Thursday, April 28, 2016

Beginning Watercolor 4/28/16 Seeing in Layers

Because watercolors are transparent it makes sense to progress from light to dark as we construct a painting. Not everyone agrees  about this, and there are certainly situations that require a different approach, but generally we put darker colors on top of lighter ones, rather than the other way around.
At the same time that we are moving from light to dark, we are also progressing from general toward specific. This is actually the more important movement. It is what keeps us aware of which information is essential and which is optional.
What follows is a step-by-step narrative of a 5 value monochrome study. I recommend reading it more than once before beginning the process.

Greetings, painters
Please read through this article, then look for a photo that presents a wide range of values, from very light to very dark. Try your hand at the process described here. If you have time, and are inclined, see how what the value study teaches you informs a color version.

Five Value Monochrome Study
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. 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 4/28/16 Gorgeous Paint

In our discussions in class this week we came up with a few good descriptions of what makes the paint beautiful and what does not. Fiddling with the paint after it has begun to attach to the paper seems to be the main villain.
But, how do you fix your mistakes if you're trying to avoid fiddling? Only two options come to mind: 1) Take a (temporary?) vow not to correct anything.
2) Don't make any mistakes.
I think number 1 is the more difficult. Once I believe I've made a mistake, I really want to fix it. But if I've given myself clear and simple guidelines I'm likely to be satisfied with whatever happens on the page.

Rex Brandt     Last Light, study

I can't find anyplace in Rex Brandt's study where he went back in to correct something. It's clear that he knew just what he wanted to try, and it is actually pretty simple. Let's look at the blue brushstrokes. To find the guidelines for such confident brushwork Rex could have anticipated the value, color and edge quality he wanted. Then he might have asked "What percentage of the warm shape is going to become cobalt blue ?", "What kind of shapes will the blue strokes be?", and "How 
are the blue shapes distributed within the big warm shape?" These, you may have noticed, are all abstract questions. Proportion? Pattern? Distribution? 
That may seem like a lot of cerebral activity when you see it all written out, but most of the questions were automatic for such an experienced painter, and the answers followed immediately upon the questions. In fact, much of what seems like thoughtful decision-making is more like "checking in" to see what your intentions are. The gut is definitely involved in making a statement.

Rebecca Elfast

You can feel the artist's detachment in this painting. She is equally determined to let the paint go and to leave what it does alone. Her guidelines are very broad in the early stages: Warm, soft, save some white. Nothing specific. The middle value shapes just barely begin to describe space and content. Is that a horizon? Are those streetlights? Headlights? Then, finally, the darks are more descriptive. That is definitely a building, and that is a utility pole. There is plenty of room at every stage of this painting for the paint to do what it wants. The artist knows that we will make it all as meaningful as we need it to be, but all she has given us are a few clues. Would you have been tempted to make corrections?

What were the guidelines when the lights were being applied? Go down the list:

Color? where are the warm lights? Where are the cool?
Value? What proportion will be white?
Edges? Hard? Soft?
Composition? Vertical? Horizontal? Big shapes? Small shapes?

When do the strokes become descriptive? Do they ever?
By staying abstract as long as possible, you can conceivably paint the entire picture without ever making a mistake!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Intermediate Watercolor Homework 4/21/16 Beautiful Paint

I'm in SF for a workshop. No computer!
Please go to the posting from May 14th, 2015, about simple compositions. Search a bit for some additional images with an eye toward few shapes and saturated color. In the park yesterday I noticed that by the time everyone was on their third or fourth try I could see confident paint application and individual styles showing up.
Have fun

Beginning Watercolor Homework 4/21/16 Limiting your palette

I'm out of town, teaching a workshop. No computer!
Please go to the posting from September 26th, 2013 on working with a limited palette. During our session in Volunteer Park there were several discussions about color mixing. A good place to begin focusing on making the colors you want is to start with only three colors: one each of red, yellow, and blue. Get as close to what you want as those three will allow, and trust that the result will be a cohesive image. Resist the temptation to add any additional colors!
Have fun

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Beginning Watercolor Experimenting with Edges 4/14

Clouds are soft, mountains are hard, right? Actually, it's up to you.

These clouds are more solid than the trees.You can't do that! It's just plain wrong.
Winslow Homer
These clouds are just as hard-edged as the buildings. Now, he's a famous painter. He should know better.

Is this better?What if these clouds had hard edges?Would it ruin the painting?

OK, are you confused yet? This is one of the first homework assignments, and you don't know me well enough to tell if Im being facetious. How can you get a good grade if you don't know for sure what the teacher wants? 
Have you heard that old phrase, "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like"? I think it's supposed to be an example of boorishness, but I've always kind of liked it. Let's experiment with edges and expectations. Below are a few photos involving clouds. Try making a version of one of them that defies expectations. Hard clouds, soft mountains. Then make another version of the same image that conforms to your expectations. Remember that you can always make an edge that is partly hard and partly soft, and you can vary how soft your soft edges are. Have fun.

Intermediate Watercolor 4/14/16 Hard edges or soft?

When we look at something we almost always bring it into sharp focus. You are focusing on this print right now, for example. While you're reading, notice that the rest of the room beyond your lap is out of focus. And when you focus on the background the writing on this page is way out of focus.

The fact is, we spend all of our time with most of our view out of focus, but we tend to paint as if everything is sharp and hard-edged. That's because whatever we are about to paint gets our best attention, which means it is brought into sharp focus. No wonder so many paintings suffer from too many hard edges. The gods are toying with us.

Most of us are old enough to remember when cameras required that we decide what was going to be in focus. That is a lot like what we need to do with our realist paintings. One way or another, we need to separate shapes from each other to suggest that there is space between them. Contrasting hard and soft edges is a very effective way to do this, if we remember that what we see when we focus on a particular shape or area is not necessarily how we should paint it.

This placement of hard and soft edges is obvious in its purpose, and relatively traditional. The foreground is in focus and the background is not. The result is easy to understand. This is not to say that every painting should be organized like this. Just because a shape is in the foreground doesn't mean it should be in focus. You have to make a decision based on your main purpose. 

Alvaro Castagnet

Alvaro has left the bottom two thirds of this painting soft-edged, saving his hard edges for the figures in the far middle ground. Why do you think he chose to do that? 

Soft edges are not only about space. They can also be used to make a complex surface feel cohesive. Look again at the water scene, above. The distant hillside is covered with trees, but our attention is directed to the forest as a whole, rather than the individual components.

The profile edges of each of the major shapes in this scene are all hard, but most of what happens within the shapes is soft-edged. This makes it possible to see the shapes as one thing while suggesting that the surfaces are lively and complex. Hard edges describe separation, like the mill buildings silhouetted against the sky, and distinct transitions, like where planes change which direction they face. Soft edges describe areas that are attached to each other, and subtle transitions, like where a rounded shape turns toward the light.

Here are a couple of images that display a clear separation between fore ground and background. See what happens when you make hard and soft edges to focus the viewer's attention.