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Painting Decisions Along The Way…

In Greek mythology, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, sprang fully formed from Zeus’s brow. Painting, however, doesn’t work that way. Even when a painter has had many years of painting experience, the creation of a painting takes much thought and trial and error. A great picture does not necessarily happen easily, quickly, or without struggle. Beginning artists may think that with a little more experience and practice they should be able to paint well, to know what they need to paint satisfying pictures. It is not, however, a skill that you either have or you don’t. Self-taught painter Dan Scott ( drawpaintacademy.com) has described well the necessary process for ALL artists (whether beginner or advanced) to continue to evaluate and make ongoing decisions while painting every picture.

Dan Scott writes:

“Something you may have noticed from watching my painting demonstrations is that it is not a straight-line path from start to finish. There are all kinds of twists and turns as the painting progresses.

It starts with a rough vision in my head – what I think the painting will end up looking like. Then, more often than not, that idea morphs and transforms as my brush hits the canvas.

I go in a different direction with my colors. I change the position of that tree. I make mistakes I need to fix (and mistakes which I cannot fix). I realize my color palette cannot mix some of the colors I need, and so on…

By the end, the painting sometimes only has a slight resemblance to my initial vision. But that is OK.

This is why I don’t like to talk as if there is some kind of set formula for creating a painting. Of course, I do use certain techniques and processes over and over again, but I always try to remain flexible in my approach.

I prefer to treat painting as a “choose your own path” kind of thing, or in other words, a long string of decisions and problems you need to solve. The outcome depends on the quality of your decisions along the way, not how well you are able to stick to some predetermined path or process.

All the techniques, processes, tips, hacks and tricks are just tools at my disposal to help me along the way. Nothing more, nothing less.

So, if there is anything you should take away from my painting demonstrations, it is not how to go about creating a painting from start to finish, it is how to make decisions.”

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Along the same lines, in recent watercolor classes at Lee Muir-Haman Watercolors at Tumblers Bottom Gallery, 30 Main Street, Ayer, MA., we have been exploring and learning about values while working on several twilight snow scenes. It has been necessary to continue to evaluate our efforts as we paint. Is the nighttime sky too dark or not dark enough? We know we need to still have the contrast between lights and darks, even though the picture has more dark values than light, for the painting to have impact. How can we paint the glow from a lit window or the reflected light from a streetlight? We create a plan, try it out, then evaluate to decide whether we have achieved what we hoped for. No? How can we increase the glow of the lights? Perhaps we should increase the contrast by darkening our color close to our lightest values. Perhaps we should employ the complementary color of our light source color in mixing our dark to make things pop more. This improves the picture, but there is still not enough glow. It seems that we may have put too thick a layer of color on the lights.Let’s try to lift some color off or maybe scrape – the light should be whiter. Now, the lights look good, but the shadows are too pale in relation to the light, particularly in the snow in the foreground. Let’s add more and stronger shadows. This helps to create depth and lead the viewer into the picture toward the light. Details in the distance need to be softened more – distance blurs detail, as does darkness. Through trial and error, the paintings start to look better. We squint our eyes and study our work again. Finally we are satisfied.

 

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Dusk, Evening, and Moonlight… Oh, My!

Paintings set at nighttime might seem very different from the usual watercolor scenes.  Dusk, evening, or even dawn pictures have a predominance of dark values.  The mood of a nighttime or twilight picture can often be somber, gloomy, quiet, or perhaps even threatening.  There may be fewer details seen than in a well-lit picture.  However, a nighttime painting can also be effective, appealing, and  powerful.  How would you paint a dark evening image?

The amount and quality of light available determines what we visually perceive in any situation.  Under clear, bright conditions, colors are pure, and edges and some details are sharp.  Values are extreme.  Lots of color is visible in shadowed areas.  A painting with lots of light values is called a HIGH KEY picture.  As the light becomes less strong (for example, on a foggy day, during a blizzard, at dusk), the level of detail, the sharpness, and the value contrast are reduced.  Colors become duller and more subtle, creating a LOW KEY picture.  Nevertheless, even in the dark, you want to see some details.  A nighttime painting will have a source of light or two or three, and before you begin to paint, you must decide on those light sources in your picture, as well as on the strength and direction of the light and on what it will illuminate.  Your picture needs some contrast in value (light and dark), especially near the point of interest, to be effective.

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To produce a painting full of drama and power, you need to create dominance, whether in value, color, or shape.  All you need to do to create VALUE DOMINANCE is to present the light, middle, and dark values in unequal amounts.  A nighttime painting will be a low key picture, which will have dark value dominance.  It will have more dark values than either light or middle tones.  However, your dark picture still will need the contrast of some light and middle tones if it is to pop.  The function of the dark colors is to complement the light tones and help your picture emit a glow.  If you actually use complementary colors for your dark and light colors, you will immediately create a reaction that transforms the light tones into radiant light.  Any warm and cool colors will create color contrast while vibrating against each other.

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Farmhouse At Dusk, partially finished, illustrating the glow of complements orange and blue.

Darks can be luminous and colorful IF you mix them yourself from pure, translucent pigments.  Using transparent colors allows light to reflect off the paper and up through the color to create a luminous effect.  Opaque colors (such as ivory black Payne’s gray, Davy’s gray, indigo, sepia, neutral tint) do not allow any light to reflect back to the viewer and therefore appear flat and dull.  Instead of using opaque colors, mix your own colorful darks from some of these transparent pigments: permanent alizarin crimson, Winsor (phthalo) blue, Winsor (phthalo) green, and perhaps ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, quinacridone gold, or quinacridone violet.  Always design your darks to heighten your light pattern without overpowering it.  Also, try to include nuances and variations in your darks.  Do not use a dark mixture indiscriminately: large areas of unrelieved darks are not interesting.  Ideally, you will build up your dark areas so that subtle shapes in each layer are there for the viewer to find.  If you mix together all the colors that you plan to use for dark areas and apply this mixture in a single dark layer, the result will lack the transparency and interest of a dark created by GLAZING with separate layers of the same medium dark colors.

Transparency can also be enhanced if you strive for variations by NOT applying all the darks as one value. To add variety and vary the tones or values of your dark colors, paint some areas as ‘half-dark’.  By painting part of the dark area a bit lighter, you create variation and an illusion of depth into what otherwise might be dull and monotonous (that is, of all one tone).  Try to apply your layers of darks one at a time, each in one go, in one layer and as richly as possible.  By mixing your darks with lots of pigment to create a rich color the first time, you can avoid having to add a similar layer (of the same color) over the same area; such an added layer can deaden the dark area and create a pasted-on appearance with hard edges.

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Your pattern of dark shapes should ideally interlock or relate to your medium and lighter shapes.  Hopefully, the forms transition into and set each other off rather than float in space separately.  Neither light nor dark is as striking without the close proximity of other.

In summary:  Begin your nighttime paintings by establishing the light sources in your picture, perhaps using masking fluid to save some.  You may create other light areas during the painting process or by scrubbing and lifting later.  Do NOT lose your light values!  Glazing later can also subdue certain areas while allowing other areas to be left brighter.  Choose muted or subdued, NOT bright, colors for your twilight or evening image.

To actually mix a darker and more intense color, use less water.  Don’t repeatedly dip your brush in water when you try to pick up pigment with that brush.  Instead, go from color to color without cleaning (rinsing) your brush in between.  The only way to create the rich, dark colors is with less water!

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Cityscape In Winter, partially finished, illustrating reflected light and bright halo around lights.

In a low key, dark painting, begin applying paint in a medium or mid-tone dark.  Try to leave a lot of light around light source and subdue the rest of your painting.  (You can use a warm yellow-white for incandescent lights.)  If you want to create a halo of glowing light, start with a circle of clear water over the light, then float a dark wash all around the clear water areas, just touching it.  This dark color will tend to diffuse.  If the dark strays too close to your light source, absorb a little fo the dark color with a clean, damp (not wet) brush used like a sponge.  After this area dries, you can apply a soft wash of warm yellow over the clear halo, leaving the brightest light as the white of the paper.

Don’t forget that light illuminates but also reflects off a subject.  A streetlight may reflect light off buildings, and a brightly lit window may reflect onto the ground outside.  However, these light areas need to be surrounded by darks.  The farther away from the light sources, the darker your colors.  Details almost disappear in the darkness as it increases.

After mid-tones or middle-dark tones dry, you can begin to layer in your next, darker tones.  As you build up to your darkest colors, you create depth, interest, and subdued variation.

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Snowy City at Night complete.

Paint Your Shadows Bold… And Transparent !

Light is often the making or breaking of a painting.  Some subjects seem uninteresting or lifeless until bright lights and the consequent shadows become parts of the scene.  Light not only creates interesting shadows for a painting, but it also produces tonal extremes, lights and darks.  Without dark tones and areas of shade, the light parts of a picture will seem bland and not stand out.  Dark tones are needed to emphasize the lighter ones.  In the same way, without light areas, the darker tones have nothing to contrast with.  The issue is not just how much light you put into a painting, but also how DARK you can make your darks.  Very dark areas near very light areas will give your painting the greatest amount of contrast and impact.

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On a sunny day, the main tones are pushed to extremes.  Areas of BRIGHT light will be bleached out to some degree, and thus you will paint them with pale washes.  The brighter the light, the paler the tone, BUT also the more opportunity to offset light colors with dark.  Sunny areas contain warmer colors like yellow, brown, or red, whereas shaded parts of a scene will be grayer and cooler in tone.  At the same time, when painting a brightly lit section of a picture, do NOT think that a thick layer of brightly colored paint will convey the brilliance or glow you are looking for.  If you apply paint thickly, it can appear opaque because the brightness of the white underlying paper has been covered up.  Therefore, add lots of water to your color before applying it.  The more water you have in your mixture, the more the white of the paper will show through to suggest brightness.

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Because the bright spots in a painting will appear even brighter next to dark areas, SHADOWS and shaded areas ought to be a part of any painting.  A lack of light creates the darker tones within an image while also creating shadows and areas of shade.  An object blocking the light casts a shadow which can fall across a lit part of the scene.  SHADE tends to be simply a larger area of shadow.  The darkest tone in a painting is often the deepest area of shade, where the least amount of light reaches.  As light is reduced, color tends to become darker, grayer, and more muted.

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A shadow across an area of white (for example, snow) will show as a blue or violet.  However, shadows that are cast across several changes of color (for example, over a field, then a road, then a stone wall) will require several CHANGES IN SHADOW COLOR to look realistic.  To create a shadow color, you must first look at the color as seen in direct light.  The shadow color must relate to the color it falls across.  If a shadow falls across a green field, its color will be a gray-green.  A shadow cast across a variety of features will change color appropriately, although the shadows must remain the same tone (darkness) throughout (even as the colors change).  Furthermore, shadows cast across a landscape will follow the contours of the land, showing dips and depressions.

If shadows falling across a part of a painting are a darker and cooler version of the base color, how would you paint a cast shadow that crosses a path with grass on both sides?  First, you would paint the areas themselves, with the grass painted green and the path perhaps painted a gray-brown.  Paint one area and let it dry before painting the next to avoid blurring.   When the painted grass and path are dry, next create a grayed-green and a grayer gray-brown for shadow colors.  Then paint the shadow in two different stages, one for the grass and the other for the path, with drying in between to avoid bleeding of color.  In theory, the overall TONE of the shadows stays constant throughout, even though the COLORS change according to the features underneath.

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Sometimes color or light can reflect back into a shadow, especially at the shadow’s edge.  REFLECTED LIGHT may require a lighter or warmer section within a shadow.  Reflected light can be very subtle but can create varied color intensity within the shadow itself (for example, warm light suggested by a touch of yellow in the shadow).  In other words, areas of shade close to brightly lit parts of a painting might absorb more light; the painter could use more color and less gray here to create a bit more color intensity in the shadow.  

In most cases cast shadows have CRISP edges, which you would paint wet-on-dry (wet paint on dry paper) over a dried wash.  As previously mentioned, nearby objects can reflect light or color into the shadows.  A painter would brush in reflected colors while the shadow color is still wet, for SOFT blending. Other shadows may be SOFT-edged (for example, where fleeting light flashes over a hillside, or in some snow depressions).  Paint these soft-edged shadows wet-into-wet.

To create LUMINOUS shadows, you need to be able to see through the shadow to the color beneath, so using a TRANSPARENT paint color is a must!  Your shadows should NOT be thick and opaque.  The most transparent blues are phthalo blue or ultramarine blue; the reds are permanent alizarin, permanent rose, or quinacridone red; the yellows are  quinacridone gold, gamboge, burnt sienna, or hansa yellow light.  Most blacks and grays straight out of the tube are NOT transparent, so it is advisable to mix your own shadow colors.  Shadows falling across grass or a roof, for example, would be a darker and cooler version of the base color.  Mix transparent red, blue, and yellow to make a dark translucent color; add a little more blue to cool the color and then some of the base color to darken the mix.  Mix your shadow color DARKER than you think you need.  Don’t be afraid to paint the shadows dark!

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With your shadow color mixed, use a large, fully-loaded brush, and paint the shadow area swiftly and confidently.  Resist the temptation to go back into your work and adjust the shadows you have painted.  Don’t fiddle or paint another layer, which would increase the likelihood of losing any transparency in the shadow!  Instead, plan ahead, and try to get it right to begin with.

The general process for creating a watercolor with enough contrast to make your picture “pop” involves painting in stages and layers.  Your aim is to paint confidently with a brush full of color and to paint shadow areas right up against the lightest parts of your painting.  Think of it this way:

Stage 1 is the initial drawing and any light toning down of the papers,

Stage 2 is painting in the light washes,

Stage 3 is building up the darker colors and shadow areas,

Stage 4 is adding the darkest marks and details, and

Stage 5 is painting the cast shadows.

Remember that your light colors need BOLD DARKS!

Realism: Better Than An Exact Copy!

Realistic painting often gets a bad rap nowadays.  The implication seems to be that abstract painting is creative, cool, and trendy; that realistic painting is merely like a copy of a photograph.

Well, realistic painting (the seemingly straightforward representation of objects as they appear in the physical world) can be every bit as creative as making an abstract image.  Good realistic painting has a great deal in common with abstraction.  Paintings of each type may assume different positions on a continuum from more realistic to more abstract, but both need to use sound structural designs (that is, well-organized images) to be effective.  Good design directs the viewer’s eye through the picture by using shapes, line, color, edges, value, and manipulation of space.  Planning and structuring your painting do not stifle your creativity.

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Artist Georgia O’Keefe commented on the dispute over realism versus abstraction:  “It is surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract.  Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense.  A hill or a tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree.  It is lines and colors put together so that they say something.”  Even the ideal subject must be shaped and adapted to fit the idea and emotion the artist wants to express.  Copying an image exactly without determining a focal point or eliminating distracting details does not improve that image.  Painting does not involve simply copying what you see; slavishly reproducing an image is not the goal.  To create good realistic art, you need to make it PERSONAL.  Your art needs to reveal what you want to say and what the image/scene means to you.  The goal for most realistic painters should be to combine the realistic image with a distinctive INDIVIDUAL PERCEPTION and expression of the subject.  You must select and arrange colors, lines, shapes, and other design elements.  You can create an unusual color scheme; use a dramatic value contrast; emphasize texture, pattern, or line.  As an artist, you transform the subject by filtering it through unconscious thought processes so that it reflects your past experiences and personal beliefs.

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If something intrigues you, it is worthy of your interest and of your audience’s interest.  Explore any subject if you feel you have something to say about it.  You paint best what you know best.  One artist may seem successful at selecting unusual subject matter.  Another artist may be a people person and prefer portraits.  Yet another may enjoy the refreshing feeling of landscapes.

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In the classroom, students often copy the work of other artists.  Copying can be useful for practicing skills and techniques – that is, as a way of learning – but a number of pitfalls to copying can emerge.  It is difficult, for instance, to capture the emotion expressed by the artist who made the original.  You might also simply copy mistakes or poor techniques without being aware of those flaws.  Furthermore, copying prevents you from learning to organize a picture on your own; some people become dependent on copying.  Since the creative experience is missing when you copy, you need to move beyond copying to become a creative artist.

Much better sources for images to paint are your own photographs.  However, you need to adapt even your own photographs when you use them as source material; remember that even a well-composed photograph needs editing to become an effective, forceful painting.  Also try working from life to design your own picture.  Observe carefully.  Pick and choose, simplify and rearrange until you have transformed a literal image to fit your impression.  Leave out distracting or extraneous details.  Focus on essentials to turn nature into art.  Use your memories to visualize something that isn’t there now, and imagine or invent something if you think it would make a good picture.  In any case, strive to be selective and imaginative rather than literal.

In composing your picture, think about what you want to say.  You might make a list of descriptive words that characterize your subject; include details about its physical appearance and qualities that make it unique or interesting to you.  These could be related to mood or emotion.  Brainstorm as many ideas as possible; then narrow these down to one clear meaning – this is your concept, what you want to say.  Concentrate on this meaning; you can have only one focal point.  Start with the real, but enhance it!

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How Does A Painting Progress?

The first step in a watercolor painting is usually choosing an image to paint.  Sometimes I am excited about a subject or intrigued with the way light affects a scene.  That image can make me feel a certain mood or remember a wonderful feeling I’ve had before in a similar setting.  Often, the scene “picks me”: it touches me, and I want to paint it.

The painting “Mulpus” began in this way.  When I saw the photos that my son had taken of a brook that we both know, I felt the excitement of discovering a magic secret garden in my backyard.  The series of photos taken on a clear spring day showed a progression from the old stone bridge on the road up the sparkling brook edged with bright green moss and grass to the ruins of a towering stone wall dam that in the 1700’s had controlled water for a log-cutting mill.  The dam, though still impressive, was partially collapsed and the mill pond gone, but, oh, the water sparkled, and the green of the moss and grass was brilliant!  How refreshing!  In the midst of decay was renewal.  I could almost feel the warm sun, see the rosy buds about to open, smell crisp, clean air, and hear the soft whisper of the breeze!

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I settled on two reference photos to combine and sketched a template for transfer to watercolor paper.  When I had the image drawn, I used masking fluid to preserve the sparkles of white on the water, the bright green shore, and highlights of the rocks in the water.

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When the masking fluid was dry, I pre-wet the sky and tree line area with clear water.  As the sheen disappeared, I painted the sky with a very pale wash of a mixture of mostly cerulean and some Winsor (or phthalo) blue.  I tried to leave the center of the sky area paler than the surrounding sky because I chose to have the sunlight shining from the center of the picture toward the viewer.

Keeping in mind a clear spring day, I mixed colors for the far tree line.  Spring green was a possibility, but these trees were in the background, and I did not want them to stand out or compete with the bright green grass and moss which would be the focal point of the picture (in conjunction with the sparkling water).  Therefore, I toned the green down a bit to a slightly-grayed blue-green mix of ultramarine blue, DaVinci sap green, and a small touch of burnt umber.  And since I wanted the distant trees to appear soft and unfocused, I painted the tree underlayer onto damp paper.  (If you mix this tree color at the same time as your sky mix, you’ll be ready to paint your tree line as soon as you finish the sky.  However, if you find your paper has dried out since you painted your sky, it’s perfectly fine to rewet your sky and tree line with clear water, then paint your tree line when the sheen has gone.)  While the tree line is still damp, scrape in a few trunk-like lines with a palette knife or brush handle.  (Some pale gray trunks can be added here later and softened.)  Also, while the distant tree area is still damp, randomly drop several other colors into the tree area to add variety.  For me, these colors were a touch green gold and separately also burnt umber (mixed with a touch of burnt sienna).  Don’t get carried away here – less is more.  Every tree you paint should have a variety of colors in it.  As these color additions started to dry, I used a slightly stronger version of the underlayer green (ultramarine blue, DaVinci sap green, and a touch of burnt umber) to scumble in and start to suggest shadowing and shaping of the tree line.

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I began to work on the large stone wall by mixing three separate puddles of very, very pale color to apply as an underlayer.  I used permanent alizarin red (or quinacridone red), cobalt blue, and hansa yellow light (or cadmium lemon) to mix these three puddles.  These colors I randomly painted onto the stone wall; each color remained separate but just touched another of the three colors.

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While the stone wall dried, I began to put down the first layers on the middle distance tree trunks (which would eventually have more detail than the distant tree line).  I started with the trees to the far right to avoid spoiling the stone wall before it dried; then I gradually worked toward the left.  Since the type of tree, the age of the tree, and the smoothness of the bark cause variations in the tree trunk color, I used more than one paint color.  First, I laid down a pale greenish gray made with Davy’s gray.  Almost immediately, I began to add variation – some green gold and/or raw sienna on the sunny side of trunks, and darker brown-gray made of ultramarine blue with burnt umber on the shaded side.  I needed to remember the direction of light for shadows:  because I chose to have the light come toward the viewer from the middle of the picture, shadows on the trunks are on the right side of a trunk on the right of the picture, but shadows on the left side of the picture are on the left side of the trunks. I laid these colors in without mixing.

I painted one tree at a time so that the colors could soften into each other and create shape in the trunk before the applied paint had a chance to dry.  I let these underlayer colors in one trunk dry before proceeding to detail work on the trunk and moved instead to underlayer the next trunk.  When all the mid-distance trees were underlayered, I added details (crevices and knotholes) with a dark brown of ultramarine blue and burnt umber.  This same color I used to dry brush a bit of texture on the tree trunks, including grooves and shadows at the roots.

I then painted another layer of color, made from cerulean blue with a touch of cadmium red to make a gray, over all of the large stone wall.  The color was not too dark, but pale enough to see hints of color through it.  When this was dry, I painted details in the wall – for example, crevices, shadows, texture – with a gray-black mixed from ultramarine blue and burnt umber.  I left light some highlights on the top of the wall, though I could also have lifted them later.

A light layer of burnt umber I laid over the earth area to the right and left of the stream.  I let this layer dry while I began to paint the water in the stream.

The water I painted wet in wet.  It is best to have all the colors ready before starting to apply any paint.  To get ready, I mixed five separate puddles: cobalt blue; ultramarine blue; burnt sienna; ultramarine blue/DaVinci sap green/burnt umber; and ultramarine blue/burnt umber.  The first layer put down on the pre-wet paper was a layer of cobalt blue over all the water, avoiding the rocks.  Some of the green mix I dropped into the cobalt blue near the shore of the pool next to the ruined dam and close to both shores to suggest reflections from the distant tree line and the grass and moss along the shore.

Before the water dried, I added some burnt sienna in the water closest to the left front corner.  These transparent colors (cobalt blue and burnt sienna) made it seem that the viewer could see through the water to the sand on the streambed below.  Again, before the water dried, I darkened the edges of the water in particular with ultramarine blue.  Closest to the shore, where the bank overhangs a bit, I added some ultramarine blue/burnt umber mix (blue black) and made sure the color was softened as it met the rest of the water.

While the water was drying, I worked more on the forest floor.  With burnt umber and then with a dark brown/ burnt umber mix, I darkened the ground toward the far tree line on the right and up close to the large stone wall on the left, where the ground would be in shadow.  I added some texture and a few darker indentations in the fallen leaves with the dry brush technique.  I spattered the brown ground first with the dark brown mix, then with just burnt sienna. When the spatter had dried, I added a few strong tree shadows on the ground while keeping in mind the direction of the light.

The stones and rocks in the water received an underlayer of gray (cerulean blue and cadmium red).  When they were dry, I used the dry brush technique again to texture in the gray and dark gray I used previously, also adding dark shadows where the water meets the rocks.

When all the paint was dry, I removed the masking fluid.  Green gold was the color for the brilliant and sunlit moss and grass (though hansa yellow light mixed with ultramarine blue could also work).  The shadow color for painting depressions in the green ground came from adding more ultramarine blue to the above color.  In darker spots, I added burnt umber/ultramarine blue to increase depth.

Finally, to finish up, I added more tiny branches to the mid-distance trees.  I scraped (with an X-acto) some white water to make sure the stream looked natural.  I also lifted some rock highlights that seemed to have been lost.

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