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Showing posts from 2016

Paint patches, not lines

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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'…

Getting to the essence of an idea

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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 colou…

Limiting values

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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 lo…

Meyer lemon still life

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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 l…

Cochrane workshop openings

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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!

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Painting on gesso board

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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 th…

12 week class and 2 figure workshops

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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!  …

A series

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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…

A variety of whites

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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 an…

2-Day Figurative workshop, Kelowna, BC

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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 mys…

The private lives of paintings

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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…

Attitude matters

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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 …

Living on the Edge Workshop

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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 joyf…

Progress doesn't have to be swift

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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…

The vital palette and other secrets for successful paintings

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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 …

Finding a painting's path

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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 (…

Big changes

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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…

It isn't overworking; it's just working

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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 …

Teaching to learn

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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, br…

Draw like you're painting

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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 fi…

Finding the differences

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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 fo…

Finding models

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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 tim…

Small paintings for big learning

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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 pi…

New Workshop White Rock, BC

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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 meif 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 workshopMarch 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 backgr…

Work it

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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…