By this, I mean that to improve, I need to work on my skills. It doesn’t matter what the thing is…many aspects of being an artist require that skills get “under your skin”…become subconscious and natural.
Have you ever thought of art as a discipline? It’s wise to give it a try.
Following Good Examples
From a young age I made progress when making an effort to emulate something that had moved me. In my ongoing search (and I sincerely hope you’ll have your own), I’d find heroes… and then ask myself what do they have that I don’t?
In time I saw that I want my drawing to be fluent…with color both representative and inspired. And I need a design that makes the most of everything that the subject offers. These are examples of the sort of things we all need to identify about our own taste. And each of us will need to discover what moves us inwardly enough to take the risk of hard pursuit.
My hungry eye has led me to discover artist’s I never would have dreamed existed. This beautiful watercolor by Arthur Melville contains much of what I respond to. It’s an example of casual appearance which disguises his powerful ability to compose, draw, and then execute something that, we might guess, was only a brief impression on the artists’ mind. I’m grateful to have discovered his work, because he possesses the vitality and skill that I desire to obtain. From this example, and the work of many others, I get insights…. and then look for ways to practice what I’ve learned.
I look at using exemplars, like Arthur Melville, as hints to what I could do using my own living environment. In his painting above, I see a well drawn solitary figure, surrounded with plenty of suggested activity. There are subtle echoes of shape and color, and an excellent dark/light pattern.
Where can I find something that would have those elements now, in our world?
Putting Inspiration to Work
During the period of the COVID restrictions, I decided to visit our local green market on Saturdays. This was one of the few places where people could gather communally (albeit very supervised) and go about the business of life. I would take my traveling watercolor kit over with 1/8th sheets (7.5″x 10″) watercolor paper and then search to find a shady spot to paint from. This meant being wedged into areas between parked commercial vehicles, behind the scenes. Privacy was never guaranteed, but I’m used to onlookers and questions. From these cramped little shade-puddles I tried to compose and paint.
It’s Just Practice
I viewed these works as practice opportunities. Arranging elements, capturing fleeting effects, and convincingly drawn figures who were often there for moments at a time. It’s juggling and there’s never a dull moment.
Even as I write this now, I’m reminded of John Sargent’s quip that watercolor is “making the most of an emergency”.
Each painting is 7.5″ x 10″, and usually represents a single visit of a couple hours duration. I hope this energizes you to have a look at your personal world and see what’s possible.
The desire to create a very portable, yet complete watercolor kit has been a real side-passion. Happily, I’ve finally arrived at something that solves both the weight/bulkiness issue, but not by limiting key materials that I feel are necessary to solve most of my watercolor challenges.
I like it so much that Id like to share it with you!
I love the little watercolor sketches, done as studies generally, that come out of the European tradition. My favorite quality is what I’ll describe as a grasp of the whole in a beautiful shorthand. There’s enough to them to transmit the idea, vision, a mood, but it’s done in exquisitely brief terms. Artists such as Streeton, Zbukvic, Fortuny (at times), Seago, and Fowkes (sorry, it sounds like a law firm, but look them up) are great examples of painters who have impressive small works done in that beautifully simple fashion.
I’ve wanted my own sketches to have that, and so in the last 2 years I’ve taken some time to wander about, sketching in watercolor with the particular goal of creating simple, small (but composed) looks at my everyday surroundings. Sometimes, these are springboards to later and deeper works, or serve towards trying out a neighborhood location and seeing how things go. But certainly, a big part of that mission included choosing the physical tools that will serve me without overloading. Some boundaries would be needed.
These are the qualifiers I settled on…
The right pigment colors, in a suitable box, with a small but sufficient number of good quality brushes to accomplish my objectives. A wash, a flat, a pointed round or two, and a rigger should be enough, plus a safe storage that allowed for evaporation of any small amount of moisture left on the brushes.
A drawing board and paper storage for several 1/8 sheet (7.5 x 10″) sheets of watercolor paper.
An easel that is small enough and versatile enough to set up in unusual situations. On a bench, stair step, cafe chair, etc.
Small water container
Small drawing kit
and everything fitting into a small backpack.
Here’s what I’ve finally chosen and have been using… 1. A small wooden easel, from an old design discovered by a student of mine in a book written by John Pike. The original was cardboard and meant to be makeshift.
2. My drawing essentials…two sharpened pencils (4B or 6B, two, so there’s an immediate backup) pencil extender, small boxcutter for sharpening (not pictured). 2 erasers…a soft, kneaded and a firm plastic eraser, small sponge, a piece of white candle wax, opaque white pigment tube. The bag is zippered and plasticized mesh, so dirt/sand/grit doesn’t collect, a great feature.
3. Watercolor paper, torn to size. I use 1/8th sheet (7.5″ x 11″) Saunders or Arches 140# cold press paper. A sturdy wooden drawing board, and a piece of Coroplast cut to the size of the drawing board. Two binder clips to hold the package together, with the paper sandwiched between.
4. Watercolor box with half-pan pigments. A mix of some Schmincke, some Holbein, and Winsor & Newton. Necessary colors for me include Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, Cerulean Blue, Viridian, Hookers Green, Cadmium Lemon, Cadmium Yellow, Naples Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna, Cadmium Scarlet, Cadmium Orange, Light Red, Indian Red, Burnt Sienna, Permanent Alizarin Crimson (I’m considering a replacement currently), Permanent Rose, Raw Umber, and Ivory Black. Permanent white (tubed)
5) Small cans, one for clean and another for not-so-clean wash water. A plastic bottle for water.
6) Small sketchbook, spiral bound. Spiral is important because I want to be able to open the cover fully, and I have a clip to hold the paper in place in windy conditions. I always do a thumbnail drawing for every piece before beginning the painting… I think it’s a great means for selecting what you’re actually after before getting lost in painting decisions.
A roll of white artist’s tape.
7) Brushes: a small squirrel mop, a well-used old #7 sable round, a sable flat, a small sable round (for a crisp touch when needed), and a rigger for very fine lines. The tooth brush is mainly for cleaning the palette after the session.
8) Square Corners….this is an adjustable-window viewfinder, I find it very helpful during the sketchbook and composing stage. Referring back to the artists I mentioned admiring, that quality of fresh simplicity is from choices they make to eliminate the clutter and get to the bones of the composition and effect. Doing this visualization in advance, with square corners and my small sketch, helps me tremendously. Made of wood is ideal (for durability)… but cardboard works, too.
This little stand can be assembled in a moment, and holds the drawing board with paper at an angle that I prefer for washes and general work. It can sit on any level surface, and I’ve used it on staircases, cafe tables, folding stools, and chairs. Because it’s very compact when disassembled, I like having it along.
Where can this take us?
Speaking personally, some of my happiest hours as an artist have been while I’m out in the world, working in the midst of actual life, surrounded by actual people. I’m convinced that the work I do in those precious hours has a positive effect on my studio work.
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.
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.
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 progress interesting.
My setup for starting. I’m careful that the top of the canvas is perfectly level with the horizon, which you can see win the photo. 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. 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 important work and anticipates the end result I have in mind. Chances are good that anything I really dislike in the final painting is already taking root in a 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 view the composition, preferably after leaving the location. That way I can be more objective about where I’m heading 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. You can see that I’m careful to have the canvas perfectly level with the horizon. 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 spots. This photo is taken AFTER the actual work was finished for the day… one must work when the easel is in shade, because working with direct sunlight on the canvas throws the values off, making the darkest notes appear 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.