Saturday, December 10, 2016

Paint patches, not lines

Calendula and Degas
20 x 16

Painting students often ask me how to loosen up edges in their work -how to get rid of the outline - and it's both easy and hard.  Easy, because they should simply avoid starting with a firm, decisive drawing to begin with, and hard because it requires that they look at the world in a whole different way.  

It's natural for all of us to stare closely at a scene to acquire as much information and detail as possible, but that won't make a loose painting; that's the way to a tight painting.  Instead of looking directly at a scene and seeing discreet, separate objects, I advise students to squint or unfocus their eyes, or look at a scene through peripheral vision in order to see the continuous masses of tone, the notes of colour, the general shapes and sizes of things, including negative spaces.  And all the while they should consciously avoid naming what they're looking at.  

As soon as I say to myself: "I'm painting the eye of the little statue," I'm lost.  Then I start to include too much information in an attempt to make a distinct "eye" for the viewer.  Instead, if my interior chatter is more like "I'm painting a little light shape of about this size, colour, and temperature into this part of a big dark shape" I stand more chance of creating an area that's suggestive of an eye but doesn't belabour the point.  I'm more likely to make an general, rather than a specific, statement.

Painting is about masses; drawing is about line, and while great draughtsmen like Degas regularly incorporated line into paintings, the works still felt like paintings, not coloured drawings.  The interaction of masses and colours were more important than the lines within the piece.  In other words, you could remove the lines, and still have a good painting.  Squinting at the painting below will show this.
Two Ballet Dancers by Edgar Degas
So: look at the world in a whole new way and avoid naming things, and your edges will naturally change.  

Happy painting!

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Getting to the essence of an idea

Cherry Blossom Robe #9
12 x 10
The series continues.  This Robe painting is probably the hardest one that I've done so far - if it's, in fact, done.

The figure has had multiple faces, partial faces and layered colours as I've struggled to achieve the idea that's in my head: light, movement, and ambiguity. I've come to the conclusion that features are easy, blurs are very hard!  And edges are everything.  I needed an overall softness to every aspect of this in order for it to feel comfortable in my eyes.  Hard edges froze the figure in place in a photographic way and consequently made the lack of features seem very wrong.  But, when I softened the edges, the facial blur seemed fine.

Next I could selectively sharpen a few places.  The crispness around the neckline, at the shoulder and in the hairline all served to give some substance to this unfocused image, as well as to move the eye in a path through the figure and up to the eye area.

Turning an image into its simplest parts - shapes of colour and tone - and eliminating all detail was not an easy thing, but it was particularly satisfying.  It forced me to edit and restrain myself when it came to detail, remembering always that it's the gist, not the specifics that matter; and it made me think about every single mark.  The moment I relied on muscle memory and experience, the painting took a wrong turn.  I had to be completely present for every last decision.  That may sound obvious, but I'd wager that most painters have moments when they're not entirely engaged: "just filling in the background" or making the usual marks that have always described hair or trees.  By attempting something so foreign to my typical methods,  I feel that I really stretched myself as a painter.

Happy painting!

Friday, November 11, 2016

Limiting values

Woman in White
14 x 11
I was thinking of Manet's portrait of Victorine Meurent when I painted "Woman in White".

Manet was masterful at simplifying values; eliminating half tones, and grouping everything into either shadow or light.  It made his work powerfully modern and it expressed strong light perfectly.  There are colour changes within each of the major values, but, if you squint, they maintain a simple,  graphic separation between them, reminiscent of the flat, Warhol portraits of 100 years later.

I painted "Woman in White" with a 4 colour palette of blue-black, white, yellow ochre and terra rosa. It's a modified Zorn palette which replaces a high chroma red with an earth red.  The resulting colour range is deliberately muted to stop me from splashing out into colourist territory.  I wanted this to be a purely tonal piece, almost monochromatic but without the sense of an academic exercise that monochrome sometimes projects.

Perhaps my favourite part to work on was the lost edge between hand and chin.  Squinting showed me that they were close in value so I put them together and used the gap between cheek and palm to make sense of the area.

I enjoyed this experiment in limited value and colour.  It makes highly dramatic paintings that have a lot of presence.  I'll carry on noodling with it for a while until colour calls me back and I load up a full palette again.

Happy painting!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Meyer lemon still life

Meyer Lemons (resting stage)
30 x 30
Still life has called to me again lately, as has a larger canvas.  Small canvases have the attraction of a speedy output and they allow me to experiment without feeling as though I've lost a lot of time and paint if they don't work out, but they aren't as interesting or challenging as a big surface.  The lessons I learn (and relearn) from these are rich.

This painting has undergone a lot of changes as I've tried to capture the backlit, autumn leaf influenced lighting.  The set up is against a north facing window, but the foliage in front of that window has heavily influenced the temperature of the light making it more warm than expected and creating quite cool shadows.  A lot of cloud cover has acted as a diffuser and created soft edges.

The inspiration for the piece was the intense orange of the meyer lemons.  For some reason, while I don't enjoy painting actual oranges, orange-coloured lemons are great subjects for me.  Probably it has to do with texture; the lemons have a smooth, gleaming surface that catches light beautifully.

At the moment, I'm calling this piece done-ish.  (so decisive!)
It has been on and off the easel often and my lemons have browned and shrivelled, but yesterday, the last piece fell into place.  That background at the top was a muted blue and quite dead and heavy, having been many other colours and values from dark to light over the past couple of weeks. Yesterday, I realized that changing the colour to the greenish shadow colour in the lemons was a better call, and it immediately put some much needed air into the piece, as well as increasing the colour harmony.

But I won't call it done for sure until I've lived with it for a good while, and it won't leave the studio till I'm certain.  The revisiting is the fun part and the most challenging.

Happy painting!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Cochrane workshop openings

There are a couple of last minute openings in my 2 day figurative workshop next week in Cochrane, AB.  If you'd love to spend the weekend painting from life in the gorgeous foothills, you're my kind of painter!  

Cochrane Workshop
October 15 - 16

For a full synopsis, click here, and for registration, please contact Laura Procunier of the Cochrane Art Group.  I hope to see you there!


Saturday, September 24, 2016

Painting on gesso board

Peaches 8 x 10

Because I don't have an expensive enough painting surface habit already (you can't beat ordering oil primed linen from the States with our weak Canadian dollar!), I bought a couple of small gesso boards the other day at $10 for a single 8 x 10".   But a painter has to experiment or get seriously bored with herself, so I happily paid.

I think I like them, with reservations.  The surface is very fast and smooth, so there's no linen texture to break up the mark.  That means any texture has to be carefully created, and, because it's so vulnerable to being knocked flat by the next mark: preserved.  I'm not sure this support is ideal for creating the texture and layers that I enjoy - at least not quickly.

The detail view of this little still life shows that texture and depth is possible, though.  I had a lot of fun manipulating the paint on the support, freely pushing and scraping it around without any friction to slow me down.  The background on the right of the peach was painted and then pulled back to near white with a silicone scraper, leaving a soft, thin application of colour where once the surface had looked heavy and unpleasant.

One thing I did enjoy was that it wasn't as hard a surface as a primed mdf or aluminum panel.  While I can't say exactly what is different - both are hard and smooth - I found the marks a bit more elegant and less one dimensional on gesso board.  But that could just be because I really spent time pushing them to make them interesting.

I'll do another little one on the second board, bearing in mind what this one taught me, and let you know how it goes.  With luck, I won't love it.  The price for larger gesso boards is laughable.

Happy painting!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

12 week class and 2 figure workshops

The next 2 months are busy ones for me as I start a new session of 12 week classes at Swinton's Art Studios in Calgary, as well as head off to teach a couple of figure workshops in BC and Alberta. 

After the free form, structureless existence of summer, it will be a change - but in a good way. I'm always more productive in my studio when I'm also doing some teaching. It sharpens my mind and helps me focus on what I want to accomplish when I work on those same things with my students.

The class: 

There is an unexpected opening in my 12 week class; life intruded on one of the registrants and she had to drop out.  We meet on Thursday afternoons beginning next week and will be focusing on plein air and figure as well as some independent subject days.  Contact me for specifics if you're interested. 

The workshops:

I'm teaching my popular "Painting the figure from Life" workshop in 2 provinces in September and October, and I'm excited at the opportunity!  This is always a stimulating experience for both the painters and me as we work on capturing the grace, proportion, and colours of the model in front of us.  

Both workshops will focus on alla prima paint application with an emphasis on layering and dynamic mark making.   We've had a cancellation in the Kelowna workshop, and the Cochrane workshop will be open for registration this week.  

If you're intrigued by the thought of an intensive and comprehensive 2 days of life painting, I hope you'll join me!  

For information and registration, please follow the links:

September 17 and 18 
Kelowna, BC

October 15 and 16
Cochrane, AB

Happy painting!

Friday, August 26, 2016

A series

18 x14
Cherry blossom robe 7
16 x12
Cherry blossom robe 6
12 x 16
Cherry blossom robe 5
14 x 11
Cherry blossom robe 4
9 x 12
Cherry blossom robe 3
16 x 12
Cherry blossom robe 2
40 x 30
Cherry blossom robe and floral jug
My mother gave me a robe that I remember from my childhood.  How I remember it, I've no idea since she never wore it: it was much too long for her.  I think it was an exotic and irresistible impulse buy all those years ago and she never quite got around to having it altered to fit.

Covered with cherry blossoms, it's faux kimono style and as perfect as the day she bought it decades ago.  I love it!  And I'm inspired by it.  This garment has sparked a whole series, and I'm not sure that it's done yet.

Starting with the still life, I painted it on different scales in rapid succession, trying not to overthink anything, rather to just respond.  And I tried, each time, to do something a bit different.  Because it's the same garment over and over, I'm looking for each painting to mine something new, whether it's a technique, a mood, a movement... there are endless possibilities.

The figurative pieces are composed from video stills of myself wearing the robe and running about in the yard while my son filmed.  Me: "Make sure my feet are in it, too",  Son: "Got 'em".  Result: lots of headless footage but nicely framed feet.   Still, he managed to get some full figure footage, and it's rich with gestures and movements.  There are a lot of paintings there.

I wanted to work the whole series at once so that I could pick up and put down a piece as it called to me.  I don't usually have so many paintings on the go at one time, but I deliberately started all 6 figurative paintings in one day - sometimes with just a few marks and a notation to remind myself of which image it came from - and let them dry.  As soon as one was completely dry,  I'd pick it up and get another layer on it.   You can see that some are very direct (the still life and number 5) while the others are indirect and fragmented to various degrees.  I used many tools from brushes to scrapers, credit cards, and knives in order to achieve greater abstraction of form and the visual depth and complexity that I yearn for.

I'm at a natural break right now, having worked all the paintings to a degree of completion that don't suggest any new moves to me, and I may give it a few days to just rest the idea.  I'll let you know if the series still has legs as soon as it lets me know!

Happy painting!

Saturday, August 13, 2016

A variety of whites

11 x 14

the snotty white
I was watching Thomas Kitts' excellent video demo about using Flake White on Facebook the other day (actually, it's embedded on August 10th on his timeline if you want to spend a fascinating few hours) and it got me thinking about whites again.  Lazily, I've been mainly using titanium white, usually straight from the tube, but there are alternatives out there that can have a huge impact on your painting.  They're worth exploring.

First, a quick summary of the main whites out there:

Flake white:
made with lead, this white paint comes in a variety consistencies, some of which are very stringy and thick. This is a translucent, warm white which would have been used by everyone until the 1800's when zinc came along.  Rembrandt and Van Gogh used this one to its fullest capacity, creating impasto swirls and drizzles.  It's a lean white, and very strong.  I love its look, but am less enthusiastic about adding more lead to the world in the form of paint covered rags and paint sludge.

Zinc white:
A cool, translucent white that dries to a brittle film.  This one is not a good choice for canvas but can be used in a limited amount on rigid supports.  I don't use it because I use a lot of white in my work and need it to be as archival as possible.  Zinc isn't that.

Titanium white:
A cool, opaque white invented in the 1920's.  This is most commonly on palettes today because of its brightness and ability to cover anything underneath it.  That last feature is also a drawback because subtle effects like scumbles and velaturas are not easy to achieve without adding a lot of medium to titanium, and it can make colours chalky in a hurry.  A rule that I always follow when adding t. white is to never let white be the last colour I add to a mix.

There are other whites but they're all based on these 3.  Many titanium whites are mixed with some zinc in order to achieve certain paint film/drying qualities.   To read about these to a wonderfully geeky extent, check out Pigments Through the Ages.  It's satisfying and informative.

Then there are the fast drying whites (alkyds are added), and the whites that I used in the still life above: flake white mimics.  This little painting was done with Gamblin's Flake White Replacement. Inspired by Kitts, I used a largely historical range of pigments and a low tinting strength white.  My palette was mainly earth tones like Indian Red, Venetian red, yellow ochre, and ivory black, with the addition of Old Holland emerald green (a crazy indulgence in an art shop long ago).

The FW Replacement acted much as lead white does but without the toxicity.  It's been modified to give it the ropey consistency and has a warm translucence.  I've got some experience using lead white, and I don't find this too different for my purposes.  I've provided a detail of the paint surface so you can see the stringy effect that you can achieve.  

Winsor Newton makes a flake mimic as well: Flake White Hue, which is not as ropy, though it is translucent.  It's likely that other companies have mimics as well, but I haven't looked for them.

It was fun to paint a piece exclusively with FWR, but I don't often use it from start to finish in a painting; I like the brilliant punch of titanium to add finishing highlights.  However, I don't usually like titanium's smooth, buttery consistency straight out of the tube, so, when I'm not being extremely lazy, I squeeze out big blobs of it onto a piece of cardboard to absorb excess oil oil and make it a bit stiffer and more textural.   Because titanium dries very slowly, you can leave it overnight or longer to absorb a lot of excess oil.  It won't become ropey, but it will sit up on the surface much better.

To read more about whites, check out the technical information sections of manufacturer's sites.  Gamblin has a nice bit on whites here.

Happy painting!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

2-Day Figurative workshop, Kelowna, BC

2 - Day Figurative Workshop
September 17/18
Kelowna, BC

I'll be teaching in the gorgeous Okanagan Valley in September and it's my favourite genre: figurative! The workshop is hosted by Ellis Art Studios in Kelowna, BC; I hope you'll be able to join me.  

Following is an outline for the workshop:

I find it deeply moving to paint a person from life: to make a connection through careful observation and personal interpretation of the subject in front of me.  A painting of a person should reveal and celebrate both the model and the painter's unique vision, and it's this dual intention that I'll be focusing on during the workshop.  

Painters will learn techniques for capturing the amazing and powerful connections that link the body together in a graceful gesture, and discover the liberating fact that they can paint the most complex poses accurately, with only a brush and a squint.

Using group demonstrations and individual instruction, I'll help painters solve the mysteries of flesh tones, body proportion, and light temperature. Students will work on short studies and longer poses over the course of the workshop, developing confidence in both the layering technique that I use, and in their ability to render a figure with their brushes and their singular visions. 

This workshop is designed for artists with some experience though it need not be in the figurative genre.  It's suitable for both acrylic and oil painters. Demonstrations will be in oil.

I hope to see you there!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The private lives of paintings

Summer's Child
40 x 30
sold to the right people

There are many reasons why I paint, and they are all about me.  I paint to explore concepts like movement or stillness, play, joy, and childhood; or to explore phenomenon like light, colour, texture, and visual vibration.  But, unless it's a commission, I don't paint with an audience in mind.  That way lies the madness of trying to appeal to an audience that I don't know and certainly can't predict.

So it's sometimes a surprise to be pulled out of the insular world in which I create only for myself and learn that my work speaks to the people who do me the honour of buying it.  Sometimes it surprises me with what it says.

"Summer's Child" sold last week to a vacationing couple who recognized their son, as he was as a young boy, in it.  Apparently the resemblance is uncanny.  Their son is no longer living, and the painting, which they saw in the window of Rendezvous Gallery, spoke to them with such force that they bought it and are sending it to their distant residence.

First, the coincidence of this couple even catching sight of the painting struck me as staggering: they live half the world away, but happened to be passing this particular gallery on a day that this painting happened to be hanging in the window. The window display in a gallery changes regularly; sometimes paintings are in storage and not on display at all.  The couple could have turned their heads to look at the ocean as they walked rather than in the window.  Or they could have chosen to walk down another street altogether.  But something brought the painting and these people together in a way that seemed fated.

But beyond this magnificent coincidence, I was struck by the fact that my work communicated something that went beyond anything that I was exploring when I painted it.  When it left my studio, the painting became its own entity, independent of my intentions.  It now has an energy and a kind of life that, while it originated in my studio, has little to do with me.   When I consider a painting finished, it stops speaking to me and I move on to another one, but these works go out into the world and are found by just the right people - often the only people - who will hear what they have to say.

That communication can take a short or a long time to happen, and I'm lucky to have gallerists that believe in me and are willing to give the paintings time to find their people.  

Friday, July 1, 2016

Attitude matters

Apricots and Pansies
12 x 24

I taught a still life workshop for the Stave Falls Artist Group in Maple Ridge, BC last week and had a super time!  

There were 10 painters in artist Janis Eaglesham's rural studio, nestled in lush, West Coast forest. Everyone worked hard and with great spirit.  Every time I heard "this is so hard!" the painter would always follow it with, "but that's a good thing!"  They recognized that a new technique couldn't be acquired in 4 days, but, hopefully, they could explore the new skills under my direction and then it would percolate for the next weeks and months, adding another layer to their studio practise.  

It's been my experience that artists - especially those of us who are past the sensitivity of our youthful egos - make great learners.  They find value in the struggle to learn a new painting method, knowing from experience, that something that comes easily isn't as thrilling as a skill that's come through thoughtfulness, practise, and hard work.  Going home tired and with a full head is welcome because they know they've been making a serious effort to grow and develop, and that this will, in time, make them stronger painters.  

Artists don't retire - they're just hitting their stride at 65 - so they know that they're playing the long game.  It's this knowledge that allows them to relax into the struggle: to appreciate that something is difficult and know that, with time and effort, they'll master it.  

This graceful, appreciative way of being is counter to the values of our materialistic society, and that makes artists outsiders in a way.  We don't value the easy way, and would be bored if every painting were perfect; then there'd be nothing to strive for in the future.  In fact, in my experience, when artists reach peak performance, they often turn to a new art form - one that they aren't skilled in - and begin learning from the basics.  It keeps them stimulated and challenged.  The fact that they frequently take a financial hit when they do this seems of secondary importance, because money isn't the primary goal; fulfilment and self expression are.  

Artists value the intangibles.  We do enjoy being paid, but we'd paint with as much concentration and energy if we weren't.  The act of creating and improving is the lasting reward.  It's mind expanding, exhilarating, and thrillingly addictive.  

So enjoy those moments of frustration in a workshop or in the studio.  They mean that you're on the right path, and they'll bring rewards that are truly beyond measure.

Happy painting!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Living on the Edge Workshop

Living on the Edge Workshop
July 9 
Kelowna, BC

This seemed like an appropriate visual for my upcoming one-day workshop in Kelowna, BC.  "Living on the Edge" is all about the part of a painting that I find the most fascinating: the area where one shape interacts with another.

When I look at a painting, I seldom give much thought to its subject matter, but I do stick my nose as close to the surface as I can and check out how the artist handles edges.  If they're all the same, he or she has lost my interest, because it's in these transition areas that I believe an artist shows her painting chops.

So much can happen at the boundary of a form: a painter can lose the edge, soften the edge, catch it crisply or thickly, or modulate it from one state to another.  And that's just the beginning!  Working edges is like a playful dance where you can experiment, seeing how far you can push into abstraction without losing the sense of the subject matter; it's the most joyful part of the work for me.

And that's what this one-day workshop will explore: the abstract, playful potential of the edge.

If you'd like more information or to register, please contact the Federation of Canadian Artists Central Okanagan Chapter.  I hope to see you on July 9th!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Progress doesn't have to be swift

40 x 30
D - still in progress
So here's the latest incarnation of the portrait.  And still not done - which is a good thing.

I've been working on it sporadically for quite a while, putting it aside when I ran out of ideas, and picking it up when even one small mark seemed like a possibility worth trying.  On one day, I repainted the entire 40 x 30 surface, tweaking, moving, adding... thinking I was on to something.  But I wasn't, and I wiped and scraped the whole day off before dinner.  Then it sat some more.

Today I picked it up and painted it upside down for the first hour.  That got me rolling, changing bigger areas than I seemed to manage when I saw it in its normal orientation.  I don't think it's finished yet, but it's closer than in past states, and it has some interesting effects that I couldn't have done in one go.

This painting is my stand by, the work I pick up and ponder when I'm between paintings.  Some day I'll finish it, but I'm in no hurry. And when I do, I'll have to start another piece that allows me to work this way again: with no deadlines, and no expectations.  It's a joyful way to paint.

Happy painting!

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The vital palette and other secrets for successful paintings

A generously loaded palette allows plentiful, rich mixtures
I've been teaching a lot of workshops lately, and it's reminded me that there are some simple things that are crucial to creating a rich, colourful painting.  So here's my list for things that painters can do to help them achieve good work in a workshop or in their own studios:

-Bring plenty of clean, flexible brushes in a variety of sizes and bristle types.  Brushes that are worn down, stiff from old paint, or loose at the ferrule are a major roadblock to success.  So, too, are brushes that are all one type - especially if that type is a bright, the most firm, uncompromising brush type there is.  My favourite brush type is hogs' bristle filbert, and I have them in many sizes from small (#4) to large (#12).   It's the brush I use most often though I also bring soft mongoose brushes, synthetics flats, bristle eggberts, and bristle rounds along just in case I feel the need for the particular marks that they make.

- Paint on a good quality support.  That doesn't mean the expense oil primed linen, but it does mean that a pretty surface will make a prettier painting.  Artists who bring pads of canvas paper are the most disappointed with their outcomes in my experience.  There may be some canvas paper out there that isn't ugly, but I haven't seen it!  Artists with cheap, floppy craft store canvases also suffer needlessly as their paint sucks into the poorly primed surface and stops them from achieving lush passages of the good stuff.

For workshops I recommend:
- primed good quality canvas cut from a roll and taped to a board (foam core is a lightweight choice)
- gessoed watercolour paper -surprisingly pretty and you can get some nice surfaces by experimenting with the brush, roller, or foam roller gesso application.
- oil paper - though it is very absorbent to start and should be explored before the workshop
- gessoed hardwood panel - as long as there is some tooth for the paint to grab, and you're experienced with this tricky, featureless surface.

- Use artists' quality paint.  I can mix many colours into one pile to get the exact colour I'm looking for, but, on the single, awful occasion that I tried student grade paint (Winton, I believe), I found that even 3 colours in a mixture made complete mud.  There are a lot of fillers in student paint, and much less pigment, so you'd have to be a real master (and masochist) to work with them.  I advise painters to invest in their own happiness, and buy the good stuff.  They'll be stunned at the difference it makes to use quality paint.

And the most important and most often neglected:

- A clean large palette is vital.  There's so much to learn in a workshop, and, the painters who bring small, paint crusted palettes have to work much harder than those who have generous amounts of paint on large, clean surfaces.  I recommend a minimum 12 x 16" palette.  If it's wooden, it must be sealed with varathane so that paint sits on top instead of sucking into the fibers, and if it's a paper palette, I advise using grey paper because it's easier to gauge values of paint mixtures on the mid tone paper than it is on white.

- A generous amount of paint will make a luscious painting.  Whenever I see a pea sized amount squeezed out, I ask the painter to put out 3 or 4 peas' worth, instead, and to keep replenishing the piles of paint as they are used up.  By having a full palette always squeezed out, painters are more likely to make complex, lively, and unexpected mixtures, and to apply luxurious passages of paint.

This is harder for acrylic painters as their paint is drying so quickly, but I advise a Stay Wet palette, the addition of heavy gel to each pile of paint, and the occasional squirt of water on the paint to keep it open as long as possible.  And then I ask them if they've ever considered switching to oils...

If these simple, technical things are addressed, painters can focus on making good paintings, and they stand a much better chance of success.

Happy painting!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Finding a painting's path

Bread and Tea
18 x 24
Every painting has its path and, for me, the struggle comes in being patient enough to find that path. This painting went through several incarnations in which I emphasized different aspects of the work and then changed my mind and focus.

At first, it was about broad, bold treatment, and the objects were much looser, but, gradually, it became a painting about light and colour.  The brushwork became distracting and I reigned it in, finding more edges and defining the complex arrangement more overtly.

Originally, it was also much more a painting about mid tones,  but I found it didn't feel as light and airy as I wanted until I broadened its tonal range to include some serious darks.  They anchored the subject, and allowed the many mid and high key elements to feel even more luminous.  This approach doesn't always work.  Sometimes adding those darks makes the piece feel weighted down and lifeless, but, in this case, it was a happy addition.

There were a lot of other changes (finding that green thread to weave through the shadows was a nice moment), but, for me, the important thing was to stick with it until I could discover what those changes should be.   I'm often tempted to call a painting done and let it leave the studio, but that closes off a lot of potential for a richer, more interesting image.  So I'm practising patience, letting each work sit on the shelf for long periods, and repeatedly reworking until I feel I've said what I want to say with it, and can't see anything else that needs changing.  It's slower painting, but it's satisfying.

Happy painting!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Big changes

Chinese Teapot
30 x 30
This painting has had a lot of revision; most recently and most constantly, in the orange drape under the teapot.  It used to be green - as it was in life - and I just couldn't make it work.  All the parts were there: the green had good illumination, the shadow was accurate, but the painting didn't sing at all.

Finally, when I cut it loose from its source - the objective still life - and treated everything as open to change, I began to enjoy it more, and could make some major changes.  Changing the drape to a warm orange helped life the painting into a more inviting space, and I no longer disliked the sight of it when I entered the studio every day.  There was already a lot of orange threaded through the painting, and this gave a pleasing completeness in my eyes.

While it's liberating to change what is, to what you want it to be, it's a hard leap for most painters to make.  Whether we work from life or from photos, we tend to mine the reference for as much information as possible, and, if the painting is failing, we look for more and more information in the vain hope that detail will save the work.  It never does.  My most successful saves happen with a big brush and a big change.

At the moment, I think it's done, but that could change, too.  I'll keep my big brush handy.

Happy painting!

Saturday, April 2, 2016

It isn't overworking; it's just working

D in the studio (in progress)
40 x 30
I'm becoming more patient as I age.  I used to want to finish each painting on the same day that I started it, but, in the past couple of years, this has changed.  Purely alla prima work sometimes looks raw and barely begun to me.  Increasingly, my eyes are drawn to paintings that appear to have been modified, layered, corrected, and touched over a longer period of time and with constant thought and scrutiny.

Alex Kanevsky is a case in point with his many iterations on the same canvas (have a look at his "progress sequences" on his website to see his willingness to address a single painting over and over until it becomes a rich, multi-layered presence).  Other painters that I admire for the way they develop a piece are John Murray, Martin Campos, Scott Smith,  Ann Gale, and many other social media connections that I look at on a daily basis.  They are painters (though Smith is mostly posting complicated, constantly revised and in-progress drawings lately) who revel in the act of painting and for whom a final mark seems almost a secondary aim.  They appear to love the process.

Or maybe I'm projecting my own feelings onto these artists.  I don't know them in person, but I admire their courage in pushing a work beyond the first, simple layers.  It resonates with what I am enjoying more often in the studio.

The painting above is in its infancy.  I honestly don't know when or how it will be finished, and that's no longer the worry for me that it used to be.  The process is endlessly engaging.  The model is a friend of my son's who has stilled her active body to sit for me.  She's been in for 3 sessions so far, and I've been working at a leisurely pace, with much time spent thinking, looking, and revisiting areas.  After she left yesterday, I photographed the painting, and then scraped a lot of the body and background down so that I can continue to alter it.  I'm using a very coarse linen that takes a lot of abuse, and that requires a lot of paint on its surface before the colour and consistency look rich.

You can see from this picture, that the first layer was just a way to place her figure on the canvas and establish a sense of the colour space.  I figured out basic skin colours and temperatures and noticed the essentials of her clothing and surrounding colours.  The face was a simple separation of shadow and light, full of hard edges and showing no dimension.

I didn't photograph the second sitting, but the third shows how much the face has altered as I scraped, layered and revised it.   (It's not this warm in person, but there was a lot of sun yesterday and I couldn't avoid it in the photography.)

What I hope you can get a sense of is the amount of attention that's been paid to the building of paint volume and how often I've gone back into the edges to settle them into the painting.  It looks more like her, but that wasn't the point: I wanted it to look more like a 3 dimensional person, not a 2-D cartoon.  It could all still change.

There's much to do in the weeks and - maybe - months ahead, both with and without the model present.  At this point, I feel I'll be braver with her out of my sight.  I can alter the work more substantially if the reality of the model, the couch, and the white curtain are not always in my view. Maybe I'll get in the studio and give it another scraping because I think I was too timid yesterday, trying to save too much that actually needs to be sacrificed.  And that's ok.  It's all part of the process toward achieving something that pleases my eyes - as they are at this moment.

Happy painting!

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Teaching to learn

Composition with Degas and Bread
30 x 30
I've just come back from teaching a 5 day figurative workshop in White Rock, BC, and, like every workshop that I teach, it taught me a lot.  Rather, it reminded me of the things that I believe are important in paintings, and the things that are secondary.

Paintings are about good paint.  They're also about patterns, repetition, linkages and separations.  The secondary thing is that paintings are about stuff: vases of flowers, apples, bowls, sculptures, and loaves of bread.

What I stressed in the workshop was that it was a wonderful thing to create a rounded, proportional person on the canvas, but, even more wonderful, was to create a composition in which one element was a person.  That meant looking for shapes that enhanced the figure's pose, colours that could be repeated both in the figure and her surroundings, and edges that could be lost or emphasized to move the viewers' eyes through the rectangular world that each painter had created with nothing but paint, brushes and a unique point of view.  The painters in my class created some stunning works during the week, and, best of all, they thought beyond the idea of "a figure and a background", and thought instead about a composition; figure and background became equally important.

So it was with renewed vision and purpose that I came home and tackled this piece that I'd left half finished on the easel.  I took my own advice and thought of the painting as an abstract assortment of shapes that needed to coexist interestingly in a rectangle.  I needed to link them, and separate them, depending on the importance that each shape had in my concept of the final painting.   There had to be harmony, and tension, and a movement of the eye.  Because I'd left it for a week, I could see the painting dispassionately and critique it with greater honesty, and it came together quickly.

Teaching is a great way to figure out what's important to yourself, as you strive to condense information for your students.  I'm always grateful for the opportunity to examine my practise that teaching provides.

Happy painting!

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Draw like you're painting

D in Lines
14 x 11

D in profile
14 x 11

Last week I took some really old (let's just call them "vintage") Grumbacher chalk pastels to figure drop in.  I haven't thrown out an art supply in my life, so these pastels have been with me since I was 13.  They're as hard as rock - similar to a 2B pencil - limited in colours, and devoid of character, but they were still wonderful fun to mix with other mediums, and the sheer force needed to apply them means that using them is a vigorous, full arm endeavour.  These drawings contain vine charcoal, soft pastels in black and white, and, in the profile picture, an oil bar used as a blender.

Starting with charcoal, I mapped out the many angles of the face lightly and with the longest projecting lines that I could.  By extending lines across the page, I can find relationships within the form.  So there was a long line that went from the top of the eyebrow to the top of the ear, and a line extending from the jaw across the top of the shoulder.  I put the lines in first, not the eyebrows, ears and jaw.  Finding these big lines that connect one element to another means that I avoid the common pitfalls of poor proportion that could happen if I worked from one feature and shape to the next.  They act as a large framework on which I can locate smaller elements like features and bone structure.  And they look interesting, creating a web of line work that can either be preserved in the final drawing or obscured completely.   You can see traces of them in the details of both of these pieces.
Construction lines showing angles of brow and jaw
Construction lines for each important element: brow, nose, mouth, jaw.  These are connected to other elements at the back of the head and upper back.  This also shows the waxy blender in action.

Then it was a matter of stating, and restating shapes which is exactly how I work in paint.  I start with a tentative notation of size and placement, and, as I put more small notes on, I begin to see which marks are true and which need moving.  Starting out light and tentative means that I can continue to move big shapes around with impunity, knowing that I can cover my tracks later on with stronger statements, or leave them as a sign of where I've been; signs of my struggle to depict what was in front of me. The frontal portrait took about 2 1/2 hours and, by the time I was adding colours, I knew where everything should be, so I could approach this stage with great freedom, scribbling in, and over features with the knowledge that I could regain them by referring to the many lines and connected elements in the rest of the drawing.  

Each of these drawings was restated numerous times and, in between, I scraped, smudged, and redrew repeatedly.  There was no erasing, as that stops the flow and joy of "make a mark and respond to that mark" that makes working into a playful dance.

The oil bar blender is something that I'll use again because it builds a painterly, waxy surface to scratch back into and move around.  It's difficult to get hard pastels to adhere on top of it, but the soft white pastel had less trouble with it, and I could put some colour on top of that, creating a painting of sorts.  I also used an old bulldog clip to scrape wax and colour down when it got too thick, blending marks and allowing me to put more pigment on top.

A change is as good as a rest, and I enjoyed this change in routine.

Happy painting!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Finding the differences

Model in a fancy chair
16 x 12
We had an excellent model in last night's figure drop in.  She has an expressive, long limbed body that relaxes easily into a graceful pose and made it look natural and interesting from all angles. Pretty amazing for a first timer!

While it was easy to see her as a shape with a lit side and a shadow side, I really enjoyed trying to discern the subtle variations of the value of the light, temperature, and colour on her body and spent the evening trying to recreate the sensation of those subtle differences.

Because every colour in flesh is hard to figure out, I always look at the set up and start with something that I can easily determine.  In this case, it was the red flower pinned in her hair.  Once I have a single piece of accurate colour, I can relate something else to it, asking myself " is it warmer or cooler than that? Lighter or darker?  What colour could it be based on?  Green, blue, red...?
This constant questioning means I paint slowly and examine each new mark for its honesty and whether or not it supports the relationships that I'm seeing.

I spent ages on her forearm, noticing that it was slightly dimmer and cooler than the bright light on the upper arm because it slanted back from the light.  I tried a variety of purples, greens and blues to show that effect, finally settling on a greenish cool.  But I could as easily have made a case for purple over an alizarin based red, or a gentle swipe of red over green.  There was a fascinating world of colour in that one forearm.

Her knee also held a staggering array of warm and cool and colour variety as it turned away from direct light, picked up reflected colour from the ceiling, and went from bony patella to soft thigh.  It's amazing I got anything on canvas for all of the time spent looking, thinking and mixing.

In translating each of these moments of noticing into paint, I pushed the colour and temperature as far as I could, not to create drama for its own sake, but to allow the viewer to see the changes as well. Non artists glance and see global colour (beige skin, bright highlight, dark hair...), and I think it's a privilege and pleasure for representational artists to show them how we see the world.  It's richer, deeper, and more subtle than any quick glance can discover.

Happy painting!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Finding models

18 x 24
Self portrait with red scarf
14 x 14
Painters are always looking for people to model for them - for cheap - and I'm no exception.  While I go to a weekly figure drop in and pay for the pleasure of painting from life, I also find other ways to procure a face to work from.  

My son has been a great model over the years because of his penchant for losing his favourite technologies and being too broke to replace them.  A couple of years ago I bought him a replacement phone, and had him work off the cost with regular portrait sittings.  We listened to audio books in the studio, and it was actually a great way to spend time together.  And we both got something out of the deal.  

This week, his camera vanished, so I'm happy to say that I have my model back!  Well, I didn't really want to buy another camera, but there you go.  He works for less than a professional model, and I figure I'm fostering his creativity by replacing the camera, so this is still a win for us both.  The painting at top was done in the time it took to watch an action film on my laptop, stationed on a tall table at his eye level.  Amazingly, he didn't take a single break, or twitch!

Aside from bribing my children, the other way that I get a model is to look in the mirror.  Though the model moves frequently, and squints too often, I do enjoy painting a self portrait and have many in the studio.  

I've heard of painters offering small paintings in exchange for sittings, and I may explore that down the road.  But, until then, my new camera owner will do just fine. 

Happy painting!

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Small paintings for big learning

Red Flowers
10 x 8

Tea Roses
11 x 14
I try to intersperse larger, more ambitious paintings with small work that can fly off the brush in one sitting and teach me something in the process.

I find it helps to work a series of these small pieces as I learn something from each one that I can explore more thoroughly in the next one.  In the long run, everything will help me to do a better job of the big paintings.  And while I don't do colour studies for large works (I find that kills the spontaneity of my approach and keeps me tethered to choices made on the test piece) I do use these stand alone paintings to test colour choices.

Both of these florals were set up to explore difficult colours more thoroughly: red and white.  I find each of these challenging in their own way.  Red in strong light has to be lighter, but, if you add white, it turns pink.  Lightening with yellow makes it orange.  In either case, the essential "redness" is lost.  So in "Red Flowers" I focused on both warm and cool red pigments, using cad red light in the lights and alizarin in the shadows, as well as using complements in the shadows.  Adding some green into the dark side of the flowers meant that it enhanced the sensation of redness in the lights.  Our eyes create complementary interactions naturally, pushing colours into opposition with their neighbours as we look at them.  So, while I used both some white and some yellow to create the light side of the flower, the generous use of surrounding green helped keep the flower red.  

"Tea Roses" was an exploration of white.  It's tricky, too, because the shadows can contain a myriad of colours, but they have to stay high key in order to make sense on such a light value object.  The light areas also have to have good colour to avoid the chilly, dead effect of using tube white.  But, as soon as colour is added to tube white, it darkens the mixture.  This little floral was much slower and more challenging than it looks, involving lots of scraping and repainting, as I juggled the lights and shadows of the flowers, trying to nail that moment when the shadows felt airy and luminous, and the lights were colourful and interesting.  I'll use these hard won lessons in future whites.

There are more florals in the works in my studio.  I must be thinking of spring!

Happy painting!

Friday, January 15, 2016

New Workshop White Rock, BC

I'll be teaching a figure workshop in White Rock, BC this spring.  Hosted by the Federation of Canadian Artists, this will be a chance to deepen and broaden your painting practise, no matter what genre you work in.  
For the many American painters who have contacted me about teaching, this is a great opportunity: the Canadian dollar is ridiculously weak which is good for you!

Below is an outline of what we'll be doing.  Please contact me if you have any questions, and, if you're interested in pricing and registration, contact the Federation of Canadian Artists.
I hope you'll join me!

Alla Prima and Beyond: a 5 day figure workshop

March 14 - 18 White Rock BC

Take your painting to the next level with this intensive 5 day figurative workshop.  Working with a clothed model, we will begin with single figure compositions.,  You'll discover how to capture a figure believably and expressively without preliminary drawing or grids, and how to integrate the figure into its background.  

You'll learn to find patterns and rhythms in the the figure set up and use them to add richness and design to your work. 

Over the course of the workshop, you will also develop a larger, multi-figure composition created from individual poses added to a single canvas over 3 days.  In turning several individual figures into a coherent composition, you'll tackle both technical and compositional issues.  You'll learn how to layer wet over dry paint while maintaining the integrity of your paint film, as well as how to create a unified, dynamic composition by selectively enhancing or subordinating elements within the picture plane. 

Throughout, the emphasis will be on painterly brushwork and making creative colour choices.  

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Work it

Male Model
10 x 8

Original (sorry about the poor white balance)
The model at this week's figure drop in had a character-filled face that invited portraiture, and I regret not tackling a larger painting.  I used some tiny brushes where I'd much rather have used big, expressive ones, but I'm still pleased with how this eventually turned out.

Increasingly, I've realized that it's too much to ask that a painting is finished after just one session.  It may seem done, but usually that just means that I've run out of ideas or become too tired to make any more decisions. That's when I have to stop and put some time and distance between myself and the work before I ruin it with thoughtless marks.

When I looked at the painting the next day, I was both tentatively pleased and deeply bored.  It had some good light and dynamic paint, but the dark, undeveloped background felt old fashioned and uninspiring.  So, since there was nothing to lose - I didn't love it - I scraped back the hair and background, mixed up a couple of high chroma colours, and tested them behind the head.

After a couple of false attempts with less extravagant colours, I finally dove in and accepted that warm yellow was the best choice.  It brought out a nice piece of greyed yellow in the brow area, and found an echo in the reflected light in the chin.  And as soon as I applied it, it lifted both the painting and my boredom.  I added some blue on a whim, and that pleased me, too.

Every painting gets a lot of chances in my studio.  I work at them until they please me, or until I've killed them.  Either way, I learn something, take some chances, and try to avoid boring myself and viewers.

Happy painting!