A Morning Ocean Study

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.

Getting practical

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.

Composing

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.

Painting general-to-specific

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.

Initial lay-in of pigment

 

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.

 

Continuation of lay-in

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.

Nearly completed

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.

The completed study, framed

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.

Please feel free to comment!  Thanks!

Portland Street Painting

Portland 12th and Stark streets

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.

Purposeful Painting

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.

Here it is…not signed yet.

12th ave PDX
“12th Avenue, Portland”      8x 10″ Oil on panel

Night Painting Over the Pacific, part 2

night painting cloud study 2

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.

composition sketch
Small Pencil Sketch

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.

cloud study 1

norseth cloud study 2

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!

 

Mark

October Sun

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.

Octobe Sun unframed
October Sun  Oil on hand-primed linen,  26 x 28″

 

Setting Up

Octboer Sun progress 1

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.

October sun progress 1a

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.

Octber Sun progress2

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.

IMG_1364

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!

Framing 

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.

26 x28frame

I enjoy building the frames and take pride in being able to make something that intentionally complements each picture.

OctSun fitting

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.

Sun

And here’s the final painting. October Sun, 26 x 28″, oil on hand primed linen.  And currently available for sale.

Pastel Painting Update

The completion and framing of this piece was completed in time for entry into the Pastel Artist’s of Hawai’i Annual Open Show, where I was pleased to find that it had been awarded 2nd place.

Far Beyond framed
Far and Beyond-Waimanalo Bay Pastel on paper 26 x 28″

The development of the painting has been featured a bit in prior posts, but suffice it to say that the genesis of the painting is from a hike with a sketchbook and my smallest pastel set. I like the idea of that, really. It’s the approach that I have hoped to move towards, and now I have a growing track record of studio pieces done from such plein-air sketches that have worked out.

IMG_0601

So, I’ll continue to move forward with the idea that I can make small visual events, like the sketch above, into more fully satisfying paintings that allow for more imagination and personality.  For a painter, this is real progress.

The framed painting is available for purchase on this website .

Small Figures in Oil

When the opportunity arises, I’ve been working out some small figures in oil.  Done in two to three hours, my goal in these small paintings is to see how much value, color and shape alone can form the image.

Any thoughtful observer of artists sees that as an artist’s abilities increase, they discard or reorganize much of the visual information present in their subject.  Beginners, by contrast, are troubled by seeing everything. They possess little ability to edit what nature visually presents them, or perhaps understand the value of it.

 

VJ

 

SO

 

As I chip away at these small oils, my goal is to see how much I can suggest with each touch of the brush…creating a mosaic of tones and colors that my viewer assembles.

I find it a very refreshing and intriguing approach to the visual world. I will be pursuing this more.

 

 

A Lingering Painting Revived

There is something to be said for hanging on to work that seems to be going nowhere. Can a lingering painting be revived?

This is a quarter sheet (11 x 15″) watercolor that was in a stack of unresolved pieces that occupy a drawer or two in my flat files, an Elephant’s Graveyard where works on paper (quite a few) are exiled when they refuse to stay airborne.  Sometimes they see daylight again and come back into usefulness as the backside of a demonstration piece or practice sheet.

At the End-Makapu'u

Makapu’u -End of the Beach  11 x 15″    Watercolor

This painting was probably started around three years ago from a plein air trip to this end of the beach.  It caught my eye the other day…I remembered giving it up as being rather dark and unappealing.  I was originally trying to go after the colors in the water using the darkness of the cliffs as a foil but didn’t feel it had a sufficient exit for the eye and lacked variety in the color.

Approaching it as a stranger now, I could see that with the addition of a few minuscule adjustments I could possibly bring it back to life.  I lifted some paint for figures to provide some sense of scale, lost some edges, and deepened a wash or two. Not more than 30 minutes effort.

The lesson I take from this is that it’s sometimes good to work on multiple pieces and move from one to the next. When you reach an impasse or lose your enthusiasm….just give it time.  There is no expiration date on a painting if the underpinnings of a decent idea might be lingering, waiting to be revived.

Studio Use of Plein Air Sketches

On many occasions,  I’ll find a subject that requires an immediate response, so I take the plunge.  But either weather, the poor quality of the light, or other circumstances make an in-depth plein air study hard to manage.

So, oftentimes I’m disappointed. The results of these plein air sketches are not as effective as they would be if they were more fully developed.  And almost always the main weakness is in the composition. Either nature didn’t provide (or I didn’t recognize) a suitable arrangement of elements to make viewing the painting a fully satisfying experience.

Waimanalo plein air

This sketch (above) is a 7 x 11″ watercolor that is our case-in-point.  It was sufficient in a no-frills way to capture the general effects. But the sunlight was on again/off again, I had interruptions from rain, and the composition now seems crowded into the rectangular format.

A Reminder and a Reference

The sketch’s  real value to me is only this: when reviewed  later, after I’ve moved on to other work, I’m reminded of visual/sensual experiences ( I mean sounds, smells, circumstances) that are now part of my memory.  It conjures recollections much more like a movie than a snapshot. The sketch has become a reminder and a reference.

What artists know is that sketching something plants the entire experience of being somewhere much more firmly in the mind than passive observation or photography. The information from sketching is sifted.  More personal as well as visual, gathered  through the lens of our own personal temperament. And this added dimension ultimately enriches the final painting.

From this stage, I’m then able to deal with the composition.

As mentioned, the first sketch doesn’t suggest the grandness of the place.  It’s hemmed in by the rectangle and lacks clear areas of interest. So I  put together this second study (below) in my studio, making better use of the elements that nature provided  as well as altering the composition to suit my desire for a better eyepatch and more interest.

Waimanalo studies 2
Waimanalo watercolor study, 6 x 14″

This small study is still “the place”, but is now better organized to lead the eye in an interesting way. The addition of figures and refining and simplifying the shapes now give me something with more pictorial interest.

A Point of Departure

From here the watercolor can serve as a basis for many possibilities… an oil painting, a larger watercolor, or a pastel.  In this instance I thought a larger painting in pastel would be a good response, to be worked up in my studio.  So I used both the first sketch and study to refer to as I worked.  I think I developed a better painting than I might have had otherwise…while making it much more “my own” in the process.

watercolor to pastel

Here’s the easel setup with the watercolor study positioned so I can see it directly with the pastel painting.  After several sessions I was able to complete the pastel.

And below is the final painting, now framed and in a private collection.

Makapu'u Head from Waimanalo, 10" x 24"  Pastel
Makapu’u Head from Waimanalo, 10″ x 24″ Pastel. Private collection

One Final Thought

We obviously live in a time of technology, and the option of photography as a useful reference tool has been available and used by many painters for a long time. And undeniably, many beautiful works have resulted from this.

For my own efforts I have decided to invest in drawing and painting without the advantages/disadvantages of photography as much as possible. And I recommend that my students, while they are my students, try and do the same.

Art-making and life-living in our modern world have increasingly become solely results oriented. Labor saving devices are a wonderful blessing for the many people occupied in endlessly routine and stifling or tedious work. We’re thankful for labor saving devices whenever the labor is unpleasant, dangerous, or unprofitable. 

But artworks are different.  We are richer for the experience of interfacing with our subject over time, watching the many variations and possibilities, getting to know the subject in many moods.

On that subject, we’re well served by painter Joseph Paquet’s recently published forward to the Plein Air Painters’ of America exhibition catalog.  He eloquently states the whole idea better than I’m able to.

It’s well worth the click!