Terry Miura • Studio Notes


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Sketches from Havana






Last month, I had the good fortune to spend a week in Cuba with some artist friends. Wow, what an incredible experience! Havana is a vibrant city rich with history and culture, from old American cars zipping around, to people dancing in the rain, to magnificent crumbling architecture... a paradise for painters. 

I can't possibly describe all that I saw and experienced and felt in a blog post,  I'll just share with you the plein air sketches that I did during the week. 

We were on an organized tour, but each afternoon, we had two to three hours blocked out so that we could paint. There was just so much visual interest everywhere we looked, it was a challenge to just to decide on something.

The first one I did - the painting of the blue corner above - I was set up on a sidewalk, and there was constant flow of traffic and pedestrians. The Cuban people are very friendly, and curious of what we were doing in their neighborhood.  I had a small crowd behind me almost the entire time, talking to me and with each other in fast Spanish....most of which I didn't understand, but it was still fun to show them what I was doing. 

The light and shadow pattern changed very quickly as the foreground shadow grew, and crawled up the building. The light on the building and the ground was gone in about 30 minutes. This was anticipated, so I basically established the light / shadow pattern very early, and continued to work on the drawing / value / color refinements long after the light was gone. 

When painting en plein air, you can't chase the light, or you'll never finish a painting. So deciding on the pattern from the get-go and committing to it, is an important strategy. I typically work this out in thumbnail sketches before I put brush to canvas, so I had a very good sense of how the finished painting would look. Knowing where you want to end up makes the journey much more efficient than just following paths without any idea where it leads, right?

The one thing I didn't work out in the beginning, in terms of design, is where to put the little figures. I knew these would be there, and that they provide crucial accents in the composition, but didn't decide exactly where I'd put them until I had the environment worked out. I placed the brightly lit figure in white as the primary focus, and the others around it to create a "tempo" of sorts, making sure that they varied in shapes and colors, but none overpowering the first figure. 






Another afternoon, another painting. I started out painting a parked car, but it drove away before I got very far so I started over with another parked car. That drove away, too. After that, I just resigned myself to painting a moving target. I would wait for a car to drive into the shaft of light, (there were many old American cars) tried to memorize some aspect of it (shape, placement, angle, etc) and put it down on my canvas, then repeat. Many times. Consequently, my yellow car is a composite of many Chevys, Fords, and Plymouths, and not a specific model. Still, I hope I managed to capture something of a character of the old American automobile. 

Everything else is just loosely suggested. The car isn't all that tightly rendered either, for that matter. 







This car, on the other hand, stayed put, so I was able to get more of the details accurately. I'm not a car guy so I have no idea what year / model this one is, but hopefully I didn't butcher it too badly. 

This was painted in the "poorest neighborhood in Havana" -according to our guide. Indeed, the poverty here seemed even more dire than some of the other neighborhoods we visited. Still the people came over and talked to me with big smiles, very interested in seeing this car materialize on my canvas. 

A fruit vendor parked his cart next to me and he wanted to trade me a bunch of bananas for my painting. I might have made the trade but at that time I was only halfway into the painting and it looked terrible. By the time I was done, he'd moved on. 

This painting is different from all the others in that the scene is all in diffused light. There are no strong light and shadow patterns to define the structure of anything, so I really had to pay attention to the subtle value shifts to carve the form. Drawing was obviously tricky, so it took a while before the painting started to work. The surrounding environment is, again, merely suggested. However the strokes that describe the linear perspective–the curb–were laid down very carefully. 






This painting was done in Las Terrazas, a rural village outside of Havana. Nestled among the densely forested hillsides, it was a peaceful, sleepy place. I was able to find a great vantage point that had a nice view with interesting shapes, angles, and contrasts, and in nice open shade, too, with a pleasant breeze and a little village cafe nearby where I could get espresso.

I really liked the variety of greens, the perspective, and the juxtaposition of the man-made structure against the organic mess. The red roof provided a ready-made focal point in the sea of greens. 

Drawing the house in perspective wasn't as tricky as one might think - it's just a matter of making sure all the parallel lines converge to a single vanishing point. The tricky part, for me, anyway, was painting the palm (banana?) fronds. I wanted them to be gestural, but with just enough sharp edges to define what they were without getting too tedious.  Pretty happy with the result.








On the beach outside of Havana.  The water was beautiful. The view reminded me of some of Winslow Homer's paintings. I decided to make the palm trees a little bit more expressive than they actually were - a little more wind.






Here's a shot by my friend Liza, of the sketch in progress. I worked on loose pieces of linen taped to a piece of board. The wet paintings were taken off the board and taped down to pieces of foam-core, and stacked with spacers in between paintings for transport - a pretty good system when you want to reduce the weight of your suitcase.  I still had to pay extra because my suitcase ended up being over 50lbs. That bottle of rum pushed it over.





 This is the last sketch, done on another beach. I was standing next to my friend
Tim Horn, and we pretty much painted the same view. Interesting watching him work on his painting while I worked on mine. I could see that we have different approaches to solving the same problems.

the color of the sky had a slight violet tinge to it, which threw me off a little bit. I don't normally go for literal translation of the colors I see, but I was very interested in the sky color here because it was not something I was used to.

Anyway, we only had an hour and a half to paint here, so I didn't get too fussy.




When in Havana... Cigars and rum, and music at the fabulous Hotel Nacional with artist friends. From left to right; me, Amy Williams Beers, Tim Horn, and Philippe Gandiol




All in all, Cuba was amazing and I would love to go back and spend more time exploring and painting. 'Hopefully the new administration won't make it more difficult to visit!











Saturday, October 1, 2016

Mixing Greens


At the Orchard's Edge, 14 x 16 inches, oil on linen

Mixing greens is, obviously, a huge part of painting landscapes. If you don't have control over your greens, you can't get very far, can you. When I teach landscape painting workshops, this is one of the topics that gets a lot of attention. It's basic, and one of the big hurdles that a painter must overcome in order to make your painting look believable.

One of the problems that I come across often with beginning painters is the expectation that there is somehow a recipe for mixing greens. We need to get past the thinking that there are specific ways to mix greens for an oak tree, and another for grass, still another for eucalyptus trees. 

If a student has the mindset that he just needs to mix the greens that he sees regardless of what type of tree, he's better off, for he's thinking in formal, abstract terms and not recipes. And if he can learn to differentiate one green from the next, and mix any subtle variations that he sees, that's a worthy skill. 

But painting is not about copying what you see. It's about expressing what you see / think / feel about the view in front of you or in your head. On the other hand, the skills required to paint a specific shade of green  that you want to see on your canvas is absolutely essential. Does that make sense? You don't want to copy what's in front of you, but the skills necessary to do just that, is absolutely essential. It does not mean it's OK to mix thoughtlessly and rationalize it by saying that you're expressing what you feel.   Of course you really could be expressing the green you see in your mind's eye, but only you know if you're being absolutely honest with yourself, and if you're trying to paint representationally, the painting still need to be convincing.


Still A Few Remaining, 14 x 18 inches, oil on linen


I don't mean to go into a rant on this post, but I just wanted to make that point clear. If you have to have really, really good control over mixing colors, you have to do it carefully and thoughtfully. If you've seen your favorite painter mix his greens haphazardly, it may just be because he's done it a million times and can achieve a specific result very quickly. It doesn't mean we should match his speed! You'll get faster as you gain experience, but speed should never be the goal.

Please pardon my lecturing tone - I just had a big discussion about this with a student, and I'm still in the mode and I just wanted to get all this down before I forget.

Let's get to some practical stuff.

I have the same tube colors on my palette, whether I'm painting a sunny scene or a cloudy one. I have the same set of colors, for that matter, if I'm painting a cityscape, or a figure, even. My strategy to painting varied greens is not to have specific greens out of the tube. No Viridian on my palette, no Sap Green.  Instead, I have three blues, three yellows, and three reds, and I just mix all my secondaries from these. My palette looks like this;


  • Titanium White


Blues:

  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Prussian Blue
  • Paynes Grey
Yellows:
  • Cadmium Lemon
  • Cadmium Yellow Deep
  • Yellow Ochre
Reds:
  • Permanent Red
  • Alizarin Permanent
  • Transparent Red Oxide
If you'll notice, it's a primaries palette, with three variation of each of the primaries; warm, cool, and low chroma. Whether the Prussian is warmer or cooler than the Ultramarine is up for debate, but I just think of them as green-leaning, and violet-leaning. 

A couple of things to note; Every brand has a different name for Transparent Red Oxide. It's essentially a synthetic red oxide. Most of the time I use Gamblin's Transparent Earth Red, but other brands' versions are similar. 

I sometimes substitute Ivory Black for Paynes Grey. 

I sometimes use a mixture of Cad Lemon + Transparent Red Oxide instead of Cad Yellow Deep.





Napa Farm, 9 x 12 inches, oil on linen



May be the most obvious thing I should say about mixing greens is that trees are darker than grass. Seems obvious, but may a beginning painter get this wrong. It's because they forget to compare the two. It isn't always true, to be sure, but it's true most of the time. Just observe and you see that there's a big difference. Not because Carlson said verticals are darker than the ground plane, either. (though that's true most of the time) It's simpler than that; the local values are significantly different. At least where I live, most of the trees that I see are either evergreens, Live Oaks, or Eucalyptus. Aspens and Birches can be very light in value, so it's not an automatic decision. You simply have to look and compare. 




Take the Shortcut, 12 x 21 inches, oil on linen

I tend to mix greens by identifying the hue-direction and relative value at the same time. If it's a dull, dark green, I might reach for Ultramarine + Cad Deep. Since Ultramarine is red-leaning, the resulting green is grayed down. 

If I'm looking for a lighter green that still leans toward blue, I may add white to the same mix. 

If I need it to be warmer, like in the late afternoon, I would first mix the local color green (the green of the thing itself) and start adding the color of the light - more yellows and reds. 

If I need a really intense green, I'd use a green-leaning blue (Prussian) + a green-leaning yellow (Cad Lem) and leave the reds out of it. 

I almost always mix a little bit of white in the lit areas, but not in the shadow areas. Unless I'm doing a high-key painting where there are a lot of colors  in the shadows.

You have to be careful with the white, because while it helps to lighten the value, it also cools the color. You don't want to have a cool light - warm shadow situation when the opposite is called for. 

The deepest, darkest greens are so dark that it almost doesn't matter whether it looks green or not, as long as it's harmonious and transparent. My favorite mixes here are Ultramarine + Transparent Oxide Red, or Prussian + Transparent Oxide Red. The latter actually looks green, so it's very effective.

The darkest darks are essentially where the light doesn't reach - not only the sunlight, but no ambient or reflected light reaches either. If an area is so dark that you can't make out any detail or color information, I paint it transparently. If I can still see detail or identify color, I paint it opaquely even if it's in the shadow - I don't paint details, but being able to see them is a deciding factor. 

All the greens you see in the paintings I've posted today, are mixed from the same set of tube colors that I listed. By combining different yellows and blues, and may be some reds (to warm up the color or to dull it down), you can get endless variations on the color green. 

You might jsut take an afternoon to see how many different greens you can mix with palette. You should easily be able to mix dozens of them. Just take your time, observe, and practice mixing. Once you become familiar with what kinds of greens are possible with these tube colors, the greens will become power tools for expression, rather than nasty problems to overcome each time you face the canvas!

Happy Mixing!



Thursday, September 15, 2016

Chapter Two







Chapter Two, 16 x 20 inches, oil on linen




This painting just came back from a show, so I thought I'd talk about it a little bit.  It's one of a series of paintings depicting a figure reading a book. I noticed that when someone is reading a book, they really can't stay in a contrived pose. Soon they all get into a comfortable position that they're accustomed to. And these poses tend to be very natural looking.

The color scheme is pretty simple. A blue couch, white dress, flesh. And none of them have tricky variations. 

I did make an effort, however, to integrate the hues from the three main colors. For example, the blue of the couch is used in the shadows of the dress, and in the flesh tones as well. You can see it in her thigh, and it's also mixed into the shadow colors of the flesh, which gives her face a slight blue-violet tint. The white of the dress is obviously used in all the lit areas, and in darker colors too, for the most part. The flesh tone has red and yellow in it (makes for a peachy color when mixed with white). You can see the yellow in the warmth of the light on her dress, and red mixed into the blue couch, which makes it a little bit violet. 

All this is in the interest of creating unity through color harmony. It's reasonable to define harmony as two (or more) colors containing a common denominator. The more they have in common, the more harmonious they are. So in theory, and in practice, if you have a very limited palette like I did with this one, and make sure every mixture contains at least two of the tube colors on the palette, all mixed colors will have something in common with all other mixed colors. It's very difficult, in fact, to get out of harmony. I probably had the following tube colors for this painting;


  • Titanium White
  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Cadmium Lemon
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Alizarin Crimson
  • Transparent Oxide Red

One blue, two yellows, and two reds. The darkest darks are a mixture of Ultramarine and Transparent Red Oxide, and these are kept very thin and transparent, and for the most part, on the warm side.

I tried to use a full range of values, from pure white, to the darkest color I can make with my limited palette. Turns out, Ultramarine + T.O.R can get very dark.

The textural treatment creates a lot of visual activity in an otherwise large flat areas where not much happens. It also contributes to the overall sense of unity because it becomes another common denominator throughout the picture.

How I get the textures vary, but the actual texture of the linen plays a big part of it. (I use Claessens No.66 oil primed linen.) I may drag a loaded brush lightly across the surface of the linen, like dry brush, or paint an area with thicker application and then scrape it off with a palette knife or a squeegee. I sometimes use a rubber brayer, or may be press textured paper towel into a wet surface. Anything is fair game.

There are a lot of lost edges in this painting. The seat of the couch connects with the shadows in the dress, the dress in light (stomach area) connects with her forearm, her hair connects with the dark background.  The one area where I went back and forth between losing and keeping the edge was that  of the hem of the dress against her thigh.  Not only did I decide to keep the edge, but I chose to emphasize it by giving it a sharp edge, essentially making it the primary focus.

To shift the focal point from something predictably important – the facial features in a figure painting, or the book, in this case – to something that seems to not have any relevance in the narrative itself, is something I do often. I think it can make a more compelling design, and a lot of the times it implies that theres more to the narrative than the obvious. I'm not sure why that is, exactly. But it's kind of like noticing something that's easily overlooked and what if, this insignificant thing, actually was important? It changes the narrative entirely, and takes it in a completely unexpected direction.

....or not. I don't think the viewer necessarily contemplates what that narrative is, but I like to think that this shifting of the focal point somehow contributes to the sense of mystery, and invites the viewer to linger a little longer.


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Some (Fairly) Recent Black and White Figures




Hidden Expression, 12 x 9 inches, oil on linen


I thought I'd posted these on Studio Notes but looking through my previous posts, I didn't see them - I must be confusing this with Facebook or Instagram or something. Anyway, I thought I'd share some of these black and white figures I'd been doing. It's a kind of a series that started a few years ago when I gave a class assignment to come up with a b/w study using a short pose gesture drawing as a reference. And that's how I've been working for all of these.



Unspoken, 16 x 12 inches, oil on linen

They are getting more abstract. I've been pushing in this direction in cityscapes and landscapes as well (which I'll share on another post) but with figures, I seem to get more unpredictable results. 

That's a good thing. I'm enjoying the surprises. With these, the process starts out with a fairly straightforward depiction of a figure based on a quick drawing. And then I start losing edges.

At first, I'm a little tentative. I start with the easiest place to lose an edge, which is where two dark shapes come together, like a shadow area on the figure and the dark background.

...and most of these have dark backgrounds. Nothing wrong with light background or a med value background; you can lose edges with these backgrounds as well, like this;



Light Becomes Her, 16 x 12 inches, oil on canvas


In fact, I often make decisions on whether to use a light background or a dark one, or some kind of combination of both, based on which edge on the figure I want to lose. Or perhaps more accurately, which edge on the figure I can lose and get away with.  

I always have the model lit directly with a single light source, so there's always a light side and a shadow side. And when I translate the quick drawing to a painting, I take some time to contemplate which side has a more interesting, more compelling, or more descriptive shape. 




Late Night Session, 16 x 12 inches, oil on linen


With Late Night Session, I decided that the lit side had a more interesting and descriptive edge than the shadow side, so I chose to obscure the shadow side. That meant a dark back ground was necessary. The same dark background emphasizes the light side of the figure, which works just fine.

With the painting Light Becomes Her, I lost the light side into the light background, which played up the shadow side edge. It's arguable here which side was more interesting, but I made the decision after trying both ways. In fact I almost always try both ways with each painting. Sometimes the answer seems obvious, but I try different solutions anyway. In doing so, I often come across pleasant surprises, and a richer, not-quite-controlled surface quality that I like. I also come across unpleasant surprises and a blow-up-in-your-face mess. But that's the risk you take.




Still of the Night, 16 x 12 inches, oil on linen

I call it a "risk" but it really is not a big deal because most of the time, the figures I'm painting are fairly simple, and I have a road-map in the form of the original gesture drawing, which include light / shadow pattern information. These drawings don't have any value modulation other than the fact that the shadow side is quickly filled in. 

Still of the Night has the light side of the torso as the defined edge, and the shadow side obsured - but not completely lost in most parts. The arm gets lost, and that took a little courage to lose the arm entirely but we have many a precedent since antiquity, don't we. Take Venus de Milo for example. No arms, still complete, and still beautiful. 

The head and the shoulders are less defined and has more texture. I thought that was interesting - I didn't plan it that way. I was working on the lightest highlights on her breasts and stomach, and working my way toward lesser lights, and just stopped before I rendered the whole thing, and noticed it was working without being completely modeled. 

My favorite part of this painting is that one sharp edge at her crotch, which, if painted more conventionally, would have led to the two legs being separated by a line and value shifts. Instead the legs are fused together, as if in an early stages of a marble sculpture. That's an example of a less expected lost edge. 





Figment, 16 x 12 inches, oil on linen

In Figment, I'm starting to explore distorting the drawing a little bit. I don't usually like to do this because I feel that I need some kind of structure which grounds me to a realm where something can be objectively judged. Once you allow the drawing or the anatomy to be distorted, all bets are off. You can't really say if a painting is good or not using the same yardstick. Now, one may argue, so what. Art has no rules, it's about expression, you're making a statement by deviating from the traditional, blah blah blah. Yes, I've heard all the arguments. I'm simply saying that I need that structure, and I find it in good (in a traditional sense) figure draftsmanship. I'm not talking about anyone else.





Introspect, 16 x 12 inches, oil on linen

That reflection in Introspect happened when I dragged a rubber scraper vertically over the entire figure. See, it's one of those happy accidents. I did manipulate and refine the shape of the reflection quite a bit, but the idea presented itself when I took the risk and pushed the paint around in an unconventional way. 

All the textural stuff, and the incidental artifacts are a result of similar process. I just make the "surface abuse" a part of the process. 





Midnight Repose, 16 x 12 inches, oil on linen


This series is on-going. Sometimes I take months-long breaks, but I always come back to it. As I have gesture-drawing sessions weekly, I have no shortage of reference drawings for these paintings. I think I'll be doing these a long, long, time.









Monday, June 13, 2016

From My Sketchbook



I always love seeing other artists' sketchbooks. They reveal a lot about the artists' thinking process that is invisible in his/her finished paintings. They tell us about how the artist begins to solve problems long before the brush touches the canvas. Often, they're just practices and exploratory sketches, and those too, can show us glimpses into the artist's mind. 

I don't know what my sketches show you,  but they're interesting to me. I usually don't remember when or under what circumstances many of these sketches were made - I just have so many of them and I don't remember to take written notes about the figure sessions or locations. But that's OK, I don't find those kinds of documentations relevant in these. 





I like to draw with a pen. I use a regular steel tipped writing pen readily available at Staples. Uniball or some such common brand. I like the pen because you don't have to sharpen it. And it's darker than a pencil lead. If I make mistakes, that's part of the drawing. I like to see mistakes and struggles. They're more interesting than perfect drawings.





The pen also forces you to commit to your lines. It forces you to be mindful, and the intention will show in your lines. The pencil tends to allow you to be less committed, it allows you to be timid and unsure (Not that you are timid and unsure, but if you were, the pencil drawing will reflect that.)





You can see that my lines aren't perfect. It often takes a few tries to get the contour in the reasonable range. Even then it's not accurate. Then again, precision and accuracy of the outline is not what I'm looking for. I'm interested in communicating the gesture (if I'm drawing the figure) so if I can capture something of the essence of what the body is doing, that's more important to me than copying the figure in front of me. I look for, and push the "flow" of the gesture. It's what makes a figure drawing more fluid, graceful, and it has to be imposed upon the drawing. You can't achieve fluidity and grace by copying the model. The priority must be clear, or it won't happen.






When I don't have a figure model, I'll draw cars, trees, chairs... it doesn't matter. Cars are hard to draw. You have to draw them more or less accurately, perspective and all, for them to be convincing. As they are a big part of cityscape paintings, I can't neglect practicing drawing them.





Sometimes I use markers. I only have three or four but as I keep the value structure very simple, I don't need a whole lot of makers. I wouldn't know what to do with them, anyway.

The one thing I don't like about these markers is that they bleed through the paper on my Moleskine sketchbooks, so the flip side looks terrible. I like to draw on every page, so it seems a shame to have marker bleed through to ruin a page with decent drawings–but I do it anyway. 

Non-alcohol based markers, such as Tombow won't bleed through, so may be I should be using those. There are also sketchbooks which have no-bleed marker paper, but I've yet to try them. I still have a few Moleskine sketchbooks to work through before I can spend more money on sketchbooks.






I do like how the marker indication quickly creates a sense of light and shadow. The trick is to be decisive, and don't go over the same are more than once or twice. 







Some plein air thumbnails using markers and pen. A good way to get a quick look at value organizations. 






Drawing in sketchbooks is a great way to practice when you don't have a lot of time or if you're not in your studio. You can carry a sketchbook around wherever you go. All you need is a pen to draw with.  

Five minutes while waiting in the parking lot for you child to get out of school? Draw a few cars! Ten minutes at Starbucks? Sketch people drinking coffee and staring at their phones! The opportunities to practice your craft is everywhere. You just have to do it. 




Thursday, May 12, 2016

Kevin Courter Nocturne Workshop at Terry Miura Studio!





It seems like every post begins with Boy, it's been so long since my last post! and then I list excuses like I've been busy. I guess I just have to accept that I'm undisciplined - haha~

But here's some news worth sharing - my good friend Kevin Courter (if you don't know his work, you should. Check out his work on his website) will be teaching a three-day workshop towards the end of July, at my studio!

































This workshop will focus on painting nocturnes. Join the workshop and learn how Kevin approaches the subject matter and creates his evocative evening and night scenes. It's more than color mixing - learn what really goes into a beautiful nocturnal landscape. 

For more information and to sign up, please go to Kevin's website. The workshop link is here.

This is a rare opportunity to learn from one of the best. Don't miss it!





Friday, March 4, 2016

How It Began To Tell




It Begins To Tell, 24 x 24 inches, oil on linen


OK so let's do another process thing. This painting, It Begins To Tell has had a history of sorts. Originally, it was a cityscape painting that I did for a show several years ago. After it came back from the show, it hung in my studio for a long time until I decided I didn't want to look at it anymore. So I painted over it - not that I needed to reuse the canvas, but I always find it cathartic to work on top of a painting that no longer works for me, but I still feel precious about it only because I spent so much time on it. It's kind of like terminating a relationship that's not working. It's liberating, and to give it a new life is invigorating. Here's the original painting: 




It didn't take long to cover the canvas. I was trying to do this male nude piece using a figure drawing from another session. Though I spent many hours on it, coming back to it time and again, I couldn't make it work. It just got more and more muddled and I finally decided to terminate this relationship, too.

The little black and white sketch next to the blue painting is the reference sketch for the next incarnation. The square canvas is 24 x 24.


I drew a grid on the canvas and roughly transposed the drawing, positioning it so that I'd cut off half her head - something I notice I like to do. (I did that to the blue figure too!)





I used a brush and a brown color (Asphaltum I think?) to draw the figure. Not super precise, but accurate enough to not look incorrect.




Then I used the same brown color to block in the shadow areas, so I can see the figure and the light / shadow pattern better.





I mixed two puddles on the palette, one for shadow and one for light, and blocked in the shadow side. I knew that the color would look completely different and wrong on the blue canvas, so I made sure the color relationship between the two puddles worked on a neutral surface (my palette) and trusted that it'll work out eventually, even if it looked weird in the blue context.




Then I blocked in the light side. See? It looks a little better now. The block in is very simply done. There are no subtle variations in colors, values, or edges. I like to start with simple block ins like this, and then work toward subtlety and complexity, rather than start off with all the variations and carefully building small areas. 






Here you can see I started modeling the lit side a little, by introducing a few value shifts. Forms start to turn and some anatomical information is indicated.




I started to knock in a dark background.  I haven't at this point committed to having a dark background, but seemed like a good time to try it.  The figure is modeled some more, and keyed up in value a bit. I was looking for more contrast for the sake of impact. 




I decided to go ahead and cover the background. I continued keying up the figure - I lost a lot of information in doing so, so I needed to redraw some areas. 




Hmmm. What if I had a light back ground on the light side, so that I can lose some edges?  Let's try it! I pulled some paint across using a scraper, and proceeded to push more paint around. Kind of interesting. 

I started to redefine some of the anatomical information. Some of the values are keyed back down, in the interest of creating a hierarchy of importance and impact. (Didn't want every part of the body to have the same impact)





Extended the light back ground to the shadow side, separating the figure from the background.  This looked interesting, and I thought may be I should pursue this. I went back and forth a few times. 

But in the end, the mood created by the dark background won. I reworked all areas and finally ended up with this.




I reworked all parts of the painting, and as the paint got thicker the figure became more abstract. I started to lose some of the drawing but I was OK with that. It felt to me like the distortions were necessary and "right" in this particular context. Which was puzzling to me because normally I don't like to distort the drawing. Perhaps I've opened a new door to another path to abstraction? Who knows? I really liked what I ended up with, so that's that.

By the way, the title, It Begins To Tell, is a reference to Thelonious Monk's jazz classic Round Midnight. Something I was listening to when I was painting this. I think it influenced my decision to go with the dark background.

The painting now hangs in California Museum of Fine Art in Los Angeles. I'm happy about that, too.





Monday, February 29, 2016

Anatomy of a Landscape Painting




I did another guest-blogger thing recently, this time on my friends Kim Van Der Hoek and Kelley Sanford's In the Artist Studio, a very informative art blog where they have this feature called Ask the Expert. You can find some excellent tips on this blog so I encourage you to check it out. 

The following is my contribution to In the Artist Studio, reposted here on Studio Notes. Hope you find it interesting!

I’d like to do a little analysis on some conscious decisions that I made along the way on a recent landscape painting that I did. The ideas I’m sharing may not be new to you, but hopefully they will serve as a reminder to be mindful of the “basics” no matter whether you’re a beginner or a much more experienced painter.





Back on the Road, 18 x 36 inches, oil on linen


The painting, Back on the Road, is a studio piece, and it is entirely invented. I have done similar scenes on location so I had a very clear idea of the kind of mood I wanted and what I needed to do to achieve it. 

The design is not particularly innovative or unique. I have the horizon splitting the canvas near the middle, a road taking the viewer into the picture, the big tree just off center. These are all common design elements and would be pretty boring if we didn’t do something to alleviate the predictability. 

You’ve all heard this good advice; “Don’t put the horizon right in the middle.” Why not? because it’s boring to have the canvas split in two equal halves. I agree. so why not just make them unequal by giving a lot more visual weight to one half. Sure the horizon may go right across the middle, but  all the dark masses, textures, colors, brush activity, perspective, manmade objects are on one half, and the sky as the other half serves as a big passive area, with very more subdued range of values, colors, etc.  That makes the two halves not equal.  Far from it. If you make sure that the visual impact of the two halves are unequal, having the horizon right across the middle is a non-issue, in my book. 

The road leading the viewer into the picture is a common device, too. In order to make it more interesting, I  made road curve and also go up and down small hills. Every time the road turns or the incline changes, I had to plot a new vanishing point. So the road alone has at least five–may be six–vanishing points. Tedious? Yes. Basic? Yes. Worth the effort? Yes!

The big tree is near the center, but just a little off to the right. That is a very basic design decision. However, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with having your focal point in the center, as long as it looks absolutely intentional and not because you forgot to think about it. 

Again, how you place the rest of the visual elements to create an interesting arrangement becomes critical.  

But don’t forget; just because the focal point can be in the center doesn’t necessarily mean it should be. If moving the focal point off-center allows you to improve the design, and allows you to make your statement more clearly or efficiently, by all means, don’t leave it in the middle!




 The lightest part of the sky is behind the big tree to create a greater contrast.



OK, so the big tree is my focal element. I spent a lot of time shaping that thing so that it had a good, strong silhouette.  But a strong shape doesn’t by itself make it a focal point. It needs contrast! I always think in terms of value contrasts first, so I made sure I had unmistakable value contrast at my focal point. You can see the sky behind the dark foliage is lighter than the areas flanking it. In this way, I consciously used maximum value contrast, strong silhouette, (relatively) sharp edges, and selective color (more intense yellows and oranges in this area, only), and detail (the silhouette of the foliage has much smaller shapes and calligraphic interest than any other tree) all to support my main focal point. 




There are several distinct, albeiet close, value steps in the clouds.


If you take a closer look at the sky, you can see the variations in color and value. From the lightest apricot color behind the big tree, to the shadow colors (5) and (6), there are several steps from lightest to darkest. 

Also consciously modulated are the intensity of these variations. I put the highest chroma at (1), and made sure the others didn’t outshine that color. 

I pushed the color toward red at (3) and (4). To do this, I added Cadmium Red and Alizarin to the mix. Which makes the color redder, but since these redsvare so intense, it was necessary to also knock the saturation down a notch by adding a tiny bit of blue as well.





Using softer edges for form shadows, and sharper edges for cast shadows and lit edges.



Now let’s look at forms in the sky. Because these cloud masses are dense, the light hitting them reveals forms, much like solid objects. By imagining where the clumps are forming, we can decide where light and shadow patterns go.  Since the light is coming from the right (see the cast shadows of the telephone poles?)  the right side of any “clump” would be lit, and the left side and the bottom of the same cloud mass would be in shadow. 

I tried to break up the forms a little bit, to make it more fluffy and organic, but the form principle is intact. As for edges, where you would expect to see a form shadow edge–that is, where the form turns away from the light into the shadow, I used softer edges because there is a transition from light to shadow. This includes forms turning under. 

See, it’s not so different from painting simple spheres. 

Where the lit edge shows up against a darker cloud, the edges are sharper. However, because we are talking about cloud masses, even the sharper edges aren’t razor sharp; they look sharper just in comparison to the softer turning edges. It’s all relative.

Notice the sharpest edge in the clouds are used near the focal area. Another device to bring the eye there.



So as you can see, there is a pretty good range of colors and values in the sky, and each of these variations are used purposefully, whether to highlight the focal area, or to show that the form has a shadow side, or to provide a transition between light and shadow.




Violets in the clouds taken out of context.




It does looks like many hues are represented; yellow, yellow orange, orange… all the way to a blueish gray in some of the shadow areas of the clouds. But as you know, colors are relative. What appears violet in this context may surprise you when taken out of context.


The two shadow colors may look violet in the picture, but if I had just mixed red and blue on the palette and stuck it on, it would be completely out of harmony, sticking out like a tuba in a string quartet. 

So how do you get these subtle colors? Just as I did with the reddish variations, I mixed a violet (probably made from ultramarine, ivory black, cad red, alizarin and white) into the apricot pile, a tiny amount at a time. I kept checking the value and chroma and fine tuned it until I had what I wanted. Mixing violet into a puddle of peachy color of course gave me a muddy gray, but that’s just what I needed. 





The distant hills are painted in the color of the atmosphere. (They don’t have violet gray grass growing on them)




The distant hills are more or less a darker version of the violet, with a slight increase in the chroma. I’m playing up the atmosphere by completely ignoring the local color here.  The rule is, the more atmospheric effect you have, the less relevant the local color becomes. 

Things like hills way in the distance become just variations of the atmosphere because essentially, what we are seeing is the veil created by the particulate matter in the air between us and the hills, lit by the sun and/or the ambient light of the sky. We’re essentially painting the color of the veil, not the hills behind it. 

So the atmospheric perspective used effectively will create the illusion of depth.  This is very useful in a pure landscape painting where there are no man-made objects to give us linear perspective. But often if you look, you can find elements in a landscape which you can exploit to bring in some linear perspective. 

In my painting, I have the road, which is an obvious thing since it’s man-made and we understand it as parallel lines going towards a vanishing point. I also used  things like edges of fields, how telephone poles and trees diminish in size systematically. As this was an invented landscape, things like the edges of fields are made up elements specifically to show linear perspective. The view makes perfect sense without them. But including them help to create a sense of vast distances. 





Some obvious and not-so-obvious devices to show linear perspective in a landscape.


Perhaps the least obvious, but just as important, are somewhat random-looking strokes on the ground plane that conform to the linear perspective by pointing to a vanishing point.  Especially when you have a foreground that doesn’t have much in it, it can be difficult to make it look like it’s level ground. (Or inclined, if that’s what you’re trying to depict)  In some cases, the up and down strokes used to describe grass in the foreground end up making the entire foreground vertical, like a face of a cliff. Strokes that suggest a vanishing point will not only help the ground lie flat, but it will contribute to the sense of depth.






Losing edges between tree masses.



We’ve been talking about some of the things that go into creating a more complex, believable visual environment. But not all the tools are about adding complexity. Some are about  editing out the unnecessary elements.  Simplifying the design strengthens the impact, and one of the most useful tools to move in that direction, is to combine shapes by losing edges between them.

In my painting, many of the dark tree masses connect, creating fewer shapes rather than a whole bunch of little tree shapes. Our eye doesn’t have a problem perceiving the trees as we intend them to be, even if the combined mass look more like blobs and strips. The context informs the viewer what these abstract shapes are, so we don’t need to give them unnecessary information by painting each individual tree, branch and leaf. 

The shapes being connected don’t necessarily need to be same types of objects, like tree and another tree; you can connect tree and grass, grass and barn, shadow on the side of the barn to the shadow cast on the ground… any two shapes with similar value can be connected.

Sometimes, the shapes need to be separated, even if they’re similar in value. It all depends on whether losing the edge there strengthens or confuses the image. You want your statement to be clear, but if connecting certain shapes creates a silhouette of a poodle (or whatever) that completely misleads the viewer, then may be you want to avoid that. 


OK, that’s about all I wanted to say about this painting. If you are a beginner and found this information overwhelming, let me tell you that I’ve been there, I know. And so has every great painter. They’ve all had to learn the basics, one canvas at a time. It just takes lots of practice. But remember, mindlessly going through the motions doesn’t count towards your canvas mileage. You have to be aware of what it is you’re trying to achieve in each painting. If you are, you’re more likely to spot mistakes, or elements that don’t contribute to your aim. And if you can spot them, you can fix them. 


Happy painting~