Sunday, May 26, 2013

Everyone's Homework 5/25/13 Careful/Carefree

We've been practicing identifying where in the sequence of layers a part of a painting gets its final definition. When, in other words, should the viewer be able to tell what they're looking at? Seeing this in advance frees you to apply paint in a carefree manner, because you know that a later stage of the process will bring it into focus.

In Rex Brandt's Mud Puddle, take a look at the white building on the right. Before the half-dozen dark strokes were applied that building was pretty casually represented - no hard edges, one loose, juicy wash. The artist knew that those darks that come next would make his first layer meaningful, so he did not trouble to make sure we could tell what was being depicted. My hero!
The pleasure the viewer gets from being allowed in on the process is a big part of our job. This is what makes the conversation two-sided.

Can you picture this scene without the darkest darks? How well-defined would the shapes need to be when the first layer goes on? If the red rectangle on the left bled into the blue one above it, do you think the dark shapes and lines could pull it all together?

Here, some of the lights that would be reserved right in the beginning of the painting sequence, like the rippled edge of the awning, or the long, white fascia that runs along the top of the building are doing the work of giving definition to the shapes. They would have to be done somewhat carefully. But everything else is defined by the final layer darks, which frees your brush when you are suggesting the complexity of the figures and the produce. The viewer does not need to know that those shapes are pineapples and those are onions until the color gets surrounded by the strong darks. Or, maybe not even then. Thois image would be a good one to zoom in on, cropping to make fewer shapes (light, middle, dark).

Think your way into an image or a scene from this point of view. Take a few notes, and have some fun.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Intermediate Watercolor Homework 5/16/13 Guidelines for what not to paint

Some painting subjects translate readily into the washes and strokes of watercolor. The cast shadow of a telephone pole, for example, might want to be clean and simple: a single stroke, with no texture. The shadow of a tree, however, might involve hard and soft edges, lacy dappling of lights and darks, a warm glow around the cool strokes...

Such complexity can lead to all kinds of trouble. Simplification seems to be the order of the day, but how do you know what to include and what to let go of? Experience helps, of course. You can riffle through your mental Rolodex till you find "Tree shadow/dappled sun", and use your tried and true approach. The thing about experience, though, is that it takes so long to get.

There are a few things you can do right away. First, flip the switch from "Content" to "Form". Look at your subject as shapes, patterns, colors, warm/cool, dark/light, instead of seeing it as subject matter.

Let's simplify this scene by rounding off the number of values to just three: light, middle and dark. If we started by calling the white paper the light, the first layer would be the middle value shapes. Asking a few questions about form will provide simple guidelines for making the pattern of those middle value marks:
What percentage of the page is middle value?
How are the middle value shapes distributed on the page?
What kind of shapes are they?

Proportion, Distribution, Pattern.

What were the answers you came up with? Those are the instructions for how to paint the first layer. Try using the same questions for the darks.

If you made a quick study using this approach, you would not need to shift into Content Mode at all. Your treatment would be abstract. Then you could assess the result to see where you would like more subtlety or specificity, and embellish till you are satisfied.

Look for a subject that seems too complicated (it shouldn't be hard to come up with one), and give it a try.

Beginning Watercolor 5/16/13 Which came first...?

You’ve all probably heard me say that you shouldn’t give up on a painting until you’ve put in the darkest darks, because you don't know how effective the illusion will be without those powerful dark strokes.
I keep waiting for someone to ask, “if you can’t tell whether the painting is any good until the darks go down, why not put them in first?”
It’s a very good question, and I’m ready for it. You should put them in first, just not on the same piece of paper as the painting. By all means, make a study that maps out the pattern of only the darks. It will help you see where the lights and middle values are headed, and give you an idea of where you need to be careful in the early stages.

San Pedro y San Pablo Etla

This image has plenty of strong darks. A quick study may reveal how much of the narrative they carry.

Darks only

An altered photo makes it clear that the darkest darks in this image tell most of the story.  A rough,  painted version of the pattern would provide the same information, with the added benefit of a physical memory of how it could be painted.
Edge of Town, Oaxaca
It is not so obvious what role the darks play in this image. I'll leave it to you to find out.
For homework, find a photo or a live scene that you would like to paint, and make a quick study of the darks alone. When you are ready to paint a proper picture, keep the study handy, so you can be reminded that the darks will add substance to what may seem hopelessly flat.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Beginning Watercolor Homework 5/10/13 The Illusion of Space

From our elevated viewpoint in the park, it was easy to tell which of the overlapping landforms was farthest away, and which was closest. To translate that sense of depth into the language of watercolor, we can practice seeing the scene in terms of the basic formal variables that are the tools of the medium. We can manipulate relative value, color, edge quality and composition to create a relationship of the major shapes that describes their placement in space. How many variables and what degree of intensity we employ for each determines the impact of the illusion.

Joseph Zbukvic
If you look at Joseph Zbukvic's scene of Venice in terms of foreground, middle and background, the shapes resolve into far fewer than there seem to be at first. Consider how he has used value to separate them from the adjacent shapes. Where has he used both value and color? How about edge quality? Overlapping composition?

The awning stands out more boldly against the sky than the domes do. The shoulders of the man on the left reveal his position relative to the base of the statue more obviously than his arms. What has the artist chosen to do with the variables to show us where everything is?

For homework, try turning up and down the degree to which you use the basic variables to separate shapes. For example, make a sketch of a shape overlapping another of the same color, but a different value. Then make another where the same shapes are closer in value. Try varying the number of variables you use at one time. Let your shapes be different in color, as well as value, for instance.
Your shapes can be based on a realist image, or entirely abstract. The idea is to practice fine tuning the extent of the feeling of space between the shapes. 
If you want to, and you have time, try applying what you observe to a simple scene, or an arrangement of shapes on a page.

Intermediate Watercolor Homework 5/10/13 What Matters

It may seem obvious that just because you see something, it doesn't necessarily belong in your painting, but, somehow, we often forget. What we know well when we are contemplating can evaporate as soon as we begin to actually paint.
Even if you have the detachment to wonder whether the bit you're about to paint needs to be generally stated or richly detailed, how do you know the answer? How can you tell what is essential information and what is optional?
First of all, it helps to remember to squint. With your eyes narrowed way down, similar colors blend together. The value range is compressed. Separate shapes merge and become part of a simpler pattern of darks and lights. Basically, what remains visible when you squint is enough to tell the story. Anything more than that is embellishment - you can add it if you want to, but the viewer will get along fine without it.
If your painting has a definite focal point, There's another tool that makes deciding what matters easier. Focus on the center of interest. With your attention fixed there, use your peripheral vision to observe the  part of the scene you want to treat next. While the focal point is detailed, the less important parts of the big picture are relatively indistinct. This is the appropriate way to treat the areas that play a supporting role. If you shift your focus to each shape as you prepare to paint it, everything will be competing for the viewer's attention.

Bound                       David Taylor
The trees and buildings in the background of David Taylor's cityscape are deliberately simplified. No doubt he could see more specific information, but he included just enough to tell us what we need to know. Standing where we are, we don't need to know much about the window treatment of the distant buildings, or the leaves on the trees. What matters is provided. What doesn't is left up to us.

For homework, look at a scene with an eye toward the role each part plays in the big picture. Can you afford to give the paint room to run, as Taylor has with his trees?

Your job is to allow the paint to be in charge as much as possible. The guidelines you establish for what matters come from your intelligent assessment of the job each passage does. With those few standards in place, the paint can do no wrong. Have faith.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Beginning watercolor Homework 5/2/13 Who's in Charge?

Being part of a community of painters is unmistakably valuable, as is having a retinue of references, resources and influences. But in the moment of deciding where the next stroke goes, we are all on our own. Sooner or later we have to take on the role of director of our painting practice.

Time spent honing awareness skills provides a foundation for becoming your own best teacher. If you narrow your focus down to one thing at a time, it is possible to clearly observe how the choices you make effect your work.

The first step is to discover which single feature of your work needs attention. Take a good look at the copy you began in class. Is there a part of the page or an aspect of the whole piece that feels uncertain to you? Are you confident about color, value, wetness?

Choose one variable that you want to strengthen, and make a plan for an exercise that will direct your attention toward a solution.

For example, if you see that the space in your picture feels ambiguous, check to see if the shapes separate from each other adequately. If they don't, make a study in which at least two of the main variables (color, wetness, value, composition) are at work to separate each shape from its neighbors.

If you suspect that your color choices may not suit the subject, design a study that puts deliberate limits on the number of colors you use.

This process is not as analytical as it may sound. Each of us has a store of visual experience that informs our decisions. What is your instinctive sense of where your painting needs work?

The homework is to zero in on something you want to work on. One thing. Trust your gut, and get to work. Be prepared to tell the group what you chose to do. That's it.
Have fun.
Godwit                                         Tom Hoffmann, 2012

Intermediate Watercolor 5/2/13 The Zone

The structures at Gasworks park are much too complicated for any properly crazy painter to try to duplicate, which is a GOOD thing. The big shapes are familiar enough to tell a lot of the story, without all the specific information of which pipe goes where.
The color is another very accommodating factor, since that rusty neutral can be made by mixing any pair of complimentaries.
Everyone did plenty of color and shape work at the park yesterday (if you weren't there, you can use the hundreds of photos that google provides). Use your studies to design the shapes and to decide on a limited palette.
This is an opportunity to set up boundaries for your exploration that pretty much assure that you can do no wrong. Rule number one is, "Do not correct anything".

Design a group of big shapes based on the gasworks. Zoom in or out, as you please.

Make a mixture of your complimentary colors that will serve as a rough representative of the local color of the structures.

Paint the whole shape with a very wet wash of your mixture.

Use the component colors of your mix to make the shadow shapes and the calligraphic railings, seams, rivets and ladders.
Do not correct your brush strokes. Let the paint do whatever it wants. Have faith. You have established enough control by prescribing the shapes and the colors. The marks you make with the component colors will be informed by what you notice about pattern, proportion and distribution.

When the dust has settled, you can mix up a strong dark within your chosen palette, and use it to create additional structure and boundaries, as needed. This is a final layer. Use it sparingly. The difference between "correcting" and these final darks is that one involves removing paint that you judge to be wrong, and the other places an additional layer of punctuation marks on the sentences you have already written.
Have fun.