Thursday, October 31, 2019

Intermediate Watercolor Where do I Need Hard Edges?

We've all seen paintings that suffer from too many hard edges. Often, if we pay more attention to content than form, the individual parts of the scene insist on being kept separate. A hard edge is the best way to ensure that, but the result can be a jigsaw puzzle that is difficult to see as a cohesive whole.
Deciding which edges in the forest really need to be hard is tricky when we are all wrapped up in doing justice to the individual trees.

Working under the assumption that the best way to see if something needs to be in the painting is to leave it out, I recommend making a study that has no hard edges at all. When it is finished, the study will tell you where more focus is required. It also helps to have a limit in mind, say, half a dozen strokes, so you can identify the most important spots.

You may have to wet both sides of your paper to get it to stay damp long enough

For homework, choose an image that has lots of shapes, and paint a version that is all soft edges. Part of the exercise is to practice the techniques involved in keeping the shapes blurry without losing definition altogether. The awareness skills that are at work include noticing as soon as a hard edge appears, and stopping right there. Then dry the paper, re-wet the relevant areas and continue.
Assess the study, with an eye toward where it needs greater definition. Make the hard-edged additions one at a time, and stand back each time to see if that's enough.

Beginning Watercolor 10/31 Careful / Carefree

Many scenes and images rely mostly on the final layer to give the shapes meaning. The role of the strong darks in the sequence of layers can sometimes be obvious even before you begin painting.

This scene, for example, is made up of almost nothing but strong darks. It's clear that by themselves, the darks would be sufficient to tell the story. The layers that would come before the darks could be applied in a most carefree manner, with the confidence that the narrative content of the scene would be provided later. This increases the likelihood that some of the beautiful, confidently applied paint would still be visible when the painting is done. It's an opportunity to let the paint flow, which is why we came to watercolor in the first place.

Sometimes the role of the darks is not as clear cut as in the snowy dusk scene. 

There are plenty of light and middle value shapes in this photo, which can confuse your eye, but imagine what the scene would be like if all we saw were the darkest darks. Notice how the top of the green building and half of the red one are outlined in dark. If the big, lighter shapes had gone outside the lines those outlines would pull the picture back together. The dark doorway and windows would establish the frontal plane of both buildings, while the cars and their shadows would show us where the ground plane is.

Here's a rough version of the final layer by itself:

When you are not sure how much of the narrative content of a scene is carried by the final layer, try making a quick study of just the darkest darks. Basically, we are looking for an answer to the question, "When in the sequence of layers do the shapes get their identities?"

Not every scene is held together by the darks alone. In the selection below, all but one get their meaning late in the sequence of layers. Can you tell which one relies on some careful attention earlier in the painting process?

Make a "darks only" study of a couple of these, then pick one to paint that tests the ability of the final layer to pull it all together. Be really splashy with the earlier layers! The messiest painting gets the prize.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Beginning Watercolor 10/24/19 Light to Dark and General to Specific

Whatever  you decide to paint, day to day, it can often be made easier by looking at the subject as a sequence of layers. Landscape, still life or portrait, most realist watercolors progress from light to dark. The transparency of the medium makes it easier to put dark on top of light than the opposite. At the same time, paintings tend to progress from general statements to gradually more specific ones.

In this scene the sky is lighter than the skyline. It would be easiest to paint the sky first and then put the skyline down on top of it. Any other order would require matching the edges of the shapes, making them adjacent to each other rather than subsequent.

The shadow shape on this face is darker than the local skin color. It would be logical to begin by painting the entire head with the light tone we see on the right side of the face. The shadow could then be painted on top of the first layer. The strong darks, like the hair, nostrils, and lips could most easily be applied on top of layer number two. Light, middle, dark.

At the same time, the likeness progresses from general to specific. The first layer, which is a pale silhouette, has no features or idiosyncrasies yet. It could be one of a great number of heads. But once the shadow shape is applied as a second layer the face begins to take a more specific form. It gains three-dimensionality, and it is bathed in light. The third layer, the darks, brings greater specificity, revealing the mood, the age and the identity of the sitter. 

In the early stages of the painting, the faith that the darks will establish the individuality of the subject allows the painter to work in a carefree manner. Layer number one can be more casual than number two, which, in turn can be looser than number three. 

Here are a few images that resolve neatly into light, middle and dark value shapes. You can also use the ones above. It is useful to ask when the shapes get their identity, so you will know when you  need to be careful and when you can be carefree . Keep it simple.

Intermediate Homework 10/24/19 Exaggerate! Invent! A La Derain

These pairs of images are meant to invite a bold approach to choosing colors. You can see that the values are believable, but the colors are something else. Do you think  Derain was observing the actual colors? Was he exaggerating them, or maybe inventing them, entirely? Keep color temperature in mind when you choose your interpretation. 

Use the photo as the source of value relationships. Let Derain's paintings give you courage to explore.

This may be Derain by Matisse or Derain by Derain. The web is confused. I'm guessing it's a self portrait.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Intermediate Homework 10/17/19 Invent, Exaggerate, Explore

Invent? Exaggerate? Explore?

You know what I'm talking about...
Reality is just a jumping off place. In class we all got involved in holding onto accuracy of values and letting go of everything else. Color, for example:


                                                 Not as wild as it first seems, perhaps. 

Below are a few images that rely on a simple dark/light pattern for their structure. Desaturating a photo makes it easier to keep track of the values.

Have fun 

Beginning Watercolor 10/17/19 Seeing in layers

Being able to see the light, middle and dark layers through which your subject will progress takes you most of the way toward a graceful translation of reality into the language of watercolor. Not everyone paints the lights first and the darks last, but for our immediate purposes let's all work that way this week.

The first step, as usual, is to identify the major shapes. Roughly speaking, the "Major" shapes are those that need to be separated in order to understand where they are in the pictorial space.

In this scene, the "white" house is a major shape. It is below and in front of the sky, which is also a major shape. The house overlaps the telephone pole a tiny bit, but it's enough to tell us which shape is closer to us. The pole also reveals where the more elaborate house is in the illusory space. That humble pole turns out to be quite important. Everything in the scene can be located relative to it. 

it's the funky house that really interests me, though, first of all because it isn't white. It's a middle value warm neutral, that we call white because of what we know rather than what we see

Let's focus on the values of the major shapes. The sky is the lightest, for sure. The house is middle, or dark middle value, and everything else is dark.
 This scene was chosen because it unfolds nicely into two or three layers in each shape. There is nothing that needs to be reserved. You can simply apply each successive layer on top of the previous ones (OK, I see that little highlight on the red car. Shall we put it in?) 

Give this image a try, if you like, or choose one of the others, below. See if you can paint each major shape with a pale first layer. For each layer of each shape ask if there's anything that you need to paint around. 3 or 4 layers are usually enough to tell the story.
Have fun!


An unusual composition, with just about everything in the middle distance. Maybe you could make that into a single shape.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Intermediate Watercolor, 10/10/19 Separating shapes

 Separating Shapes

We have spent some time practicing how to decide which edges in a shape are hard , soft, or both. As a means of separating shapes and creating an illusion of depth this is a skill every realist painter can use. It's not the only one, of course, so let's extend this investigation to include other variables: How do we decide which variables to use to get the major shapes to appear separated by space?

In this painting, by Joyce Hicks, just about every shape has a hard edge, but there is no confusion about where things are in space. Consider, one by one, what she has done with color, value and composition to make it easy to read depth in the scene.

By contrast, Josefia Lemon's landscape comprises almost entirely soft edges, yet she, too, creates a feeling of vast space. Go down the list: Value, color, composition and wetness. What decisions has the artist made to bring about this illusion?
These are deliberate decisions, the result of experience in both the nature of the medium and understanding how we see.

Here's a scene with a real collision of shapes.Some work must be done to simplify the picture and get the shapes to separate. Can any of the shapes be combined to make the space easier to read? Which variables would that involve? What can be done with color to keep the background more distant? How about value? Edges?

How many separate buildings do you see in the background at the end of the street? Could they be combined? How can you keep them separate from the group of buildings in the middle distance, right behind the car? Don't forget color temperature as a spacial tool. As a rule, warms advance and cools retreat.
Make a couple of sketches of one of these photos, or, better yet, find one you'd like to translate into watercolor. Experiment with manipulating variables to separate shapes in space. Keep track of the decisions you made so we can discuss them during critique.
Have fun!

Beginning Watercolor, 10/10/19 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?

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 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 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, October 3, 2019

Intermediate Watercolor Homework, 10/3/19 Foreground, Middle Ground, Background

When a scene resolves neatly into a foreground, middle ground and background composition it has a ready-made structure that can make it easier to paint.

Thanks to the size of the figures, it's pretty easy to read the space in this picture. Everyone is either big, medium, or small. The shapes do get a little bit tangled to the left of the vendor's cart. I'd consider putting some of that same purple glow the figures on the right have on the woman on the left. It's no sin to change the composition to make it easier to read sometimes.

Here are a few images that could use a little tweaking to make the space more obvious. You can adjust the color, value and edge quality as well as the composition to strengthen the spatial structure.

Beginning Homework 10/3/19 Translating Your Subject into Watercolor

At first glance this watercolor by Lars Lerin looks like it was painted with great attention to detail, but a closer look reveals that the artist used an economy of means to make the goblet so real.
It's not so much that he was careful and thorough, as that he knew what mattered.

Taking care to put the darkest darks and the lightest lights where they work makes it unnecessary to get all the middle value shapes exactly right. Lerin has an eye for the essential, which allows him to be carefree with the optional.

To see so clearly the few parts of a subject that have to be correct is a tremendous help in translating it into washes and strokes. For us mortals, it takes more than one attempt to sort out what matters most. For homework, find a simple object, like an onion, or a teapot. Use an actual object rather than a photo. Set it in a spot where it is lit by a single light source, so the shadows are not too complicated.

 First try painting it in monochrome, using a single color straight from the tube rather than a mixed color. Make sure your choice is inherently dark enough to represent the darkest parts of your subject, like carbazole violet or pthalo green.

Once you have a sense of the relative values, paint a color version, then a couple more. With each study, see if you can let go of more specificity. Pay attention to where the darkest and lightest bits occur. They usually play a more important role than the middle values.
After you've gotten to know what comprises a good representation of your apple/beachball, put the subject back where you found it and paint a version from memory.

Bring in all your studies.
Have fun!