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!