Friday, March 30, 2012

Painting Things that Move - A Lot

Afternoon Rest
8 x 10

8 x 10
Yesterday was a great, if windy day, and I took my trusty pochade box out to see if there were any signs of Spring.  There was plenty of mud and the tree buds are beginning to swell.  

I also saw a busy stable along a country road and decided to stop in and introduce myself.  The owner kindly agreed to let me paint on the property and I spent a few pleasant and productive hours painting and chatting with horses and their people.

I think I had the courage to take on the challenge of painting horses from life for a couple of reasons: first, I've been doing 20 minute model sketches in my classes for the past couple of weeks and have had to come up with a strategy for my students and me to use for such quick work; and second, I spent my childhood filling the margins of school work with galloping horses and papering my walls with equine drawings, and the understanding of horse anatomy that I acquired back then has stayed with me.

The first thing I did was to mix the colours that I'd need for a few key elements: horses, sky, and land.  I made the mixtures to the midtone average of the object, knowing that I could add dark accents, reflected light, and highlights at my leisure once I'd placed the forms.

I also made sure that the temperature of the paint mixture matched the temperature of the object.  Part of what attracted me to the horses in the first place was the way the warm light bounced around their forms and the sky reflected off of their top surfaces.

Once I had the mixtures on my palette, I did a quick gesture line to catch the basic pose of the animals and launched straight into placing their forms on the canvas.  There was no drawing; I went straight to big blocks of paint that were the right shape, colour and value.  Any lines that are in the final paintings were added last, on top of the forms, for emphasis.

While this sounds difficult, you'd be surprised at how much easier it is to paint a complex subject using big patches of paint than it is to paint by starting with outlines.  We see objects in terms of their overall silhouette, so painting them that way makes good sense.

In both paintings, the horses didn't stick around for the whole process.  But having the large masses there, and being able to examine the horses' colours even after they'd moved on helped me to finish up. At home I popped them into my trial frames to check the compositions and made a few more small adjustments.

I'm pleased with these.  They were a stretch for me and I think challenges help me improve.  Expect more horses from me in the future; I'm hooked on them again!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

More about goals in Plein Air

Winter Trees
10 x 12
This is another of the Bragg Creek plein air paintings from a couple of weeks ago.  The wind had picked up by the time we found this view, and it was blowing into my face.  But I couldn't resist the soft grey mass of the trees contrasting with the dense, dark conifers on the hillside behind them.  The sky had a heavy, expectant look and a wonderful path of light, cool colour through it.  Creative license allowed me to boost the slightly greenish colour of that path and tie it in with the trees.

I set two goals for this painting when I started: highlighting the abstract quality of the landscape and keeping the shapes large and simple.  The foreground tree needed more detail so that it would appear nearer the viewer, but I tried to keep detail, especially dark accents, out of the middle and far plane.

This painting almost had a little figure at a French easel down where the light streaked across the snow-Bobbi had set up and was painting facing me- but, when I tried it, the whole focus of the painting shifted from my original goal, and it became a painting about a person.  Goals keep me in line!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Plein Air and Goals

8 x 10

The weather was perfect on Friday morning so I went out painting in Kananaskis with fellow paint- obsessive, Bobbi Dunlop.  We set up at Elbow Falls, ignored them, and painted the river.  Actually, we’d intended to paint the waterfalls but the path to the viewing area was roped off  because of the amount of ice on it.  It didn’t matter.  The river was glorious.

Over the past two weeks, I’d made a list of do’s and don’ts for plein air painting to help me avoid the common pitfall: overworking what should be fresh and swift.  Among other things, I’d vowed to leave the darks as simple, largely-transparent passages; to place the focal point quickly, before the light changed; and to use big brushes till the end. 

I’ve talked before about the benefit of having a goal for each painting, and that list making reminded me to follow my own advice.  Sometimes, in the excitement of starting a new piece and deciding on technical issues like colour, composition, and brushwork, it’s easy to forget this step, but having a goal is crucial to figuring out when a painting is done.  When you’ve achieved your goal, it’s finished.  Paint beyond that and you may be gilding the lily.  

The goal for this painting was to capture the crisp, clear light of the winter sun on the river and to do justice to the cool shadows cast by the trees on the bank.  I kept the tonal range high to allow the  highlights to pop, and made sure that the colour of the river was warm and pure.  The snow shadows were the most fun as I could explore a wide variety of blues: warm, cool, greyed and pure.  While it was incredibly tempting to keep tweaking tree shapes, I forced myself to stop when I felt that I’d achieved my initial goal.  This was not a painting about trees and I gave myself a mental handslap when I reached for a small brush to “just do one more little thing…”

The weather turned cold and windy and the blue sky changed to white before this painting was fully done, but I had some key colours placed everywhere so I could get it finished with my goal intact. 
Maybe the next one will be a painting about trees. 

Happy painting!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

New Spring Session of Painting from Life Course

Toward the Rockies
12 x 10
This week I announced the Spring session of my Painting from Life course and it's different from the courses that I've taught in the past.  In this course, we'll focus on the figure, working from models in the studio, and on the landscape, working plein air - or "en plein air" as those in the know say!

Two factors made me choose this challenging format for the course: my increased competence in plein air work, and the unusually warm winter that we've been having.  Both have seen me getting out much more often and I thought it would be nice to take my classes out to experience the same fun that I do.  

My goal is to teach students how to nail values and colours right away, before the light changes and their original vision is lost.  This isn't how we'd normally work in the studio from a still life, or even from a model.  There we'd have 3 leisurely hours to lay in a pattern of darks, develop midtones and the knock in the showy lights, chatting as we do so.  Outdoors, I'm hoping to get one or two small, fresh paintings from students every class.  These will provide the source material for larger paintings that we'll do in the studio on rainy days or in the Fall session.  

There are still spots available for this course which runs Tuesday afternoons or Wednesday evenings at  the Calgary School of Art.  I hope you'll join me for the fun!

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Experiments in the Paint Surface

8 x 10
Oil on linen
This has been a season of experimentation for me.  I've explored different ways to make marks and apply paint and tried out different surfaces on which to put the paint.  I've also been working at creating more variety and texture in the surfaces of my paintings.  To that end, I bought some Rosemary and Co. mongoose-hair brushes and an inspiring selection of palette knives.

It may seem like a lot of variables to play with but the challenge kept me motivated during the long winter.

"Driftwood", despite it's small size, contains most of what I've been mulling over for the past few months.  There are strong, visible brushmarks but also areas of abstract, layered colour in which the brush is not evident.  I'm particularly happy with the almost 3-D effect of the blue over the yellow-ish ground colour.   There's an illusion of depth that seems to suit the subject of water.

The support is a smooth, oil-primed linen, something that I've been on-again and off-again about for quite some time.  The slippery surface makes it tough to work wet-in-wet layers: too much medium and the second layer won't sit cleanly on top; it will remove the first layer instead.  But too little medium won't let the paint flow; it goes on dry and choppy.  I think I've finally got a feel for the consistency of that first coat.
Driftwood detail
I'm currently working on a large version of this to see if I can successfully scale it up.  There's always the danger that a painting will become to fussier when it's enlarged so I'm sticking to very big brushes and knives.  I'll post it if it works and, if it doesn't, I'll never mention it again.  Wish me luck.

Happy painting!