31 October 2014

Contour studies

I am gearing up for a large painting, and woke up this morning with the desire to do some contour drawings of some of the disparate elements. I think what Daryl, my friend who requested a painting, had in mind was a simple contour with some watercolor highlights (like I have done for a few of our friends at the library), but once I got into researching the project (a Steampunk still life), I became excited by the various challenges presented and decided to do a large, full-on "real" painting. After painting a lot of small things that I could complete in an afternoon or even a couple of hours, I am wanting to get back to some bigger, more detailed work that takes time, planning, focus. We'll see how it goes! For now, here are some contours from my sketchbook:




More on this project as it unfolds. Since I go back to work on Monday, it may take a while! Happy Hallowe'en, everyone! Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha.




29 October 2014

Challenge

I am not a great photographer--in fact, lack of photographic documentation (or ability) is a trait that apparently runs in my family, because photos of any of us are few and far between, and most of the vacation photos my parents took to memorialize their many trips were fuzzy interchangeable vistas. Previous to the advent of cell phones with photo capability, it rarely occurred to me to bring along a camera, and when I did, I forgot to use it!

Now I am making up for lost opportunities, but as I said, not great at it. So I often go online and root about in others' photos. I seldom work straight from one photograph (since I agree with Judy Morris that it's both risky and not particularly ethical), but I often take disparate elements and combine them, as I did in this painting I made about 10 years back in watercolor class at L.A. Valley College. I took out a book from the library with pictures of trees in it. I took out another with rodents in various poses. The cat I drew from life, having examples available around the house. The glass slipper was somewhat humiliating--I put this painting on display once, and someone said to me "I love that you made the slipper peau de soie instead of glass." Not intention, m'dear, just lack of skill! The coach is a hybrid of my own blue teapot with the wheels, door and perch of the Disney Cinderella coach.


There is another reason why I don't often copy faithfully from one photo--the fact that I am almost always dissatisfied with the rendering. As much as I want to paint freely and loosely, copying from a photo seems to send me straight back to that painstaking person who has to (try to) capture each minute detail, and not only is my skill set usually inadequate, but I get halfway through and think, THIS is not the painting I wanted to make at all!

I decided, however, to give it a shot again this week, because I saw a photograph I wanted to capture, for a couple of reasons. One was, of course, that the composition, colors, and subject matter appealed to me; and the other was that I wanted to make the painting as a gift.

I am a fan of the author Deb Caletti. She writes both young adult and adult fiction, and I have liked all of her books, some of them a lot. I also feel guilty about Deb, because I once invited her to be a guest speaker at my library and then had to uninvite her. I had sent out emails to a variety of YA authors who would be in Los Angeles for the L.A. Times Festival of Books, hoping to snag one for an author appearance while they were in town. Deb (who lives in Seattle) was one, and Maggie Stiefvater (Virginia) was another. Maggie's agent replied and said Hey, Maggie is just starting her Printz tour (her book The Scorpio Races was a Printz Honor book) with John Corey Whaley (who won the Printz for Where Things Come Back), so how would you like a twofer--Maggie and Corey? I was ecstatic, accepted, and booked the auditorium. Two days later, I heard back from Deb personally, and she said she would be delighted to appear at our library. Ordinarily I would have just said Author panel! and booked her too, but since Maggie and Corey were part of a tour, I couldn't do that. So I had to say Gee, Deb, I'm so sorry but you can't come after all. She was graciousness itself, but I always felt badly.

Long story to get to: I follow Deb Caletti on Facebook, where she occasionally posts photos of weekend activities amongst the news about book tours. She posted a photo from a day when she was at Lake Union, with a caption that said "I finally found my boat!" The photo was an unusual composition, with color challenges, an interesting perspective, and water (of which I haven't painted much), and I immediately resolved to try making a painting of it. I also decided that if I did and it turned out okay, I would send it as a gift to Deb Caletti to say, Sorry again for reneging on the author appearance, and please come by the next time you're in Los Angeles! Here is the painting:


As I said above, not really the one I wanted to make. How I'd love to paint is something like Thomas Schaller, who creates the ocean with a quick wash, flicks his wrist to make waves before the paint is dry, and sketches in a pier or a boat freehand in a beautiful ultramarine/burnt sienna mix while simply eyeballing his photo. But that's not me. So I spent about nine hours on this, hoping as I went along that it wouldn't turn out looking like a paint by numbers affair. There are many areas with which I am less than satisfied, a few that make me happy, but over all, I think I will call it good and send it to Deb Caletti. Hopefully she won't be as critical as I am and will simply be reminded of a delightful day out, and of a librarian who wishes her well.

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!

DESIGNING A PAINTING:

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.

TEXTURE:

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.