Saturday, November 25, 2017

Workshops: composition and portraiture - Kelowna, BC, Feb 24, 25, 26

Creating Dynamic Compositions
February 24
Kelowna, BC

Painting the Alla Prima Portrait
Feb. 25/26
Kelowna, BC

A well-composed painting is one in which the eye moves easily and fluidly, pausing and exploring,  finding the intended focal area, but never slamming to a halt or - perish the thought - drifting out of the picture altogether along some unintended shape.  And maybe 1 in 1000 photos are strong enough to need no redesigning to make them into good painting references.  So, for the other 999 photos that you'd like to paint, I'm offering a 1-day composition workshop through the Federation of Canadian Artists in Kelowna, BC in February. 

This will be a rigorous and fun workshop that is open to any medium, and that uses your own photos as the starting point for exploring successful composition. 

I'll follow this with a 2-day alla prima portrait workshop which will be done from life.  Working from a model, oil and acrylic painters will learn a logical, shape-based approach to painting a portrait.  We'll address proportion, mixing skin colours,  and layering wet-in-wet.  This is a stand-alone workshop, but there's a lot to be gained by taking the composition workshop first. 

I hope you'll join me.  These workshops are designed to give you a lot to think about and apply to your own painting practise, no matter what your usual subject matter. 

To register, please contact the Federation of Canadian Artists Central Okanangan Chapter

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The difference between student and professional paints

Waiting for Waves
12 x 9
I taught a couple of still life workshops in the Vancouver area recently, and, as always, they were open to both oil and acrylic painters.  I bring - and demo in - oils, but, during the workshop, I make a point of working on someone's acrylic painting as well, to show how my method can translate to that medium.  The other acrylic painters watch the demo, and, frequently, they comment that it was invaluable to see how I get the richness and luxurious handling of oils.

Sounds so successful, doesn't it?  I wish!  Sometimes, I start to work on a painter's piece - whether oil or acrylic - and discover that I can't make the paint do what I want it to at all.  I can't achieve strong colour or robust paint surfaces and coverage, and, in the case of acrylics, I can't work wet-in-wet, as the paint is drying the moment my brush hits the canvas.  Invariably, it turns out that the paint on the palette is student grade rather than professional.  And, often, the painter didn't know that they had purchased student grade, as paint companies don't like to label it that way on their displays - choosing instead to call it "economical".  But it's not! 

Student grade paint may use the same pigments as professional (so an ultramarine blue in student is often the same pigment as in professional), but the amount of pigment is considerably - noticeably - smaller.  As well, there are a lot more fillers put into the tube to bulk it up and extend it.  These fillers are like a diet rich in potato chips.  They fill you up, but don't make you healthy - quite the reverse (rats!)  In paints, fillers take up a lot of space, but often result in weak colour, colour shifts, and poor paint films.  And some of the layering and edge effects that I take for granted with professional paints, can't be achieved at all with student grade.  What that means in practical terms is that the workshopper who has these paints, is handicapped by them, and that's frustrating.

So here's my case for professional quality paint:  though it's more expensive to buy, it's the more economical choice overall, because you'll use a lot less of it to make great colour.  I can use a tiny bit of cad yellow light and cad red light to make a rich, high-chroma, opaque orange.  In student grade, I've piled on many times more of both colours and never obtained an orange that was as bright, or had the same level of coverage.  There simply isn't as much pigment by volume, and all the fillers act to mute and distort the colours.  Everything ends up grey.

I always talk about paint in food terms, comparing its rich consistency to frosting, butter, and mayonnaise (the real stuff, mind),  and, with student grade, the comparisons are more like skim milk, tofunaise, and egg replacements.  Some of us may eat those things, but a painting made up of them would definitely feel less luxurious than one made with the full on fat stuff, and we'd have to make all sorts of accommodations for their weird working properties in a recipe. 

For the painters who aren't aware that what they have isn't professional grade, it's a simple matter to read the tubes and choose ones that say "artist's quality" or "professional quality".  But, for others, there's a psychological barrier that they have to overcome. 

I've come across a lot of painters who say that they're just learning, or aren't selling, and can't justify the expense.  In my experience, professional paint wouldn't actually break their bank accounts, and, I think, if they delved deeper, it's not about their accounts at all.  It's about recognizing that they're worth the expense - that their art is meaningful to them, and they have the right to spend more money to give their paintings a chance at success.  They need to stand up to their inner accountants, and say, "yes, it costs more, but I'm worth it!"  Because we all are worth it, and our art is worth the expenditure.  In non-food terms -not my comfort zone, but here goes - if we yearn for a silk scarf, will we really be fooled or satisfied by a polyester imitator?  Neither one is a necessity, but, if we're spending on non essentials, I figure we should get what really lifts our soul.  And, in truth, the price difference isn't that dramatic. 

So, take up some space, ditch the cheap stuff (and that includes those flimsy, absorbent, Michael's canvases, BTW!) and claim the right to good quality materials.  I can guarantee that you'll start loving the process -and the results - as soon as you make the switch.  Refer your miserly accountants to me.

I wish you happy painting!

Saturday, October 7, 2017

2 new, back-to-back workshops in Kelowna, BC

One Day Composition workshop
Feb. 24
Kelowna, BC

I'm excited to be invited back to Kelowna, BC in February to teach 2 workshops over 3 days.  This is a new format for me, and one that I think will be really effective as the second workshop, though it's a stand alone, is enhanced by having taken the first. 

I'll be starting with a 1-day compostion workshop which is open to painters working in any medium and which will be done from photo references that each painter brings along. 

Yes: photo references!  I know I've gone on about the lying, cheating nature of photos, but I also know that this is what most of us use when we work in our studios.  So this workshop is to help artists to interpret and maximize their photos to create good paintings.  Our job is not to copy, but to arrange, alter, and filter those photos through our own, personal aesthetics.  It's this filtering and editing that makes a work of art both personal and illuminating for the viewer.  It shows the audience how that painter sees the world; what matters to him or her, and what the artist finds fascinating and wants to show to the people who look at that work. 

Our approach to composition will be playful and varied, based on the creation of dynamic shapes -even where the photo has few- and gesture.  Artists will learn to avoid excessive detail, and design abstractly for maximum effect.

If you work from photos, and don't think you're clearly transmitting an idea or aesthetic in your work, this intensive 1-day will help you to identify and communicate your vision. 

2-day Alla Prima Portrait Workshop
Feb. 25 - 26
Kelowna, BC

Following this workshop, will be a 2-day alla prima portraiture workshop.  A limited number of painters will have the pleasure of working directly from a model, exploring both the subject of portrait painting, and the techniques for working wet-in-wet.  Participants will learn how to create loose, yet accurate portraits while tackling the complexity of skin tones, colour temperature,  and brushwork. 

I hope you'll join me for one or both of these workshops.  For more information and registration, please contact the Federation of Canadian Artists Central Okanagan Chapter.

Happy painting!

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Texture and Obfuscation

Oil with cold wax
Oil on textured board

Oil on multi-colour, toned linen
My favourite paintings are the ones that hide parts of themselves, forcing viewers to finish ambiguous areas with their imaginations.  I also love rugged textural surfaces that allow underpainting to show through in surprising glimpses.  Vuillard was a master at this way of painting as was the recently departed Bernard Dunstan.  But oil paints are manufactured to be smooth and buttery which means that it's pretty much impossible to create the type of surface that I long for without trickery and additives.

These 3 pieces come close to achieving my aims (no painting is ever what I'd hoped it would be) and they all do it a bit differently.

In the first piece, I mixed a bit of Gamblin's Cold Wax into the paint and applied it with both brush and knife, making sure to work dryly.  It's fine to add some more fluid medium to the wax and paint, but I find that it defeats the purpose of the wax - at least for me.  Wax allows a complex building of layers as well as giving the opportunity for beautiful, smoky, soft effects when it's flattened gently with a palette knife.  You can see that atmospheric blurring in the bottom of the shawl and in the background.

The second piece has a lot in common with the surface of the first, but I did it without any wax.  The key to this one was using the paint without any medium at all, and working on a board that had some texture to it.  In this case, the texture was a simulated weave effect that I achieved by brushing on acrylic gesso in one direction, letting it dry, and then brushing on another coat with the strokes crossing the first.  I like to put on about 4 coats and, by using a stiff, house painting brush, I can get some significant texture on the support.  This is what grabs the paint in a broken fashion, both from the brush, and the knife.  If the paint were fluid, it wouldn't work; it would flow into the dips in the gesso, filling them up, rather than sitting on the peaks.  This broken layering is especially clear in the area beside the elbow on the left.  Light blue paint was spread over top of dark blue while both were wet, but the dark was applied with a more solid, scrubby application, and the light with a swipe from a loaded knife.  Because I didn't force the paint down into the dips, and because it wasn't fluid at all, I could preserve those little windows of dark blue, and get a real sense of depth.  It was a happy accident.

The final painting is a larger one, done on portrait grade linen.  That's a smooth, rather slick surface and easily gets clogged with paint, especially in alla prima work.  In this case, I did add a bit of 50/50 stand oil and OMS to the paint, but not much, and I kept the paint application generally thin and broken, using hog bristle brushes.  The underpainting was very colourful but completely dry when I started so there was no risk of new colour blending into a ghastly mess with all that chroma.  Working on dry toning, also helped me to create a sense of depth as the underpainting clearly sits behind the figure, not on the same level.  The challenge with this piece is to cover enough, but not too much colour, and to build a robust paint body but not a monotonously thick one.  I'm still tweaking this one, so it'll change in the future when I figure out what to do next.

Rembrandt used ground glass to add both texture and sparkle; marble dust is a common additive, and there are lots of impasto mediums to choose from which will help in overriding the homogenous buttery nature of modern paints.  My choice is always to keep it simple and predictable, so, while I do try most mediums, I tend to drop them after a while because they make me nervous.  I wonder, when picking up a dry piece to continue working it, if I've added this medium, or that one - if I've worked with a lean or a fat additive.  By sticking to a couple of simple and intuitive mediums, I can usually figure out where I was in the painting process and carry on to create a painting that will age well.

Happy painting!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

New Lighting!

Daisies on Red
16 x 12

My studio has north and west facing windows, and I've always yearned for some southern exposure. In my continuing quest for sunlight, I broke down and bought a powerful spotlight from a camera shop: a professional-looking LED light called a Lightstorm Aputure.  It's a huge step up from the Home Depot brooder, clamp lamps with halogen floods that I've been using.  The light is very bright (equivalent to 1000W, according to the salesman) and cooler than I'm used to - something that's always deterred me from buying "daylight" bulbs as they seemed so blue - but the CRI (colour rendering index) is extremely high and so I'm not seeing a colour cast to the objects that I put under it.  In fact, colours are crazy rich, and it's taking some time to get used to.

Below are some of the small still life arrangements that I've painted since the big light up.  Because the light is cooler, I feel like I'm learning these familiar objects all over again.  The little bowl that I've painted dozens of times,  took me ages this time as none of the usual mixtures described what I was seeing.  And, for the first time, I'm seeing a lot of bounced colour from object to object, and from the ground cloth to the objects on it.  There are many new variables; I feel as if I have to recalibrate my eyes.

I haven't figured out my new colour space by any stretch, and things are too chromatic at the moment, but I'm having a blast.  Instead of imagining bright light and true colour, I can push a button and get it.  When winter comes, it'll be summer in my studio!

Happy painting!

Green Vase in Sunlight
12 x 16

Sake Bowl
8 x 10
Apples and Oil
11 x 14

Friday, July 28, 2017

Experiment with Rublev Epoxide Oil Gel

Some studio days are given over to experimentation: painting with no aim or gallery in mind, just seeing what comes out.

Yesterday I spent some time working with a new medium: Rublev's Epoxide Oil Gel.  It's thixotropic - the new word of the day - which means that it flows while you're moving the brush and stops dead when the brush does.   This, and it's rather sticky consistency, allows me to make visible brushmarks, even in colours that contain very little white.   Because I avoid all the smelly alkyd mediums in my studio, this is a big deal.  This gel acts somewhat like an alkyd gel (though it's stickier) but it's made out of "reinforced" linseed oil (don't ask me) and so has no smell or associated health issues.  Like the alkyd gels, it transparentizes the paint and increases gloss.  I'm not a huge gloss fan, but found that if I used it sparingly, it wasn't too shiny for my liking.   That took some concentration because I'm not a "sparing" painter.

What really appealed to me was the ability to create lots of gooey, juicy layering and texture with both the brush and the knife while working alla prima.  The transparency means that there's a greater variety of effects than would be possible with just paint, or paint and my usual 50/50 oil and OMS mixture.

This detail shows the nice, broken effects possible when just a little is mixed into the paint (in the pink and green of the face), as well as the thixotropic effect in orange mark at the top.  Notice how that piece of orange froze into place and left a nice heavy mark, but picked up again as I dragged it across to the right.  The edges of the initial mark are richly coloured and don't feel meagre, but still have the fine, hairy quality of a soft-brush application.  Those of you who've used mongoose brushes know exactly what I mean.   So I can get soft brush edges and layering while using a lot of paint and my beloved hog bristles.

Overall, I like it.  This isn't an ideal gel, by any means, but it's the first solvent-free gel that I've used that doesn't feel greasy and too slippery.  If anything, it suffers from being too sticky, but I feel that if I slow down my marks - as if I were using pure stand oil, for example - I can make it do interesting things.  I can also add a bit of OMS to it to increase its flow a bit.  I wouldn't add much, however, as that defeats the point of the medium.  It's not meant to keep on flowing.

Like all mediums, you shouldn't use it in just one part of a painting or you'll risk cracking as different mediums create different drying times and conditions.  So if you want to use it, start the painting with it.  Because it's pure fat, you should follow the usual fat over lean rule and use it sparingly, or cut with OMS in the bottom layers and increase the amount that you add as you build.  That happens naturally in alla prima painting because we always grab more paint volume as we build layers, but it's something that you have to be more conscious of if you let the work dry in between layers.  Remember how much you were adding, and how much paint you were laying down, and do more of both in the next layer when you start the painting up again.

I'm also playing around with Rublev's Impasto Putty and will let you know if it holds any revelations.

Happy painting!

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Opening in 12 week class this fall

12 Week Oil Painting Class
Thursdays September 7 - November 30
12:30 - 3:30
Swinton's studios and Carburn Park in South East Calgary, AB
**One space left**

I've got an opening in my weekly oil painting class, starting September 7.  I hope you'll join me and my group of keen painters for 12 weeks that include both structured, and independent class time.

This session will start with a brand new subject: the figure in the landscape which we'll paint from life in Carburn Park in the SE. No studio light can mimic sunshine, and the added variable of foliage, water, and sky colours bouncing onto our model makes this section of the course especially exciting and full of colour challenges.

We'll follow this with a unit of independent subject work in the Swinton's studio. This is a great opportunity to finish work that you started outside, or to bring in something that you're working on at home. I'll help you to develop your ideas and solve problems through individual instruction and demos.

Still life will be the final component of this session. You'll learn how to compose objects to create balance, emphasis, rhythm, and movement. We'll explore colour interactions and the movement of tone and colour. Still life is a perfect microcosm for landscape artists, since it provides a controlled environment in which to manipulate and explore all of the elements that make up successful landscape painting.

You can find a calendar and supply list on my website.    Please contact me if you have any questions. 

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Delving into colour

"With colour, one obtains an energy that seems to stem from witchcraft." Matisse

Having seen a lot of historical works over the past few months on trips to London and New York, I was struck by how paintings that were created centuries ago can still give the sensation of being colourful and vibrant today, despite the fact that their creators had only a tiny fraction of the pigment range that we now have.  It made me realize that I needed to educate myself about the subtler, older colours; the ones that painters have used for ages to great effect.  So I'm working on some small, limited palette paintings in the studio right now, trying to get a handle on colour. Actually, I don't believe that goal is truly attainable, but I am trying to learn more than I currently know.  

The paintings above contain 3 to 5 colours plus white and most of the pigments are weak ones like yellow ochre or raw sienna.  There are no blues because for some reason I'm loathe to use them right now.  Blue is a very prominent colour in a painting and I'm leaving it off my palette on occasion so that I'm forced to discover alternatives.  This is the kind of thing I do in the week after buying a 200ml tube of ultramarine.

By keeping the number of pigments small, I'm forced to be more creative in how I make the painting look lively and colourful.  It's easy to make something pop when it's already high chroma in the tube, but much more interesting and challenging to make a low chroma pigment sing.  And, increasingly, I find myself admiring works that are mostly made up of complex greyed mixtures whose components I can only guess at.  Being able to look at a painting and name every pigment that it's made of has begun to bother me a lot.  Museums have a way of changing my standards overnight.

There are some interesting, old colours on the market produced by companies like Rublev, and I may delve into them someday and buy some verona green or mummy brown, but currently I'm getting to know some paints that I already own: yellow ochre, raw sienna, burnt sienna, raw umber, ivory black, alizarin,  cobalt and an excessive number of tubes of venetian red and terra rosa by different manufacturers.  (I blame the sale bins at the art store.)  They're quite a change from my regular chromatic palette which is full of cadmiums and even contains the incredibly powerful pthalo blue.

So far, my charting is of single pigments with white, but I expect I'll have to splash out and begin charting the results of mixing them with other colours.  It could be a long road.  Here's the first pass at my earth colours and I've already identified some colours that will bear further exploration.   Why this feels more interesting to me than looking at colour charts beside paint tubes in the shop, I don't know, but it does.  Knowing that I already own these tubes makes me look at their properties more closely, and seeing them in my studio is very different than seeing them under commercial fluorescent lighting.

I'm excited to be doing this because I felt that I was becoming far too familiar with my daily palette. It wasn't surprising me anymore, and I'm hoping to find a new colour or two that will startle and amaze me in mixtures.  I'll keep you posted!

Happy painting!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Different brushes for different purposes

Brushes used: well loaded hogs bristle flats and filberts with thick, tube consistency paint.  Smaller, dense, light marks in the waves in the middle of the image were synthetic filberts.  Thin lines are made with a crisp, long flat used on its edge.  If the line had more modulation across its length, I'd have said it was an egbert.
Brushes used: Hogs bristle flats and filberts for most for most of the work.  Notice the broken edge at the end of the stroke of the figure on the body board.  That shows it was a hogs bristle.  The start of the stroke is very straight suggesting it was a flat brush.  Synthetic flats for dense, full coverage passages such as the orange light on the pail.  Synthetic egbert for the drawing elements such as the reddish, drawn underpainting of the body boards on the left and for the clouds (pushing motion for those)

Brushes used: mostly round hogs bristle though, in the blue area lower left, you can see the addition of a smallish filbert (it left its distinctive, oval shape).  Its size means that several marks make a patch where a larger brush could do it in one big mark.

There are so many brushes on the shelves of art stores and it can be truly baffling to choose the right one, so I thought I'd do a post that touches on the basics of brushes and their uses.

Choosing a brush comes down to what you want to do with it; what effect you hold in your mind that you're trying to replicate on the canvas.  That, actually, is the biggest consideration when picking a brush: know what you want it to do.

I like to layer paint, wet in wet, and I don't like a picky, small-detail look, so I need large brushes with long bristles.  They have to be long because short, stiff bristles tend to remove more than they apply when placing wet paint over a wet layer.  So long filberts or flats are my choice for layering.  They also need to be springy, not wet noodly, so that they can hold a lot of paint and don't require me to press them onto the canvas to release that paint.  I should be able to gently stroke a well loaded brush over a wet layer, and leave behind a relatively clean layer on top of it.

The worst brush to buy if you want to layer alla prima is the bright.  This is a short, stiff-bristled flat that's great for laying a crisp, firm mark, but won't let you layer any better than a stick would.  Brights remove the wet layer rather than adding to it.  If you work in single layers or let the paint dry between layers, this brush would be fine.

The next consideration is the type of bristle that you choose.  From natural bristle to synthetic, stiff to soft, there are a lot of options to choose from.  My preference is hog bristle (which is a springy, natural bristle) because they also help me to layer.  When I lay a coat of paint over a wet layer, hog bristle separates slightly, allowing the underlayer to show through like strands of different coloured hair interlaced with each other.  The show through is livelier than a single colour painted like house paint: densely closed and with full coverage.

The only other natural bristle that I've tried is mongoose, and it can do the same thing as hog bristle, but, because it's such a soft bristle, it can't be as heavily loaded and your oil paint must be diluted.  You'll end up with a thinner paint surface and greater delicacy in the final look.  Hog bristle will create a chunkier, rougher final work.

When it comes to synthetic brushes, there are also a lot of different types to choose from.  Some are meant to mimic hog bristle, or sable,  and others are entirely their own, unique thing.  I haven't yet found a mimic that actually acts just like my hog bristle, though.  Synthetics generally hold their shape much better during a mark, meaning that they don't spread apart in the random manner of natural bristle, and the resulting marks can be more dense and closed because of this.  It takes an extremely light touch to create the "break" in the mark if you're using synthetics, and I tend to use them only in passages where a want a single layer that looks fairly uniform, or to place an obliterating mark over a lower layer.   Synthetics are great for making thick, showy marks towards the end of a painting because springy synthetics tend to hold a lot of paint and can place it very cleanly and distinctly on top of other paint.

Other useful brushes are rounds and egberts, both of which I use fairly often.  Rounds will give a linear mark (think Van Gogh), but can also be used in a side-to-side, scribbling fashion to create patches of colour.  And, when they're pushed, rather than pulled, you can get interesting effects that don't clearly show the shape of the brush that made them.  Up until the invention of the metal ferrule in the 18th century, all brushes in the western world were round, and you can see from historical paintings that there was no shortage of varied and interesting brushwork to be had from this shape.

Egberts are filberts with double-length bristles.  Like Chinese calligraphy brushes, they bend gracefully and are capable of a variety of thicknesses in their marks depending on the pressure or twist applied to them during the mark making.  They can be quite calligraphic and a bit random because their length makes them hard to use with great precision.   Used in a side-to-side fashion, egberts can make a rather irregularly filled patch, especially if they're made of natural material. Synthetic egberts will hold together better than natural bristle and not look as random in the final paint patch.  They allow greater control (not always a good thing).

Of course, you can overcome any shape's limitations by using the brush in a variety of ways.  Many painters just use the tip of their brushes, but if they use the edge they can create quite different marks, and if they push or wiggle or scribble the brush, it can increase its mark making range considerably, as can varying the paint quantity and consistency.

And, lastly, some stuff about cleaning and maintenance.  Synthetics can take a final soap and water wash (and should get one as they tend to get stiff without it), but natural bristles don't like it.  I've used my students' brushes on occasion, and I can always tell if they've been in water because the hog bristle is soft and splayed and has lost its springiness as water was absorbed into the bristles.  Since reading about this effect a couple of years ago in an article on the Utrecht site, I've both cut down on brush cleaning time and extended the crisp, useful state of my natural bristle brushes significantly.  They get a thorough wipe, then solvent, then another wipe, and that's it.  This will help your brushes last longer, but they're not indestructible.  All brushes wear down and become blunt and less precise.  That's when you should designate them for a different purpose in your painting and buy new ones.

At the moment I'm enjoying a big order of Rosemary & Co brushes and trying to be kind to them. My old, worn brushes are reserved for scrubbing on tones while the Rosemarys are used for the crisper, more precise work that makes up the upper layers of a painting.  My current favourite is the Ultimate Bristle (hog bristle) in filbert and flat, but I'm also loving the synthetic Ivory egbert.  I'm finding that I don't use the Ivory in other shapes as often as the hog bristle because it keeps the mark too closed for my purposes.  I need marks to break apart a bit.

There's much more to explore about brushes but this should give you some insight into how I approach choosing a brush.  I'd be interested to hear about your favourite brushes and what they're good at.  Images of the marks they make a would make my day!

Happy painting!

Saturday, May 20, 2017

3-day floral workshop in BC

Bear Valley Highlands Art Workshop
June 23-25
Lumby, BC

There are some unexpected openings in this workshop and I'm hoping you'll fill them up! We'll cover a lot of ground from colour to composition to brushwork, and I guarantee that there will be revelations that you can carry into your own painting practise, no matter what your usual genre.

This workshop will focus on simplifying your subject to its essence, and discovering how a little precision can go a long way.

You’ll learn to design your paintings to create harmonious, coherent, and balanced compositions that address the age-old dilemma of “what to do with the background”. By using a shape and colour based approach to composition, you’ll begin to see the canvas space in a whole new way; one which stresses unity in tone and colour, and which recognizes that each mark has a role to play in the final painting.

And you’ll explore two different ways to begin a painting: from logical and structured to intuitive and abstract.

All the while, you'll be enjoying the hospitality of a beautiful retreat facility nestled in the wilds of interior BC. Our hosts have a well-deserved reputation for excellent meals and comfortable accommodation in their on-site log chalets, so you can step out of your daily routine and spend 3 days solely devoted to your artistic development.
To learn more, register, and to see some pictures of the retreat, click on Bear Valley Highlands.

I hope to see you there!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The elusive smooth surface in oil paint

Yellow Pail
10 x 8

Oil painters spend a lot of thought and time doing something that watercolour painters do in a second: we try to create large, simple passages of paint that maintain colour and feel rich, rather than thin and greyed.  And that's because oil paint doesn't work well in very dilute form.  You can't create a wash unless you add a lot of medium to it which is something that I avoid.  If the medium is relatively safe - like my 50/50 OMS and oil - it makes the paint look meagre and dilutes the pigment so much that the colour dies.   If the medium is one of the many pre-prepared variety, it has a lot of technical and health issues that I don't want to bother with:

- how fat or lean is the mixture?  This matters in building a sound painting.

- will it damage my health to use it in the studio, day after day? I've tried mediums that leave me staggering drunkenly by the end of a painting session, and I can't afford to lose that many brain cells.

- is it hard to clean out of my brushes, thereby risking my treasured and expensive supply of Rosemary's?

- is it solid in the long term?  Rembrandt used linseed oil, so I know I'm on well trodden ground with that.   Yes, he didn't have OMS, but I draw the health line at using turpentine indoors.  Even OMS is very toxic, so I make sure to use a high quality brand with a very low evaporation rate such as Gamsol.

The best paint film is one that's been adulterated the least, and that means as close to tube consistency as possible.  That also makes the best colour, which is a priority for me.

So, with all that in mind, how does a painter make a smooth, simple area, rather than one that's choppy and brushy?

The answer that I've come up with is to use fairly thick paint and use mechanical means to smooth it.
One of my favourite tools for that is a palette knife.  If an area of paint is too sculptural and busy, I lay my knife flat on the surface of the paint and make gentle circles.  Any angling, or dried bits of paint on the knife will cause scratches in the paint surface, so this is a delicate maneuver.  If your knife has dried paint on it, you can place it flat on some sand paper and smooth them away.   This method allows you to keep your colour intact and even to use thick paint but leave it looking smooth and colourful.

Another useful method is to scrape it out with a soft tool like a silicone scraper or shower squeegee.  Again,  it lets you use a lot of paint and colour, but, if your scraping surface is large enough, you can pull the paint quite a distance and create a smooth effect.  The edges will be distinctive and recognizable in this method; everyone can recognize a squeegee effect because so many painters have been using it in the past few years.

I've also had some fun with Whistler's method.  He loved to scrape paintings down between sessions, losing the brushwork but keeping a thin layer of pigment.  Over many sessions, that pigment layer became a soft, atmospheric, and smooth patch of paint.  His work looks a bit too thin for my eye but a lot of painters have and do use this method and leave more paint behind during the scraping.

And then there are other methods: brayers, rollers, rolling pins over plastic wrap or waxed paper, and, I'm sure, many more.

If you work wet on dry, it's easier to turn a busy area into one that appears smooth and simple, because the new paint grabs dry paint in a way that it won't grab a primed canvas or board.  There's just the right amount of flow and adhesion.  It's a pleasure to work on.

The piece above has a lot of different methods used on it to create that large mass of blue.  It's painted alla prima, and has high pigment load, as well as colour variety within the blue, so you probably figured that I couldn't have done it with a lot of dilution, and I didn't.  Instead, I placed a lot paint and smoothed it with the knife, brayer, and, to a lesser extent, with a soft brush.  That's a thick area, but it doesn't look sculptural and it doesn't distract from the figure.

So, before you dip into that pot of medium to get your paint moving, consider all the mechanical means instead.  You'll end up with some interesting effects, and much better colour, even if you, like me, work in a lot of layers.

Happy painting!

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Painting knives and brushes

30 x 30 in progress
Brushes are great, but they can feel a bit obvious: we've all seen (and made) paintings in which you can tell exactly which type of brush was used and what width it was; flats are particularly distinctive in a painting.  While I do try to vary the type of brush that I use: flats,  filberts, and rounds, and the type of bristle: synthetic or natural; soft or stiff, I still feel that all of the marks clearly say "brush" and that the colour is sometimes less clean than I'd like.  So the painting knife has become a bigger part of my work.  

I've mentioned this in a previous blog, I know, but I thought that this in-progress still life had a good example of the difference between brushes and knives in alla prima painting.  

The bowl of water below was painted with brushes.  I left a space open for the clean swipe of pale green because I couldn't achieve such a high key, clean area if I'd been layering over another colour wet in wet.  

You can see that the marks have a softness to them from the pressure of my hand (I paint firmly!) spreading the bristles slightly as I place the mark.   That softness also comes from the fact that I have to slightly dilute the paint in order to allow it to flow smoothly off my brush and make simple, long strokes.   
using a brush

The second water bowl was painted using a knife.  It has an entirely different feel: crisper and less obvious in displaying the method of its application.  And, it has a patch of clean, high key paint that's been placed over darker, wet paint.  The centre of the bowl was initially a warm dark ochre, and, with a loaded knife, I smoothed the pale pinks and peach colours over top, allowing some show through. I think it really says "water".  If I were painting a reflective pond, I'd do it this way so that I could build a lot of colours underneath the reflection first.

The paint consistency was my preferred "mayonnaise softness" so that I didn't have to press too hard to move it over the length of the bowl, but, even with the pressure of my hand, it didn't soften at the edges.  It has a totally different effect than the brushwork.  
knife painting
To make the brush-painted bowl settle in with its rather edgy company, I added a line of knife-applied orange on the left side.  It serves as a link between the softness of one tool and the crispness of the other.  Because the knifed bowl has so much brushwork near it, I haven't felt the need to add a brushy touch to it.  But it's still in progress, so who knows what will happen in the future?

I like both effects.  A painting done entirely with the knife or one done entirely with the brush aren't as exciting for me as a painting that shows both.   Knives and brushes can live harmoniously within the same work as long as they're each sprinkled throughout the surface.  Those crisp little lines and dashes in the top third of the painting are done with a knife edge laid over brush work.

It's just another piece of visual vocabulary and I'm having fun exploring it.

If you, like me, struggle to find a good, flexible knife, I can recommend Oakblade Palette Knives by fellow Canadian Ray Hyder for their extreme springiness and razor-sharp edge.  And, no: this isn't a paid promotion; more of a public service announcement.  Ray didn't ask me to shill for him, but I like to mention good art supplies when I find them.

Also, if you're looking to paint some florals with me, I hope you'll consider joining me for a 3-day workshop in BC in June at Bear Valley Highlands.  There are only 3 spots left.

Happy painting!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Working with colour and tone

30 x 30
On most days I consider myself a tonalist with a colour obsession, rather than a true colourist.  The difficulty lies in trying to figure out how to use strong colour as well as strong tonal changes in the same painting.

Colours are at their most beautiful and interactive in the mid tones, the colourist's domain (picture Monet's scintillating haystacks), while tonalists use the drama of a full value range to create their images (think of Rembrandt whose spotlit images are so memorable for everything but their colour.)

The pitfall of purely colourist work is that it can appear unanchored and weak, lacking a strong underlying structure (and this is in my eyes, only.  All art making and viewing is subjective). So, increasingly, I try to incorporate some strong darks into my work.  It gives the paintings focus and solidity in my eyes.   The challenge is to gauge the right amount of dark and its placement.  Too much, or too near a special colour and the darks will take over the work, becoming more important than the colour interactions.

I haven't come up with anything as prescriptive as a percentage of dark to use (and would be appalled if it were that predictable), but I do know that the darks must be applied confidently and in significant amounts.  If darks are dropped into a high chroma work in small, discreet touches, they feel like little black holes peppered over the surface; so they have to be given enough space and they should be as connected as possible.

This is "Curve" in an earlier stage of development, before I hit the dark shapes on the right with greater gusto.

You can see that the shape was still a relatively dark area, but was being used to move warm colour from the figure into her surroundings, as well as to intensify the yellow/green of the illuminated shape.  I could have kept working in this direction - I'd have had to lighten the hair somewhat since it was too dark and isolated for this setting - but it felt weak.  So I loaded a 2"brush and went over the right hand shape and some of the lower marks with a rich dark and no hesitation.

Some of you will think that was a bad move and some will wish I'd done much more work in the darks, but that's not important.  What matters is that it felt right to my eyes; it had enough conviction and strength for me, and pulled the painting into focus.  

The next painting will, however, be a whole new challenge and that's the joy of the process.

Happy painting!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

2- day figurative workshop

Painting the Clothed Figure from Life
May 6/7 
Tsawwassen, BC

I hope you'll join me for a 2-day figure painting workshop in beautiful Tsawwassen, BC.

I love teaching this workshop because I get to see so many "ah ha!" moments. Painters who usually work from photos, grid their canvases, or create detailed preliminary drawings all discover that a brush and a good squint is all they need to capture accurate proportion. And discovering the amazing colours in the model in front of them is a revelation.

It's an intensive weekend that launches a lot of new exploration and discovery for painters no matter what their usual genre.

There are still some openings in this workshop.  To register, please contact the South Delta Artists Guild.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

A London adventure

I was fortunate enough to be in London last week filming some shorts for Winsor & Newton's weekly "Masterclass videos" series. That was a kick, but a bit nerve wracking: some of the demos that I'd so blithely scripted required a lot to go right, first time, on the canvas board that had 2 cameras and 3 video and art professionals focused on it. No pressure there! But it all worked out well, and I learned a great deal about what it takes to film art technique videos. 

After the work portion of my trip was over, I tacked on a couple of days to see museums. That's totally, laughably inadequate, but it was enough to give me a couple of years worth of thinking in the studio, so I'm satisfied. 

What surprised me was that I was as entranced by the 600 year old Tudor portraits with their intricate, gold encrusted brocades as I was by the Sargents and Freuds that I'd gone to see. Perhaps even more so because my expectations were completely overturned. 

I'd seen the Tudor portraits in art history tomes forever and flipped the page without much thought for them; they seemed so mannered and all about the outfits, but when I was actually in front of them, I could see that there was a portrait there: a real person who was captured by a long-forgotten artist with staggering skill. The outfit was a big deal, but so was the haughty, or serious, or open face that topped it. And, despite their age, the paintings were in perfect, crack-free condition. Painting on panels will do that, apparently.

Like a kid in a candy shop, I spent the weekend mooning over art, snapping detail images, and forgetting to hydrate myself. I came home with a cold and a head full of wonders.

And I even got to see a Chardin that Lucien Freud admired enough to copy in several drawings and etchings.

It was a great adventure that has already had an impact on how I apply paint. Seeing so much virtuosity in so many different styles has reminded me that it's not what you paint, or what style you paint in, it's how confidently you lay your paint down. I saw a lot of great confidence on the museum walls, and that's my take home. 

Happy painting!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Toning a support: the big decision!

White Blouse
16 x 12

White Blouse 2
14 x 11

Every single choice that you make in an oil painting is visible, in some way, in the final work and toning is the usually the first choice that a painter makes.  For me, it's the decision that usually takes the longest because I know it will launch a painting down a path and I have to decide which path that should be.

There are no rules about colour choice when toning a support, but here are some routes that are worth exploring:

-Tone to the colour of the light.  So, if the light is warm, tone warm.  If you're in green, forest shade, tone green etc.

- Tone to the brightest colour in the motif.  If you're trying to depict the vivid orange of a pumpkin, it will be easier if you're working on a support that's toned orange; nothing will interfere with the special colour or grey it.

- Tone to the complement of the most important colour.  This is the opposite of the above choice: if you're trying to show off the orange pumpkin, tone blue so that orange will really pop.  This toning requires you to work very opaquely to counteract the neutralizing tone under your star colour.  The first painting above is toned in this way: the most important colour was the warmth on the figure's face and body, so I toned the board green.  You can see that this choice has helped to pop the warmth, but it has also resulted in an overall cool painting.  The warm mixtures of the flesh are all dimmed by the green undertone.

- Tone in an earthy colour such as umber.  This choice will automatically launch your painting into something earthy and, possibly, traditional in feel.  It's a natural choice for tonal painters but not for colourists who struggle to create pure mixtures on top of the rather dirty start.

- Tone grey.  This works as a useful mid tone without being a colour statement.  You'll end up working opaquely on this,  and your colours - even complex mixtures - will look rich on the neutral ground.

- Tone to the opposite temperature of the general temperature of the scene.  This is related to complementary toning, and is often used by landscape painters.   If they're painting a cold, snow scene, they may use a warm toning underneath to balance the painting and avoid excessive coolness in the final work.   Many plein air painters take out red-toned supports as a matter of course because the elements of landscapes - trees, mountains, water - tend to cool colours, and the red fills out and balances the scene on the canvas.

- Tone bright if you intend to paint dull.  That's the choice I made in the second painting above; I used a strong yellow tone under an earthy palette of black, ocher, terra rosa, and ultramarine.  There may have been a touch of cad red light for some of the hot spots on the flesh - I'm not certain - but, overall, it's a dull, tonal palette, and one that doesn't really suit my eye.  I need a hit of brighter colour to keep myself interested, so I toned strong.

- Yes, you guessed it: tone dull if you intend to paint bright.  This helps to keep works from becoming too candy coloured, because the dull tone will take the edge off of high chroma mixtures.

There are, I'm certain, a lot of other toning choices to be made, but these are the ones I consider most often when I'm planning a painting.

In general, I tone to about a value 3 (if 1 is white and 10 is black), and I make sure that my tone is lean, but not too lean.  A medium composed of a 50/50 mix of oil and solvent will make a good paint film, but anything leaner will result in an underbound layer and you'll be able to rub it off even after it's dry.  I avoid flowing the paint on and, instead, scrub it on with a stiff brush and a small amount of paint.  Then I give it a good wipe to remove excess paint and medium and to even out the scratchy application.

I also consider the drying time of my toning pigment and try to use fast dryers like umbers and raw sienna, or I add them to a slower drying pigment to help speed it up.  The last thing you want is to have a wet tone under a dry painting.  It's the surest way to a cracked work.  Drying times of some common colours are available on the Winsor Newton site and, probably on the sites of other major manufacturers.

If I don't want the colour to contaminate the paint layer, I'll let the tone dry completely before starting to paint, but there's also something interesting about letting the wet tone mingle with the first paint layer.  There are no rules.

If you've got any thoughts on other toning possibilities, I'd love to hear them and learn.

Happy painting!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Painting knives

Sidelong Gaze
16 x 12


I used to be a watercolourist when I started painting, but I soon switched to oils.  The reason? Texture! There's something wonderful about the way that oil paint can move beyond 2 dimensions and enter the 3rd.  Ingres' smooth, enamel-like surfaces are impressive, but give me Monet's crusty canvases, Sargent's thick, dashing swirls of paint, or Freud's heavily layered surfaces any day.  They hold my attention for the rugged physicality of the paint itself; there is both an exciting image, and exciting paint application.

This painting takes texture pretty far as I used a knife heavily throughout.  There was plenty of brush action, as well, but the knife was what saved the piece from being boring to me.  It's painted on a gessoed panel which is a surface that I'm not sold on.  It doesn't grab paint in the way that linen does, and I find the brush marks that I make on it look uninteresting to me.  The best way to explain it is that when I make those first few marks, I can already see exactly where the painting will end up when it's finished; the repertoire of possible brush marks - at least alla prima marks - is limited, and there's nothing more tedious.  A painting should be full of surprises and discoveries, especially for the painter, or else it seems like a pointless exercise to me.  This belief explains why I discard a lot of work as too boring to see the light of day, and also why I eagerly walk into the studio each day: I'm looking for the next great surprise.

So, to counteract the surface, I did a lot of knife work for the relatively uncontrolled element that it adds to the painting.  The best painting knives are long and very flexible; my favourite one is about 2" long and triangular.  Inflexible ones are good for scraping paint, or for mixing it on the palette, and the teeny, tiny, diamond-shaped ones have no purpose that I can discern.  A good painting knife will lay down a hefty amount of paint with surprising precision, but it won't let you get too finicky.  It also allows you to place very clean paint over wet paint, creating a sense of depth.  You can see that in the detail of the forehead above.  Under that clean pink layer, there's some murky, cool, greenish paint.  A brush couldn't have kept them separate in the same way.  

I advise my students to keep their palette knives perfectly smooth and clean -rubbing it on sandpaper can often bring a knife back to full use - and discourage cheap, plastic knives; they're not capable of subtle paint application.  Like scrapers, rollers, squeegies, and other tools, knives are a way to break monotony for both the painting and the painter.

Happy painting!