Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Intermediate Homework 9/26/18 Letting the illusion go

Many of the painters I know see their work evolving from the realistic toward the non-representational. Moving to abstraction involves a shift in emphasis from creating a convincing illusion to an acknowledgement of the fact that there really is no space, no light, and no substance there, only paint on paper. That paint, the  form of it, becomes the subject of the painting. 
Ironically, the further one goes on the continuum from “realism” toward abstraction, the more the emphasis shifts toward what is really there. In this way, abstraction is more real than realism. It can be revealing to consider the titles artist give to their work in this regard.

This very dramatic image by Emil Nolde is simply called, Mountainscape. It may have been painted from life, or it may have been entirely invented. We can't tell from the title. 
Most likely, something other than the location of this scene was most important to the painter. Try covering the mountains and just looking at the sky. Now do the opposite. Which would you say is given emphasis, form or content?

                                Lake Whatever                            Tom Hoffmann

This scene, which was imagined rather than observed, does not need to be identified. The space has been allowed to flatten to the extent that all the component shapes are assembled right on the picture plane. As far as a convincing feeling of space or light in a particular place is concerned, whatever!

                         Linda Hoffman Snodgrass                           Dreaming of Iridescent Clouds

To what extent has the artist let go of the illusion of light or space in this painting? The word “Dreaming” in the title suggests that she is not attempting to describe a particular place. In fact, she could be dreaming of a river, mountains, or activity on a microscope slide. The important thing is that the forms are not identifiable. We do not need to know what they are to enjoy them.

Using the photos that follow as a starting place, explore the territory that opens up as you let go of the specifics. 

Beginning Watercolor 1/30/19 Monochrome Value Study

Please read this slowly before you start painting.

In the image above, which is darker, the door of the shack or the shadow on the bow of the boat? Where does the sunlit grass fall in the range of dark to light? It can be difficult to tell, especially with color complicating the task. A value scale would make this much easier. Here's how to make a rough but effective version:
Cut a piece of watercolor paper about 8 x 3 inches. With pencil, divide the paper into 10 strips that run across the narrow dimension.
Leave the bottom strip white, and paint the rest of the paper very light gray. Dry the paper.
Leave the strip next to the white one light gray and paint the rest of the paper a little darker.
Continue making layers and leaving consecutive strips until your last layer is a single black strip at the top. Ideally, each step on your scale would be an equal size jump from the previous one, but the scale will still work just fine even if your steps vary in how much they change.

Now use the scale to measure the value of the door, the shadow on the bow, and the grass. Which one is darkest?
If you don't have time to make the value scale and do the monochrome value study, the study is more important. You can make the scale in class on Wednesday

For homework, find an image that resolves into just a few major shapes - fewer than 12, let's say. You can use the Cape Cod scene, above, or this one, below, or one of your own.

Make a monochrome value study that deliberately over-simplifies the image. Just shapes, for example, no texture. 
The following is a fairly long excerpt from my book. It describes a process for making a five value (white, light gray, middle gray, dark gray and black) study in monochrome. It may be that the image you select can be nicely simplified down to only three values; white, middle and black. Your first job is to decide which is the appropriate treatment.
Remember, please, that the whole study should take no more than 20 minutes. If it takes longer, you are probably trying too hard to make it a handsome product. It's supposed to be kind of dumb. If it's too simple, it will tell you where you need more subtlety. Don't use the same image I used to illustrate the process.
Then, paint a color version of the image you choose. Limit your palette to one red, one yellow and one blue. Any combinations of these three colors are welcome.

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. 
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 Valueshould 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 tolocate 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.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Intermediate Watercolor Homework 9/20/18 Simplify, Exaggerate, Invent

It is possible to hold on to the essence in a scene by letting go of some of the optional information. Often subtle details can be simplified or eliminated altogether to give emphasis to the essential aspects . 

The dramatic sky stands out in this photo, as does the graphic, etching-like texture of the trees and the water. Both are features I wanted to see in a painted version. The overall spooky feeling appealed to me. I wanted to make sure some of that came through (W. B. Yeats is buried about 100 yards away from this spot).

The shapes of the clouds and the water are given emphasis by simplifying them. Complex contours are reduced to hard-edged geometry. The drama is increased by exaggerating value contrast and color temperature. The spooky graveyard mood is definitely there.

Sometimes reducing the complexity of a scene is a worthy goal in itself just for the pleasure of seeing how simply the content can be stated.

The trees in the painting are more symbolic than realistic. They are brushstrokes more than they are trees, which serves to enlist the viewer as a participant in the interpretation.

See what the following images suggest to you. Are there aspects you might exaggerate to enhance a feeling? Are there features you could simplify, or some that you could let go of to make the ones you keep more important?

Have fun!

Beginning Watercolor Homework 9/20/18 Clouds and Edges

A good first step here would be to make a list of the wetness problems that showed themselves in class yesterday. This works best when you are willing to take responsibility for both the successes and the failures. Saying, "The paper got too dry, so all the marks I made after that had hard edges" sounds like a form of pleading, "not guilty!" The fact is, it's all your job.
Generally speaking, wetness issues involve the relative wetness of the brush compared to the paper. When the paper is wet but the brush is wetter, blooms are likely. When the paper is dry all your strokes will have hard edges.

Nothing in nature looks more like a brushstroke than a cloud, but not every brushstroke looks cloud-like. Re-working your clouds to make them "better" usually accomplishes just the opposite. The sky is such a varied subject almost anything will work, as long as it looks like it happened by itself. Clarity and transparency. Weightlessness and insubstantiality. These are the qualities of a flawless watercolor sky.

For homework, please make as many sky studies as you have time for. Vary the colors, the values, the sizes, the edges. Let some of your shapes go off the page and some float inside the rectangle of paper. Experiment, don't correct. Work on wet paper and dry. Try wetting random portions of the page. Make some so wet the paint flows downhill when you tip the paper. You might put a strip of land along the bottom of the page to see how the sky fits into the big picture.

You can copy these, find your own, paint out the window or invent the cloudscape entirely. Have fun. Bring in everything!

Image result for clouds

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Intermediate Watercolor Homework 9/13/18 Staying Abstract to Simplify the Translation

 As realist painters we are often attracted to images and scenes that seem far too complicated to translate into watercolor. We look at all that specific information and throw up our hands in surrender.
I'm convinced it's becoming specific prematurely that makes things difficult. If you're painting a forest, don't build it tree by tree. Look for a way to see the whole subject rather than the components. It's easy to get hung up on how this particular tree is different from the adjacent trees. This is what Mary Whyte calls "taking inventory". Instead, try looking for the similarities first. Make general statements, then move toward specificity as needed.

By far the most significant feature of these trees is their color, and, as it happens, this is something they all share. Let's look at the big yellow shape that comprises most of the top half of the image.

Is there a way to paint the shape with an overall wash that can underlie everything that will come later?
Yes, the entire shape can be covered with a rich yellow wash, except a few whites that may be saved here and there. The yellow is a little greener in places, and a little redder elsewhere. It might be good to add a little of those colors (just a little) in a couple of places.

The second most noticeable feature of the yellow shape is the array of middle value strokes that are throughout. If you want some of them to have soft edges start making them while the yellow is still wet.

What proportion of the yellow shape will be given the middle value shadows? 
I'd say about 15%

How are the middle value marks distributed throughout the big yellow shape?
Many are concentrated along the bottom edge of the yellow shape. A few are dispersed in the center, and some small marks in the upper area

Is there any pattern to the shapes? What kind of shapes are they? Horizontal? Vertical? Rectilinear? Organic? Hard-edged? Soft? Most of the stories are horizontal.

You can proceed to make the final layer, the darks, by asking the same questions about those skinny, dark vertical lines that are throughout the yellow shape; Proportion, distribution and pattern. 

The answers to these questions are all abstract. They apply to form rather than content. Staying abstract may seem risky, since it can feel like there's no guarantee that the finished treatment will add up to a recognizable subject. Think of it as an act of faith, and put it's not your job, anyway to make sure the viewer knows what they're looking at.

By the way, how will the bottom of the painting differ from the top?

Here's another complex subject that would benefit from  staying abstract. Squint!

Practice a lot, then see if you can stay abstract all the way to the end of a quick, simple version of one or the other of these scenes.

Beginning Watercolor Homework 9/13 Separating Shapes

The illusion of space in a realist painting is achieved by manipulating a combination of just a few variables. Value, color, wetness and composition can be turned up or down like the dials on an old TV.

Take a look at how Andy Evansen gets the silo in this scene to be located in space relative to the trees and the sheep. On the right side of the silo we can see a distinct edge and a strong value difference between two shapes. On the left side there is some ambiguity about which shape is in front. Halfway up some tree branches merge with the silo, making it unclear which is in front. The artist has allowed this sleight uncertainty by making a soft edge where the shapes meet. He seems to have decided that the combination of variables at work on the right side is sufficient to establish the location of the shapes. He knew could afford to lose the edge a little. Why do you think he wanted to do that?
Now let's look at those sheep. They are the same colors and value as the silo, but they stay distinctly separate. What has Evansen done to establish this separation?

Here are a couple more landscapes to ponder:

Stanislaw Zoladz

Very subtle work! A little bit of white goes a long way.

Cristiane Bonicel

If you mentally peel away the tree branches you can see that the distant hill and the foliage of the tree are not separated at all, and yet there is no confusion about which feature is closer.

Choose one of the following photos and experiment with getting the shapes to separate and combine. If you decide to try making a proper painting, remember to keep it simple!

If you'd prefer to copy one of the paintings, remember that the spirit of the painting is more important than the specific marks. Empathy rather than accuracy.