Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Everyone's Homework: Careful/Carefree

When you can look at a scene and see it as a series of layers made of washes and strokes, there is information there that might tell you when you need to be careful and when you can be carefree.

In this scene, for example, the small adobe building in the background has a dark line all across its top. That outline gives definition to the shape, establishing an edge that would show a viewer exactly where the top of the building is, even if the first layer had been painted very casually. Now look at the bottom of that same building. See how the dark shadow in the street defines half of the bottom edge of the building? And there's another shadow in the lower left corner that neatly establishes the rest of the border of the rectangle. These dark shapes that surround the basic form of the little building would make its presence very clear no matter how far "outside the lines" the initial layer had been painted. Even if it had bled into the sky with a soft edge, the darks would pull it together. Seeing this in advance would allow you to be quite carefree in the early stages of a painting.
"Why does that matter?", you may ask.
The less careful you need to be, the more attention you can devote to laying down gorgeous, juicy paint. When your brushwork is constrained by a narrow idea of  "getting it right", the strokes tend to be dry and tight. Why put unnecessary limits on yourself?
Look again at the scene. Do you see any other opportunities to paint loosely? Look for outlines and edges of shapes that would give final definition to earlier layers. There are enough late stage lines and shapes in this image to dramatically widen the range of what will work in the first couple of layers.

With the color removed and the contrast exaggerated, it's easier to see the role the darks play in defining the edges of the shapes in the scene. If you imagine superimposing these distinct darks onto a playful underpainting of lights and middle values, it becomes clear when in the sequence you would need to get it right.

Here are a couple more images that leave the careful part for late in the process. Have faith. Take big chances.

The top edges of every shape in this scene are given most of their final definition by the last layer of strokes.

Here the middle value shapes require more care than the lights, though they are still quite simple. The darks look like they would clarify any sloppiness very well.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Beginning Watercolor: Three value monochrome study

Really? Just three?
Right. White, Middle grey, and black.
Most scenes have many more than three values, of course, so this over-simplification will involve some serious rounding up and down. The image below, for example, will need to be adjusted considerably. The sky is darker than the sunlit yellow building, so it must be middle value, right? But it's lighter than the blue building on the right, which is lighter than the shadow on the street. If yellow building = white, sky = middle and blue building = black, what about the shadow on the street, and the windows and doors on the blue building? Something must be changed.
You could make the sky white, like the yellow building. They would be separated by that thin dark line along the top of the building. Then you could make the blue building mid-value, and the cast shadow black. Problem solved?
I know what you're thinking, "what about the mountain?" It is darker than the sky, but lighter than the blue building. If you make it white, it will merge with the sky, and be gone. If you make it mid-value, is there anything that will keep it separate from the shady side of the street? Remember, you are in charge, not the photo. See that tree on the right that sticks up in front of the mountain? You could round that up to black or down to white and it would contrast with the mountain and the shaded buildings, separating them.
There are other schemes that would probably work just as well. What if you left the sky mid-value and made the blue building black? Or you might make them both middle, and exaggerate the dark lines and windows on the building.

Is anyone still reading this? I enjoy this kind of puzzle, but I'm a Virgo (recovering).

The idea is to find out where more subtlety or specificity is needed. If you can keep the feeling of space with only 3 values, great. If not, then the study has given you the information you need.
Some things are obvious without even making a study. Just thinking about rounding values up or down got me to notice that I like the mountain being just a little darker than the sky, so I already know I'll need more subtlety there. But what about that yellow and red building, on the right? is it middle or light? If you got it just right, would it look like it's in a shadow? I'd have to see it in monochrome to know for sure.

Once you've made any necessary adjustments, start by identifying the shapes that are closer to white than to middle value. Outline them roughly so you'll remember where they are.
Mix up a big puddle of a middle value paint. Use a color (just one, not a mixture) that will get dark enough to represent the darkest darks in your image. Make your supply generous, so you definitely won't run out. Now paint the whole page middle value, except for the whites. While it's drying, assess the effectiveness of the illusion of space and light. How much of the story is told without the darks?
Finally, put on those darkest shapes. How's the feeling of space now? And light? Is anything too light or too dark? Where do you need more subtlety? More specificity? How might the composition be improved (take out that gum drop tree, make the lamppost on the left a little taller?)

Monday Night and Intermediate Watercolor: Devising an appropriate preliminary study

Every scene offers its own intriguing possibilities. Many also present what appear to be impossibilities. It's a good idea to take stock of a new scene or image from both points of view. What do you want to be sure to translate? What looks tricky? Articulating the answers to these questions can provide you with a plan for what kind of preliminary work needs to be done before you invest a lot of time and materials in an uninformed attempt at a painting. 

The first step is to decide which variables are involved. Is your hope or your concern a question of value, edge quality, composition or color? One of these, or a combination, is bound to be the major player. Each variable suggests a different set of technical and awareness issues, so the study that will provide answers to your particular questions must be designed accordingly.

Here are some examples of how a few questions can suggest what form your studies should take:

This landscape photo displays some depth, even though it has no sky or horizon. As a painting, though, it may flatten out, with the three shapes appearing to be all in the same plane. This could be a problem, but it could also be fun to play with. What if you wanted to give some emphasis to the simplicity of the composition - deliberately flattening it - but still keep enough of an illusion of space to ensure that your painting did not become completely abstract?

My first thought is that manipulating the edges of the shapes would be a good way to fine tune the degree of realism. How might I quickly discover which edges should be hard and which soft?

Working from the premise that the best way to find out if something belongs in a painting is to leave it out, I could either omit all the soft edges or all the hard ones. The resulting study would provide a basis for deciding where I wanted to add whichever kind of edge was missing.

There are a couple of compositional issues in this image as it stands. The no parking sign in the bottom right corner is confusing. Cute as it is, I'd delete it. This is easy enough to imagine that simply proposing it provides the answer. No study needed!
The figure is another problem. He seems to be in exactly the wrong place. If I had taken the photo two seconds earlier or later he would have provided counterpoint and focus instead of blending into the doorway. How can I quickly find out where best to place a figure? Against the blue doorway? How about the stone wall on the left? The far right? Or, maybe on the near side of the street.

Can you think of a way to answer this composition question without making several sketches? Time is a significant factor. If the preliminary work takes too long, say, more than twenty minutes, I'm not likely to do it. The urge to get started on a proper painting is too powerful. The irony is that when I skip the study, I usually end up using more time, overall, since it takes longer to make a bad painting than a quick sketch.

A good way to try out different positions for a shape is to paint it on a scrap of paper, dry it, and cut it out. Then you can move it around right on the photo. Sometimes all it takes is closing one eye and holding something like a paintbrush up in front of the image. Try that with this photo. Were you able to make a decision?

Coming upon this place after a week of intensive plein air painting was like physically entering the world of pure form. This is about as abstract as reality can get. But the light is certainly real enough, and I want to be sure the paintings that this image inspires have the glow and brilliance that is so potent.
 Does it come from value relationships, or is it all about warm and cool colors? Or, maybe it comes from having both hard and soft transitions. What if it's all three? That's a lot to keep in mind. I'd like to sort this out, so I could practice one thing at a time. I wish I could just press a button and see the scene in black and white. What? I can?

Ah, the 21st century. There are still plenty of good reasons to actually make a monochrome value study by hand, but this instant version does provide legitimate answers. Relative values are definitely responsible for the potency of the light, but the glow resides in the colors. I could use this desaturated image as a value guide and make a study with just two colors, one warm and one cool, to see how adjusting the mixtures affects the feeling of reflected light.

I usually invite people to use one of the images that illustrate the blog post, but this exercise is all about discerning which variables are involved in your questions, and designing a study that will provide the answers, so it would be better for you to find one on your own.
Write your questions down. And don't try to answer too many at once. If you focus your attention on a single issue, you will definitely make real progress. Guaranteed!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Monday Night Class: How wet is my brush compared to the paper?

Double homework?
In class we were working on sections of images that were best represented by a wet into wet treatment. I'd like you to continue practicing those passages until you feel ready to paint a version of the whole scene.
Wet on wet, or wet into wet painting most often could really be called "damp into wet". After the initial wash is applied, the secondary strokes must be drier than what's on the paper, or they will bloom into the wash. Usually, as the soft-edged layers proceed form light to dark, each successive application is drier than than previous one, until the brush could hardly be called wet.
In order to keep track of how wet the brush is compared to the paper, it's wise to stay out of the water bucket and any puddles on your palette. If you absolutely must wash your brush, then you also have to dry it.
If you make your initial wash wet enough, that is your water supply for the rest of the job. You don't need any more. By the time you get to the most specific (but still soft-edged) darks, the paint on your brush can be quite thick. A stroke made on dry paper will be rough, just grazing the ridges of the paper, but a stroke on the wet area will flow on in a smooth path.

After you finish this work, please take a look at the discussion of a five value monochrome study in the post below. We will be working on these next week. Have fun.

The darks make up most of this scene, and could be effectively painted wet on wet. Imagine laying down an overall wash for everything except the sunlit areas, and then applying color variations and eventual strong darks while that first wash is still wet. The only hard edges might be the profiles of the sunny shapes. Even the relatively light blue figure in the foreground is in shadow. Any takers?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Beginning Watercolor and Monday night class: 5 value monochrome studies

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 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.

Intermediate Watercolor: More about edge quality

Is it possible for a painting with no hard edges at all to feel complete? Of course it is, but it is unusual. Most of the time we need, or at least want some of the emphasis hard edges provide. But it's also true that watercolors often suffer from having too many hard edges. How can we tell which ones are essential and which are optional?
The best way I've found to tell if something needs to be in a painting is to leave it out. If you don't miss it, you don't need it. A preliminary study that is entirely soft-edged, then, should reveal where a hard edge is needed. Still, if we want to avoid making too many hard edges, how do we know which ones are the most important?
I like to pretend that I'm on a ration of hard edges. If i am allowed only five, for example, I must choose very carefully where those five will do the most good. It turns out that most of us are pretty good at this kind of prioritizing. When it comes down to a firm decision, we can handle it quite well.
So...please make a soft-edged version of the image you brought home from class, or use this one:

Or this one:

Make a soft-edged version of the scene...all soft edges. If you see a hard edge, STOP PAINTING!
Re-wet the area, and keep going with soft edges. When you've presented the image without hard edges, you might have a basis for deciding where to use your skimpy ration to the greatest benefit of the painting. After you've exhausted your supply, grant yourself a couple more, if necessary, but draw the line at fifteen.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Intermediate Watercolor: Where does the painting need hard edges?

When we walk through the world, it is natural to focus on whatever is in our path. We need to know where we'll be safe, after all, and whether that shape up ahead is good to eat. That's the world of content. As we shift our gaze from one object to the next we bring the new part into sharp focus.

When we paint, however, all we need to know is form. How dark is that? What color is it? What portion of that shape is hard-edged? Is that neutral warm, cool or both? Assuming we've set up in a safe enough spot, we can totally forget the demands of the world of meaning. In fact, we have to.

A painting, no matter how realistic, can't carry all the information we can see. We need to edit out most of the specific information that we pay attention to in the "real" world. Much of what we decide to include in a painting is in soft focus, so that we can be in charge of where we want to direct the viewer's attention. If everything is distinct, the painting will almost certainly be difficult to take in. But, how can we decide what is essential and what is optional? That, right there, is the big question.

The best way I've found to tell whether something needs to be in the painting is to leave it out. If you don't miss it, you didn't need it. Regarding distinct edges, then, why not make a study that is entirely soft? No hard edges at all. The finished study would then be a basis for asking where you want to bring something into focus.

I like to place an imaginary limit on how many hard edges I have at my disposal. If I have only three, for example, I'm forced to look very carefully at the painting to see where a hard edge will have the most impact. Proceeding in increments increases the likelihood that I will recognize the moment when I should stop.
Remember, a hard edge is a hard edge, but there are an infinite number of degrees of softness. You don't have to throw up your hands and say "whatever".

Give it a try with the images you brought home, or use one of these:

Beginning Watercolor: Who's in charge?

Our first session felt very good to me. It is exciting to see that everyone is focused and willing to take risks.
For homework, start by reading the post below, for the Monday night class. You'll see the similarities to what we discussed in class.
I'll add some comments about the specific image you brought home, although, I'm sorry to say, I can't find the original to post here.

Start by standing back a few feet from the photo. Look for places where the illusion of space becomes ambiguous. See if you can identify the source of the confusion. It is most likely because adjacent shapes don't separate sufficiently. If so, what accounts for that? Which variables are too similar?

The list is short: color, value, edge quality (or, wetness), and composition. One of those, or a combination, is the culprit. How can you adjust the relationship between the shapes to increase the difference?

It can be tricky to stay aware of how your changes will affect to overall image. Fixing something over here may create confusion over there. Yesterday, while we were assigning values to each of the shapes, someone noticed that solving one problem created another by making two adjacent shapes the same. This gave rise to the question of whether turning up the color difference would take care of that. As painters, we need to cultivate a blend of engagement and detachment.

Remember that you want to enhance the illusion of depth, so one shape should look farther away than its neighbors. In terms of value, for example, would making the darks lighter and the lights darker bring a shape forward or push it back?
Regarding color, what would using more intense (purer) colors do to a shape? How about introducing a color that hasn't been used elsewhere on the page?

Dark/light, warm/cool, hard/soft. simple/complex. Twist those dials.

YOU are in charge of the illusion. The photo is just a starting place. There is no obligation to duplicate reality, and no guilt associated with lying.  Enjoy the freedom.

For this first exercise, let's give more attention to shapes and less to texture. Play up the walls, and play down the bricks. Have fun!

Monday Night Class: Separating shapes to create an illusion of space

The shapes in this photo, though they overlap, don't separate enough from each other to create a convincing sense of depth. The shapes in the top right look squashed together, more like stickers than 3-d objects. What's going on there? As often happens with photos, the darks contain no information. They are all the same - merely black - so they read as if they are all holes in the paper. As a result, they are calling attention to the picture plane rather than supporting the illusion of space.

The lights and medium value shapes are all greenish. Is that necessary? What if the differences in color of the wall, the street and the vehicles were emphasized, rather than the similarities? Would the feeling of depth be enhanced?

That's better. Not perfect, but much improved. How might you further adjust color, value, edge quality and composition to increase the sense of depth in the image? Something odd is going on where the top of the truck lines up with the roofs of some of the buildings. Can you clarify that ambiguity? What else needs adjustment?  

This is a charming scene, full of engaging information, but it would be a mess of a painting as it is now. There are half a dozen conflicting areas of focus, all competing for attention. Time to let go of some of this flood of information. The painter's main job, often, is to edit reality. Compromise, sacrifice, whatever you want to call it, we have to choose what is essential and what is optional.

What would you do here? Would you call attention to the little boy, or the old man? Try covering one corner at a time to see what that does to the overall cohesiveness of the image. What if you cover two corners at once. How could you turn up the presence of some parts and turn down the others? Which of the four main variables would you adjust to make the changes you want?

Each of you brought home a photo. Use that as a starting place (or  use one of these two). Begin by making a thumbnail pencil study of just the outlines of the major shapes. Look for unfortunate convergences that confuse the eye. Move, or remove, shapes relative to each other as necessary (those green fruits in the market scene, above, for example, are all teetering on top of the little girl's head. Get rid of them!)
Write down your thoughts about how you want to use color, value, wetness and composition to separate the shapes that you decide to keep. You're more likely to remember them that way. Don't let the photo push you around!
Now, dive in, and have fun.