Friday, October 27, 2017

Intermediate Watercolor 10/27/17 Symbolic Realism

Realism and abstraction can seem to be completely separate forms of expression. Looking at Andrew Wyeth's paintings alongside Ellsworth Kelly's, for example, one might conclude that the two had nothing in common. But Wyeth would have been quick to tell us that he was first and foremost an abstract painter.


How we see these paintings depends on what we're looking for. If we insist on observing what we expect to see, such as the subtle narrative content in Wyeth's painting, we could miss the bold geometric structure that holds it together. Take away the element of illusion, and the continuum on which both painters reside begins to be felt. All painting is abstract, in that without an illusion of space or light or substance all that is left is paint.

And the illusion only exists insofar as we, the viewers, agree that a particular collection of paint marks reminds us of something in the real world.

Of course, It can be quite a stretch to connect finely detailed realism to minimal abstraction. The artist in one case is referring over and over to the appearance of reality, working to duplicate it as nearly as patience will allow, while on the other hand it would be fair to say that nothing from outside the artist's inner experience is being described. The two are at vastly separated stations on the continuum. But there are countless individuals at every station in between. Enter Alex Katz:

Katz refers to what he knows will be recognizable to most people, but he stops way short of describing all the visual information that a specific place displays. His realism is more symbolic than Wyeth's, and at the same time more descriptive than Kelly's.

The following photos might include one that inspires you to devise your own set of symbols that represent a generalization about the subjects:

Beginning Homework 10/27/17 Adjusting the Composition

When you first observe a new subject keep in mind that you can make any changes you want to improve the painting. You are the one telling the story.

A good first step is to decide which shapes need to be separated from each other to easily understand where they are in space. Try to keep the number of shapes reasonable, say no more than ten or twelve. (the assumption here is that you intend to create an effective illusion of depth). 

Once you have identified the major shapes in a photo or a scene, I recommend outlining them with light pencil lines. Keep it very simple, though. The role of the pencil in a watercolor is to make it easier to apply the paint with confidence, freeing your brushwork as much as possible. Too much drawing can have to opposite effect, making it seem like you must stay inside the lines, thereby constraining the brushwork instead of liberating it. At this stage of the painting it is not necessary for the hypothetical viewer to know the identity of the shapes. This is when we only need to know where they are relative to each other.

Now is the best time to consider relocating or removing the shapes. This is a process that involves your instincts as well as your intellect. In the image below, the horizon is above the middle of the page, giving dominance to the foreground. What would be the impact of lowering it?  

Let's take a look. While we're at it, I'm curious how the feeling changes when that little out-building on the left is removed.

I'd be inclined to stretch the sky upward even more, to increase the feeling of loneliness in the scene. What about eliminating the smaller barn altogether?

If you don't happen to have a handy pocket composition adjuster, you do have a simple outline drawing of the major shapes, and, hopefully an eraser. You can see the benefit of making these changes before you start putting paint on the paper.

Here's a photo with several shapes:

Kinda crowded. What might you do about that?  Also, the bottom left quadrant feels empty. Could you add something there that would balance the composition without adding to the shape jam?

Take a moment to look for anything that creates a feeling of ambiguity regarding the illusion of depth. This would be the right time to move things around to make it easier to tell what's in front of what. Hint: Close one eye and cover the buses and the fronts of the cabins below the roofs.

Here are a couple more that may need some adjustments. Make your simple drawing of the major shapes and move them around as needed, adding and subtracting until you are ready to put some paint down.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Intermediate Watercolor 10/18/17 Cosistency/Cohesiveness

Students often tell me they like their preliminary sketches better than their "proper paintings", but when they try to give the paintings the freshness of the sketches, it rarely comes through.
What's that about?
I think a lot of what a sketch has that more carefully produced paintings lack is an overall cohesiveness that comes from consistent brushwork. In the sketch below, there is a convincing feeling of strong sunlight that comes from an accurate reading of the values, but there is something else at work that contributes significantly to the sense that everything on the page comes from the same world. The brushwork all feels swift and uncorrected, as if it didn't matter whether that piece of paper turned out to be a success.
Can you do that on purpose?
On a good day, you can, but it's like the old zen conundrum: If I strive not to strive I am striving.

In the painting below, I shifted gears between layers and ended up with parts of the brushwork feeling very different from each other. Those hard-edged wavelets in the left foreground feel quite separate from the general statements about the water, as if theywere scraps of fabric floating on the surface. Similarly, the trees on the hill in the background have a different feeling from the hill. They are just a bit frantic, while the hill itself is very calm. The color choices almost pull it all together, and a glaze over the trees might help there, but the foreground would still need some first aid.

What do you think about this one? Is it cohesive?

For homework, choose one or more of the photos that follow and make very quick studies, no more than ten or twelve minutes, and don't correct them! Really. If something happens that you hadn't intended, let it be and keep moving on. There are some very useful lessons to be learned about the range of what's acceptable.

Keep it approximate. Ten minutes doesn't give you time to be fussy.

Beginning Watercolor 10/18/17 Limited Palette

The work we did in class creating neutral hues was focused and productive. Let's go a step further and review how to select a palette limited to one red, one yellow and one blue. Here's the way the thinking might go:

Cedar Stump        Tom Hoffmann            2016

How about quinacridone gold, ultramarine blue and permanent red? Could I make that sky with ultramarine? Does it really matter? Today I say yes, it does, so maybe I should go with cobalt. But, then would the darks be dark enough? Probably not. How about pthalo blue?

I like to start by making sure the colors I choose can combine to make a reasonable version of all the colors I see in the scene. "Reasonable" is defined according to the immediate needs of the individual painter. Some days you'll want more accuracy than others.
As usual, I start with a few questions:

What's the bluest thing in the scene? The reddest? Yellowest?
With those places identified I can select my primaries, at least temporarily. Which of the primary colors I have look most like those spots?

Then I want to look at the secondary colors in the scene, and ask, "With the colors I've selected, can I make the oranges, greens and purples?" If so, onward, but if not, I'll have to adjust my palatte. If I can't tell just by looking, I can try some mixtures on a practice sheet.
When I'm confident that my choices will make the colors I need, I want to also check to see if the combo can make a dark enough dark.

Before we go any farther, is anyone asking why we're limiting the colors? I mean, we've got dozens of colors. Why not just use whatever is closest to the color we want, and adjust it a little?

It's all about cohesiveness.

When everything on the page is made of the same three colors, all the shapes resonate with one another. The result is a scene in which everything feels as if it belongs with everything else.

Tom Hoffmann       On Balky Hill        2017

For homework, Choose a palette for one of the photos that follow, and paint the scene. If you'd prefer to copy one of the paintings, by all means go right ahead.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Beginning Watercolor 10/14/17 Wet Into Wet,

or should I say "Damp Into Wet", to remind you that the brush should be drier than the paper when the paint on the paper is wet. If you get the brush wetter than the wet paper, you will cause a bloom to

Here's a landscape by Frank LaLumia that demonstrates working into a wet area with increasingly thick paint. That purple wash was applied good and wet, and LaLumia brought the other colors in while the initial wash was not yet dry.

Trevor Chamberlain makes a gorgeous shadow behind the figure on horseback by starting with an overall wash and bringing in variations on the color while the area was still wet.

If you brought home one of the photos that were selected for their passages that would welcome a wet on wet treatment, pick out those areas and give this approach a try. Feel free to fill the page with various attempts. It's not necessary to paint a proper finished painting.

These will work, too.
Have fun.


Intermediate Watercolor 10/14/17 Shadows: Edges, Value and color

There's a very good way to take the guesswork out of watercolor shadows. When you mix up the local color, make a big patch of it on your practice paper (you do have one, right?). Then, when you think you've got the shadow color and value in the ball park, make a stroke across that patch and observe. Remember, if it looks right when you first lay it over the local color, it's too light. It should be a little too dark. It's always good to get your washes and strokes dark enough on the first try, but it's especially important with shadows. The more you fiddle with that first attempt, the less it looks like a shadow. The variations in saturation, the streaks and overlaps that come from uncertain brushwork read as texture, which is usually not a feature of shadows. In fact, I'd say that the most significant feature of a shadow is its insubstantiality. Like clouds, shadows can be thought of as "one try, take it or leave it" subjects.
Here are a couple of David Taylor's paintings. Notice how sure-handed he is with the shadows. You can tell he didn't go back over them to get them dark enough.

The photos below feature strong shadows. See what you can do to translate them efficiently into watercolor.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Beginning Homework 4/26/18 Making a Monochrome Value Scale

Begin by making a value scale. A strip of 140# watercolor paper about 3" x 8" will work well.

1) Paint the whole strip #9 (the lightest grey), except for a patch left white at one end.

2) Let the strip dry, then paint the whole thing #8, except for a patch of #9 and white.

3) Let it dry, then paint the whole thing #7, except for the patches of #8, #9 and white.

4) Continue getting darker by increments, always leaving a patch of the previous layer. It's OK if the steps are not perfectly even,  as long as each one is darker than the last.

Don't leave white between your patches.

The rest of your homework for this week is posted below.

Beginning Homework 10/5/17 Name That Tune

The wall in sunlight; the shadows; the roof overhang. Light; middle; dark. I can name that tune in three layers. 
Shape by shape, the painted version of the scene comes together as a series of layers. How many layers will it take to paint the door? The sky? The cobblestones?
Wherever possible, try to keep the whole page at a similar degree of completion, rather than bring one shape all the way to realization while the rest are still white paper.

Some parts of this scene require three layers, some only one or two. Keep it simple.

The shadow is the second or third layer of the road, depending how much of the joint lines you want to include. In either case, the shadow is painted on top of the lighter layers, rather than alongside them. If this doesn't make sense, send me an email!

Hmmm. This one might need 5 layers!

For any of these images, it may help to make a monochrome value study first.

Your homework has 2 parts this week. Please see the directions for making a 10 step value scale, above this post.

Intermediate Homework 10/5/17 The Value Range

In the real world, does light have a brightness limit? I'd sincerely like to know, if anyone has the answer ( I know I could look it up on my tie-clip computer, but I have to get this homework posted).
 In the watercolor world the brightest light is the white paper, of course, but there are a few steps you can take to enhance the effect a little.

Contrasting a light area with a relatively strong dark makes the pale "sunlit" streak in this scene look extra bright.

When you surround a white space with a soft-edged, intense warm, like Quinacridone Gold, It glows even without a contrasting dark nearby.

If the lightest area in a painting is not pure white, it is a good idea to consider tinting it with a powerful transparent hue so you can make it very pale and still have a significant amount of color.

Here are a few photos that involve powerful brightness. Have some fun with them, and try to get your darks dark enough on the first try. Feel free to copy the paintings, too.