When traveling, no other activity in painting brings me more excitement than taking my old pochade box outdoors in search of a new motif to tackle.
Being a Hawai’i resident, trips to the mainland are welcome opportunities. I can paint in situations where the visual content is rich in different ways than at home. The architecture, color, climate, citizenry…all offer a fresh point-of-view. I love carefully scouting out a spot where I can unobtrusively compose and paint a sketch.
But when working in oil, there’s also a serious practical matter involved. How can we get damp paintings home safely with minimal expense and fussing?
Here’s what I came up with.
Divide and Conquer
For this to work, the oil sketches need to be the same dimension. Fortunately, I only brought the size panels that fit my box, so all are 8 x 10″.
In this image, the paintings are numbered from earliest (1) to latest (3). When it came time to pack, painting 1 was sufficiently set-up
as far as being dry to the touch. It was the least vulnerable to damage. 2 was still soft, but was fairly set-up as far as dryness to the touch, being about 4 days along in drying. Painting 3 was the wet one, and so became the big concern among the paintings as I packed them.
Just a note…I don’t use driers (or any other means) to accelerate the normal drying time of oil paintings. Exposure to air circulation and normal daylight conditions are ideal. That discussion is for another time, but I wanted to mention it here.
Enter the Bamboo Chopstick
Being that I live (and eat) in Hawai’i, I’m used to disposable bamboo chopsticks as a part of routine life. When I needed to find a short, thin, readily available spacer to separate the paintings, I needed not look further. The ones we found are rectangular at the grip, ideal for use as spacers. Easy to cut if needed, they rest positioned on the painting’s edge, where the rabbet of the frame would overlap. That means any area of damp paint the chopstick might disturb would be easy to touch-up, and likely invisible once the paintings are framed.
Using painting 1 as the base, I added a pair of chopsticks cut to the height of the painting, and placed them both along the edges on two sides.
Next, I seated painting 2 on the platform thus created, and also facing paint-side up. There’s about 1/4″ between the paintings, which is great.
For painting 3, wettest of the oil paintings, I faced it downwards. I was careful to seat it where the chopstick dividers would rest against the painting’s edges. Once positioned, I used some packing tape to bind the whole “sandwich” firmly together, as seen below.
When this was done, it was only a matter of wrapping the combined paintings in some sturdy brown wrapping paper, and taping them closed.
Since I decided to carry them in my suitcase, I took a moment to indicate the contents on the wrapping, in the off-chance that my bags were opened for inspection.
I hope this is helpful to others. The whole process took about 20 minutes, and everything survived the flight perfectly.
This morning, Honolulu was greeted with overcast skies, so I immediately changed my painting plans to take advantage of the situation… because an overcast day is ideal for painting ocean studies.
“Ocean studies” are exercises. In painting and drawing, we gradually educate ourselves about the behavior and look of the ocean by repeated exposure. The more of this direct contact I have, the more fluent I’ll become, enabling me to paint with more confidence and authority.
With ocean work, “overcast” helps
Overcast is good because it’s on such days that I find the ocean easiest to paint. In Hawai’i, perhaps unlike other areas, finding shade to work in is critical. Oftentimes, the rocky coastlines I prefer lack shade. So it’s great news when we have some good cloud cover.
Some other points regarding overcast days:
-Almost all the values (shades of dark & light) will fall in the middle range. What this means is that the lightest whites of the breaking waves are slightly less than the pure white on my palette. The darks in rocks are slightly less dark than my darkest pigments. Therefore, our notes of color become closer to what can be reached with paint.
-Because sunlight is restricted, the effect of sunlight is diffused and doesn’t change as much during the painting session. This might give me more time to paint before the light changes.
My purpose in making studies
In anything I refer to as a “study”, my main intention is to learn by doing.
If a study looks good when finished, that’s terrific, and I want that to be the case. But that isn’t the entire target. Ocean studies are an ongoing seeking-out of design ideas, the “notes” of color (the actual look of the color in the right value), and the shapes and rhythms of the sea. By exposure to direct observation, brush in hand, a vocabulary can be built. That’s a skill I want to have internalized so that when struggling with a painting I’ll have a reliable sense of when I’m getting close to the look of nature….and when I’m not.
Ignore the spectacular
The ocean possesses numerous sensitive moods, and each has artistic value. The dramatic crashing wave-against-rock theme is not the only possibility, so it’s wise to become aware of others. The observation of the quiet-but-telling secondary actions of the sea is of great importance and is possibly the most difficult. Understanding that waves are visible, fluid manifestations of energy is a good framework for launching out on the work of painting the ocean, and if viewed that way, we may find interesting motives for paintings.
I’m generally hoping to be out early for ocean work. My setup is with a lightweight easel and color box that I’ve been favoring over the last few years. I carry the minimum of things needed, refined from a lot of practice, and pack my equipment the prior evening. When I arrive at the location, I don’t haul my equipment around looking for a spot. Rather, I look for my spot and then bring my equipment to it.
My palette for the ocean includes (Lead) White, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Lemon, Indian Red, Permanent Crimson, and Viridian; for blues, Cerulean, Cobalt, and Ultramarine, and finally Ivory Black. For the painting to follow, I chose an 11 x14″ oil-primed wooden panel. This is large enough to allow some freedom of brushwork, but small enough to complete in a few hours. As the photos show, it’s mounted against a neutral gray backing, which allows a consistent middle gray around the margin of the study; this helps me judge things a bit better.
I always try to think through the composition of anything I put my brush to. That’s a discipline I need to practice. Art ultimately is dependent on taste…and so each step can at least be an effort in the direction of making better choices.
In this case, my interest was the action of the largest wave. Since the painting is so middle-value, I chose to include the rock (which is stationary and dark), and place it where I thought it would be most helpful to the overall design. This gave me something dark to measure the other values against. Also, the wet sand aspect introduced the only truly warm color notes (ochre), and added to the dark of the rock, really helps bring the study to life.
I always want the largest shapes (sky, sea, sand, white of the waves, etc) to contribute to an interesting pattern in and of themselves. In this case the division shown on the white panel, though done quickly, does reflect some concern for realizing that. Notice there’s a small “x” mark painted in the center of the canvas… it’s a help to arranging those big shapes. The lines are painted in after some planning with light charcoal lines, which were dusted off before the paint went on.
I always begin work from the most general towards the specific. This applies to shapes, values, and colors. So after the drawing in of the main shapes, my next objective is to seize the overall color-cast of this morning, which is a gray and cool effect. The best place is to begin with the sky, the furthest element from me and also the source of the light.
I mix a general value of blue gray, getting as close in color as I can to what I’m seeing. Using a large filbert brush I begin to lay-in the sky with a hearty amount of paint. I use individual brushloads placed side by side, something like a mosaic. My task here is to cover the white panel with a general value of each main color area. Once I get this, I will come back and refine the work. Virtually everything in my painting will be treated more than once, or more times. In the general-to-specific approach, it’s important to get the entire painting started (general), and suspend working on the specific (smaller elements and details) until that’s accomplished. Then, revisit each element, drawing it all together into a cohesive visual whole.
As I am doing this, I’m also watching the general motion of the sea, and considering how I might best capture the action of the waves, the purpose of the study.
An important point to keep in mind, and the reason for starting with the sky, is that whatever is going on there is also happening in the ocean. Students hear me refer to the sky and the ocean as a married couple; one’s mood is affecting the other’s mood directly.
As I get the general effect of the sky in place, I begin to work that color down into the color of the water. Because we have overcast conditions, I can get the actual colors and values I see in the water without too much trouble.
The large area of broken white water, generated by the breaking wave and shallow, sandy bottom, is a matter of getting just the right value of gray. I carefully mix what I need and, adjusting as I go, lay it in to the area. I’m using as much pigment as I can get on the brush, with only a touch of linseed oil. A well-loaded brush and individual brushstrokes placed one against the other is my procedure for building the painting.
My next move requires care….the general color of the rock, and especially it’s shadow side, needs to be dropped into place. because the dark shadow is the low end of my value scale.”How low”, compared to straight black, is important to judge correctly. I also look at the temperature of the dark (warm or cool?) and place it. Now, I can judge everything in the painting between the lightest and darkest notes of value…and adjust confidently now that these vital “bookends” are established.
As the morning progresses, I have a nice amount of paint built up on the canvas. I’ve taken real care in getting the color of the face of the wave, the middle note, as close as I can to what I’m seeing. Having Viridian on my palette is important for this.
The sun’s made it’s presence known, having moved from behind the clouds and created some light/dark contrast in the green area of the wave. I now paint those darker notes with a reasonably large brush, thinking about the direction of the strokes. At this stage, how my brush work may add to the vitality of the action is paramount. During the initial lay in, it was less so. Because I have a good body of paint in place, these darker strokes ease into the existing paint beautifully.
After about 90 minutes, the sunlight has managed to overcome the gray skies, and it’s unwise to continue. Doing so would introduce an entirely different concept, and one must avoid “chasing the light”.
I bring the painting back to the studio, and from memory and best judgement I make some adjustments. This stage, in actuality, is clarifying and simplifying. We don’t always make the best choices in the heat of battle, so checking back on the morning’s work after a break is always good.
Again, I’d like this to be a beautiful piece, but my real mission has been to objectively study the ocean, adding to my general knowledge of the sea. I add my monogram signature, and in 6 months the study will receive varnish for protection.
As we wade into this topic, you should know that I love Rembrandt’s drawings and look at them often…for both pleasure and for learning purposes. You should also know that I’m not a Rembrandt scholar. I’m simply an artist eager to look at Rembrandt drawings to learn about composition…and whatever else great painters such as Rembrandt might have used to put their pictures together.
The Miracle on the Water
The drawing we’re looking at here is one of many Rembrandt drew around New Testament Biblical accounts. In this case, the telling of Christ’s miracle of walking on the water, and specifically the Gospel of Matthew account, which is the only one to mention Peter’s attempt to walk on the water himself. For those interested or unfamiliar, you can read the biblical accounts here.
Rembrandt’s purpose in making the drawing was likely to work out how he might present the story visually in a painting. Whether he intended this drawing to be viewed by the public or drew it as a private expedition, I can’t say…the scholars might know. But either way, it’s likely a compositional drawing…concerned with deciding on the viewer’s (that’s us) point of view, choosing the characters involved, and pinning down the precise point of action to be depicted.
It’s such a curious drawing… delicate and refined in some portions and heavier in line and rougher in effect in others. Compare the refinement of the figures of Christ and Peter to the boxier character climbing out of the boat. You can easily imagine that his legs, simply drawn, are an afterthought and his figure originally ended at the railing of the boat as his smaller companions does. That difference contributes to my idea that it was a working sketch, with choices and changes evolving along the way.
An organized sketch
Though sketch like, the drawing is a clearly organized arrangement. You can always look to Rembrandt for wonderful lessons in organization and leading the eye. There’s a sweep from Christ’s figure on the left to the boat’s hull and back, which provides a sort of rocking feeling that is appropriate to the conditions of the sea. But I also find that after we step inside the drawing, there’s a particular path our attention wants to follow. As with many Rembrandt drawings, this is arranged deliberately.
Here’s a diagram of the triangular relationship that’s at the heart of the drawing. Thoughtfully considered, one will notice a sequential arrangement of not only the actions but the intentions of the characters involved.
Triangular relationship of key actions
As the Gospel story indicates, only Peter asked the he might leave the boat. So what is interesting is how the characters are illustrating, and I’d say animating, an entire sequence of action.
A sequential animation?
Due to placement, Christ’s figure attracts our attention from the start, and we easily follow His arm to poor, foundering Peter, angled so powerfully in Jesus’ direction. From there, our attention most easily moves up and to the third corner of the triangle with the boldly drawn (and unidentifiable) character just leaving the boat. Look at that figure’s elbow forming the right corner of our triangle. Does he even seem aware of what’s going on beneath him? And to the left of him, we see the young-looking fellow tucked away behind. He’s only observing…but an important element, bridging the space from the boat over to the head of Christ reaching down to rescue Peter, their hands almost, but just not quite, touching (a wonderful choice). And the animation repeats itself…a cycle of questioning, deciding, acting, failing, and finally rescuing. A profound statement of the faith process.
A subtle, interesting light source
Another surprising feature of this drawing started with my questioning the indications of light and shade in the drawing. Often Rembrandt’s more complete drawings utilized tones of wash to indicate light and shade, but not in this case. This is a line drawing only; though somewhat rough in the application, there are (what artist’s call) cast shadows on the hull of the boat, and correspondingly on the ocean. A cast shadow occurs when an object, in this instance the boat, is completely blocking the light source…(the darker the shadow, the brighter the light) and the figure of Christ and of Peter are very carefully shaded with even hatching lines, exactly as if backlit. I wondered about the intention of this, but the reason gradually became clear. The oval behind Christ is a representation of the moon, and we then remember (from the biblical account) that this drawing represents a nighttime event.
I invite you to try and view the drawing in that sense…do you agree that the drawing becomes a much richer experience? Hopefully you can imagine and admire the thinking and visualization necessary to put this together, and yet we should not be surprised. Rembrandt’s drawings are like that.
I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts!
(And, as sometimes is the case, there’s been recent suspicion that the drawing is not by Rembrandt! You can find British Museum information concerning that here).
If you’d like to read my post of another Rembrandt analysis, it’s found here.
This month I had the opportunity to get to the mainland, primarily on a family visit to Portland, Oregon. While there I spent a gloriously cold morning with my beloved eight by ten inch pochade box painting a street scene from my old stomping grounds in Portland’s Southwest side.
It’s a special thing to be back in a place that holds so much that is terribly dear to me, but that has also changed tremendously.
While working out the painting, I was happy to meet a number of very nice and very encouraging passers-by. That was a plus, because I didn’t know what working on the streets would be like anymore. And, of course, the more time I spent my considering my surroundings, the more it became an indicator of how much both Portland and I have changed since my leaving in 1985.
Somehow, when you’re painting something you know and care for, the work just goes better. You don’t have to dig up a rationale for choices, or to dwell on how it might be received. You’re invested…it’s got a built-in purpose, a token of gratitude and affection. I hope that reads in the final work.
“Every good picture is fundamentally an arrangement of three or four large masses-“
So begins Chapter 1 in my aged copy of “Elementary Principles of Landscape Painting”, by John F. Carlson (now revised and available as Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting).
Like many others, I really admire John Carlson’s landscape paintings. I first encountered them face-to-face at the Grand Central Art Gallery in NYC. And this was about the time I’d heard about his book, “Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting”. But I have to say that when you see his work on a wall… it’s deep and it’s impressive. You know it’s the work of a painter who valued his craft and was genuinely responding to nature in a powerful way. And that leads to paying much closer attention to what he had to say back in 1928, when his book was first published. I can only hope that everyone who has read it might also, someday, have the chance to see his work personally.
Carlson’s Theory of Angles and Consequent Values
One of the great practical lessons from the book is Carlson’s summation of how light affects the elements of the landscape.
He refers to it as the “Theory of Angles and Consequent Values”. Carlson recognized that any landscape typically possesses four groups of values (degrees of light and dark) affecting three major planes… the horizontal ground plane, the angle plane represented by mountain slopes, rooftops, etc., and finally an upright plane, perpendicular to the ground plane, which can include anything from trees and walls to a standing human.
In order to interpret the landscape in a painting successfully, an artist needs to simplify and organize nature. Values are that which make form visible. Translating nature into value patterns,(i.e. grouping of lights and darks into shapes), are one of the ways of doing so. Applying Carlson’s theory makes that much easier.
“The first two things to study are form and values. For me, these are the bases of what is serious art.” -Camille Corot
When daylight is overhead, as it would be at noon for example, the sky is the source of light and therefore occupies the highest values on the gray scale. The ground plane receives the largest amount of light, and accordingly is the next lightest value plane. The slanted/angular planes receive less exposure to direct light than the ground plane and so rest within a middle-value range. This leaves everything in the upright plane to become the darkest value element.
While this is a wonderful help in creating order, it’s also a little abstract when read on the printed page alone.
Because of this, I decided it would be easier to understand if I had a physical model, and over time I’ve built several. Most recently a student and I assembled one out of white foam core, which makes Carlson’s theory much more tangible. I thought it would be fun to share with others who may want to repeat the exercise themselves.
We added a small structure at an angle for additional interest, which isn’t from Carlson’s original description.
When finished and assembled ( using a steel ruler, an X-acto knife, acid-free Foamcore, and Lineco PVA glue), we put the model outdoors in daylight with the sun directly overhead. The results are shown below.
This pencil drawing, from my prior post, remains as a solid summary of what I’m after in my final piece.
I’ve relied on it to refresh my memory…in the heat of constructing a night painting, it’s easy to gradually lose oneself along the way. One needs an anchor, a plan, and I’d be lost without it eventually.
The Essential Question
So, what am I after? It’s hard to know with certainty. It’s not a commercial question, though it’s a given that I’ll be doing my best to make it as beautiful as I possibly can. But there has to be something communicated, something that I see and consider worth attempting to help you to see. And as I progress through these stages of organizing the picture, that’s the thing to be cleared up.
Right now, all I know is that I want to create an emotional response like what I’ve experienced at night, out on those cliffs. And to communicate it clearly to others. I hope that this basic motivation will become more nuanced as I proceed.
The Practical: Finding My Way
One of the particular difficulties is that the final painting must be done in the studio, and from studies that cannot be executed directly from nature. It’s too dark outside. So my “visual memory” must be sharp and reliable enough to put things together. And that’s not a clearly established procedure like some other aspects of painting. I’m finding my way gradually.
At this point I’ve determined that the next step forward, now that the basic color/mood sketch and thumbnail are established, (here), is to make studies of the clouds. They are the most complex and dramatic elements in the painting. Accomplishing this will enable me to work out my composition intelligently.
The Cloud Studies
I painted three main cloud studies from a nearby hilltop over several sessions. I sketched in the ocean beneath for scale.
It’s crucial to decide where the light source is to be in the final painting. I’ve decided it will be the moon, and positioned directly above the view, and out of the canvas. This was established in the thumbnail sketch. This is an important consideration and especially for a night painting. I want the moon outside the canvas because I would like to attempt to suggest it’s effect without including it.
Because of this, I hit upon the idea to paint the cloud studies outdoors at noontime, when the sun illuminating the clouds from directly overhead would replicate the moon at night. I could then paint the forms I saw being created by sunlight on the clouds with confidence that they could translate into the night time effect by adjusting the values.
The cloud studies in order, 11 x 14″ each.
These studies were essential and are extremely useful…not only for a night painting, but as contributing to my general knowledge. I know that work one does from nature, with all it’s hassles, roots itself in an artist’s mind in a unique way. And they were great fun to work on! Forms like clouds need to be rearranged and manipulated to move the eye within the painting; I’ve come to know that clouds are among the most flexible and reactive of the forms occurring in nature. Full of surprises, expressive, and very, very beautiful.
I’ll be springing the final study in my next installment. Mahalo (thank you) from the South Pacific!
For artists who draw with a plumb line regularly, here’s a nice addition to your box.
The tools of drawing are pretty simple, but over time have a way of becoming lifelong companions. A well seasoned palette that fits the arm well, a mahlstick that’s been with you for years…these small things count for something in the pleasure and challenges of our work.
I began using a plumb line years ago. At that time it was a simple arrangement of a small lead fishing weight and some black thread. I still have my original from back when and it works fine, but after seeing students come up with some awful makeshift contrivances (when I wasn’t looking!) I decided to try and raise the bar for them. This upgrade is simple to do and works well.
You’ll need a few things first.
Brass lampshade finials. Check your hardware store for these.
Strong black thread. Black reads best in multiple situations, the thread I have is of a similar strength to that of dental floss. Upholsterer’s thread might be best.
Candle wax or paraffin.
Electric drill and small bit (5/64th or smaller) and a vise or clamp.
The brass finials are inexpensive and easily available, and also a perfect weight.
To begin you’ll need to drill a small hole after securing the finial in a vice. Enter with the drill bit from the threaded side, and drill a clean bore all the way through. Brass is soft and pretty easy to drill.
You should be shooting for holes like the ones below.
Next, take about 20″ of your sturdy black thread and tie up a big knot of some fashion that is larger than the hole you’ve drilled. Thread the other end through the exterior hole and back through the finial, pulling it until the knot is snug against the brass.
Next, pack or drip wax into the threaded end of the finial, adjusting the black thread so it is perfectly centered. There may be a better solution than wax, but it’s usually handy and works. Let me know if you have an improvement to offer.
Trim and tie off the end…I find 18″ of thread to be more than enough, and it’s better to be a bit long than too short. For storing, I just wind around the weight.
I’ve just finished this new oil painting after many interruptions, mostly weather-related. But I managed to shoot some sequential images along the way, and I hope you find the process and the progress interesting.
My setup for starting. I’m careful that the top of the canvas is perfectly level with the horizon. I have a large pair of “Square Corners”, wooden right-angles, leaning against the right leg of the easel. When used as a viewfinder, these help tremendously with visualizing the composition. I’ve come to see that they are a must-have for composing from nature like this.
The drawing of the main lines, big shapes, and divisions of space on the canvas.
I start by placing a small x in the center of the canvas to build the composition around. Adjustments included enlarging the main tree in size from what nature provided, and moving the small island on the horizon to the far left of the canvas as a balancing measure. I’ve moved the horizon line up because it was too close to dead center.
All of this is very important work and anticipates the end result I have in mind. Chances are good that anything I really dislike in the final painting will be rooted in some choice I’ve made at this stage. This part of the process can be done in one session, and an overcast day is fine for this step. I prefer to have some time back in the studio with the drawn-in painting to study the composition, preferably after leaving the location. That way I can be more objective about where I’m going with the painting.
The composition is drawn in with a thinned mix of Ultramarine blue and Indian red and painted in with a hog-bristle round brush. I use a rag and a bit of Gamsol to wipe away any lines that need removing or adjusting.
Proceeding into Light, Shade and Color
Once light and color are introduced, the painting sessions require similar light. And as the painting progresses day to day, the window of painting time narrows to accommodate the specific effect I’m painting.
A photo taken after one or two sessions of light/color work. I’ve established the lightest note of light ( white of the wave) and the darkest dark (foliage in shadow) and every other value note should fall between those two poles. The sunlight effect here is earlier than what is eventually in the final painting. Usually I work with the easel in shade, because working with direct sunlight on the canvas throws the values off, making the darkest notes look too light.
A long shot at the end of a session, close to the last one. The painting is pretty close to being finished. This is after the light effect has gone, which is a delightful time to be with the painting and in the place after an hours’ s hard work. Notice I’m practically alone on the beach!
While the painting is in progress, the other side of the effort is that I build and finish each frame for my paintings. This work takes place on days when I have time to chip away at the framing task, often in the middle of overcast days, since most of my painting is either early or later in the daylight hours.
I enjoy building the frames and take pride in being able to make something that intentionally complements each picture.
Here, I’m fitting the frame around the finished painting. I begin making color decisions for toning and finishing the wood with the painting in place. The frame will be sanded and shellacked for smoothness.
I first decide whether I want the frame’s effect to be darker than the dark notes of the painting, lighter, or somewhere in the middle. Dark makes the picture stand out (or”pop”, a word I don’t like!), but also can make the picture feel heavy in the room. This is especially true in Hawai’i , where light colors and an airy feel are part of a desirable interior. I choose to go with a middle tone, picking up on the colors in the shadows.
And here’s the final painting. October Sun, 26 x 28″, oil on hand primed linen. And currently available for sale.