I stressed was that no matter what the subject, I always start my paintings in the same way; it's a formula that saves a lot of waffling and indecisiveness.
First I coat the entire canvas with a thin wash of a warm, transparent colour. This sets the tone for the whole painting and also eliminates the drag of a dry canvas.
Next I do a value painting of the subject using dark, warm colours - often a reddish-purple. I use size 12 brushes for this or house-painting sized brushes if the canvas is very large.
After that, it's just a matter of going back in with local colour of varying translucence and building marks. I love the show through of underlying marks so I never totally obscure something that I've brushed on. The initial wash is always visible in some places in the final painting.
The rest of the painting is a progression of marks woven together in increasingly light value and opaque paint.
Though it's a painting done in one session, the paint can stay quite fresh as long as there isn't much overbrushing. I settle the marks into the work by adding new colours and different stroke directions on top of them, not by stroking back and forth along the same mark which makes a dull, monotonous passage. Ideally, I lift the brush and reload it after 2 strokes, one from each side of a loaded brush.

It's good to develop a system that works for your painting so that you never have those insecure moments as you stand in front of a blank canvas, not knowing how to start. The first marks of my system eliminate that and help me get into the flow of painting much faster.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Starting in Oils: a 12 week course

Starting on September 15, I'll be teaching a 12 week oil painting course for beginner and intermediate painters. The course will be held on Tuesdays from 1 to 4 pm at the Calgary School of Art, a spiffy new facility attached to Cactus Art Supplies in SE Calgary.

I taught a one day workshop there a few weeks ago and it went really well. The studios are bright and new and there's the convenience of having an art supply wholesale store attached to them; just the thing when you discover, as I did, that you've forgotten a key colour!

The course will cover: composition, colour choices, brushwork, and the technical details of solvent-free oil painting. As well, we'll experiment with a number of different subjects including landscape, still life, and figurative and we will work both from life and from photographs.

I've included more details on my website, so if you're interested in signing up, have a look and contact me through the site.

Happy painting!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Work, work work

The most common comment that I hear from spectators when I paint on site at an exhibition is a variation of this:

"I wish that I could paint but I don't have any talent. I can't even draw a stick figure."

It's a sentiment that I don't believe for a minute but there's nothing that I can say to change that person's mind. She's decided that you're born with or without talent and that's that. It's an easy out and a self-fulfilling pronouncement. Telling yourself that you can't do something is the best way to ensure that it's true.

Looking back a few years at my first paintings is enough to convince me that I don't have a natural talent for it, but I do love painting above all other pursuits and I've spent lots of time trying to improve my work. Malcolm Gladwell noted in his book The Outliers that it's the time and the quality of the time that a person devotes to a discipline that determines his or her level of proficiency. To become a master at anything, whether art, music, sports, or computer programming, Gladwell said that you have to devote 10,000 focused hours to it.

I'm nowhere near 10,000 hours but I'm working on it. I paint daily and critique the results mercilessly, frequently rubbing out the day's painting in the afternoon and starting fresh the next morning. Occasionally I'm pleased with a piece, often I'm not, but I'm constantly learning from what I do and applying these lessons to the next paintings in the hopes of improving my art.

This isn't talent, it's hard work driven by a passion. Anyone can do it if she goes beyond just wishing that she could paint and deciding that she will paint, and paint and paint.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Transparent, Translucent, Opaque

When I look at paintings, I'm drawn to the variety in brushwork and paint consistency more than the subject matter. Paintings in which each mark has the same level of opacity as every other mark are ultimately boring for me to look at no matter what they depict.
The artist Stephen Quiller teaches that a painting can, and should, have a full range of paint consistency from transparent to translucent to opaque.

Transparent areas are the first ones that I lay in. They have pure pigment with no white whatsoever. The paint is thinned with a medium or scrubbed in with the brush but either way, it is see through. It acts like a glaze in watercolour, allowing light to penetrate to the lower layers or to the canvas beneath.

Translucent layers come next. They also allow show through but less so. The paint is modified slightly by the addition of white or an opaque pigment such as cerulean or yellow ochre. These layers give body to the colour and cut the raw look of a totally transparent oil painting. They are also used to lighten the value of an area.

Opaque layers are the final ones that I apply. I add more white to the paint to get the lightest values of the painting and to add a visually-interesting body to these sections. It's in these layers that I get to play with impasto and show off brushwork, the stuff that gives a painting real character.

All of these paint consistencies work together to make a rich surface in the final painting and omitting one of them can result in a tedious and homogeneous final work.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Painting for a Crowd

I was painting at the Calgary Stampede recently in the "Artists' Window". It's the 3rd year that I've done it and it's always worth the trouble of packing up my paintings and art supplies, fighting the rodeo traffic and setting up in the Round Up Centre. For the 4 hours that I'm there, I paint (never anything worth keeping as it's a very short time) and chat with the many people who come to watch and look at my work. The appeal of watching someone apply paint or draw seems to be universal. As the object of this attention, it's hard not to try to give my viewers something worth seeing: a definitive brush stroke; a dramatic value change or a bold new colour passage. The temptation to be worth the attention is strong. However, fighting that temptation and trying to maintain flow and pacing despite the presence of people standing behind me is a discipline worth undertaking. I figure if I can tune these spectators out, and make a decent painting, I'll be a better painter for it.

A few weeks ago I did something similar but on a much more challenging scale in Chicoutimi, Quebec at the Symposium International Jean-Paul Lapointe. More than 40 artists from around Canada, the States, and Europe exhibited their works and painted for 3 days in front of a steady throng of people. I was told that 40,000 people passed through the venue in those 3 days. Many of them commented and most stopped to watch for a few moments. At first, I thought I'd never achieve focus but, during the 12 hour painting days, I found myself able to tune out everything but the task of mixing and applying paint. I became almost as competent in that bustling setting as I am in my studio in Calgary. I counted it as a great accomplishment. I've taken a few workshops and have always marvelled at the way the instructors could paint and comment on their works while standing in front of an audience. I see now that, like absolutely everything else to do with painting, it's a matter of practise.

It seems an impossible task at first but, with repetition, it becomes routine.