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!

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.

Making Great Use of Leftover Paint

I’ve got a great way to make use of leftover paint for artists…and it’s something I wish I’d begun doing years ago.

At the end of a session, when it’s time to clean and prep my palette for the next session, I often have leftover pigments that might dry unusably by the time I next get back to work. I’m not one to put fresh paint over dry on my palette; though many painters do this.  Instead, I take the palette down to a clean working surface by removing  piles of unused paint with a palette knife and then rubbing the entire surface with a rag and a bit of solvent. This creates a slight and sympathetic gray (over time) that I enjoy working on.  After that I might rub on a bit of linseed oil if the palette has been left unused for a couple days, and that’s how I like to prepare my palette for the next round.

But in the past I simply (and sadly) wrote off the paint I was removing with the knife…until  I realized this was a lost opportunity.  I saw that I  could use this paint to to create a record of informal experiments.

IMG_0181

There are some elementary principles to applying oil paint…you can’t just pile it on randomly and expect it to remain stable over time without considering such things as the oil content of layers, the adhesion of the paint, or whether a light can go over a dark without cracking or showing through later.

Most all of what I’ve learned about artist’s pigments and mediums comes from two sources …what I’ve been told and what I’ve read. And I’m admittedly careful and conservative in my use/application of oil paint for the long term benefit of my paintings. I generally paint with either straight paint from the tube or with the most basic of two and three parts oil mediums (linseed and turpentine, for example).

But I’ve seen techniques in paintings by artists of the past that I’d like to try…glazes over palette-knife impasto, for instance. I’ve seen some beautiful effects achieved this way more than once.  Or the black glaze rubbed in over some of the landscapes of painters in the 19th century, something that I’ve read about but haven’t actually seen yet.  How about drying times of pigments, or what varnishing prematurely can do?  I’ve used a lead priming from a recipe offered in an old book by Frederic Taubes…how does it dry and adhere?

The Big, Smart Idea

So, I have an 18 x 24″ cradled wooden panel primed with two coats of Gamblin’s white oil primer that receives all the ideas I can throw at it using my leftover paint.  Impastos, glazes, mixtures,…all are noted and dated with a black sharpie, because “long term effects” are a big concern.  I’m not inventing anything, but trying things already out there in the cloud of responsible knowledge in order to learn for myself what’s what.

It’s been about two years now, and it’s really nice to be able to draw my own conclusions from my own personal experience.  There are some nice possibilities for extending the range of what I know how to do. And I throw away much less nice paint.

I wish I’d started ten years ago.

 

Starting & Staying Fresh-An oil painting in steps. Part 3

The weather has been challenging; a hurricane was anticipated and this kept me off the beach for several days.  But, we dodged another one and so, thankfully, we’re back with good weather again.  And I’m happily re-engaging with this painting.

Staying fresh is a matter of exercising taste.  A composition has a point to it, a purpose…and if the artist identifies what the point is early enough, questions of what to include and what to eliminate in the painting are answered by whether they help or hinder the desired final effect.

I’m largely concerned with getting the feel of the light…I mean the color of  early daylight on the various elements, and making something beautiful with the composition by  leading the eye through the elements in a pleasing way. Everything I do, anything I add or subtract, should contribute to this purpose.

Here’s where I left off:

Second day's work

The composition is firmly in place and I’m satisfied that I’ve done as much as I can with the basic shapes.  This is, essentially, the painting in terms of design, that what we will irrevocably be “living with” in terms of the pattern of shapes. Today’s and future sessions will be devoted to bringing the painting up; that is, bringing things to life in terms of my objectives.

I’m also wary of overshooting the mark…one can lose the overall unity of the painting by getting caught up in parts and details, observations that don’t contribute but actually clutter the painting.  I’ll need to be very aware, especially when it becomes overcast for lengthy periods because  I can overdevelop an area while waiting for the light to return.

Resuming the Work

After setting up at my location, my first step is to address whatever area of the painting is most out-of- step with the painting’s progress.  In this case it’s the furthest area of the landscape, the sky and clouds in the right background.  Since I have a nice sky today I can easily jump in where I left off before.

The whites of the sky need to be adjusted down a slight bit from the whites in the waves, in order to keep them back in the painting.  This means graying them slightly.   So I mix a slight gray using Titanium white, Ultramarine, a red (Indian, Cadmium, or Light Red), perhaps some Yellow, usually ochre for this time of day,  and place this in the sky loosely.  By loosely, I mean I create a shade of the right value from these various colors, but do not mix them so completely that the colors  lose their individuality. This provides  a tone of a single value but with varied color temperatures in it.

loose gray

The clouds are in motion and the sunlight falling upon them is changing rapidly, so with this light gray in place over all the cloud masses, I can move shapes easily into a more satisfying design.  The effects of clouds on the demeanor of a painting is worth noting as they can help express many different moods. Clouds have a lot of personality! I refresh the blue of the sky with Cobalt blue, a thin layer brushed over the prior work.  With this I can paint edges of white and blue into one another, creating softer edges on the forms.

greying clouds

As I work on this, I eventually find myself over working an area, so I make a point of leaning away from the work (I’m seated) and actually keeping the seat at a distance from the painting so that I need to extend my arm  to paint. The idea is to keep me from getting nose-to-nose with the painting.  I also use an overhand grip on the brush, so that I can hold it with the brush handle cradled in the palm of my hand…this also keeps me back a bit more from the painting. And I try to move from area to area. Water, sky, shadow, light.  Moving all the areas slowly forward, but (hopefully) in a way that stays unified.  If an area is worthy of the eye’s interest , then I will develop it more carefully.  If not, I will try to simplify it as much as I reasonably can.

One of my main areas of interest is in the colors of the shadows in the foreground.  I find such areas to be quite beautiful in themselves. So I enjoy finding color combinations that work within the general value of the shadow, broken colors applied with varied brushstrokes that combine to create vibration of color like what I’m seeing.

As the session draws to a close, I’ve made changes in almost every area of the painting.  Lights and darks in the trees, enhancements of the waves and reflections in the sand, and more refined observations in general.

part 3 image

I’ll be writing another post on the painting soon.  Thanks for the coming along!

My Plein Air Brush Carrier

I use a fairly large number of paint brushes in an average plein air painting session, perhaps 10-15 on a busy day.  At the end of the day, they need cleaning and TLC, but there’s a problem… keeping the many used brushes separate from the clean ones still in my box.

A very reasonable and simple solution is to put together a carrier using something that many painters already have access to… a cardboard shipping tube from a roll of canvas.   In addition to the tube,  all that’s necessary is a quick  trip to the local hardware store for what are called an expansion cap (pictured below with wing-nut) and a clean out cap, both from the plumbing section.  Be sure to measure the diameter of the tube for a snug fit.

Using a handsaw, I cut the tube about 4″ longer than my longest brush.  Next, I shellack the cardboard tube to help  with water resistance.

How to make a Plein Air Brush Container
Make your own Plein Air Brush Container

It’s pretty much that simple.  The rubber cap fits snugly on the bottom, where I sometimes store an extra auto shop towel (my preferred painter’s rag), used brushes then sit atop the rag, and the actual rag I use during the session goes atop the bristle end of the brushes. The expansion cap fits perfectly atop the open end of the tube, providing a virtually airtight seal.  This airtight quality is helpful after a full day in the field if I don’t get to my brush cleaning duties until the next morning, which does happen.

The entire container fits into my backpack. I’ve used this setup for 15 years and it’s been well worth doing.

Plein Air Brush Container

Halona Cove Oil Painting-Part Two Painting the Ocean in Hawai’i

Welcome back.

The painting of Halona Cove was at this stage where I left off in the last post.

DSC_0006 Divers,  Halona Cove  16 x 20″, oil on stretched linen

At this stage of the painting the pattern of the shapes (land masses, “whites” of the waves, the shape of the dark shadow, figures, and simple color)  are all in place and ready for further development where appropriate.

This stage is the structure of the painting;  if I have any misgivings about the composition they must be addressed by now. A figure is suggested among the rocks, and  in the water as well.

Step back before moving forward

Before I move forward in this next plein-air session, I pause to refer to my original concept sketch to see if I’m heading where I’d intended.

NOTE: When painting outdoors, and probably even more with the ocean, it’s very easy to get seduced by all of the activity in the subject…and led away from what is important, the strategy of where the viewer’s eye travels in the painting, and what it finds along the way.  I always have to watch this carefully.

halona pencil   Using the original sketch to reaffirm my goal of the work  (essentially, capturing the light of this time of day in this particularly powerful  place in an energizing way) I set up my easel for a third , (or is it now a fourth?) session.

Building and refining the colors and values

The weather has been really kind. That means the light is the same as last session, and  I’m able to get down to work on the various “notes” of color, and developing the dark/light relationships.

I’m also trying to keep the brushwork  fresh  and descriptive, and especially while capturing the colors in the water.  Unlike some other painters, I seem to use a number of brushes at this stage, possibly as many as 12-15.  This way I can keep each note of color distinct and  get the stroke in the shape I want.

My palette for the water  includes Ultramarine, Cerulean, Viridian, and Yellow Ochre, possibly a touch of a Cadmium Yellow. Darks can be helped in the water by a bit of Alizarin Crimson and Viridan, which creates a fascinating transparent grey that is very suitable for this work. At this stage the “whites” are keyed down to a lavender gray of varying warmth and coolness.  There is probably no “straight”, pure white in the painting. I’m also using a Schmincke Manganese Cobalt Blue that I believe is helpful. And there is Ivory Black on my palette, which I find helpful  and useful in the darks.

 

Halona 3 detailjpg

Painting the figures

The figures are ready to be placed directly into their positions and I do so, referring very loosely to actual figures in the scene before me for color, but still relying on the sketchbook drawings for position and gesture.  They form a generally pyramidal  shape as a group, and I push the gesture and color as far as I can without losing  the simplicity of the brushstroke.

The water and especially the whites of the waves also receive more attention. I’m building up the paint so that these loaded whites physically catch the light falling onto the canvas in a way that contributes to the sense of foaming, breaking , dazzling white water.  These whites are a powerful compositional tool….where they are placed is where the eye will go, and their shapes should work on the canvas as an effective design  pattern.  I find that to be much more important than clutter or details in the water, as I mentioned in the first post.  The whites are also warmed or cooled, sometimes rather subtly,  to create variety.

DSC_0003 - Version 2

So as I develop these concerns,  I’m aware that the painting is reaching a point where any further work will not really help the overall look of the painting, but actually start to work against the vitality that I would like it to possess.

After adjusting some more elements, and defining ever so slightly the island of Molokai off on the horizon,  I then back  away from the painting for a day or two,  then give it a fresh look and decide that it’s ready to be signed. DSC_0003 - Version 3Divers, Halona Cove  oil, 16 x 20″   January 2013

Thanks for your interest in reading the post, I hope it’s interesting and helpful!

 

Halona Cove Oil~ Part One

I’m really enthused over working out of this lovely cove again, and the watercolor (see previous post) was an ideal way to break back into it.

I like to paint with a goal for the work, and by that I mean a motivation or reason for pursuing it artistically.  This subject has distinctive elements and challenges that make it quite unique… it’s beautiful and it’s a bit dangerous here… and it doesn’t “pose” for me, it’s all in constant motion.  Very challenging to work directly from.

Opposites Attract

Consider lights and darks; in one glance you have the brightest of whites  in the light and the darkest of shadows,  for color there are warm earth tones opposed by our shattering blue-greens. Lines are jagged or curvaceous, or even perfectly straight. The masses are dense, bulky and immobile in the rocks, or fluid and streaming in the water.  Everything is in opposition, and  it’s all interconnected within itself.

So with all of this packed into one small area, it warrants my best effort.

My first composition, from the prior watercolor, has led me to focus more on the distant figures and the contrast they present against the rocks as that incredibly dark, end-of-day shadow quickly draws itself across the cove.

But before any of that, I have to design and place the big shapes.

Here’s the first afternoons progress:

Halona Cove, first lay-in 16 x 20"

I worked until the light failed, after 4:00, and then made some mental notes of the figures that I observed around the rocks.

Back to work

I was fortunate to have several consecutive days that offered essentially similar light, so returned at the right time to continue on the painting.  This is a matter of seeing that large shapes are where I want them, and making certain that the color, which is perhaps one of the things I try to be most genuine about, is true to nature. The motion of the waves has to be thought through…the powerful white of the waves draw the eye by contrast, and I want them to create a rhythm that moves across the painting successfully.

Halona Cove ll

At this point I’ve begun to indicate a key figure, but haven’t yet made up my mind about the pose or position in the painting. Colors have developed another step, and the rhythm of the waves is being worked out.  I find that this stage is much more important than noodling the painting of the waves in a more precise manner…that sort of work won’t help a bad pattern.

This was a good afternoon’s work.

Working out the figures

I spent some time and sketched out some possibilities from memory.  Since they are tiny, I’m not concerned too much with the figures beyond their possessing an accurate sense of the light,  good proportions and gesture.

DSC_0001

Halona Cove  oil in progress, 16 x 20"
Halona Cove oil in progress, 16 x 20″

I’ll continue this post when I have more time!  Thanks for reading.