Friday, December 12, 2014

Economy of colour and bountiful colour

Young Model
14 x 11
This painting was all about colour and colour temperature.  I wanted to see just how far I could push the warm lights and cool shadows before the skin seemed unbelievable and bizarre.

Maybe I've got a high tolerance for odd, but I still haven't hit the limit.  There's pure green in her cheek, and blue in her arm, but I still have an overall belief in the skin as caucasian and not alien.

In her difficult but fascinating book "Vision and Art: the biology of seeing", Margaret Livingstone pointed out that putting colour at the edges of objects can convince viewers' brains that the entire objects are that colour.  She used a red roof in a Cezanne painting to show this.  Though the roof was mostly ochres and neutrals, the red perimeter of the roof shape influenced the entire interior space and made it look like the whole roof was red.   Cezanne used this a lot, and here's an example:

In "Young Model", the warm orange colours in the top surface of her arm function in the same way. Though there are a lot of cool, unnatural colours in the arms, those small, orange marks can override them and give the impression of a peach-coloured arm.  It's an amazing phenomenon and it gives an opportunity to explore a great deal of colour without losing the sense of an area.

Happy painting!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Arches oil paper

Chinese bowl and berries
8 x 10
I've been playing around with Arches oil paper lately and am really enjoying the surface.
Like watercolour paper, there's a wonderful bright whiteness to it which glows through the paint and adds vibrance to the colours.

Another nice quality of the paper is the feeling of irregularity in its surface texture.  Unlike the monotony of machine-woven canvas, there's a nostalgic, random look to the surface that integrates beautifully with the brushstrokes.  It's also easy to build a rich, painterly surface on it; the layers adhere well and it's easy to get to impasto paint quickly from a scruffy start.  I think that will make it really useful for plein air studies and figure sketches.

I'm still not sure how I'll mount this stuff, though.  I experimented by adhering a sheet to a panel in the heat press, using BEVA film as the adhesive.  This is my method for mounting linen to panel, but it didn't work for the Arches paper.  The application of heat changed the working quality of the paper, making it more absorbent and flattening the texture.  Probably, it would ruin its archival quality, but I'm just guessing about that.

Next I'll try cold mounting the paper with glue, and, if that still flattens the texture too much, I think I'll just tack it with acid-free tape to a panel and pop it into a frame.  It lies very flat, so I don't see a problem with that method unless it's hung in a humid bathroom.  Then, all bets are off.

Happy painting!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The beauty of speed

The Bride Wore Cowboy Boots
10 x 8
We've had a lovely model in my class for the past few weeks and she surprised us by arriving in her wedding dress.  It was a great choice because it added grace and interest to each of her poses as well as forcing students to deal with a large expanse of white. For a touch of hill-billy chic, she accessorized with cowboy boots.

This painting was one of the 20 minute warm ups that we do at the start of each model class.  It really helps my students loosen up and approach the subsequent long pose with greater focus.  In 20 minutes, you can only think of big shapes, major values, and large gestures; the rest is impossible and, as we repeatedly discover, unnecessary.  We are always delighted by the fresh vigour of these painted sketches when we put them against the wall for a critique and just to admire.

There were a lot of elegant, refined paintings that came out of these weeks with our model, but my heart is still with the dazzling sketches that preceded them.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Colourful Shadows

Yellow Air Mattress
40 x 30
This subject sparked my imagination though the girl in my photo reference was no more than a graceful silhouette as she headed for the water.  The key was to make the most of her shadowy shape and not get too caught up in the brilliantly-illuminated air mattress.

I started by deciding on a temperature for the light.  It would be cool, so that I could push the warmth of her body to extremes.  I washed in a tone across the figure using oranges and ochres before beginning to model her form with purples and greens.  That way, the foundational warmth would influence all subsequent colours and temperatures.  Over those initial statements, I layered broken colour in both warm and cool.  She couldn't be just warm, or she felt too much like an illustration: lacking depth and complexity.  So she has hot oranges and cooler alizarin-based colours as well as greens and lavenders in her body.

I had to keep her highlights simple and not too dominant or they stole attention from the shadows; our eyes will always go to the light, so I had to downplay that light as much as possible.  You can see that the girl's highlights are based on a pinkish tint, but there is a lot of cool, greenish tint laid over top to neutralize them.  As well, I softened the edges of the lights to ensure that the viewer's eye doesn't get hung up on crisp edges and impasto paint.

Then, to keep the focus on her figure, I simplified the background and made sure that it held the colours of the girl's body, but in lower chroma.  In the photo, the girl was heading across sun-bleached sand into brilliant, cobalt blue water.  The sky was cerulean and vibrant.  If I'd honoured that in the painting, the girl would have been just one high chroma element in many, so I toned them all down for her sake.  This was hard, because a photo tends to make a painter very literal, and I had to put away the photo in order to allow the painting to speak to me and tell me how to proceed.

It's an overcast, cold day here today, with old snow on the ground, but, in the studio, the summer sun is blazing on a carefree girl as she jogs to the water to cool off.  I think I'll stay in the studio with her!

Happy painting!

Saturday, November 8, 2014


Purple Life Vest
30 x 30

There's no way to avoid being influenced by other artists, and, honestly, I don't understand why people would even want to avoid it.  There are only so many novel ideas to be dredged out of the head of a person who spends all of her working days by herself in a studio.  A little creative boost from other artists is something that I welcome.  

This painting was the direct result of receiving the exhibition catalogue of David Prentice's last, and final show at the John Davies Gallery in the UK.  Prentice died this year leaving behind a legacy of gorgeous landscape paintings that are richly coloured and beautifully designed. And they have an unabashed quantity of pink in them.  

Pink has always seemed like a dangerously frivolous colour and I'd never considered using it before, but Prentice's work changed that.  It turns out that pink is an uplifting, and lively colour and it's awfully fun to use.  Pink says warmth.

So I used it liberally and filled the canvas and the studio with summer sun.  

Thank you, Mr. Prentice. 

Happy painting!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Colour schemes

The Shore
16 x 12
It's easy to get caught up in the wonders of the colour selection at the art supply store, but I find that my favourite paintings are the ones with the least number of colours in them.  I also know that I have a real preference for looking at paintings that have an overall green or blue bias with smaller hits of warm colour.  I didn't actually put this into words for myself until I visited the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia last year and found myself gravitating invariably to the paintings with cool colour schemes such as Van Gogh's "The Postman" .  Unlike earthy, natural schemes, these artificial, stylized colour harmonies have amazing visual vibrations.  "The Postman" was hung in a little out -of-the-way corner of a room filled with Renoirs and Cezannes, but it still managed to dominate the space.

So, while I don't often set out to impose a colour scheme on my work - I find that to be an artificial process that feels too rational for such an intuitive process - I did make a decision to use a lot of green in this piece.  Once I had that, and the colour of the foreground figure's bikini top, I wove the purple throughout the rest, letting it work as a foil and near-complement to its surroundings.  The warm reds, pinks and peach colours relieve the overall coolness, and I hit them hard in the figures' skin tones.

This was a useful colour experiment and worth remembering for future paintings.  It was a good way to take the messy complexity of a photo reference and impose structure and order on it.

Happy painting!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Keep it simple

8 x 10
This is a little piece that says exactly as what I want it to, and no more.  It's a poem, not a novel.

My intention was to capture light and avoid getting too literal about the environment around the boys. It doesn't really matter where the shoreline is; what matters is giving a sense of water, sand, sunshine and the excitement of being young on a summer's day.

I hope it brings back memories.

Happy painting!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

In the moment

16 x 20
I'm still digesting the information that I gleaned from Alex Kanevsky's masterclass workshop last winter.  How great is that?

Something that he reiterated many times was that an artist should never place paint unless he or she has a clear intention (even if that intention only extends to the next mark), and is totally engaged and interested.

These sound like self-evident instructions, but it's amazing how often I catch myself just filling up canvas in order to get to the edge.  I'm not committed or fascinated; I'm just "blocking in the background" or "modelling the forms".  And sometimes I'm thinking about other things while I do it, or chatting to a friend on my headset, or listening to an audio book.  As every aspiring Buddhist or meditator knows: it's not easy being present.

So in this painting I worked at being present and focused throughout the entire piece.  If I found myself uninterested in developing a certain area, or unsure of how to proceed, I stopped and moved to another passage.  If I became unfocused or tired, I stopped immediately and took a break.  What I found was that I enjoyed every minute of the painting, and was interested and engaged throughout. It was both a more tiring, and more rewarding way to approach a painting.

Kanevsky said that if you're bored while you paint an area, your viewers will be equally bored when they look at that area.  I'll have to post that on the easel.

Happy painting!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Painting studies

An Afternoon at the Beach
8 x 10

Red Suit
8 x 10
Autumn is in full colour, but I'm still thinking of summertime in my studio.  (If I avoid the windows and just look out the skylights, I can fool myself quite nicely.)

I've been doing a lot of small paintings, thinking that they might make interesting larger works down the road.  While these stand on their own and look great in plein air frames, the thought of how I could make them into something big and multi layered makes them into much more important to me than their size suggests.

Ken Howard in his wonderful book "A Personal Perspective" said that he doesn't feel like he's really painting "unless there's a six-foot canvas on the easel".  I've been working up to that size and finally feel like I've got the stamina and ideas to fill one.  At the moment, there's a 48 x 62" on the studio wall - a beach scene - that has had me thinking and layering since the end of June.  It's still not ready to show to anyone, but it is getting richer and more interesting with each alteration.

I think this is a natural progression for many painters: once they are fast and proficient at a certain size or style of painting, they throw a challenge in their paths to keep themselves motivated and struggling.  Nothing is so dull as "proficiency".  It's much more interesting to see someone take risks,

So these little paintings are the seeds of my next challenge, and I'm excited to see how they germinate and grow.

Happy painting!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Portrait Demo

Portrait demo
18 x 14
Last night I did one of the most intense and wonderful things: a portrait demo in front of a lot of people.

I was invited to demo for the Calgary Community Painters, a group that shows regularly and also focuses on education for their members.  It's a knowledgeable crowd so that adds nicely to the pressure.  My model, a painter herself, is lovely inside and out, and has gorgeous, peachy skin tones. She was a delight to paint.

It seems counter intuitive, but I do some of my best painting under pressure and scrutiny.  In my studio I distract myself with book tapes, phone calls on my headset, mental menu planning, letting the dog in and out and telling him to stop barking (repeatedly and uselessly - both the telling and the barking)... and on and on.  But in a demo, I'm only painting and talking about each mark and thought about that painting.  I talk a lot, but it's all about the paint.  This is being "present" or being in the zone, and it's addictive.

This morning I wondered how I can bring that presence and focus into my studio more often.  Hiring models becomes expensive so I do it as a treat for myself, but I'm looking for something that carries the same intensity.  Or for free models.

I've decided that a time limit will be part of the solution so I'm going to try that today and see what that feels like.  If you've got any suggestions, I'd be pleased to hear them.

Happy painting!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Layers upon layers

Yellow Kayak
40 x 30
This painting has been on and off the easel all summer as I tried to make it convey a mood and a sense of the airy, carefree day at the beach during which I took the photo reference.

The woman in the photo seemed almost monumental as she surveyed the water.  Her body is not magazine perfect, but it's strong and she stood unselfconsciously, drawing my eyes in a way that none of the skinny 20 year olds on the beach could.

There's a lot of complexity and layering in this piece which is unlike my typical alla prima method. Using Liquin (not my usual medium, but useful for its quick dry, tough coat) and thin layers which I was exposed to in the Alex Kanevsky workshop last winter,  I didn't hesitate to go over and over passages with a variety of colours until they felt rich and interesting enough for my liking.  The painting gave my summer a nice sense of continuity: I always had something unfinished to put on the easel.

Now that it's done (at least, I think it's done), I'm going to start another long-term project and see where it takes me.

Happy painting!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Make it Glow Workshop

I'll be teaching a new workshop devoted entirely to colour on November 1 at the Calgary School of Art.   I hope you'll be able to join me; it promises to be a day of hard work, exploration, revelation, and FUN!

Here's the scoop:

It's all about colour in this intensive, one-day, painting workshop. Join me for a day that includes both the structure of established colour theory, and the excitement of intuitive approaches to colour.

With simple still life objects as your subjects, you'll learn how to mix and apply colour for maximum effect. You'll explore colour mixing, temperature and value, and learn how to layer multiple colours to create exciting visual vibrations - not mud!

If you've ever wondered how to make your paint glow, this workshop is for you.

Please contact the Calgary School of Art to register.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Choosing a colour scheme

Warm on Cool
15 x 30
"How did you choose those colours" is something I'm often asked, and I struggle with the answer each time. It seems to me that colour choice is only partially conscious and deliberate - generally for the first 10% of the painting - and then colour and all other choices become reactions to those first few marks. One thing leads to another.

That's why the first marks are always the hardest.  I spend a lot of time studying my reference, live or photographic, for ideas about the initial toning colour, the colour of the drawing/block-in, and any elements that will be singled out for special colours notes (in this case, that was the bum).

This painting was done from a photo and the colours were very cool and neutral overall, mostly yellow greys with the warmer flesh tones being orangey-red.  The reference suffered from lack of contrast and colour variety with the background drape being almost the same colour as the majority of the torso.  So I stood in front of the white canvas for a ridiculously long time, trying to figure out an interesting colour range.  There were, of course, an infinite number of options that presented themselves to me, the most obvious being complimentary colours: blue and orange, yellow and purple, and green and red.  

I decided on green and red because they seemed to suit the mysterious, secretive quality of the pose, and they would allow me to use rose in the rump.  Then I chose which type of green I wanted: warm or cool.  I chose a cool, bluish green rather than a warm yellow green, feeling that cool better suited the mood of the pose.  Pthalo green seemed right, though the weaker viridian was in the running.

For the shadows on the torso, I used alizarin, a cool red, to make them recede in space and importance while still showing warm flesh.  The rump got cad red light to bring it forward and to suggest greater warmth.

For yellow, I used mainly warm choices- cad yellow pale and Indian yellow - and to achieve darks, I added raw umber to my palette.  Powerful darks could also be had by mixing pthalo green and alizarin, but sometimes they are too rich and overwhelming.  Raw umber is a nice weak option.

I toned the canvas with a warm olive colour to avoid an unpleasantly chilly painting, and then roughed the drawing and all darks in with a warm mixture of raw umber and cad yellow pale.

Next I placed colour notes: warm bum, cool drape, warm transition areas, and waited for the painting to begin to suggest its next requirements.  After all that careful and rational planning, it was time to relinquish some control and listen to what the painting was suggesting.

Suddenly got airy-fairy, didn't I?  But there's no other way to describe it, and many of you know what I mean.  If you're relaxed and attentive, the painting shows you the way; often by showing you when a mark or colour isn't right.  So you have to paint slowly, noting the effect of each mark as you place it and adjusting the ones that seem "off" before they get woven into the fabric of the painting and lead to a whole bunch of compensatory "off" marks.  Marks that seem right get enhanced.  They form the basis for extended colour riffs on a theme.  You just have to watch for them and follow where they lead, pushing gently to test how far you can go in that theme, backing up when you realize you've pushed too far.

Well, at least I told you the concretes of the first part of the process.  The rest is mysterious and wonderful. I hope you experience it in your studios, too.

Happy painting!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Layering and abstraction

Orange Pail
40 x 30
An experiment in abstraction and layers, this painting pleases me.

I use a lot of construction lines when I begin a figure painting; they help me to place the figure and get decent proportion and they also make the big, empty canvas feel less like virgin territory and more like a painting.  In this piece, I decided to leave and emphasize those initial marks.  I liked the way they broke up the space and emphasized the triangular nature of the child's pose.

The layers were applied over several sessions, each one a translucent mixture of greyed colour, often complementary to the one beneath it.  When each area had achieved a sense of complexity and depth from this application method, the overall effect was one of subtle and luminous neutrals.  I liked it, but I also really like colour, so then it was time to revisit the painting and selectively add hits of colour, creating the life and spark that satisfied me.

I saved the most intense chroma for the lower left quadrant: the bucket, the blue line on the swim trunks, and the child's arm.  In all of those greys, these high chroma elements really leapt out and drew the eye.  It was interesting to see just how far I could push these areas without losing the overall harmony of the painting. This piece was an adventure.

Happy painting!  

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Simple,strong, and wrong

Little Dancer
12 x 5.75
This little figurine is a teaching tool; not for my students, but for me.  She`s a replica of Degas` `Little 14 year old dancer` and she`s caused me no end of mischief as I`ve struggled to interpret her in simple terms despite her complexity. The fewer marks that I make, the happier I am with a painting, and this figure invites me to overwork every time.

Yesterday was no exception as I found myself rendering the folds of her dress and the features of her tiny face.  Luckily, I managed to avoid the usual pitfalls by switching to a larger brush and simplifying everything that I could.  The multiple folds became 3 or 4 large ones and her face, thanks to the clumsy inaccuracy of the brush, became a suggestion without being precious.

My biggest struggle was with the legs which I`d slapped on with confidence in an almost-correct position. They weren`t right, but they were `good`.  Robert Genn in his blog `The Painter`s Keys`once referred to it as `wrong and strong`, and it caused a real dilemma.  My option was to repaint the legs entirely and, inevitably, lose the freshness of the marks.  I decided to let them remain as they were.  If it had been an error in the focal area of the upper torso, I`d have made a different choice, but I decided that, for their level of importance, they legs could stay as they were.

I think it was the right decision. My overall aim of rendering her in a simple, strong statement was best served by letting it slide.

Happy painting!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Limited palette

Tending the Beach
14 x 11
This study was done in a limited palette of perylene black, cad yellow deep and alizarin permanent plus titanium white.  Unlike the Zorn palette (yellow ochre, vermillion, ivory black and white), this palette uses high chroma versions of black, yellow and red.  The black, though it has a definite green bias, acts as a blue.

Our brains like complimentary colours and will create them for us given a bit of encouragement.  The orange in the sand and on the boy's torso and cheek are enough to allow the viewer to interpret the black and white mixture as blue, the compliment of orange.  If an actual blue were placed into this picture it would relegate this mixture to plain old cool grey.  Here's a piece of paint cropped inexpertly from the child's hoe.  Out of context, it looks less like something that you'd call blue, although, if asked to mix it, you'd probably start with a blue and diminish its chroma with complimentary orange and some white.

Limited palette work sharpens my painting skills; I do it when I feel I've become too colour dependent. Since value and temperature are the most important elements of these paintings, I always go back to the full palette refreshed; grateful for all those lovely colours, but aware that I can be quite content with much less.

Happy painting!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sept 20 Painting the Figure from Life workshop

I"ll be teaching a 1-day, figurative workshop at the Calgary School of Art on Saturday, September 20 and I hope you'll join me.  Here's what it's all about:

To the painters who have told me they "can't even draw a stick man", this workshop is for you.
To the artists whose figures look wooden, this workshop is for you.
To the landscape painters who have always wanted to try painting people, this workshop is for you.
To the figurative painters who want to loosen up, this workshop is for you.

Join me for a thrilling and engrossing day of life painting that holds something for every painter.  We'll work from a clothed model and tackle several poses so you'll get lots of practise in turning paint on canvas into a graceful, believable figure. 

-I'll teach you how to achieve proper proportion without preliminary drawing and how to suggest the hands and face without becoming precious. 

-You'll learn to capture a gesture with boldness and confidence, and how to integrate a figure into its environment. 

-And you'll feel the joy and challenges of working from life.

Suitable for oil and acrylic painters with some experience.  Demonstrations will be in oil.

**you can register through the Calgary School of Art website.  I hope to see you there!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

International Artist Magazine article

It doesn't get any cooler than this!  At least for me.
I'm on the cover of the August/Sept. edition of International Artist and there's an article and step-by-step inside that details how I created a still life painting.

The article is warts and all: the stuff that worked and the time that I had to go back and do some major repainting.  Those step-by-steps that show a painting progressing smoothly and logically from the first mark to the last make me suspicious.  Who really does that?  And is that even desirable?

If you can exactly predict the outcome of a painting when you begin, is there any thrill of discovery?Have you taken risks and stretched your abilities to see if something new and exciting would come of it?  I haven't; I know that.  So I do frequent major repaints.

The magazine is for sale in Chapters and other major outlets if you'd like a copy.

Happy painting!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Experiments in colour and surface

Mallow Flowers
5.75 x 5.75
Oil on aluminum
Garden Pansies
6 x 8
Oil on linen on board

Sometimes a small painting can teach me so much more than a large one.  These little paintings are life studies of some flowers from my garden, and each was done as an experiment with a very clear aim.

The pansies were an exploration of colour.  I wanted to create the illusion that the flowers were brilliant and luminous.  This is something that nature does effortlessly in even the smallest form like a leaf or an insect, but artists can labour lifetimes to imitate. There are no pigments that actually glow or are as richly coloured as a pansy (or a dandelion for that matter); my paints are just ground minerals, metals, and organic matter mixed with oil.  They are, essentially, mud.  So I had to rely on all of the artists' tricks that I knew.

Though the flowers were very warm in temperature, I couldn't create that warmth without introducing cools into them, creating a vibration and enhancing the illusion of brilliance.  I chose to use complimentary greenish colours into both the shadow and the light of the flowers.  In fact, most of the flower surface isn't orange; it's brownish, greenish, earthy red, ochre, and other secondary and tertiary mixtures.  That subdued colour background means that a swatch of relatively pure colour in the focal flower seems very rich and lively by comparison.  That little swatch also tells the viewers that they're looking at an orange object, not a red or green one.  The glow was enhanced by allowing orange to mingle into the background, suggesting that they are so brilliant that they influence their environment with their colour.

To further enhance the orange colour, I added blue to the background, choosing a blue that would create a complimentary vibration with the most brilliant orange in the focal colour (this takes a bit of trial and error).

The mallow flower study was done with a different purpose.  I'm experimenting, as always, with painting surfaces, and this is on an aluminum architectural panel that I had prepared by degreasing with rubbing alcohol.  I wanted to see what I thought of the cool tone, the mark making and the absence of texture.

The jury's still out.

I liked the cool environment as it enhances warm colour without being an obvious colour itself, but I found that I couldn't make much use of my hogs' bristle brushes on this surface.  They are too coarse to leave paint behind and created lots of scratchy marks as they scraped over the smoothness of the metal.  I resorted to the few soft brushes that I own along with palette knives to build up the paint surface.  And yet there's something of interest in the metal surface and I'll do more experiments on it and see where they lead.  It may just mean that I don't work alla prima when I use aluminum.  If I get those first scratchy marks on and let them dry, the second layer should look richer and more lush.  I'll keep you posted.

In the meantime: happy painting! 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

To varnish or not to varnish

Floral Suit
40 x 30
This is one of 4 paintings going to Tutt Art Gallery in Kelowna, BC next week and it caused me no end of doubts and concerns; not in the painting, but in the finishing.

I varnished the pieces, as I always do, in preparation for shipping and then realized that they no longer appealed to me.  The colours had darkened and the background had flattened to the same plane as the figure, losing all sense of atmosphere.  It looked dull and dim.  But, hey, at least it was shiny.

I took the paintings to the framer who wraps and ships my work, but ended up picking them all up again before she could pack them up.  I just couldn't live with the change and no longer felt good about the paintings.

Luckily, the varnish that I use, Gamvar, is removable, so I could strip them all back to their original, luminous state with some odourless mineral spirits and clean rags.  I can't tell you how much better I felt, though a bit transgressive as well.  Who doesn't varnish?  It felt like I was committing a sin of omission.

Actually, according to the excellent book "Painting Methods of the Impressionists" by Bernard Dunstan, I was following in the footsteps of the Impressionists; they didn't always varnish either. Some went so far as to write notes on the backs of their paintings asking that the buyers of the work not varnish them.  They knew that the atmosphere and glow that their high key colours achieved would be instantly lost under that glassy layer.  While many Impressionist paintings were eventually varnished by their buyers, the few that remain in their intended bare state are, apparently, far more beautiful, and have a sense of depth and airiness.

So, I think I'll be more selective about varnishing from now on.  If a painting is high key, I probably won't do it, but if there are lots of darker areas, I will.   For these new, high-key beach pieces, I've decided to skip the varnish and be as daring as the artists of the 19th Century.

Happy painting!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Federation of Canadian Artists portrait workshop

Tanned Man
18 x 14
Sometimes demos need a little tweaking and this painting is no exception.  I painted it in Kelowna last week for a workshop hosted by the Federation of Canadian Artists Central Okanagan Chapter.

I found the model challenging because, unlike the pale faces that I get in Calgary models, he had an even tan.  There were no obvious cool colours in the usual places and his skin was a darker value than I'm used to in a Caucasian. Luckily, the man's beard and mustache area could read as cool so I bumped them into an obvious green to act as foils for the generally warm composition.

I think the painting was successful given the time constraints of a demo, but, when I got home, I felt that the jaw on the right looked puffy and the ear too large. As well, the background - a black drape that I'd swathed across the shelving behind him - was too light in value, stopping the face from popping as it should.  Darkening the drape acted to lighten and enhance the face and to emphasize the models dark eyes.

The day after the demo, the class painted this same model.  We'd requested a higher chroma shirt for day 2 and there were some amazing portraits done on "tanned man in burnt orange shirt".  It was a great class.

Happy painting!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Plein air two ways

Palette knife demo
6 x 8

8 x 10
Recently, my students and I spent our final class day in a nearby wetland area, enjoying the sound of the birds and the sparkle on the water.

The day started ominously, and I was wondering if we could endure the cold wind and brooding skies for the full day, but this is Calgary, and weather changes.  By lunch, we'd peeled off our jackets and were basking in the sunshine.

The first painting that I did was a palette knife painting demo using a 4" triangular knife (why use a little tool when you can use a large one?)  The painting has some brushwork because there's no sense in being dogmatic about things, but most of it is knife work.

I toned the panel with red to start, hoping it would inject some much-needed warmth into the grey scene as well as modify all of the blues and greens towards greyer hues.  I'd intended to cover most of this underpainting, but found that I loved the broken marks that the knife made as I spread local colour over it, so I left a bunch of it behind.

The key to using the knife is to use it in a variety of ways.  Too many palette knife paintings feel monotonous because the tool was only used in one way.  This demo has the knife used to scrape, burnish, drizzle, and slather paint on.  Knives have the advantage of allowing you to get lots of paint on quickly and cleanly: a huge help when the light is changing by the minute.  And it's really fun.

The second painting is more typical of my style, but it had the benefit of being done over an old painting. I'd scraped off any impasto and knew that the painting was generally thin by the depth of the weave visible under the paint, so I could gauge how thickly I needed to work to respect the fat over lean rule.  My medium was pure oil, helping to ensure that no lean layers went down.

The nice thing about painting over a painting is that you're in the thick of things very quickly.  I find that I mix generous piles of paint from the start, knowing that I have to obliterate most of the underpainting.  There's also no sense of preciousness at any point; the painting I'm covering is a dud, so why worry?  The resulting free brushwork and dense colour made me happy.

It was a great way to mark the end of the course and we all went home tired, but content, and with plenty of good paintings.  I'm glad we hung in there.

Happy painting!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Banning cadmium in artist paints

Inside the sludge bucket
decanted solvent ready for reuse

Reading Katherine Tyrrell's excellent blog "Making a Mark" on Monday, I discovered that there;s a proposal in front of the EU to ban the use of cadmiums in artists' paints in Europe.  While I use cadmiums and love them for their intensity and opacity, I think this may be a good thing.  In my experience teaching classes and workshops to all levels of painters from beginners to professionals, I've found a scary lack of understanding about the toxicity of the pigments that they're using.  From holding brushes in their mouths, to washing paint down the drain, painters are doing crazy and dangerous things every day in the privacy of their studios.  It's not intentional and most of them are appalled to discover that they're polluters; the information just isn't out there.

Cadmium, cobalt, titanium, and many other pigments are toxic - regardless of whether they're bound in oil or acrylic bases (or watercolour, for that matter) - and have to be considered hazardous waste. That means that artists should dispose of them with as much scrupulousness as we expect big companies to use when they get rid of manufacturing waste.  The drain and household garbage aren't options.

So what's an honest painter to do?  Start by getting a bucket with a lid like the one in the photo at the top. That old honey container is my sludge bucket.  Whenever I clean out my solvent container, I dump the lot into that bucket and scrape in all of the pigment sludge that has accumulated over a few days' of painting.  It's a grey mess when it goes in, but overnight it settles out and the solvent rises to the top, clean and perfectly reusable.  The pigments settle into a layer at the bottom.

It took me 3 years to fill the last bucket with pigment sludge, and then I took it to the hazardous waste disposal section of the local landfill.  In my city, some fire stations also accept chemical waste.  I expect that every city's government website will list facilities for chemical drop off and disposal.

We should all be doing this, but I think paint manufacturers need to step up and educate consumers as well. Paint displays should outline safe handling and disposal of their products. The tiny MSDS warnings on tubes of paint just don't cut it.

Can educating artists help to save cadmiums in Europe?  I don't know, but it will certainly save health and waterways, and that matters more than great colour.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Sun and sand and paint

Sand Piles
11 x 14
Rope Swing
20 x 16
Water noodle
16 x 12

I never get tired of watching kids playing in water. They seem so completely engaged.  Probably, they look as engaged on the X Box at home, but not nearly so picturesque.

Water and sunlight are a joy because they give me an opportunity to bounce reflected colour around the figure: saturating the shadows with warm purples, reds and delicate greens.  The photo references for these figures show the shadows as near black, but I knew that couldn't be right.  With such intense sunlight bouncing around the scene, I'd see a higher-key shadow and plenty of colour, so the photos were useful for gesture alone.  In fact, I worked mainly from black and white, overexposed versions of the photos so that I wouldn't get sucked into believing their lies.  If I were a very fast, on-location sketcher, that would have been the best resource of all.

These paintings are available at Oceanside Art Gallery in Qualicum Beach, BC.  If you're playing in the sun and sea near the gallery, I hope you'll stop in and see them.

Happy painting!

Saturday, June 7, 2014

How long did that take you to paint?

Catching the Light
14 x 11
One of the questions that I get asked often is "how long did that take you to paint".  It always leaves me feeling a bit panicked: do I tell the truth and say I did it in an afternoon, giving the impression of virtuosity, but also, potentially, that the piece is an insignificant trifle, or do I tell the other truth and say that I slaved over it over days and weeks, tweaking and revisiting, scraping and restating? Does that simply make me seem inept? Why are they asking, anyway?  Are they trying to calculate my income per hour or is it the honest curiosity of a fellow painter, trying to figure out every aspect of another painter's method?  I tend to think it's the latter.  We're all curious about how other painters achieve their results and, for non painters, they want to know what our days in the studio look like.  BBC even has a series called "What Do Artists Do All Day?" which is fascinating and addictive.

I walk across the yard to my studio every morning, back across for a 15 minute lunch, and then out again until it's time to make supper (or well past time, as my family will tell you).  The studio is filled with paintings in various stages of completion.  Many look finished to visitors to the studio, but, until they look finished to me, they're not allowed out in public.  That may mean weeks of sitting on a shelf enduring my critical glances before I take the piece up again, make a few marks, and put it back on the shelf again for another spell of waiting and studying.  Many paintings will never leave the studio because I don't stand behind them; I just can't like them. Some of these have been praised and appreciated by others, but that only embarrasses me as I can see their flaws, and my eye is the only one that counts.  Every year I slash and trash many of this group.  

Alex Kanevsky told me that "painting is an inherently wasteful process" and that phrase has been my solace when I discard weeks worth of work and countless dollars worth of paint, linen and worn brushes.  I'm just doing what artists do: following in well-worn footsteps along a slow and tortuous path toward my idea of excellence.  

So the short answer is: it takes as long as that painting needs.  That may be a duration so lengthy that it will sound silly to you when you hear it or, if I'm in the flow, it may fall off my brush in a blessed afternoon. 

The painting above is in the second category and so I look at it with gratitude for the fact that it didn't offer resistance during its creation.  It happened in a smooth and sure dance in which my brush picked up the right colour and value each time I touched the palette.  And, crucially, I knew when to stop and say "done".  Most don't happen this way, but I can forget about those and the toll they exacted in order to be created.  Just don't ask how long it took me to paint them.  

Happy painting!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

2 spots left in Painting the Portrait from Life workshop June 28/29

My son's graduation photos came in the mail this week.  "Complimentarily retouched" to perfection, his skin as smooth as a Ken doll's, it struck me that he looked like so many awful painted portraits that I've seen. The Photoshopping tech had created an even, unrelieved surface where, in life, there are tiny colour, temperature and value changes, maybe even a blemish or two. With a complete lack of understanding for how a human face works, the well-meaning fixer had dehumanized my boy, making him fit to play a robot in a futuristic movie. Or to be on the cover of a glossy magazine with all the other retouched humans.

I've seen portraits that look the same. Slaved over for days and weeks, the faces in these paintings never ring true: the parts are all there, but, with our instinctive understanding for what comprises a face, we won't be fooled. The face doesn't live.

Which is why every portrait artist should spend some time working from a live model. The experience of looking hard and translating what they see into paint gives artists an awareness for how a face works. That awareness can then be applied to the wasteland that is a photo reference, injecting dimension and life into its sanitized surface.

\I'll be teaching a 1 1/2 day :painting the portrait from life" workshop in Kelowna, BC next month through the Federation of Canadian Artists. There are still a couple of spots left so, if you'd like to experience the difference between rich life and 2-dimensional prints, please join me.  

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to call the photography company and see if I can get my son back.


Saturday, May 24, 2014

The painting and the study

Green Pail
40 x 30

Green Pail Study
10 x 8
 The reference for these paintings was an unpromising photo in which the child was far from me and blurry.  The day was overcast and, other than the gesture, there was nothing that interested me.  But I did really like the gesture, so I did a couple of thumbnails and this small colour study to see if I could make anything of it.

When I enlarged the boy on my screen, I found a few clues about colour: there was a suggestion of blue sky reflecting in the top of his chest.  That became my anchor.  Next, I had to decide if I was going to use a cool light and warmer shadows or the reverse.  So that the blue chest would stand out, I chose to paint his body in warm greenish ochres and make the highlights generally cool (ish).  These divisions aren't cut and dried and you'll see a lot of cool in the torso and warms in the highlights, but you have to start somewhere and that was my thinking process at that moment.

I also wanted to avoid a sense of specificity.  The boy is meant to be just "Boy", not an individual; he is the movement and the moment.  So, even on the large piece, I just indicated his facial structure, trying variations on minimal marks until I felt that the viewer would be able to imagine the placement of his eyes and nose.

Looking at the two paintings, I see that I've changed his movement from swift to slow.  In the large painting, the child is picking his way along in knee-deep surf, examining the water around his feet for interesting finds, while the study shows him dashing forward leaving a froth of water in his wake.  I enjoy the different moods and sensations that these gestures evoke: one contemplative and the other dynamic.  

I'll be posting more beach scenes soon as they seem to be what my brush wants to do these days.

Happy painting!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The depth of the moment

Red Pail
40 x 30
Children at play are every bit as serious and focused as artists at work.  Their games are intense, meaningful and thrilling, a fact that you can see in their eloquent gestures.

This little boy was, as always, a blurry figure off in the distance in one of my beach photos.  There was something pensive in his stance that looked as if he were pondering deeper things than the rest of us.  What he did next would not be frivolous fun, though it might look that way to casual observers.  He was planning serious pursuits.

I wanted to capture that moment of thought, and to give a sense of the timelessness of children's play.  I found it easiest to do this by taking him out of a believable landscape and creating a world of light, colour and energy around him; a heightened reality that suggested water, sand and sky, but wasn't tied to these specifics. By merging his figure with this environment, I hoped to amplify the pensive gesture that drew me to paint him in the first place.

That sounds pretty cerebral but it was just the opposite while I was actually painting.  My method was to work instinctively in colour and light, eliminating boundaries between the subject and his surroundings, and weaving the work together to create a moment.  If I got it right, this moment feels deep and rich, like the child's thoughts.

Happy painting!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Figure in motion

Stepping Out
30 x 14
Another child on the beach painting: this one came, as so many do, from a small figure far in the distance in one of the many photos that randomly snap while I'm sitting on the sand.  Invariably, the figures that I like are the ones that are far away and blurry, not the ones that are focused and close up.  That would be too easy.

This little girl looked like she was on a mission: intent and determined.  The photo was generally monochromatic because she had blond hair and her suit was overexposed, and I knocked around the idea of painting this entirely in variations on ochre, but I decided to try to get more colour into it.  The first element I placed with any gusto was her hair, making it blue black.  That helped me to gauge the value of the shadows on her body and allowed me to place the fairly intense colours of her bathing suit.

My goal with this piece was to capture her in as few marks as possible and to make each of those marks very descriptive.  I sacrificed modelling through this approach, but then, there wasn't enough information in the photo to model her convincingly anyway.

Another goal was to avoid slavish outlining which has the effect of freezing the action.  To make her feel like she was in motion, I used lost edges throughout the figure, allowing the background to invade the body and the body colour to move freely into the background.

I like this painting.  It's simple, but it moves me as the bold little girl on the beach did.  I hope you enjoy it.

Happy painting!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Rendezvous Art Gallery Opening Tomorrow

Wedding Gift
24 x 14
This is one of the pieces in the "Seasons" exhibition at Rendezvous Art Gallery.  The jug was a wedding present to my parents and, knowing that I love it, my mother recently gave it to me.  It's become a favourite model in my still life work.

You can see "Wedding Gift" and many more new pieces at tomorrow's opening in Vancouver.  I'll be there and I hope you'll join me for a wonderful evening of art, wine, snacks, and art talk.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Rendezvous Gallery show, Vancouver, BC

16 x 12
Showing in Rendezvous Art Gallery
I shipped my paintings to Vancouver this week for a group show that I'm part of in Rendezvous Art Gallery. The show's theme is "Seasons" and I didn't send a single snow scene; that's a season that I've had enough of. I sent a lot of still life pieces and some beach scenes. 

The show opens on May 10 and I'm flying to Vancouver to have some wine, see some art and mingle with like-minded people.  I hope you'll be able to join me. 

Happy painting!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Planning with Thumbnails

Inflatable Rings
11 x 14
I've finally accepted the importance of the thumbnail in my painting process.  I fought it for years, mainly because the little charcoal drawings that I produced didn't seem to have any relationship to the world of paint and colour. So while I attempted them over the years, I never felt thumbnails to be particularly helpful to my work.

But recently I've begun to paint tiny thumbnails in black and white before launching into a full colour version, and it's been a revelation.  Thumbnails in paint correlate perfectly to the colour paintings - they already are paintings - and so they become what they should always have been: maps to the finished works.

reference photo
You can see the process that I go through in these images. Using a photo that I took at the beach last summer, I wanted to separate the girls and their inflatable rings from what was a chaotic mess of people and beach toys.  I needed to edit and organize a composition.

My first step was, in fact, to use charcoal to visualize the main movements of the painting.  The girls became swooping lines of certain heights; I figured out the shore line (which meant I knew the division of space between water and land) and I indicated the people in the water on the left.  This step took 1 minute.
placing figures with charcoal

Next, using black and white paint, I made a tiny, abstract painting that determined the values - light, mid, and dark - of those elements.  In the process, I discovered that I didn't like the shoreline, so I altered its course.
What I'm looking for at this stage is variety in the shapes, both positive and negative, and effective use of values.  So, if I'm trying to emphasize the light surface of the inflatables, I ensure that they are silhouetted against a mid or dark value which will make them visually dramatic.  If I didn't do this editing step and launched straight into the
black and white paint
painting, I would copy what I saw in the photo and end up with a light ring against light sand.  I'd lose the opportunity for drama.

When the thumbnail makes an appealing abstract composition with variety in value and shape, I can start the painting.  It's a simple matter then of making sure that the values of the colours that I mix for each area correspond to the values that I'd determined in my thumbnail; individual colours don't matter as much as their value.

Like an outline for an essay, these thumbnails direct the painting and become a more meaningful reference than the photo reference itself.  I glance at the photo for colour clues, but it's the thumbnail that tells me if the composition will work in the first place; and no amount of interesting colour or brushwork can save a painting that has a poor composition.

If you don't already do them, I recommend you give these painted thumbnails a try.  They solve a lot of problems before you ever touch colour, and liberate you to paint freely and with assurance once you do.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

New Gallery Opening in Portland, Maine

Teal Bikini
30 x 30
I've dropped off the blogger map for a while because of a silly amount of travel: teaching in Mexico, learning in Philadelphia, and teaching two workshops for the Federation of Canadian Artists in Vancouver; all within 6 weeks.  It's not conducive to painting, but it sure has been fun.  But I'm settled back into my studio now and I won't come out for a good long time.

There are exciting things on the horizon for me, one of the biggest of which is the opening of the Roux and Cyr International Fine Art Gallery in Portland, Maine.  I was honoured to be invited to join the roster of artists from around the world whose work will hang in this gorgeous new space.  Thanks to Google maps street view, and pictures sent by artist and owner, Susan Roux, I've seen the 3000 square foot gallery from the inside and out.  Hopefully, someday I'll see it in person (when I decide to venture out of my studio again).
The grand opening of the gallery is May 24.  If you live in the area or are travelling through, I hope you'll stop in and check out the work and say hi to Susan for me.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Alex Kanevsky master class

Last weekend I was one of 16 lucky painters enrolled in Alex Kanevsky's master class at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia.  I was there with the help of an "artist opportunity grant" from the Calgary Arts Development Authority.  CADA defines opportunity as a "unique experience that clearly contributes to meaningful professional growth and development", and I can say with certainty that this qualified.

Like many of the artists there, I wasn't sure about what to expect from the structure of the weekend.  I wondered what we could learn in 2 days from a man whose works are famous for the number of layers and months that go into producing them.  I needn't have worried: it wasn't about technique; the weekend was all about how to be an artist.  Never once mentioning market forces or galleries, Alex talked eloquently and at length about the practises and thought processes that will lead to the creation of meaningful, honest works.

We divided our time between painting one of two model set ups in the large studio, and going to a separate classroom to look at slides and hear Alex's thoughts on making art. Referencing such diverse examples as Diebenkorn's "notes to himself" and Liz Taylor's multiple and passionate marriages, he made us laugh and made enough light bulbs go off in my head to light a room.

This is all vague and tantalizing, I know.  It can't be summed up in a blog post and will be something that I can chew on for the rest of my painting life.  But, for me, the examples and philosophy that Alex presented made me realize that honest communication and expression, and absolute commitment to the execution of every single brushstroke and passage of paint are what I need to focus on.  Just that.  It's plenty, I think.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Mexico Retreat

I got back from Mexico last night after a wonderful week of teaching at the Casa Buena retreat. 

 The workshop was busy and very productive though we all wished that we could stay and paint longer.  10 painters joined me from both sides of Canada for a jam-packed week of painting and excursions.  We visited (and financially supported) a terrific market, painted on the beach, and laughed over great food and drinks every evening.

 We tackled the big three: still life, landscape and portrait/figure; applying the same method to each of them. While my method was new to many of the painters, they all became proficient in it by the end of the retreat and I hope it will be something that enhances their own practises in the future.  As with every workshop, there were painting lessons that I learned from the students that I'll be thinking about and incorporating in my work.

Our focus was on composition and big shapes so every painting started as a small, simple thumbnail in 3 values The paintings that grew out of those thumbnails fleshed out those big values into a variety of warm and cool colours, but we kept the colour choices simple by using limited palettes throughout. It was an approach that resulted in a lot of successful, strong paintings throughout the week.

I had a great adventure and I can't wait to hit the studio today.

Happy painting!