Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Expression takes work

Parallel Play 12 x 16

Last weekend I taught a workshop at the Calgary School of Art entitled "Expressive Oils".  I found that defining "expressive" was the most difficult part of preparing for the workshop!  The term became slipperier and more ambiguous the more I thought about it. 
What I finally decided was that "expressive" meant that I could see more of the painter than the subject in the final painting and I could see what the painter wanted to show me the most.  Expression is a complex mesh of composition, colour choices, brushwork and editing.  It uses the reference image as a starting point only and goes its own way from there.
Once I'd decided this, it was easy to prepare for the class.  The most important thing then became, "what do you like most about the image that you've chosen and how can you emphasize it in your painting?"  If you know this, you're half way to a good painting.
So the first thing that the students did was find the special thing - the focal point - in their photos.  Then we worked on simple compositional sketches that led the eye to that point.  If this meant that we moved roads and cut down trees or changed the shape of rolling fields, then so be it.  BC painter and teacher, Dianna Shyne, tells her students to "play God"  when they compose their paintings and she's right.  It's our job to create a world on our canvases, not to recreate a photo.
With this careful preparation, the actual paintings just seemed to flow.  I was impressed by the quality that the students produced, including two who were painting their first ever oils.  Starting a painting with so much thought seemed to lead naturally to completing it in the same way. 
As always, when I teach, I feel like I learn as much as the students do and what I learned - yet again- is that I have to do lots of thinking at the beginning if I want a painting to work out at the end. 

Monday, November 16, 2009

Getting a Glow On

"Fishing",  Oil on gallery wrap canvas , 30" x 30"

What the heck is "glow"?
Some paintings have it and some just don't.  Glow is an amazing quality that many painters completely ignore or don't even know about.   It's a vibration in the painting which is revealed with the change in lighting conditions and gives up more colour and depth the more you look at it.  It's what makes some paintings magical. 
One of the most magical painters that I know of has mastered this glow: HE Kuckein.  A real painters' painter, Kuckhein's works are deceptively simple in subject and composition and don't photograph as particularly special paintings and yet, when you see them in life, you can't stop looking.  He's represented throughout Canada but whenever I'm in the Okanagan, I make sure to go to Tutt Art Gallery in Kelowna and check out his pieces.  The obliging manager has turned the lights off over his paintings to show me how the colours shift and shimmer with the change.  There is so much more to his work than just the surface layer. 
The folks at Tutt say that he wipes off semi-dry paint and applies new paint onto the roughened, partially-there pigment.  That way there are little holes in the colour which show through almost imperceptibly but react to different lighting conditions throughout the day.  This is called “broken colour”.
Another method to get broken colour is by adding rather than subtracting marks.  Instead of applying  strokes of paint in a dense fashion with full coverage of what's underneath, you can use lighter, airy strokes that leave little gaps along the brushstroke.  In this way, the underpainting shows through along the open streaks - no matter how subtle and fine -  of the subsequent brushstroke. 
You can also achieve broken colour by laying a stroke of colour next to another colour and not mingling them.  The Impressionists used this technique to wonderful effect. 
Still another means to achieve glow is by glazing one colour over another.  Fine, transparent layers patiently applied over dry paint, give a superb luminosity.  I'm not that patient.
Whatever technique you choose to get the glow, it's always caused by colour choice.  Usually a temperature change or a contrasting colour are selected to achieve glow.  If you're trying to show the effect of sunlight on a model's hair, instead of just adding white to the hair colour for the highlights, make the colour both lighter and cooler.  In the above painting, "Fishing", I showed the light-struck area on the boy's hair by adding successively-lighter variations of green and yellow-toned highlights which contrast in temperature and somewhat in colour with the warmer blues and lavenders in the shaded parts.
Glow is a painting tool that's often overlooked.  Painters get caught up in representing what they see but forget that we can do so much more than that.  We can use use this tool to make the viewer feel the magic of what we’ve seen.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Switching Mediums

A few years ago I decided to abandon watercolour and try painting on canvas instead of paper.  I wanted to go bigger and brighter and to get away from having to frame under glass.  I also really wanted to be able to touch the surface of my paintings without fear of ruining them with any traces of oil or dirt on my fingers.  Paper is not easy to keep pristine. 
I thought that acrylic would be a natural choice so I went out and bought a full complement of colours, and some canvases and set optimistically to work.  It was a slaughter.
The paint fought me all the way.  It dried quickly and flatly like house paint; it covered the colours beneath it very opaquely unless I started fiddling with different mediums to make it more transparent or more rigid or more something or other; and it wouldn't glow for me no matter what I tried.  I started to question whether I was capable of being a painter at all.  This was not a good time.
Luckily a friend suggested that I try oil.  I'd avoided it because it seemed difficult and intimidating.  It wasn't.  The first painting that I attempted wasn't actually that bad and, more importantly, it glowed.  From the start, I could see that this was a medium that was as beautiful as watercolour.  You could layer it, blend it and play with it like thick, bright frosting on a cake.  I was in love. 
The painting above is my very first oil painting.  It's a picture of the painter Sharon Williams addressing a canvas.  The colour is fanciful and unrefined but still, it has energy and heart.  I'll hang on to it.