Thursday, April 30, 2015

4/30/15 Everybody's Watercolor Homework: Simplifying Landscapes, Part One: Shapes and Illusions

Plein air season has started, sort of, so it's time to take another look at how to deal with all that insistent information "reality" presents.

For the moment, let's assume we're hoping to create a convincing illusion of space and light in our paintings. This won't always be the case, of course, but a more symbolic interpretation of a scene demands a different kind of treatment (another homework assignment, perhaps).

On the blog we'll have to make do with a photo as our example. There is a big difference between working from life and from a photo. In some ways, I find plein air work easier, since the impossibility of including everything provides permission to summarize the scene rather than duplicate it. I also like being able to shift what is in focus, leaving other parts of the scene out of focus. Photographs don't give us that option.

Let's consider this image :

To see an illusion of space in a painting it is important to know where the major shapes are relative to each other. First of all, how many shapes do you see? If your number is greater than 12, consider simplifying by reducing the number. Can any adjacent shapes be combined without flattening the space too much?

In this scene composition is doing most of the work of revealing which shapes are in front of which. The overlaps are almost all quite clear. The most distant shape is an exception. It and the one just in front of it line up along their ridges so that their separateness vanishes when you squint. Why not make it easy for the viewer to read the space by adjusting the line.

There is a grand irony involved in attempting to create an illusion of depth. To perceive the space in a plein air scene we have to flatten it out, visually. A photograph has largely taken care of that already. Fortunately, the flatness of a photo can be approximated simply by closing one eye. Try it where you're sitting now. See how everything gets squashed onto a single plane? Overlap instantly becomes the main tool for understanding what is in front and what is in back. What happens at the edges where shapes meet or cross is all you've got to work with. How are the adjacent shapes different from one another?

Look for another place where the space is ambiguous. There's one all the way over on the left, where a group of bushes sit on the bank in the  foreground. That shape is so similar in color and value to the hill behind it  that the two merge. What might you adjust to make the separation of the shapes more apparent?

Working in plein air, it is easier to observe the spatial relationships of the shapes if you are not distracted by texture. Squinting gets the subtle details to smooth out, giving the shapes a more homogenous appearance. Squinting also allows you to see the value relationships the shapes have - the dark/light/middle pattern. This is the territory where the illusion of light resides. The structure these relationships create is much more important to the success of a painting than any amount of texture or detail.

If you have been finding plein air work intimidating, devote some time to letting go of texture and letting the shapes be in charge. Put aside any concerns you may have about your paintings being too simple without detail. In fact, for a little while, put aside the whole idea of producing paintings. Make some deliberately over-simplified studies, instead. This is important! Beginners, we'll go back to the warm/cool work in class next week.

For homework, distill the information in a scene down to a few shapes. Outline the shapes with pencil, and make any adjustments needed to their placement.

Assign each shape a value and a color, again, making any adjustments you feel will enhance the image.

OK, paint. Paint a lot. Let some of your studies be flat, hard-edged mosaics. Let some others be more fluid, allowing wet edges to intersect. See what happens when a shape changes color from one side to the other, but keep it simple. Avoid texture. Paint the tree rather than the leaves. Paint the forest rather than the trees. Paint the shape rather than the forest.
Have fun

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Intermediate Watercolor 4/21/15 : PTPDALIA

 PTPDALIA? What's that?

Put the paint down and leave it alone.

It's probably unrealistic to expect that any of us will paint a whole picture without trying to correct something here or there, but every great painting I've seen looks like it was done with absolute

 Rex Brandt - Mud Puddle, Alviso, 1969 - California art - fine art print for sale, giclee watercolor print -

Rex Brandt                    Mud Puddle

Nothing here has been scrubbed out, wiped off, blotted or otherwise disturbed. I'll stick my neck out and say this look of rightness does not come from Rex Brandt's unerring eye for perfection. It's more likely he simply knew that the strokes he made were within the range that would work just fine, and that trying to make them better would only result in making them look wrong.

Our work on skies today may have given you a sense of how this works. First of all, it is not as important as it may seem to get the strokes "perfect". Perfect enough is more like it. In other words, the range of what will work fine is probably wider than you think it is.

Clouds and shadows are very forgiving subjects, allowing a wide range of treatments that are perfect enough. But they do not respond well to fiddling. If you go back into either one to make it look more like what you intended, you will probably lose more than you gain. Instead, just put the paint down and leave it alone. look at the painting as if someone else had painted it and asked you if it seemed like a good idea to make an adjustment here or there.

If you get a chance to paint skies from life, spend some time practicing this. You can also work from photos, which are easy to find online.Googling cloud images will give you plenty to choose from. Or use one of these:

Leave some room at the bottom of the page for a landscape or a cityscape.

Tuesday Afternoon and Wednesday Morning Watercolor 4/20/15 Neutral colors, Warm/Cool Dominance

Most of the world is made up of neutrals, at least Ireland is, and Seattle, for that matter. All the "emerald green" is real enough, for sure, but even that has a little bit of red in the mix to keep it earthbound. Here are a few images that rely for their beauty on subtle color dominance amid greys and browns. 

Pick one of these you'd like to paint. Starting with a palette limited to one red, one yellow and one blue, spend some time just mixing patches of the complex colors you see. 
When you're ready to begin a painting, keep the compositions simple, paying close attention to getting the values in the ballpark. For each shape, ask what in the image is darker and what is lighter. For example, in the picture immediately below, the crest of the hill should be darker than the clouds, but lighter than the brambles. 

Similarly, ask what is warmer and what is cooler. In the bottom picture, for example, the water is cooler than the sand, but warmer than the sky. A little.

Have fun. It's not necessary to get your painting exactly "right"The range of what works is most likely wider than you think. The real purpose of this exercise is to practice mixing subtle neutrals, and to appreciate the role they play in a great many scenes.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Intermediate Watercolor 4/15/15 What Looks Tricky?

Scroll down a ways and you'll find the Ireland images we were using in class. You can drag them to the desktop and print them individually if you want.

If one of them engages you, use that one for this exercise. If not, find something from your own sources that you'd like to paint.
Start by considering what looks like it will be hard to translate gracefully. For example, when I assess my readiness to paint this scene, I come up with some unanswered questions.

I like the way the buildings look like part of the landscape, as if they were outcroppings of rock. I wonder if that feeling might be better represented by a gloomier sky. The blue might be making the whole scene too cheerful.
 I also wonder if a broader context might enhance the feeling that the shapes grew naturally from the
ground. Should I widen the format and include the edges of the buildings? Or, maybe just on one side?

How can I find answers to these questions without committing to the time and materials involved in making a full-fledged version of the possibilities?

First of all, I think it best to take on these questions one at a time.
For the sky question, I can cut a piece of paper to the shape of the sky and paint it all brooding and grey. Then I can just set that on top of the blue and compare. Take it off, put it back. off, on. That should provide an answer pretty quickly.

The compositional questions can probably be answered by making a thumbnail sketch in either paint or pencil that shows the edges of the buildings on both sides. Then I can cover one side or the other to see what difference it makes in the feeling. Five minutes!

Often just articulating the question provides an answer, and no study need be produced. I may also learn something surprising from making a very quick study. A rough sketch often has a freshness that a thorough interpretation lacks, which can inspire me to keep the proper painting simpler than I might have otherwise.

Try the process for yourself.
1)  Assess your readiness. Ask what looks tricky?
2) Identify the nature of an unanswered question. Is it about value, color, wetness or composition?
3) Devise a study that will quickly provide an answer. Keep it so simple you can't get all wrapped up in particulars.

The best way to find out if something belongs in the painting is to leave it out of the study. If you don't miss it, you don't need it.

Have fun.

Beginning Watercolor 4/15/15 Color: Mix and Match

In theory, with just the primary colors (red, yellow and blue) you can make any color at all. To move the color you have closer to the color you want, you just need to add some red, some yellow or some blue. In fact, this usually is how it works, but the theory is based on combining light rather than paint, and most paints as they come from the tube are not single, pure colors. As you saw when we were laying out palettes in class, some yellows are cooler than others, and some warmer. Alizarine crimson is a slightly purplish red, while cadmium red light tends toward orange. We call them both red, but one might be a better choice than the other if you are trying to match the color of a particular bunch of grapes. To me, this is a good thing. Imagine if your palette had only three color wells.

Please read the following twice before you get to work:

For homework, look through a magazine for patches of solid color an inch or more square. Let some of them be complicated colors, like an eggplant, or a paper bag. Greys are challenging (fun). Cut them out and paste them to a sheet of white paper.

Now choose one red, one yellow and one blue. Only one of each, for now. Using just these primaries, make the nearest match you can to the color patches. As you finish each one, paint a stroke of the color next to the cut-out square it matches. Take some care to get the value right, too. Write down the names of the primaries you used.

Next, choose a different set of primaries and try the same matches again.

When you've finished, try mixing the darkest color you can from each set of primaries. Remember, the paint can be pretty thick and still be slightly transparent. If your dark looks shiny even after it's dry, add a tiny bit more water to the mix.

A couple of questions to ponder:
How important is it to get the paint color to exactly match the subject?
Can profound darks be warm or cool?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

4/14 Tuesday Afternoon group: The Important Thing

When you begin to work with a new subject, either a photo or a scene from life, It can be helpful to identify what attracts you to it from the start. What do you want to be sure is there in your interpretation of the subject?
In class we had some practice making quick (or not so quick) studies that were meant to embody the feeling you wanted to see in a finished painting. With the study in hand, you can assess how effectively you manipulated value, color, wetness and composition to support your primary purpose. If the feeling of elemental power you hoped to see in your seascape, for example, was not quite as powerful as you intended, what might you adjust to enhance the feeling?
I have posted the images here that we worked with today. Pick one that appeals to you, and make one of those five minute studies. Did your choice of colors support the "important thing" you identified? Do the values of the major shapes contribute to your main goal? The list of variables is short (composition, value, color, wetness) . Consider them one at a time, and take notes about the changes you want to make. Make a proper painting based on what you learned from the process.

Here's an example. I like that this image suggests both a challenge and an opportunity. Here's the path. Good luck with the mud. 
I want that mud to be really obvious, but I don't want it to be fussy. I need to find a way to simplify it so that it can be understood at a glance. Some practice is called for. To inform the process, I'll go down the list, value first: 
The white in the path is what tells us it's wet. The shape is at least fifty percent white.
A little bit of blue here and there will help speak of reflectivity.
Edge Quality:
The darks in the path have hard edges, the lights less so.
Opening up the bottom edge of the path shape by extending its right side further to the right will make it more unavoidable, as if " you have no choice but to step here."

These observations will make my practice versions of the muddy path easier. Bring it on!

Images of Ireland