Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Tuesday Tip #25: Simplify the Scene

Orange and Yellow Iris 7x5 oil on canvas panel
Since I've been trying to learn watercolour it feels like I've neglected my oil paint so when I left the house this morning to go find something to paint I grabbed my oils and hit the road. I was glad I did because the irises are in full bloom and I know I can't do them justice in watercolour.
Flowers are difficult to paint especially if you're painting them outside. Bugs, wind, changing light, they're all there to add to the frustration and intimidation of painting something so delicate.  Probably the biggest difficulty painting flowers is wrapping your mind around the complexity of all of it. Flowers are simple shapes but the foreshortening of the petals is tricky and all of the stems and leaves around them make for a confusing composition. What you have to do is simplify the scene. This goes for anything really. What I do is draw in the lines of my primary interest. My focus was on that one particular iris so I only drew it in and left out all of the details from the other leaves and stems. You can see I went in at the end with some random strokes to suggest the tall leaves that grow around the irises.  Only drawing in my primary focus helped me keep the painting about that one flower and made it easier for me to paint. I wasn't looking all around trying to figure out what I left out or if some random leaf was leaning right or left.

Here's a photo I took of a different iris that was there.  If you squint your eyes you can see how easy it is to simplify the scene. The darks and lights stand out fairly easily on this one. Hopefully you can see that you don't need to paint in every single leaf and detail in order for it to tell the story.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Tuesday Tip #24: When to Say When

Graphite sketch on white sulphite drawing paper. 
This week's tip comes from the book I mentioned last week, Keys to Sketching. Stopping to think about it, it sounds silly to have instructions on how to sketch. Isn't sketching just scribbling and doodling?  It can be. It's probably a lot like dancing. The thing is, most of the tips on sketching should be applied to a finished painting. That part can be compared to driving a car. When you first learn to drive a car you take the precautions, check your mirrors, make sure the seat's adjusted, etc. before you put the car in gear. After driving for several years you probably don't do any of those little checks, you just turn the car on, throw it in gear and down the road you go. You probably even drive down the road and ask yourself, did I stop at that stop sign back there? So yes, these fundamentals of sketching are just as important for sketches and sketches are important for successful paintings. Also, checking the mirrors in your car and using your turn signals are just as important now as they were when you first learned to drive.
Enough about that, this week's tip is about that nagging question we have when working on a painting, when is it finished? I've never met an artists who hasn't asked that question either out loud or to themselves. How do you know when the painting is done? That part's not like dancing, the song doesn't end. What I didn't know is that you have to know this about a sketch as well. I've always been under the impression that a sketch was sort of a free for all, anything goes, do what you want. I s'pose it can be but what this book says makes more sense than flying by the seat of your pants.
"Perhaps the most difficult thing to learn in sketching is when to stop. There seems an almost constant demand to continue, adding first a detail here, a refinement there. If the process is repeated for long, the sketch will lose its freshness. While it is never easy to know precisely when a sketch is finished, perhaps the best signal is the instant when you start to look around for something more to add.  This impulse, responding more to the urge to work than the need to develop a specific area, is often a sure indication that the sketch is finished".

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Tuesday Tip #23: Act Casual

Tree-Lined Road 7x5" watercolour sketch on Stonehenge Kraft paper
Sometimes I think I have an addiction to art supplies and books. Lord knows what it means when I buy a book about art. I was at the junk store the other day and found a book called "Keys to Sketching".  It was only a dollar so I thought what the heck.  Surprisingly it's very well written with great examples. One thing that stood out to me was the definition of a sketch. I've had this conversation with tons of artists and everyone seems to disagree what a sketch is. The author, S.H. McGuire, describes it like this, "Sketching, as we treat it here, is a more casual statement. Usually done in a brief span of time, a sketch records the artist's spontaneous impression of something he sees. He does not labor over a sketch. There is an unstudied immediacy that is reflected in the work".  They go on to pose the question that perhaps it's the spontaneity in the sketch that viewers find more satisfying and meaningful than in a finished painting.
Perhaps this is why sketching is so important. It allows you to be spontaneous and have fun. It also turns out to be a powerful tool. As McGuire points out the artist doesn't labor over a sketch and the statement is casual.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Tuesday Tip #22: Aiding the Insipiration


Last Saturday I had the pleasure of painting with two lovely ladies and their pack of Australian shepherds. One of the girls is younger in her art career and made a comment about how she has the enthusiasm and energy to draw and paint but when she goes to do it she's lacking in inspiration. What to draw? What to paint? It can be tough when you're first starting out.  What can be even more tough is sifting through all of the tips on how and what to paint.
There are some people who suggest word prompts and they have lists readily available to you. They're lists that can vary from words that are supposed to evoke emotion, or just a sound effect that's supposed to spark your imagination. If you're going to go the list route this guy, Phil McAndrew, has done it right. The prompts are specific enough but give you enough creative freedom. Click here for his list. Number 39 is motorcycles, so my sketch above is motorcycles.
Another approach on what to draw is draw everything around you. Sounds like a jerky thing to say, I know, but it's true. I've drawn the view of my desk a couple of times when I couldn't find inspiration elsewhere. I often find myself sketching my dogs. Now I have tulips that I can practice on and soon I'll have other flowers in the yard. Stuff on TV, pictures in the newspaper or magazines. I used to log on to Pinterest every morning, set a timer for 30 minutes, and drew whatever came up. That was actually fun because it forced me to draw things that I wouldn't normally draw.
I think when you're first starting out the problem with inspiration is people think it's supposed to be a big shiny beacon that will guide you to fortune and glory. It's not some magical fairy that sprinkles dust on you, or a cake that says "draw me".  Look around wherever you are and if something catches your eye, draw it. You should attempt to draw everything and anything and eventually you'll learn what you like and dislike and you won't have to wait for inspiration to tap you on your shoulder.  Once you figure out what you like to draw you'll find it's like an addiction and you'll search for more of what you like.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Tuesday Tip #21: Unriddle Me This

After reading a fair amount of books about art, written by artists I've come to the conclusion that some artists are better at painting than they are at writing and vice versa. There are a few who are very good at both. Some artists write whole chapters on what makes a good artist and what makes an amateur, and you better believe the answers to these problems are written in their book. For the low low price of $19.99 plus shipping and handling, but wait, there's more! The problem with the written word is that the tone/attitude of the writer can be mistaken at times. Maybe Harold Speed didn't intend to come off sounding like a complete a-hole when he wrote, "It is surprising how few art students have any idea of what it is that constitutes art".Hey, Dingus, that's probably why they're students.
Anywho, if you're looking for a good book that won't make you feel like the bottom of a shoe, check out "Alla Prima II" by Richard Schmid. When I first read this book it was loaned to me by a fellow artist. Someone who had gone through and underlined the parts he found most interesting. THAT was cool. Then I had to get my own copy because it's such a large book full of information that can be referenced again and again. One of the things that popped out at me was this, "Focus on the fascination of problem solving".  More and more I'm beginning to believe that problem solving is what sets artists apart. We should all come to a point in our lives, not just our lives as painters, when we begin to at least attempt to solve our own problems. With painting it's nice to have some guidance and it's great to have someone around that you can ask questions to. However, at some point you need to try to figure things out on your own. Modern medicine wouldn't be where it is now without trial and error. We wouldn't be able to fly around the world without the many failed attempts at building aircrafts. Almost every item in an art supply store was born from problem solving.
It's funny for me to think about this.  Having the fascination to solve problems is kind of a more eloquent way of saying don't be lazy. When in school I had a professor for Design 1 and he constantly tried to get us to improve a box. Yes, a box. I'll admit I was lazy and rather than doing the assignment I would write arguments as to why it didn't need improving. I got an A and a recommendation to go to law school so I could argue all day. A few years later I worked in a music store and would always complain about the boxes the guitars came in. I would go on and on about why didn't they make the box open up this way, or shorten the flaps here and staple it shut on that side instead. There I was, years later, doing the assignment, but not for a grade that time.
To summarize the point; try to work out as many problems on your own.  Imagine every instructor as Rembrandt or Michelangelo and you could only ask them one question per class. Would you waste that one question asking them how to draw a straight line? Besides problem solving is almost more rewarding than a good painting.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Tuesday Tip #20: Break the Rules

One of the most frustrating things to a new artist are the rules. Most people pick up a paintbrush thinking that it's got freedom harnessed in the handle. You picked up that brush, you can do whatever you want now. Then someone comes along and tells you about these rules.  Mostly the rule of thirds. Don't put anything in the center of your composition. Don't put that there or the viewer's eye will just run away off to the next painting. You can't put that there because it will create a tangent. It's incredibly frustrating! Worst of all most new artists tend to get extremely defensive when it comes to these fresh new rules. These rules that aren't supposed to apply to them because people just don't understand their "vision". The first rule any artist should be taught is, don't be defensive. If I were the teacher I'd say, shut your cake-hole, buckle up and keep your mind open.
Back to that rule about not putting anything in the center rule. This is usually a good one to follow, especially for beginners. Composition/design is one of those things that you have to learn the rules before you can break them. Crawl before you can walk.
In "the Artist's magazine" that I mentioned last week there's a tip from artist Jane Jones, "The rules of composition warn against placing something directly in the middle of a painting. And it's true that placing an object off-center makes the composition less formal and adds an immediate feeling of movement. But I've found that the center is a very powerful area that can be used for emphasis and formality. Centering an object makes an immediate statement about its importance".
If you check out her work here you can see how she makes that statement with her still life paintings.
I think this is the hang up with this particular rule about putting things in the center. We associate the center with importance. I usually try to follow the rule of not putting something in the center but with the sketch above I put the woman with the sour face right in the cross-hair. On purpose. I did it because I wanted to put so much more emphasis on her than anyone else. There are three other people in the sketch but I designed them to emphasize the crab apple in the bunch. That's not fair for me to say, she's probably a really nice lady, I just happened to catch her with that expression on her face. Point is, if I had never learned why I shouldn't put something in the center I'd never be able to pull off actually putting something in the center. It goes back to how I designed the people and things around her. If I didn't know the rules I wouldn't have set up everything else to work around her and the center of interest would've been lost, even with her smack in the middle.It's funny how learning the rules first is what's going to give you the freedom to work the way you want.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Tuesday Tip #19: Spring Cleaning

Looking West on J-Street 7x5" watercolour on Kraft paper. 
It may not feel like Spring yet but it's definitely that time of year. Yesterday I went looking for something and found ten gillion other things instead. That lead me to begin my Spring cleaning without even planning to do so. While emptying out  a desk drawer that hadn't been opened since 2007 I found an old issue of "the Artist's magazine".  It's from January 2004 and for whatever reason I kept it. A friend had gifted me a subscription, which can be considered a second tip for this week, gift your artist friends with useful tools like this. After cleaning out the drawer I sat down to look at the magazine to see what was so special about this issue that it was the only one I kept. I'm still looking for that answer but it is chock full of tips from great artists.  Tips that I will gladly share here with you because surely you don't have the January 2004 issue memorized by heart.
This tip comes from John Cogan from September 1993. (I was a freshman in high school that year). "Before you ever begin painting you must choose your light source, consider its effects on everything in the painting, and then apply those effects consistently through the scene.  If you're not certain what the effects of certain lighting will be, then you need to make direct observations outdoors.  Every landscape painter needs to spend time painting, sketching and observing on location".
This is something I struggled with when I first started plein air painting. The one thing people told me was I had to paint fast because the light would change so that's all I focused on, speed. Now when I go out I find something I want to paint and try to first observe how the light is and then figure out which direction the light is going. In the sketch I posted above I'm facing west so I knew that the light was going to go down the street. It's also coming from behind me so that gave me extra time to work.
It may seem complicated but once you get out and do it a few times it just becomes second nature.