Saturday, January 29, 2011

Composing a Floral Painting

Mandarins and Bouquet 
24 x 30
I've been experimenting with different compositions for still life. It feels like every bouquet that I set up is a repetition of something that I've seen in other paintings in the past. This is particularly obvious when the flowers are in a vase. Richard Schmid, in his book Alla Prima, notes that he does everything possible to avoid depicting his florals in vases, and that remark really got me thinking. Flowers are a wonderful subject, but they do look tamed and conventional in a vase. Schmid deals with this problem by laying flowers on a surface like cloth or a bowl. They are often in a horizontal position.

Another possibility is to change the usual perspective as I've done here. I kept the vase - special because it was a gift from my mother - but put the set up on a low table in front of my easel. I also tried to introduce a greater depth of field by laying oranges on the foreground cloth.

As always, negative space was the most interesting part of the composition for me. I love the spaces between the flowers and their stems more than I love the flowers.

This type of set up is one that I'll continue to experiment with. It's vigorous and interesting to me.
I hope you agree!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Demo for the Calgary chapter of the FCA

One hour figure demo 20 x 16

After some tweaking the next day

I was invited to give a painting demo at the local chapter of the Federation of Canadian Artists last night and the result is above. 

It may have seemed ambitious to do a figure given that I only had one hour to demo (!) but I actually do figures more quickly than any other subject.  If you know anatomy, it's very straight forward.  Florals, on the other hand, can take me hours more (or as Sharon Williams tells it, I take an hour to do one flower).

The hardest thing about demos is coordinating your painting brain with your social brain.  You have to be able to talk and answer questions coherently, and still make good choices about painting.  And you have to do it with a large room full of artists right behind your back.  It's a bit intimidating. 

Still, it was a lot of fun and, like all painters, the audience were a supportive, interested bunch who really enjoy watching how someone else approaches the craft of applying paint to canvas. 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Portrait Problems

"I've noticed in portraiture, if you don't get it right early on, you don't get it. Continuing to fiddle with a likeness generally takes it further and further away until you are looking at some other person altogether." Robert Genn

That comment was in Genn's popular and insightful blog "The Painter's Keys" last week and it really struck a chord with me.

I did these two commissioned portraits recently and noticed the same phenomenon that Robert Genn remarked on when I began to fiddle with the little girl's features.

She is 4 years old, but precocious. Her articulate forthrightness is beyond 4 - more like 8 - and it's hard to represent her at her chronological age because of it.

I take lots of photos for a portrait because I know the kind of lighting that works for me, and also because it helps me to get to know the sitter, and figure out how to portray her. In the case of this girl, I found that the images were evenly split between those that showed a 4 year old, and those that showed a more mature child. I sent the best of each to her mother, and asked her to pick the ones that most showed her child's personality. All of the ones that she picked were mature; she sees her daughter as a strong, independent person and the baby-like pictures didn't ring true.

So, with great gusto, I painted the portrait. My kids, who know her, felt that it captured the girl, and I thought it did, too.

But the painting was in my studio for too long, waiting for me to finish her brother, and I began to second guess myself. Did she look 4? Shouldn't she?
I started to fiddle and tweak, to add volume to the cheeks, and shorten the neck. And the more that I did, the less it looked like her.

Luckily, the paint underneath my additions was dry and I could wipe back to it when I realized that I'd gone too far down the wrong path. I removed most of my changes and refreshed some areas that had become muddy with the unnecessary work, and there she was again. My kids said it looked like her, and I forced myself to stop.

Her brother, by contrast, was easy. The photos of him all showed the same sweet, shy person, and he fell off my brush.

It was a reminder to me to go with my instincts and save myself some trauma and work down the road.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Painting Fresh

Backyard Bird
16 x 12

This painting has the freshness and spontaneity of a plein air work, but it was done from a photo. I took the picture on a frosty morning when the sparrows were perched like ornaments in the shrubs, waiting for me to fill the feeder.

I aimed to get the right shape, colour, and value immediately, with no underpainting. This isn't usually the way that I work, but each subject calls for its own approach and this direct approach worked well here.  There is some layering on the bird which allows me to describe it's subtle luminosity.  It also helps me to make the bird the centre of interest despite the fact that he is a dull gray; the snow piled on a fence in the background and the shrub branches actually held more colour than the bird.  By layering and using impasto, the bird could be made to compete with his surroundings.

I gave this as a gift to my bird-loving mother.  She was pleased.  What more can a painter hope for?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Christmas Plein Air

Christmas Day
12 x 16

Happy New Year, everyone!  May you paint often and well in 2011.

Christmas day was gorgeous and above freezing, so I ventured out for a plein air day. My son wanted to try his new fly fishing rod (special because it breaks down into 4 rather than 2 pieces like his old one; the way that I am about art supplies, he is about fishing gear) and I wanted to catch the amazing, clear light. By wearing my nitrile gloves and standing in the sun, I was able to finish this fresh little painting with fingers intact.

The problem with painting in the sun is that your colours look wonderfully saturated and rich while you are working, and then, when you get home and look at the piece in normal room light, they suddenly turn dim. It's a fact that I haven't totally learned to compensate for. But I knew that I'd need to make adjustments, and Christmas dinner was calling, so I left the painting outside in a patio-cushion storage box until I could next get to it. I do the same thing with my palette every night after work. The freezing cold stops the paint from drying, so I can work wet-in-wet for a much longer time. Adding clove oil to your paints (just a drop or two) will, apparently, do the same thing, but I haven't tried this yet.

It wasn't as bad as I feared, however. I just needed to add a bit more orange to the weeds in the snow and brighten the water with more intense greenish blue. I'm pleased with this because it captures the special light that drew me to the scene in the first place.