Thursday, April 27, 2017

Intermediate Watercolor 4/27/17 Getting some distance

Rule number one: Disobey all rules, except this one.

The study of composition for painters is a territory littered with rules. We are constantly told what to always do and, conversely, what to never do. "Make sure your paintings always have a center of interest". "Never put a vertical in the center of the page".  "Always put the horizon one third or two thirds of the way up the page",  "Never let a solid line run from one edge of the paper to the other".

...unless you want to.

How you choose to lay out the shapes in your pictures is potentially a very expressive feature of your work. The key is to make your choices deliberately. Be aware of what you tend to do regarding composition so that you use it to support your intentions.
It's a good idea, every once in a while, to pin up a few of your paintings and stand back to observe what you do deliberately and what you do automatically. I like to ask myself questions that focus my awareness. For example, looking at this crop of abstracts, I might ask, "Do the shapes touch the frame?"

Hmmmn, the majority of my shapes are touching the frame.

"Are the shapes parallel to the frame?" Yes! Very interesting.

"Are the corners of the page active?" Pretty much.

If I notice something in one painting that I especially like, or something I don't like, I can assess whether I tend to do that thing regularly. For example, I see in the last painting, above, that I put weight along the bottom edge, like a landscape, and put blue at the top. Are all my paintings really landscapes?
It seems to depend which way I look at them. This one, for example, looks very much like a landscape if I turn it 90 degrees. The green shape becomes a cloud when it's floating across the top of the painting.

You might wonder if any of this matters. I mean, so what if my abstract paintings reference the landscape? 
For me, the point of this activity is to take charge of a major part of my own work. I want to reveal what may be obscured by being so close, and take advantage of what composition provides. 

Try this for homework, and bring in a painting or two that you have seen with new eyes. Please take notes, so you can remember what was revealed.

Beginning Watercolor Homework 4/27/17 Seeing Layers: The Role of Value

Begin by making a value scale. A strip of 140# watercolor paper about 3" x 8" will work well.

1) Paint the whole strip #9 (the lightest grey), except for a patch left white at one end.

2) Let the strip dry, then paint the whole thing #8, except for a patch of #9 and white.

3) Let it dry, then paint the whole thing #7, except for the patches of #8, #9 and white.

4) Continue getting darker by increments, always leaving a patch of the previous layer. It's OK if the steps are not perfectly even,  as long as each one is darker than the last.

Don't leave white between your patches.

Five Value Monochrome Study
Here's a n example of the process for making a quick  5 value monochrome study. With a hair dryer handy, you should be able to  make one in fewer than twenty minutes, once you get done reading all this text, that is. The process is very similar to making a value scale.

What role does value play in the relationships between the big shapes?
As a first treatment of a new subject, it would be hard to find a better exercise than a value study. Understanding the dark/light relationships between the big shapes in your composition is an essential step to making a painting that is cohesive. A five-value version  (white, light grey, middle grey, dark grey, black) can be done quite quickly over a simple drawing of the big shapes. It also provides good practice for seeing in layers. 
Look for an image that resolves nicely into just a few shapes - no more than a dozen.  The major shapes are those that must appear separated in order to understand where things are in the illusory space. You can use one of these photos or one of your own. 

Choose a color (just one) straight from the tube, that can get dark enough to represent black. If you have a tube of black, by all means use that. It’s better not to make a color by mixing, since that introduces another variable. This exercise is designed to focus on value only. Similarly, all paint should be applied to dry paper, to keep wetness from distracting your attention from value.
If you are tempted to get fussy about edge quality, or texture, or any kind of detail, remember, this is NOT A PAINTING, and it is supposed to be too simple. A door may be important, but the doorknob probably isn’t. I have seen some so-called value studies that are, in fact, very carefully observed monochrome paintings. They may be quite beautiful, but as tools designed to reveal the essential elements of the scene, they are not very useful. The best way to find out if something needs to be in the picture is to leave it out.
After each step, while you’re waiting for the paper to dry, assess how complete the illusion of light and space and substance feels.

Light is an important component of this image. Isolating the variable of Value should reveal the role it plays in creating the illusion of sun and shadow.


In your drawing of the big shapes, try to keep the number down to ten, or fewer. The profile of each shape is all you need to draw. The idea is to locate the shapes, not to describe them.

Starting with the light grey, paint the entire page, except for any shapes that need to stay white.
Is there a feeling of light in the study? What about space? Substance?

 When that layer is dry, paint the whole page middle grey, except for the lights and the whites. If you can’t decide whether a shape should be light or middle, round it off one way or the other. The finished study will reveal whether you made the right choice.
Again assess the state of the illusion: Light? Space? Substance?

· When layer two is dry, apply the dark grey over everything except the middle, light and white shapes. Now that the background figure has a dark grey layer, and the section of wall behind him does not, notice how effectively the two separate, compared to the previous stage.

Finally, paint in the darkest darks.
The role of the darkest darks in creating an illusion of light, space and substance is clear even in a radically over-simplified image.

Where do I need more subtlety or specificity?
When the value study is finished, it can be compared to the source image or the scene to see where adjustments need to be made. Having come way over into the realm of too little information, we now have a basis for judging how much more needs to be included.  Don’t skip this step.  A study, as the name implies, is a learning tool. Your painting process will be more efficient and your paintings more cohesive if you extract all the lessons you can from your preliminary work.
In the photo, the two mounds of dirt are so similar in color and value it seemed sensible to treat them as a single shape. But the study reveals that it would be better to separate them, making it clearer that the one on the right is in front. It is also clear that the mound on the left does not separate sufficiently from the wall in the background. It looks ok where there is a shadow behind it, but where the wall is sunlit only the pencil line separates the two shapes. Perhaps lightening the left mound a little could solve both of these problems. Five values, in this case, are not quite enough. This is an example of the need for more subtlety.
The little raised frame beside the doorway that catches the sun is a fine feature  of the photo that I miss. It does an important job, describing the light. It is a bit of specific information that will add significantly to the picture without becoming a distraction.
It is surprisingly easy to see what is missing and what needs to be changed when the image has been over-simplified. If I had made a complex first attempt it would be difficult to know which of the (too) many elements were not necessary.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Beginning Homework 4/19/17 Seeing in Layers

For this week's homework we'll use only two images. I'd like you to paint both of them. Start by identifying the major shapes.

This is a well-behaved image. It resolves nicely into only three shapes; sky, bluff and grassy plain. Feel free to eliminate that bush in the middle of the plain, or move it where it doesn't get tangled up in the bluff.

This one can be seen as having four shapes; three triangles along the bottom, and the large rectangle that makes up the whole top.

Each of these images could be approached by first looking for the lightest tone in each shape, and painting that as an overall wash. The road in the one above, for example, would be all the light pink of the sunlit spots. The grassy triangle would be entirely the light yellow green. The brown triangle on the right is not very light anywhere, so it could be painted the dark brown that will be its final tone. What about the big rectangle? When you look past the mid-values and the darks there is a large area of light yellow-green that stretches from one side to the other, and a very pale blue - almost white - along the top. It can be painted as one shape with two pale colors.

 That takes care of the first layer, the lights. Next comes the layer of middle values. Look at the road again. Most of the first layer is covered with a wash of cool middle value. There are just a few holes in that second layer that leave the first layer visible. The grassy triangle is also mostly middle value, with one light strip at the near end and one more the far end. Each successive layer goes on top of the previous one, usually leaving some of that earlier layer visible. The darkest darks come last, since they will cover the middle value shapes and the lights. It is much harder to get a light to go on top of a dark. You would need opaque paint to pull that off.

As you finish each layer, take a moment to assess the effectiveness of the illusion of light and space. When do those illusions become convincing? Is it when the first layer is applied, or is it later?

Paint both of these, if you have time. As much as possible, try to keep the whole page at a similar degree of completion.

Read this again before you start painting!
Have fun.

Intermediate Homework 4/19/17 Separating Shapes in Space

It was really fun watching everyone paint this afternoon! A new batch of photos seemed to ignite our confidence. I get the idea that the wonderful color combinations you all came up with have something to do with clearly seeing the structure of your images.
It's probably best not to overthink this. let's just dive in to some more new images.
Here are a few from my recent trip to Melaque.
Shape first!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Intermediate Watercolor Homework 4/13/17 Abstracting the landscape: Shape first, then NO texture

Really. No texture.

How important is the detail?
Working from the notion that the best way to find out if something needs to be in the picture is to leave it out, let's try letting go of the details altogether.

If a shape in your scene is full of texture, try summarizing it into an overall color and value.

Right in the upper middle of this photo there's a yellow-green shape that runs all the way off the top of the page. If you lean in close you can see that it is made of many, many tiny shapes. If you lean back, however, and squint a little, there is just one shape there. OK, I know you can still see variation within the shape, but I'm suggesting that you let go of the subtleties and think in general terms. If it pains you to ignore all that information, bear with me at least till you can see what the scene looks like with everything over-simplified. If you miss the detail then, you can make a note of that and devise a way to symbolize it. If you don't miss it, you don't need it. This is where it's useful to remember that you can apply the paint so its natural fluidity provides a degree of variability
As a simple shape, that patch of yellow-green still has qualities that you might want to keep. Notice its value, for example. Is it darker, lighter or the same as the blue? What kind of edges do you want the shape to have? Holding on to color or value makes it easier to let go of detail.

In this painting the shapes are very simple, but the  surface is lively. Allowing the separate shapes to interact a bit (or a lot!) lets the fluidity of the paint create non-specific complexity.

Shape first, then texture, if necessary. Here, not much seemed necessary.

Here are a few images that resolve easily into relatively few shapes. Start with a quick study that you think has too little information. Use the study to decide where you need more interest. Paint with most of your attention devoted to the richness of the paint. The subject matter will take care of itself!


Beginning Watercolor Homework 4/13/17 The sky in context

The sky is a very forgiving subject. The variety of shapes and colors that can occur in the sky is so broad, you rarely need to correct whatever kind of marks you make to represent it. As soon as there's enough context to suggest that the bottom of the page is the ground, the washes and strokes you've made along the top must be a sky.

Try this experiment as a warm-up:
Remember the components of the skies we made in class? There were two layers of grey (light and middle value), some blue and some white. We had clouds in mind when we painted yesterday, but imagine if you could put those brushstrokes in a big shaker, shake it all up and toss the marks arbitrarily onto the paper. I think it would still be recognizable as a sky once you put a strip of land below it.
To test this theory, wet a few places at the top of the paper, leaving the rest dry. Now make some strokes and washes of the colors like the greys and blue and white from class without regard for what goes where. You could throw a little very pale warm in there, too.
If we want to keep this experiment strictly scientific, it's important not to correct your sky. The idea is to find out how broad the guidelines are for this very common subject, and what the role of the context is in making the sky believable.

Now add the context. Even just one stripe of land will be enough to see if your random mess resolves into a sky, but feel free to put in some other familiar landscape elements; Hills, trees, bushes. It helps to make something tall enough to stick up in front of the sky, like a tall tree, a steeple or a fence post. Stringing some phone wires can be very convincing. This should all take just a few minutes (it's the correcting that  takes the most time).

If you have time, make some more skies. Please keep the fiddling to a minimum. How else would you discover the real range of what works?

The purpose here is to stay mindful of the viewer's willingness to meet us halfway. Everyone likes to have a part to play in interpreting a subject.

Here are some paintings and photos of skies that may stretch your idea of what kind of shapes and colors will be acceptable:

Tom Hoffmann

George Post

Tom H

Rex Brandt