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!