Saturday, March 27, 2010

Down to the River

Lately, fishing has figured prominently into my life and art as my teenage son has taken up fly fishing with a passion. 
I'm grateful that he's chosen such a picturesque hobby.  There's something wonderful about watching a fisherman wading and casting, wading and casting, all afternoon in the sparkling water.  It's also a good challenge to my ability as a speedy painter; the boy doesn't stay in one place for very long. 
Last week we spent a sunny afternoon at the Bow River pursuing our separate goals.  He didn't catch a fish but I did manage this small sketch.  It's a bare-bones version of my usual style: there is very little underpainting and I didn't even have time to tone the canvas.  The sky, unlike my usual complexly-layered affairs, is just blue on white canvas. 
My son moved to a different site during the painting so I only had him as a model for 20 minutes.  I think that was for the best.  If he'd been there longer, I'd probably have tweaked and fussed and killed the piece. 
This summer, the boy and the river will be my teachers and help me to strip my paintings to the simple, honest essentials.   I know my work will be better for it. 

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Bring on the Light

One thing that I'm slowly learning is that you really can't go too light when you place your highlights in a painting. 
No matter how light they look on the day that you apply them, they'll invariably have settled in nicely within 2 or 3 days and you'll be glad that you pushed the value as much as you did.
Sometimes I apply my lightest light very early but just in one small spot.  This acts as a reminder of where I'm going as I work and helps me to get all of the values on the canvas much more efficiently.  Without it, it's easy to keep messing around in the mid values for far too long.  The little spot likely won't remain in the finished piece, or it'll have changed shape, but it's useful during the painting process.
I also like to put the lights in thickly and with texture.  I try to adhere to the traditional ideal of thin transparent darks and heavy, opaque lights.  The change in paint consistency across the surface of the finished painting is something that I really enjoy. 
In this portrait, I bumped up the value quite a bit on the child's nose, chin and above the lips and created a rugged texture in these areas to catch the light.  Then I balanced the strength of those marks with some touches of intense colour elsewhere in the face.  Overall, I'm pleased with how it turned out.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Models and Artists

Emily and two of the students of the life painting workshop that I taught last weekend.

I've taught two life painting classes this week at the Calgary School of Art and found them to be great experiences.  My models were both able to hold a pose and to use their bodies with intelligence, showing interesting views to all of the painters in the room.  A few years ago, I had the misfortune to draw a young woman who stood in stiff, symmetrical poses (picture frozen jumping jacks and something approximating a fence post) and have, as a result, become very appreciative of good models.

Modeling is a strange and wonderful thing for a person to do for an artist.  The model puts him or herself at your disposal and allows you the rare luxury of staring at another human being for hours at a time.   We all like to look at other people but seldom get an opportunity to do it.  Infants let you stare and strangers sleeping in planes are fair game, but conscious adults are unnerved at being studied, no matter how well they know you.   They wonder what you're seeing when you look at them and what judgments you're forming.  Are you noticing the way the sunlight emphasizes their wrinkles?  Do they look like they need to go to the gym more often?  Their minds are busy trying to get into your mind and discover what you're thinking about them.
Good models are able to turn off this self consciousness and simply "be".  They accept the fact that they are, temporarily, objects and use their bodies to help you to create your art.  They manage to override their uneasiness for the duration of the class and enter a reality in which being stared at is normal. They also accept a bunch of artists discussing the greens that they see in the model's complexion and the shape of their thighs.  Artist's are respectful when they talk about these things, but still...
A day in a museum or gallery will show you the importance of models in the world of art, past and present.  For the generosity with which they present themselves to us, we try to give them immortality in return.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Getting Outside

"Hint of Spring"  16 x 20
We're having a wonderful respite in the winter. ( I'm no dummy and I know it's not done.  This is Calgary, after all.)  So this week I went out plein air painting near the river.

Painters always tell you that photos don't capture the true colours of a scene; that they flatten and kill the shadows and distort values.  Well... they're right.  

Much as I hate to leave the warmth of the house and shlep all of my gear to a site which doesn't have so much as an outhouse nearby, I have to admit that it does make for a better, more sensitive interpretation of the landscape than a photo does.

The other advantage to painting outside is, surprisingly, the cold and discomfort.  It forces you to strip down the scene to its essentials and paint efficiently.  I studied the scene for a long time, figuring out what it was that I liked about it.  I decided it was the reflective ribbon of the creek winding its way into the river.  I also loved the sheets of ice on the water and the bright patches of lingering snow on the shady side of the bank.  So although there were some wonderfully twisty and unique trees and picturesque ducks in my line of site, I ignored them and much more to focus on the two elements that appealed to me the most.

Maybe I'll go back sometime for the ducks.