12 October 2014

Negative painting

That heading is a double entendre, because this is my attempt at what's called a "negative" painting, and I feel negatively about it!

This was from a close-up of the asters that bloom every October in my garden. The bees love them, and I caught this one collecting his pollen. I decided I'd take this close-up and make a painting from it, using a technique I have seen others--notably Brenda Swenson and Joe Cibere--use. (I have never taken their workshops teaching negative painting, and this is my first unschooled attempt.)

Basically, you do the drawing lightly, and then you do an under-wash of your lightest color or colors, in this case a graduated pale lavender to pale green. So far, so good:

Then you paint in layers. You leave your lightest colors (the petals on the asters, in this case) the original under-wash color, and you paint around them with the next darkest color, and then put in the next darkest, and the next darkest, each time defining the lighter parts of the painting by painting around them with darker areas to define them.

It sounds easy in theory. In practice, I found it both difficult and boring. You have to really focus on how you are going to make your lights stand out, and you also have to do a lot of waiting in between coats of paint before you can go on to the next one. Also, you have to have a good sense of the negative spaces in your painting, which I did not (the photograph being a bit indistinct in certain areas and I too inexperienced at this to know what to do with them), and you have to know how to deal with both positives and negatives as you move towards the finishing touches, which I found confusing.

In short, I got frustrated and bored, and I finally just stopped. In some areas of the painting, I stopped too soon, while in other areas, I stopped too late, leaving some parts unfinished looking while others are overworked! I felt like I was doing a paint-by-numbers project!

So this was a good exercise to teach me one of two things: Either I shouldn't attempt stuff without watching a pro do it and getting advice; or I should be more patient and committed to the process and be willing to practice more than once before giving up on it. But honestly, I just don't think it's my kind of technique. Anyway, for what it's worth, here it is. Maybe I'll try another someday.

05 October 2014

Sunday morning lakeside

I woke up at 6:30 this morning, and since it's been pretty hot, I decided I'd forego another hour or two of sleep and head out to Lake Balboa, which is a manmade lake and recreation area about a mile and a half from my house, for some painting. I packed up my watercolor tote, and threw in my recyclable bag too, so I could make some art and then hit Trader Joe's before the morning rush.

I didn't get up quite early enough to get sunrise over the lake, but I did get some nice photos from my back yard before I left:

I'm not much of a plein air painter, which is to say I haven't done it much, am not particularly comfortable with it (especially fending off or ignoring all the people who stop and want to watch or comment--I overheard a "beautiful!" and an "oh, she's just messing about" this morning, for instance), and don't do a great job. So I decided this morning, so as not to put pressure on myself, that I would just do some pen gesture drawings of the birds at the lake and maybe one painting, which I would also draw with pen, taking away some of the expectation of capturing the scene realistically. Here are the gesture drawings of all the plenitude of water birds that hang out there--egrets, geese, coots, herons…

And here are a couple more, along with a fast gesture drawing of a little boy who went by. Most of the adults were either jogging or walking so quickly that I couldn't catch a likeness before they were gone, but this little boy was walking slowly enough that I could get a tiny bit of detail:

And here, finally, is my little painting. I quite like parts, although I overworked the focal point fall tree in the foreground, trying to capture the colors. I caught a jogger stretching against the picnic table and decided she'd make a nice addition to a scene of nature.

Here's a photo of the same scene (although I condensed and simplified a bit, and changed the planes):

So--it's 10:00 a.m., and I have driven, drawn, painted, shopped, scanned, Dropboxed, Photoshopped, and posted! Time for breakfast. And a nap.

29 September 2014

Last day of vacation...

…was yesterday, so I decided to make one last painting. (Not last last, just last during this precious free time.) I tried my hand at an all-over pattern, since Judy Morris's pattern-heavy paintings made me want to "get busy." Of course, if Judy had done this it would have been perfect…and with no pencil lines or skips or flubs. But I am me, and I don't have the patience or the desire for perfection. So I finished it up this morning, and here is my little still life of fruit from the farmers' market, on a piece of fabric I bought as part of a package of "fat quarters" to use someday (when I retire!) in a quilt.

I actually used salt on those pears, but then I painted over them so much that it's virtually undetectable. Also, let me just say that it is hard to know how to do shadows over fabric that is both pink and white. Hmmm. And that wash at the top was really smooth before I tried to fix the horizon line and had to glaze over the whole thing again. Oh, well. It was a good use of my last morning off.

Here also is a photo "in process," just because I always like to see those.

What could be better than spending your morning out on the patio painting? (By the way, those bankers' boxes in the background are full of paperwork for the taxes I was supposed to be doing this weekend. Yes, last year's taxes. But…priorities! Ha ha.) And now…back to the library!

28 September 2014

New techniques: Salt

I decided yesterday to try my hand at introducing salt to a picture, following Judy's instructions from my workshop (see previous post two down from this one). This is from a photo I took while in France last year, in some small village--don't remember which one, but I'll ask Bix. I am proud of myself that I didn't give in to the urge to put this on the light box and trace it--this is a freehand drawing, and done, moreover, while sitting in Judy's workshop, which amazes me due to the level of distraction present. There are a few non-true angles and wonky perspectives, but I can easily write that off to its being a funky little building, yes?

The thing I liked about this subject when I took the photo was the variety of textures and materials used in this cottage or outbuilding or whatever it is: rough stone, smooth stone, plaster, wood, some kind of blue aluminum siding, and of course the metal of the post box and the gate. There is also the brick and concrete of the walkways, the earth and scattered leaves surrounding the plants, and finally the gangly, unpruned climbing rose, which introduces the natural element into it all.

All of that also makes this a hugely challenging scene to paint, and I am happier with some parts than with others. First, though, the salt:

I used regular table salt throughout. I salted the plaster at the right; then I decided to salt the brick and sidewalk; and finally I went all out and also salted the stones on the left and the side wall area.

I really liked what the salt did for the plaster on the right, and I accentuated it afterwards by introducing some dabbed-on-and-blotted green to give it a moldy feel. I also like what it did for the wall behind the gate, and for the sidewalk emerging from that side. The problem with this photograph was that even when I took it into Photoshop and brightened the heck out of it, I still could see no detail on the receding left-hand side of the building behind the gate; but I think the salt, combined with mixing a variety of dark colors to give it presence without definition, made it work.

I was much less happy with its effect on the bricks, and in fact am displeased with the bricks, period--I think they are the one area in this painting that doesn't work. I expected the gate to be the biggest problem, but it came out pretty well, and I was pleased with the juxtaposition of the somewhat flat red with the textured wall behind it, and the echoed angles of the sidewalk and crossbars.

One is sometimes not sure a painting is finished, and with this one the foliage is what kept me futzing for a while. I'm still not happy with it--the foliage in the photo was much denser and more complex, and I just didn't have the will to continue, so I stopped. I'm not great with foliage in general, and I short-handed it, which is contrary to the style of the rest of the painting. But…to use a recently well-worn phrase that has absolutely no meaning, irritates me when I hear it from others, and yet seems to express one's emotion perfectly sometimes, "It is what it is." Done. I call it "Secret Garden" because despite all the detail, the thing I like most about the painting is the possibility inherent in opening that gate and finding out what's in the back yard!

Although I enjoyed working with the salt and feel it added a dimension to this particular subject, I'm not sure I will adopt it with the fervency with which Judy Morris uses it! Still, nice to know a tool is there when you need it, and I'm sure I'll try it again in some other context.

This is a larger painting (12x16), so I photographed it instead of scanning it, but I think the colors are pretty true.

27 September 2014

Workshop, continuing

Judy Morris!


Judy makes extensive use of her own photography. (She stresses that one should never use anyone else's photography! Not just because it's someone else's vision, but because of copyright and recognizability.) She says she photographs for "facts." She collects characters, and then puts them in different environments. She takes multiple photographs of elements she likes. So maybe the window of a shop, or the open doorway of a bistro, and then a picture of a waiter, or a bicycle leaning against a wall. Maybe a landing in Venice, and a gondola, and a gondolier. Or multiple pairs of feet in different kinds of shoes on a train platform. Or chinese lanterns and fabrics and kites and bamboo leaves. But--how often does one capture the perfect picture, with all the elements in place, in perfect proportion to one another, with the best possible light? Never. Neither nature nor man is that cooperative. So…

Judy takes all those elements, sizes them up and down on a copy machine until they are in pleasing proportion to one another, and traces them onto tracing paper. Then she cuts out these elements, arranges them together, moves them around until she has found a combination she likes, and tapes or pastes them down. She takes a piece of butcher paper the same size as her watercolor paper and folds it into quarters and then again. She draws a grid over her paste-up in the same proportions, and uses this grid to make a single drawing that incorporates all the elements. Then (to avoid drawing on her watercolor paper, which she doesn't like to do, because it leaves lines), she sometimes will tape this drawing to the back of her paper, and place the layers onto her light box, so she can paint in the shapes without drawing on the surface. Or, she may then photograph the composite drawing and project it onto her paper, drawing the lines lightly with a 2H pencil.

She has no trouble with using all this technology to construct a painting. Purists might; but they will never achieve a painting with the disparate elements as perfectly combined as you will see in Judy's!

Questions to ask yourself before you make a painting: What is it about this scene, or person, or object, that drew you in? What made you want to paint it? That should be your focal point. So maybe it was an interesting face. Maybe it was the person in relation to his environment. Maybe it was the textures you wanted to capture, or the contrast of light to dark, or the marvelous colors. Being able to answer that question satisfactorily lets you know that yes, you should make this painting, and it also tells you how the painting should be structured to highlight or feature that special part.


In addition to using salt, Judy is all about texture. She has a background in calligraphy, and loves symbolism. So she uses a variety of materials to provide texture in her paintings. One thing she enjoys is using stencils to introduce lettering, whether the lettering is used literally/functionally (to portray a street sign) or figuratively (Chinese figures on an old tea chest) or as a label or pattern. She also likes pattern stencils--a floral motif on fabric, or a border around her image to call greater attention to it, or bamboo leaves providing interest. And she stencils first and last, depending on the desired effect.

Here is one example of how she uses texture in a painting--take a look at the sky, in which she has painted in an all-over design in a slightly different shade from her wash, and at the repeating border across the top:

One method she uses is so intriguing, and I've never heard of anyone else doing this: She buys white latex paint (flat wall paint like you would use to paint your bedroom) and uses it as a resist. She takes a stencil and stencil brush and stencils white letters or patterns onto her white watercolor paper. You can hardly see them, except that the latex does stand up a bit above the surface; if you don't want it to, you can simply blot the letters with a paper towel after stenciling them on. Then you let them dry, and then you wash over them, and everything you stenciled in white magically appears behind the glaze of watercolor! You can leave as is or, if it's too bright and prominent to serve well as a background, you can paint over it to tone it down.

Here is a test sheet I did, where I stenciled the diamond pattern and my initials onto blank paper with white latex paint and then glazed over them with watercolor:

Then I played around a little with changing the color on top. (This and practicing swatches of continuous wash were the extent of my painting for the entire workshop!)

The other useful trick she shared was creating "color chords." Everyone has picked up a postcard or a greeting card or a piece of fabric because they fell in love with the colors used to create it. Judy then takes paints and mixes until she matches the exact colors used in that combination, making notes of what she combined and in what proportions, and creates a color card that she keeps until she finds a painting she wants to make using that color chord.

She also has some tried and true triads of paint combinations that she shared:

The primary transparent triad is French ultramarine, quinacridone gold, and permanent alizarin crimson

The desert triad (more opaque) is yellow ocher, cerulean blue, and Indian red (which coincidentally make a lovely gray when mixed together)

So--although I didn't return home with paintings to share, I did learn a lot from Judy Morris, and she has given me enough food for thought to fuel creativity for quite a few weekend afternoons of experimentation! If you would like to view some of her other work (and it's well worth seeing), you can go to her website. Hopefully my next post will be something I have created with her inspiration.

26 September 2014

Workshop and resuming

It's been two months since I posted here, and two months since I drew or painted. There's no great explanation for that; some difficult stuff has happened, but most of it within a two-week period and none of it justifying no output for two months. I guess the best I can do is, I was in a mood. Or not in a mood. Or something.

Anyway, I decided to rectify that by taking a week's vacation and spending three days of it at a watercolor workshop in Orange County at the Schroeder Studio Gallery, with artist and teacher Judy Morris. I didn't know the work of Judy Morris before I saw and signed up for this workshop, but I was intrigued by her images and ideas and thought it would be a good way to jump-start myself back. Workshops have a way of doing that.

This one hasn't worked out that way quite yet, though. At most workshops I have attended, the teacher makes a point to schedule exercises or projects so that the students go home with something tangible done by their own hand. That didn't happen with Judy Morris. I think the reason for that is equally distributed between the way she works and the students themselves.

First, the way Judy works: She's a planner. There is very little spontaneity to her paintings. They are beautiful and intricate, they are creative, they are unusual--but they are not whipped out in an afternoon. Judy is a designer, and it shows in every step she takes, from the initial idea to the last brushstroke. Even her demos are lengthy perambulations through ideas and inspirations, techniques, styles, color chords…none of it is flashy, but all of it is fascinating. I learned a lot about how she uses her materials and was enlightened as to why my use of these same materials in the past has produced less than stellar results. I am so grateful for this knowledge. I always feel like if I learned one new thing in a workshop, my time wasn't wasted, and I learned far more than that during this three-day stint. But I didn't learn by doing.

Every once in a while during the course of the three days, Judy would say "But enough of me, I want you to go and paint now," but then a student would ask another question about how she did something, or why, or in what circumstances, or using what method, and she'd be off again. So when it became a choice between listening to a pro and watching her work vs. essaying my own interpretation and ignoring her, I chose each time to listen. For that reason, a few students produced one or maybe even two pieces of art, while the rest of us had nothing but test patches to take home.

So, instead of sharing my art with you in this post, I will share some of what I learned. (And maybe a few photographs.)

First of all, vacation….ahhhhh.

I stayed, on the recommendation of Judy Schroeder, at the Ayres Inn, which was pretty comfortable, had a pool, furnished a full "American" complimentary breakfast each morning, and was packed to the gills with midwestern families on their way to Disneyland via the (also complimentary) shuttle bus that showed up every morning right after said breakfast. I have never seen so many small blond children grouped in one place in my life! Also more fanny packs and polyester than I've seen since the 1980s.

I was delighted with Old Town Orange. I'd never been there before, and its central circle with fountain and benches, surrounded by raying-out streets filled with antique stores and some stellar eateries, was great fun to explore when I wasn't workshopping.

I took this one for my cousin, because of the CRONUTS. Yum.
The Schroeder Studio Gallery is small but pleasant and well-equipped. Here is a shot of some of my fellow work-shoppers trying out their salting technique, and another of Judy Morris, doing a demo, with her twin, Jackie, standing by to support and hand her things. (They were both art teachers for 30-odd years, and frequently travel together.)

But enough scene-setting. Here are some of the things I learned from Judy Morris:

1. How to do a continuous or "smooth" wash.

This alone was worth it all. I have been to other workshops where such stellar artists as Frank Eber picked up a big squirrel mop brush, slopped some paint into a lot of water, and rendered the perfect continuous-wash sky from top of paper to horizon line in three or four strokes. Then he challenged us to do it. Right. This is one I have practiced and practiced, and still haven't mastered--my sky is either stripey or bland. Judy, the epitome of precision, does it very differently. She works with a relatively small synthetic brush. She mixes up some juicy colors beforehand. She then goes across the page from one side to the other using a small, short, zig-zagging motion, filling in completely in a small stripe. She does this with her paper at a 45-degree angle, so that the paint runs down and forms "the bead," which is the non-running line of water and paint pooling at the bottom of the stripe. She then picks up a bit more paint/water on her brush, comes back and picks up the bead and goes across again. She continues this, moving quickly enough so the paint doesn't dry out but still with extreme care and precision, until she gets to the bottom of where she wants the wash to end, whereby she wipes her paintbrush dry and picks up the last line of wet "bead" from the paper at the bottom, et voila! perfect smooth wash. And I can do it! Hallelujah.

2. SALT.

I have seen a lot of people use salt in their paintings. My questions were always two: How? and, when it came down to it, Why? I am not a gimmicky person, and I have never gotten into using what I have mostly considered extraneous techniques in my paintings. I don't crinkle up saran wrap and daub it in my washes to create a batik look. I don't mask, I don't tape, I don't do much of anything except draw and paint. Period. But I have to admit I have always had a fascination with the salt technique, and I have seen many paintings with such interesting textures created by this. I have tried it a few times and it has been an abject failure for me. So I was curious to see what Judy would say.

What she said was this: I salt almost everything! and...Everyone is pretty much doing it wrong. Here are her tips:

First of all, people say to put paint on the paper and let the shine go off before you salt. Nope. If you do that, you'll either get stars, or you'll get nothing. The salt needs to interact with the water and the paint, so you need to add it just as soon as you have applied those to your paper.

Second, people use way too much salt. You want to leave room on the page between the grains, whether you are using table salt or rock salt (you get different effects, depending). The way salt works is like a sponge: It picks up water and color. If you want to see a texture, you have to leave room between the grains of salt so that there is a different texture between the parts that are salted and the parts that are not!

Third, people wait to salt their pictures until the end. I always thought this was right, because obviously you wouldn't want to paint on top of it after, right? Nope. You need to work in small increments/areas and salt as you go. When you are completely done salting, you have to let it dry completely without touching it. Once the salt hits the paper, you don't move it. You can't use a hair dryer to expedite the drying process, because that will move the salt. After the shine is gone, you CAN put it out in the sun for a while if you're really in a hurry, but that's it.

Then you remove the salt, and continue with your painting. Judy will often put on a smooth wash, salt that, remove it, then continue with her painting, including adding elements and shadows right over the formerly salted area.

Fourth, removing the salt: People say be gentle. Nope. People suggest using a credit card or something similarly blunt-edged. Nope. Judy uses a palette knife, and she scrapes that salt off of there. It's loud and it's rough. You do have to be careful enough not to scrape your paper with the palette knife (which is why she uses tough--and expensive--300-lb. watercolor paper), but you need to scrape it thoroughly, because you want all of that salt off of there! After you scrape it all off, you do the "blind" test--you close your eyes and run your hands all over the salted area. If it's back to feeling like watercolor paper, then you got it all. If you can still feel a raised texture, then scrape some more.

After you scrape off all the salt, you then make a "blotter" with a damp paper towel, and blot the salted area to get off all the salt dust as well. Then, if you like, you can "glaze" it by mixing a wet, thin color and cross-brushing it gently/lightly over the top, and then maybe blotting again. This adds a common color to bring all your disparate colors together, and softens everything.

Here is an example of a piece of unfinished work Judy used to demonstrate such techniques as smooth washes, texturing, salting, etc. to us:

The texture in the lettering is created by:

1. Painting the letters using a smooth wash, but leaving gaps of white here and there.
2. Salting the letters.
3. Removing the salt and blotting.
4. Going back over the letters and filling in the white parts using two different colors--a deeper shade of sepia, and Winsor Red for sparkles/highlights

(I did say she was a planner!)

The texture in the wall ditto, except that she also uses a staggered, directional wash in a "sunburst" from the lightest yellow outwards to the darker part, again leaving white (as you can see on the left) and going back in with other colors after the salting process. I think there is some spatter on there as well.

The tablecloth chair, and glasses are perfect examples of the precision of her smooth washes.

Enough! I need to go paint something. Tomorrow: More about ideas, inspiration, color, and DESIGN.

20 July 2014

Sunday in Pasadena

My cousin Carol Sue turned 75 this month (doesn't she look good?), and her daughter, Kirsten, came up with the idea for "the girls" (Kirsten's two sisters, her two best friends--who are like daughters to Cos as well--and me) to take her out to a fancy tea at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena. We did this once before with the family, for my mom's 65th, I believe it was, only then it was called the Huntington Sheraton. So the seven of us had reservations today at 1:30 for the Chocolate Tea, aka Tiffin at the Langham.

Coincidentally, one of the meet-up groups to which I belong was doing a two-part sort of sketch-crawl today, in which they started at Castle Green in Pasadena (click the link if you want to know more about that site), and moved on to Echo Park for a picnic lunch and more sketching later in the day. So I went early and did a sketch at Castle Green, and then proceeded to the Langham for tea with my cuz!

I joined a couple of meet-up groups in the hope of making some new artist-type friends, but I'm not sure how well this is going to work out. My impulse when going out to do plein air sketching is to find an aspect I like as quickly as possible, and then sit down to sketch. But the leader of this group wants us to thoroughly explore all our options before we start to work, which has meant that for the three meet-ups I have attended, we have spent 45 minutes (or more) wandering the site and about 45 minutes making art. I think I will probably go on my own in the future, so I can maximize my time, because I don't have so much of it that I can afford to dither!

Anyway, here is my sketch of Castle Green, which I did in pen on site and then added color once I got home after the tea. And also a few photos of tea at the Langham--quite decadent!

I didn't remember to take any reference photos while at the location, so I had to find something online to do the color--so the shadows are probably not correct. My perspective is terrible (my friend Bix taught me a trick about "elbows down, knees up," but I'm still not good at it), plus that weird entryway with the bridge to the main building is really hard to draw! But it was a fun exercise. And my reward was PASTRY!