Friday, October 19, 2018

Beginning Watercolor 10/19/18 Thinking a couple of layers ahead

In class, we've been working on thinking and seeing in layers. Understanding a scene or an image as a sequence of layers allows us to foresee how what we're doing now will affect what comes later, and vice-versa



Eugen Chisnicean

Imagine what this painting looked like when only the first layer was there. There was a sky, but not any background buildings. The whole street and sidewalk level was wet stripes of warm red, cool blue and neutral grey, with no identifiable subject matter. The light blue was destined to become awnings, cars, and figures, but not till the  first layer dried and the middle value shapes and the dark layer were applied. 



Shari Blaukopf

Shari Blaukopf had two or more layers in place before her paper dried. The sky, for example, started as an overall light grey wash. The artist then put in the red where the trees were going to be, and the darker grey just below. It wasn't until the darker middle value shapes were applied (the trunks and branches) that hard edges began to show up. The final layer comprises just a handful of small dark strokes on dry paper.

Here are a few images that can be kept soft-edged for a layer or two. See how long you can wait before you start giving definition to the lights and light middle values.
Have fun!



















Intermediate Watercolor 10/19/18 Symbolic Realism

 "Symbolic Realism" is a good name for paintings that feature images that are more about what we know or feel than what we see.



George Post

Anyone would immediately recognize these shapes as trees, even though they do not describe what the trees look like. They are more about trees in general than specific trees. The artist has created symbols that rely at least as much on shared knowledge of the subject as they do on careful observation.

Unfortunately, the term "Symbolic Realism" has already been attached to another type of image, altogether.

Frida Khalo


So, I'm looking for another term for the kind of symbolism I mean. Any ideas? For now, let's see if looking at a bunch of images can get us all on the same track. Gracias y adios, Frida. 



George Post
The array of rectangles in the background adds up to the feeling of overlooking a city. Post has observed what the buildings have in common more than how they are different.



George Post


Sterling Edwards

The simplicity of treatment Edwards displays comes from finding the features that the pueblo buildings have in common.



 George Post


Sterling Edwards
The halo effect surrounding the rocks is more about the feeling of being there than what you might actually see



Tom Hoffmann


Tom Hoffmann


In all of these paintings the subject matter has been distilled down to the essential information. Most of what has been removed was optional. If you were painting from life, you could observe what the background looks like when you focus on the foreground.


Here are some photos that invite refinement. See what you can do.











Add caption



Monday, October 8, 2018

Intermediate Homework 10/10/18 All Painting is Abstract. All Abstraction Tells a Story

This is the homework for the coming week. I'm posting it early because I'm heading to Portland for a workshop. Scroll down to find the entry for 10/3.


As we let go of the need to establish an illusion on the page the balance of form and content shifts distinctly toward form. Without narrative content to occupy the viewer’s attention, it becomes more important than ever for the paint itself to be worth looking at. Freshness and clarity, fluidity and interaction of colors, - the qualities that attract us to watercolor in the first place – are now the subject matter of the painting.

How do we decide what works best when we let go of the usual standards? Are there any guidelines, or is abstraction a painting free-for-all?
Nathan Fowkes has let go of texture and specificity, but he keeps a good grip on value and color.



In fact, the same standards that apply to realists are equally important to abstract painters. A painting with too many shapes, for example, feels busy whether it is a cityscape or a non-representational collection of forms. Wherever your work resides on the continuum from realism to abstraction it will benefit from being clear and deliberate in your use of value, composition, color and edge quality. As you extend the range of your comfort zone you can keep one foot in familiar territory.

 The transition from realism to abstraction is a process of combining what you know from your previous experience with experiments into the unknown.



The pattern of light, middle and dark is thoughtfully constructed, just as it would be if this were a painting of a barn.

There is as much of a story being told in an abstract painting as in a realist image. It may be a story about rectangles touching the frame of the painting, or pale, soft-edged shapes being traversed by hard-edged diagonals. The wonderful irony is that this kind of narrative is also present in even the most hyper-realist work. The difference is that in abstraction, the viewer is invited to pay attention to it.

The patterns of marks you make, the distribution of warm and cool color, the dark/light shapes, how shapes relate to the frame of the page, all the design decisions you make play a much more obvious role than they do in realist work. Most of these decisions have to be made deliberately, painting-by-painting, or we tend to fall into making the same default choices every time (the offset cross, the centered horizon).
Having said that, it is also important to leave room for surprises. Break your own rules, just to see what happens.
Some painters will naturally start exploring without guidelines and discover what works and what doesn’t. Others will want to begin with some deliberate structure in place, like keeping the shapes parallel to the edges of the paper.



For homework, do whatever you want.

Beginning Watercolor 10/10 Juggling Color and Value

This is next week's homework posted a couple of days early because I'm heading to Portland for a workshop. For the homework for 10/3 scroll down.


Looking at an image or a scene as a series of layers can be an entirely new way of seeing. Now that you have all had some practice deconstructing a photo in terms of layers of value, let's try seeing both value and color at the same time.



To make the process simpler, begin by identifying the major shapes. These are the shapes that need to be separated from each other in order to understand where they are in the illusory space. In the image above, the building on the right is farther away from us than the school bus, but closer than the dark green hill. To get the building to separate from its neighboring shapes it must be different from them in terms of value and/or color (for this exercise let's treat all edges between shapes as hard edges. Two variables are enough.)
For each of the major shapes, choose a color and value that will separate it from the adjacent shapes. Try to ignore the texture. The job is to deliberately oversimplify the information. The windows on the building, for example, could be left out without undermining the feeling of space. Put them in if you want, but first establish what you see when you squint. 
How about the bus? Think light, middle, dark. The whole shape can be painted the sunlit local color, except the windshield. Then, when that's dry the right side gets a second layer of middle value. Then a few dark windows and stripes, if necessary. 
Remember, this is a study. We want to find out if the illusion of light and space can be established with a minimal treatment. That will reveal what really needs to be in the painting. When the shapes have all been blocked in, ask where you would want greater subtlety or specificity. Make notes, but don't embellish the study tool much. Leave it too simple. The best way to find out if something belongs in the painting is to leave it out. If you have time, use the study as a road map for a proper painting.




How many shapes does the pile of logs represent? The key word is "pile".

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Intermediate Watercolor 10/4/18 Hold On Here, Let Go There

 Do you work from photos this time of year? If so, join the club. If not, I salute you. Given how many painters use photos for source material, I want to spend some time identifying the skills that help us not be bossed around by the camera.
Humans and cameras don't see the world the same way. First of all, unlike cameras, we do not see everything in focus at the same time. It may feel like we do, when our eyes flit so quickly from one spot to another. The instant we stop to observe part of the overall scene our eyes adjust to see that part clearly. It happens so fast it seems like nothing changed. Actually, most of what is visible to us at any given moment is out of focus!
Now that everyone has a camera in their pocket there are more photos than hamburgers. Most of these are point and shoot images, which tend to be in focus from foreground to back. It is useful to remember that this is a departure from human vision. Just because the photo shows us everything clear and sharp doesn't mean we have to paint it like that.



The full depiction of depth in this photo is in focus. Would there be any benefit to choosing soft edges in places before starting to interpret it as a watercolor?

It is often rewarding to alter the complexity of a distant feature, simplifying it despite how complex it may be in the photo. Here's a cityscape by David Taylor:


Those buildings in the background probably displayed much more information. Why do you think the artist chose to simplify them?

For homework, find a photo with everything in focus, or one chock full of information from foreground to background. Experiment with intentional changes. Keep track of what you were hoping to accomplish. If an alteration or adjustment doesn't have the desired effect, try changing a different variable. For example, what would Taylor's painting look like if those distant buildings were warm instead of cool?

                                   



This is a beautiful spot, for sure, but the space gets a bit ambiguous in the upper left quadrant. What might you do to get the foreground to emerge more obviously from the background?

Beginning Watercolor 10/4/18 Seeing in Layers

In class we practiced making monochrome value studies. Those who were there were just about ready to begin making a color version of their scene. Jump right ahead to that step if you like, or use one of the photos here to start over, doing another monochrome study, then proceed to the color version.
The monochrome studies should have only hard edges, but the color version can have whatever sort of edges you please.
If you haven't already done so, please take the time to make a 10 step value scale. Each successive layer involves more pigment, not just an additional layer of the lightest color.

Understanding a scene as a series of layers is mostly about assigning relative values to the major shapes.

Vecinos, Oaxaca
I would remove the scooter from the scene, and make the lamp post taller, so it doesn't get lost against the rooftop shapes. Maybe move that wire, too, so it doesn't go right into the corner of the frame.

With only a little rounding up or down, the scene above resolves very nicely into just 3 values. Make a monochrome study of the image where every shape is either light, middle or dark in value. You can indulge, if you like, in more than one middle value. The red tile roof, for example, is lighter than the wall shadow, but both are lighter than the dark openings. One is middle value, the other is dark middle.
Use a single color, straight from the tube, not a mixture of colors. Choose one that gets dark enough to look truly dark, like the doorways in the photo. Carbazole violet would work, or pthalo, or use black, if you have it.
Here's another possibility. This one may require more than one degree of middle value, too.


Check the value of the "white" barn.

Using your monochrome study as a road map, make a color version using an expanded palette. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Intermediate Homework 9/26/18 Letting the illusion go


Many of the painters I know see their work evolving from the realistic toward the non-representational. Moving to abstraction involves a shift in emphasis from creating a convincing illusion to an acknowledgement of the fact that there really is no space, no light, and no substance there, only paint on paper. That paint, the  form of it, becomes the subject of the painting. 
Ironically, the further one goes on the continuum from “realism” toward abstraction, the more the emphasis shifts toward what is really there. In this way, abstraction is more real than realism. It can be revealing to consider the titles artist give to their work in this regard.



This very dramatic image by Emil Nolde is simply called, Mountainscape. It may have been painted from life, or it may have been entirely invented. We can't tell from the title. 
Most likely, something other than the location of this scene was most important to the painter. Try covering the mountains and just looking at the sky. Now do the opposite. Which would you say is given emphasis, form or content?



                                Lake Whatever                            Tom Hoffmann
      

This scene, which was imagined rather than observed, does not need to be identified. The space has been allowed to flatten to the extent that all the component shapes are assembled right on the picture plane. As far as a convincing feeling of space or light in a particular place is concerned, whatever!




                         Linda Hoffman Snodgrass                           Dreaming of Iridescent Clouds

To what extent has the artist let go of the illusion of light or space in this painting? The word “Dreaming” in the title suggests that she is not attempting to describe a particular place. In fact, she could be dreaming of a river, mountains, or activity on a microscope slide. The important thing is that the forms are not identifiable. We do not need to know what they are to enjoy them.

Using the photos that follow as a starting place, explore the territory that opens up as you let go of the specifics. 









Beginning Watercolor 9/26/18 Monochrome Value Study

Please read this slowly before you start painting.


In the image above, which is darker, the door of the shack or the shadow on the bow of the boat? Where does the sunlit grass fall in the range of dark to light? It can be difficult to tell, especially with color complicating the task. A value scale would make this much easier. Here's how to make a rough but effective version:
Cut a piece of watercolor paper about 8 x 3 inches. With pencil, divide the paper into 10 strips that run across the narrow dimension.
Leave the bottom strip white, and paint the rest of the paper very light gray. Dry the paper.
Leave the strip next to the white one light gray and paint the rest of the paper a little darker.
Continue making layers and leaving consecutive strips until your last layer is a single black strip at the top. Ideally, each step on your scale would be an equal size jump from the previous one, but the scale will still work just fine even if your steps vary in how much they change.


Now use the scale to measure the value of the door, the shadow on the bow, and the grass. Which one is darkest?

For homework, find an image that resolves into just a few major shapes - fewer than 12, let's say. You can use the Cape Cod scene, above, or this one, below, or one of your own.


Make a monochrome value study that deliberately over-simplifies the image. Just shapes, for example, no texture. 
The following is a fairly long excerpt from my book. It describes a process for making a five value (white, light gray, middle gray, dark gray and black) study in monochrome. It may be that the image you select can be nicely simplified down to only three values; white, middle and black. Your first job is to decide which is the appropriate treatment.
Remember, please, that the whole study should take no more than 20 minutes. If it takes longer, you are probably trying too hard to make it a handsome product. It's supposed to be kind of dumb. If it's too simple, it will tell you where you need more subtlety. Don't use the same image I used to illustrate the process.
Then, paint a color version of the image you choose. Limit your palette to one red, one yellow and one blue. Any combinations of these three colors are welcome.

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. You can use the one you brought home from class, or one of your own. Choose a color (just one) straight from the tube, that can get dark enough to represent black. 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 Valueshould 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 tolocate 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.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Intermediate Watercolor Homework 9/20/18 Simplify, Exaggerate, Invent

It is possible to hold on to the essence in a scene by letting go of some of the optional information. Often subtle details can be simplified or eliminated altogether to give emphasis to the essential aspects . 



The dramatic sky stands out in this photo, as does the graphic, etching-like texture of the trees and the water. Both are features I wanted to see in a painted version. The overall spooky feeling appealed to me. I wanted to make sure some of that came through (W. B. Yeats is buried about 100 yards away from this spot).


The shapes of the clouds and the water are given emphasis by simplifying them. Complex contours are reduced to hard-edged geometry. The drama is increased by exaggerating value contrast and color temperature. The spooky graveyard mood is definitely there.

Sometimes reducing the complexity of a scene is a worthy goal in itself just for the pleasure of seeing how simply the content can be stated.





The trees in the painting are more symbolic than realistic. They are brushstrokes more than they are trees, which serves to enlist the viewer as a participant in the interpretation.

See what the following images suggest to you. Are there aspects you might exaggerate to enhance a feeling? Are there features you could simplify, or some that you could let go of to make the ones you keep more important?








Have fun!