Saturday, October 31, 2009

Kevin MacPherson Demo #1

Oil on Canvas Board
11 x 14

This is an exercise that I did from Kevin MacPherson’s book, “Landscape Painting Inside and Out”. When I first started painting, I bought a ton of oil paintings books and I read them all. Since I was just a beginner, I could only absorb so much. Recently, I was sorting out my books, and as I glanced through them, I realized that they made a lot more sense. I decided to re-read them and see what new things

I could learn.This was a demo on page 39 of Kevin MacPherson’s book. He shows four pictures of his progress, and I copied them. The point for me was not to make a forgery of his painting, but to learn about his brushstrokes by emulating them.Painting the “painterly” way is hard for me. I realized that all our lives, we draw and write with the “point” of crayons, pencils and pens. So when we start to paint, and we pick up a brush, it is only natural to use the pointy tip, and try to outline, and then color it in with teensy-weensy strokes, like you would with a crayon, pencil or pen.

The “painterly” way is sort of like coloring with the side of the crayon instead of the tip. You block it in with big, bold, confident strokes. You use the wide, flat side of the brush, not the tip.

I sketched the basic shapes very lightly with super-thinned burnt sienna. I thinned it with OMS until it was like a watercolor wash. Then I blocked in each of the main masses with a basic color. I also did this with thinned-down color, like a watercolor wash.

After it dried (which didn’t take long, since it was mostly OMS), I laid on the paint thickly with a No 10 flat bristle brush. That’s what Kevin MacPherson said to use. It was much larger than I normally use, so it was a challenge. I put each stroke down carefully and deliberately. I put on the accents with a No.4 flat bristle brush. Those were the only two brushes I used. I made an overly big puddle of each color, and I really loaded the flat side of the brush and I laid it down like you would lay down peanut butter. I notice that bristle brushes can scoop up all the color like a straw broom if I use the tips, so I have to lay it down by using the flat of the brush.

My pallet was limited: Ultramarine blue, Alizarin, Cad Red Light, Cad Yellow Medium, Payne’s Gray (Kevin uses a lot of another kind of gray, but Payne’s was what I had), Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre, and white. This kept the colors muted for that deserty, outdoor look. But I tried to make the lights very light so they would pop.I am happy with how this came out, and I learned a lot about brush strokes. Kevin has some more demos in that book and I am going to try to do every one of them. Of course, I will not sell any of these.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Oil on Canvas Board
I selected this photo from the Wet Canvas Image Library. Thank you to whomever posted it. Again, this is the Susan Sarback style, and she does not recommend using photos because you can’t see all the subtle color variations. But I don’t have a still life staging area yet, and I wanted to practice.

This picture looked simple enough. I want to mention that Susan says that when setting up a still life you should have include warm/cool, light/dark, bright/dull. This is so you have a lot of variety for the colors to play off each other and it gives you a more interesting luminous effect. I violated that rule here too, doing white on white.

I am posting pictures of the stages as I went. First, I broke up the picture into basic shapes and light and dark, just as Susan says, and I painted each mass a different color, as taught by Susan (shadow areas a cool color, and lit areas a warm color).

I am posting pictures of the stages as I went. First, I broke up the picture into basic shapes and light and dark, just as Susan says, and I painted each mass a different color, as taught by Susan (shadow areas a cool color, and lit areas a warm color). The photo does not show it very well, but the two light areas are actully pale yellows.

I ran in to a huge problem. The shadow of the egg had lots of variation in it, including value variation. I was trying to put pale yellow on top of the dark purple, and it was just mud – mud –mud. After a few hours of work, I just scraped it. This picture below is right before I scraped it.

So, even though this is not what Susan recommends (as least I didn’t hear her say this), when I started over, I divided the egg shadow area into different values. I mapped out the values in the shadow carefully so I would not get lost.

I underpainted the whole thing purple, but I did it with different values of purple. Susan’s method requires a different color underpainting in each mass, to make the different areas shine, but I wanted a tight cohesiveness of the colors, so I deviated from that rule. That way there would be the one underpainting of purple, but I would not be fighting with the values like before.

This next picture is the end of Stage Two, where the underpainting is modifided for ligth/dark, warm/cool, bright/dull. I know this is too bright; that is a problem I am still struggling with.

I thought I could do tee whole in a couple of hours, since it was so “simple”, but it took me 8 hours. I got very frustrated at times, but my Wet Canvas friends kept encouraging me to hang in there and keep painting. I am glad I did, because it turned out pretty good. When I was all done, I propped it up so I could look at it while I cleaned house, and I kept fixing little things.

Usually when I am done with a painting, I proudly show my husband and he says, “It’s coming along nicely”, which is not what I want to hear. This new style is so unusual for my friends, that when I show it to people, they just look at it blankly and they don't know what to say. But when I was done with this one, I propped it up on the couch (in a pizza box), and when my husband came home and spotted it, he said, “WOW!” So I guess I am on the right track.

Overall, I think it is too polka-dotty, and too bright. I needed more low-chroma colors. But I need to work on that. I am glad I actually finished this and it looks good enough.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Strawberries in a Dish

Oil on Canvas Board

This is the first painting I have done since the Susan Sarback workshop. It is not as good as Susan’s, but I am very, VERY happy with it. I did this from a photo, which you are not supposed to do because the camera cannot see as many colors as you eye sees, and it flattens out the values. But I did it for practice of the four steps, and I think it came out good enough for now.

If you zoom in on the picture, you can see all the colors I put in the dish to make it look iridescent.

I took Mick's advice and put some highlights on the strawberries. I hope it helps.

I spent five days at Susan Sarback’s School of Light and Color. I had a really great time.

It’s not in someone’s backyard or home studio like I imagined. They bought a bank building and converted it into a classroom and gallery. It is in a quaint neighborhood where you can walk to a couple of delis, and there was a park you could eat your lunch at. The park had chickens in it.

Susans classroom is a good size. Along the back wall, Susan had a lot of still lifes set up. She had halogen lamps lighting each still life from the side, so there would be lots of shadows to practice on. The students, 12 of us, lined up our easels facing the still lifes.

Susan has been teaching this technique for years, so she had her system down. She said it is very teachable and anyone can learn it. I asked her directly if she is a Henry Hensche purist, and she said no. She said that she learned what she could from Hensche and then developed her own approach. Later, she broke it down into teachable steps. Hawthorne did not paint exactly like Monet, and Hensche did not paint exactly like Hawthorne. Susan learned from Hensche, but she paints like herself. What I learned is the Susan Sarback way. It suits me.

Before Susan painted anything, she taught us how to see the colors better. Susan says that if you look directly into a color, you just see the local color and then your eyes start to compensate by dulling it out. So she says to glance at it out of your peripheral vision. She squints her eyes and scans her vision back and forth to see out of her peripheral. She does this very time when she looks at the subject.

First, Susan demonstrated how to paint a picture of a wooden block. This was so simple, that everyone could get it. I think this was good because nobody started out by getting in over their head.

On an untoned canvas, we sketched the block with vine charcoal, and then dusted the lines down with a paper towel. Susan specifically said this is not a drawing class, so don’t fuss too much with the drawing: just get the block down, plus the edge of the table behind it.

The first block we had to paint monochrome: only one color plus white. It was just a value study. But it was important. All values had to be different, including the table and the background. We painted using only a knife. We put the paint on thin, like buttering toast.

The second time we painted the block, we could only use colors plus white. We could not paint exactly up the lines, but had to leave a little white space. Susan gave the color list, and they were all bright colors. No brown or black. We were forbidden to mix any colors together on the pallet. Any plane in shadow had to be painted with a cool color, and any plane in light had to be a warm color. We had to get the values correct and we could only mix a color plus white. Before committing to painting each mass, we put a spot of color in that mass. That way we could adjust any colors if we needed to. This is “Step One”.

Step Two. Susan says that Step Two is the most important and her favorite. We look at our painting at Step One, which looks bright and garish, and nothing like the still life. We examine each mass of color. We ask questions about each mass. How does the mass differ from the subject? What color do I need to add? For me, I thought the correct answer was “it needs more green” (or some other color to bring it closer to the local color.) But that is the WRONG answer. Susan says we need to ask:

Is the subject:

Lighter or darker?
Warmer or cooler?
Brighter or duller?

Then I add a color to adjust that. For me, MY problem was that I have seen so many pictures of knife paintings that have thick palm leaves and things like that, that I wanted to put the paint on very thick here, and make it pretty, marbleized, and sculptural. But that is WRONG. The second layer of paint also goes on very thin. In fact, instead of mixing the paint on the palette, the secret to this painting is to mix the paint on the canvas. So you put on the adjusting color (lighter/darker, warmer/cooler, brighter/duller). No one will actually SEE this layer, so it does not have to be “pretty”.

Susan also specifically said to try not to add complimentary colors to dull something up, but go to colors adjacent to the complimentary colors to keep the dullness a little interesting. She said if we want to make something very dull, keep layering the colors alternating between warm and cool. The paints should be very thin, even as you layer them. It gets pretty soupy, but no medium is allowed.

I found that if I pick a color that does not do what I want, I can just pick another color. Even the “wrong” colors work together to make the colors pretty. At the end of Step Two, the painting still looks hideous, but the colors and values should be closer to the subject. It should still look very flat. Pay special attention to make sure each mass looks different. Susan said that beginners tend to keep everything too bright. It is important to have a lot of dull colors, so that the bights will pop.

As we paint, Susan walks up the row of all the painters and offers helpful advice. She never says anything condescending. She does not play favorites or ignore people. She goes down the line and keeps everyone on track. She would take your knife and show what she means without ruining your painting. I was near the end of the line, and I would be listening to her as she came closer. I know that her comments were specific to each individual, but I was listening anyway. As she got closer I could hear her saying things like, “You need more color. You need more painting. You need to exaggerate more.” When she would get to me, she would say the opposite, “Less paint” (scrape, scrape), “too bright, dull it down a bit.” I am so bold and outgoing that, whereas everyone else was timid with their paint, I was needed to rein it in a bit. It was very helpful.

It took one or two days to get these concepts down. When it came time for Step Three, Susan did a demo of a still life. It took her about two hours. She explained what she was doing the whole time, and at the end of each step, she stepped back and we all went up to look and take pictures. She was very nice about picture taking. There were many paintings on the wall, and she did not mind us taking pictures to help us understand.

Step Three is my favorite part. This is a little tricky to explain. You look at each flat mass, and look for “bands of variation” within each mass. For example, if it’s a shadow, it isn’t perfectly flat: it is darker closer to the source, and more faded as it goes out. Every mass has variations in it, and it is the artist’s job to find the variations. Again, the questions are, “is the variation lighter/darker, warmer/cooler, brighter duller”, and you have to scan your eyes to see it. This is the step that makes the subject look 3-D. At this stage, you are using the knife very carefully, lightly and deftly. It is a very picky stage. There were a couple of advanced students in the room working are harder still lifes and I thought their paintings were perfect. But they were fooling and fooling and fooling around in Step Three trying to get it even better.

Step Four. This is a sort of “wrap it up” stage. Now you adjust the edges (hard, soft, halo, whatever), and put on the extreme highlights and darks.

For our first full Four-Step still life, she put oranges out for everyone – and on the list of colors to bring, orange was omitted. Since we could not mix any colors on the palette, we would have to make orange on the canvas by combining Step One and Step Two. Well, that’s easy enough in the lit areas: just start with yellow in Stage One, and tap in some red on Stage Two. But in the shadow part of the orange has to start with a cool color. By the time I was in Stage Two and Three, my shadow area just looked like poo. The lady next to me had more magenta in hers and it looked like a beach ball. Susan came by and said we were right on track. Somehow, when it was all done, it did resemble an orange.

The next day, Susan asked what we wanted to paint. Basically a vase or bottle and another piece of fruit. We all wanted to paint something that was white, so Susan put out a variety of white jars with plastic fruits. She uses plastic fruits because the halogen lights bake real fruits. She has a huge bin full of plastic fruits and vegetables. White seemed like such a tricky thing, especially when you can’t use gray for the shadows. Susan also told us that she wanted us to crop our composition so that there were interesting negative spaces. We were not allowed to start painting until our drawing was okayed.

I decided I was going to try to finish mine by the end of the day, so I kept my eye on the clock and paced myself. Everyone else just worked on each stage until they felt done. I did finish mine by the end of the day, and I was happy with the results, but the other people who took their time and did each painting in a day and a half had more delicate results. We had two more days after that, so I did two more paintings, so aside from the orange, I did three paintings in three days. The other people did two paintings; a day and a half for each. On the one hand, I got more practice because I did three, but theirs looked a little better because they were more meticulous. So I learned I need to be fast, but slow down at the same time.

At the end of the class, we had a critique. It was the nicest class critique I ever experienced. We put all of our paintings up and Susan reviewed each set as a whole. She said that we need to see if they are:

Too light or dark.
Too warm or cool
Too bright or dull.

Everyone’s picture was just right.

The other thing Susan asked us to look at was to see what the “feeling” of each group paintings was. We could only use positive adjectives like, “happy”, “peaceful”, “calm”, etc. To me, they all looked “peaceful” because they were all so shimmery and soft. Susan said our personalities come across in our paintings. Well, everyone had demure adjectives for all the paintings except for mine, which they said described as “bold”, “exciting”, “talkative”, etc. That’s okay because I like being those things.

Something that was particularly interesting to me was that one woman said she could not draw very well. Her vase was lopsided and the base of the vase was flat instead of curved. But Susan’s method of teaching was so good, that even this woman’s painting shimmered and glowed.

I am so glad that I took this workshop. I learned a lot and I have a lot of confidence with this new method.