Sunday, May 25, 2008

Shady Garden Corner

Oil on Canvas Board
12 x 16

I wanted to try another Plein Air. I don’t feel like I have this down. I didn’t want to go alone to an isolated spot, so I looked around the house. Since we live in a mobile home, our yard is about the size of a single-wide driveway, and it’s all fenced in. I liked all the potted plants under the tree, and I wanted to get the tree too. I spend a lot of time guessing, so this took me five hours. But I do think it is an improvement over my last Plein Air. I hope the next one is better yet.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Plein Air Class: Pasadena Bridge

11 x 14
Oil on Canvas Board

I went to Rich Gallego's Plein Air Workshop today and I learned a lot. I think he loves teaching as much as he loves painting. I told him that I was a beginner, so he started from scratch with me. He tailored his teaching to my specific problems.

We went to a park in Pasadena, and we took the path to a spot where the bridge loomed in front of us. Rich said we were going to paint the bridge, the trees, and the path. Wow, that was a lot. Then he pulled out a teensy 6x8 canvas. I said, “How are you going to fit that HUGE bridge on that teeny canvas?” I put my 6x8 canvas away, and got out an 11x14, just in case I needed more room for the bridge.

These are some of the things that I learned:

First of all, Rich only let me use one big brush to do everything. Since the canvas was 11x14, he made me use a #8 flat.

At a different workshop I attended, I was taught to mix burnt sienna with alizarin crimson for a wash, and then block in everything with that color. For me, the alizarin always bleeds into everything, giving me purple skies and pink buildings. But at this workshop, Rich had me make an orange using cad lemon light and cad red. We skipped the wash, and just blocked in the shapes. It was a big help. The paint stayed put and did not bleed into my other colors.

Then he had me squint to see the value masses more clearly. We blocked in the shapes with various colors, focusing on getting values correct, and only ballpark color. We worked on the whole canvas simultaneously.

Then he taught me about brushwork. Rich said I need to hold the brush at the tip, and scoop up the paint like a shovel, then lay it on, not “brush” it on. It was a lot more like plastering than painting. Using the sides of the bristles instead of the tips made for more interesting textures. No more polka-dotty leaves that I am used to making.

Also, Rich used a different limited palette than I did. He said he never uses alizarin crimson (which I lean on), and he adds chromatic black, which is a combination of red and green (he explained it better than that, but that’s all I can remember). The chromatic black with cad red light made nice purples. Well, I was there to learn, so that's what I did.

In the middle of the scene were some scrub oaks. They just looked like a green blob to me, but he showed me how to make the front ones warmer and the back ones cooler so they would add depth to the painting.

I learned a lot more than you can see in my painting. Rich talked to me about many elements of painting as we went along. I really got a lot out of the class and I will definately go again.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Using Contrasts in Painting

When little children learn to draw, they think about outlining the shapes, such as a circle is a face. Later, they use crayons, and they put in color: the sun is yellow, the trees are green, and the barn is red.

Shapes and colors are obvious in nature. But for value, you have to start paying attention. Values begin to define the three-dimensionality of the drawing.

A painting without value contrast is flat and uninteresting. When I see paintings by beginners, I notice that they lack value contrasts: The tree is green, the hills are purple, the barn is red, but they are all the same value of green, purple, and red. This was a problem with my beginning paintings too. It was intimidating for me to put in something that might be "too" light, or "too" dark. I thought it would look wrong.

I wanted to play it safe, like with crayons, and hope that just the colors would do the job of revealing the picture. But when I look at my early paintings, I had to face the fact that lack of contrast in values was the problem. There was no REAL light and dark, they were all medium, as if everything was painted on an overcast day. Even if it was overcast, it did not look like that. My paintings needed stronger highlights and deeper shadows, as well as variations of value within the color scheme. I tried to make lighter lights, and darker darks, and the contrasts help my paintings a LOT, even if the other elements of my paintings remained amateur.

Through this lesson, I learned something else. If contrast in values can help a painting, what other contrasts do I need? As a beginner, I am also tempted to make everything in my painting bright, colorful, and wonderful. But then, like the experienced painters say, everything winds up shouting, and nothing gets heard.

I examine the beautiful paintings in galleries and museums and I notice they have more contrasts than just light and dark:

Light and Dark value
Dull and Bright chroma
Warm and Cool colors
Soft and Hard edges
Detailed and Vague areas

To include these is easier said than done. Contrasts are part of the work of PLANNING a painting.

In a way, a painting is like an orchestral piece:

Soft and Loud (like soft and hard edges)
High and Low (like light and dark)
Background and Soloist (like dull and bright)
Wind and strings (like warm and cool)
Fast and slow (like detail and shapes)

All these contrasts make art interesting, and they make you want to linger and soak up the whole piece. Without contrasts, paintings and music are monotonous, predictable and boring. No one lingers for that. But with opposites, each opposite provides contrast, and that makes each opposite “pop”, both in painting and in music.

I am sure every great composer had to think, "Where am I gong to put the loud and the soft? Where I am going to put the fast and the slow? When will the soloist shine, and when with the orchestra come in?" We need to do the same with our paintings.

When I look at a "great" painting, I take time to notice (as a lesson to myself): Where is the light and dark? Where is the dull and bright? Where is the warm and the cool? Where are the soft and hard edges?” They didn’t just happen; they were planned. Then I evaluate my paintings: Whoops, all hard edges. Whoops, all medium value. Whoops, no dull area to make my bright focal point pop. Sometimes I realize that in my haste to just draw everything, I forgot to plan the focal point. That's like not having musical theme for the orchestra to show off.

Every inch of the canvas needs to be intriguing, but you can't just paint the whole thing Cadmium Orange to hold someone's attention. With opposites making variations, there is something interesting happening in every brushstroke of the canvas, just like every instrument in the orchestra contributes to the music, whether it is star soloist on the violin, or the unknown gently tapping the triangle in the background. Then the viewer will linger and lose himself the painting, exploring all the interesting and stimulating opposites that draw his eye into the work of art.