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How Do You Know When a Painting is Finished?

Knowing when a painting is ‘finished’ depends on the goals you establish before beginning to paint. There is no obvious point at which you know a picture is complete. But there are tips to help you decide; choosing your goals and being aware of your painting approach will help to insure that you meet those goals by recognizing when you’ve achieved them.

Some painters may start to paint before they have a goal, instead seeing where the painting process leads them. Other painters are moved by a vision of where they want to go in a painting and they plan ahead to get there. At some point in the process, all good artists connect with their painting in an emotional way and become aware of why they chose to paint what they did.

By clarifying for yourself why you want to paint a subject, you begin to know what is important for you to get across in the painting. You can better develop a composition that effectively creates a center of interest that moves the viewer’s eye to focus on your emphasis. Decide what to include in your picture and what to leave out! A painting should have only one center of interest to avoid confusion. Surrounding areas in a picture will be made less important by using different values, less detail, fewer hard edges, etc.

Be clear in your own mind why you want to do a painting. What am I painting this picture for? What do I find most interesting about the scene? Is it the subject itself that I like, the weather, colors or contrasts, the effect of the light and shadows?

Having a plan before beginning to paint does not mean you can’t experiment or change your mind as you proceed. Painting should be a process of trying out your ideas and evaluating as you go along how well your techniques are achieving your goals. If something doesn’t work as well as expected, by all means, try something else. Improvise!

The following two paintings were well planned, yet as painting proceeded, changes were necessary to achieve goals. In the yard of ‘Pepperell Relic’, the fading rays of sun were not bright enough initially, and a glaze had to be added. The background for ‘Apple Blossoms’ was too strident and intrusive at first, requiring toning down with a blue glaze.

Pepperell Relic painting.jpg

Pepperell Relic.

Apple Blossoms LAMH.jpg

Apple Blossoms.

By choosing a center of interest, you can easily make decisions as you paint. You’ll have some idea of what you’re trying to accomplish. You’ll know where your focus is. Knowing your focus will help you judge when your painting is finished. Usually you will reach a point in painting when you realize that you have got down on paper the main things that you wanted to include. If you find yourself starting to be fussy with small details, then you should probably stop painting. Take a break, step back, and evaluate your work. Return the next day when you may be quite satisfied that your work is complete. Try not to risk overworking in an effort to achieve perfection.

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Simplify Your Watercolors By Focusing On Shapes!

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As an artist, you have the opportunity to improve a composition before you paint it! Don’t be tempted to merely copy what you see before you. Instead, change an ordinary scene into an extraordinary painting. If you just paint what you see, without thinking, evaluating, or redesigning, you may end up with a painting that has no “WOW!”

But how do you go about improving the subject you want to paint? How can you make your image better and design stronger? What should you do to create a painting with impact? Wouldn’t it just be a lot of work, especially if I don’t know how to improve my image? How do some artists create an exciting painting about a mundane, everyday subject? Copying is NOT enough! But, the answer may be, at least in part, to use interesting SHAPES!

While you may think that most artists begin their paintings by drawing LINES that represent objects to be painted, this is often NOT the first thing that they do to prepare for painting. Instead, an artist usually looks for or tries to compile a strong composition. One of the best ways to plan a composition is to reduce a scene to its essential or most basic components, to cut out distracting details, to simplify.

To help you simplify and reduce distractions, squint your eyes. Then look for the dominant shapes in the scene. Some artists SIMPLIFY by limiting the number of dominant shapes that they focus on to three, seven, or twelve, no more than fifteen. Evaluate and think about what shapes you could rearrange or emphasize, which shapes are important and which provide support for the other shapes. For instance, should the house in your painting be moved closer to or even overlap the barn? Should you remove that distracting tree? Are there too many cars in the image – they don’t add any helpful information?

Contour sketch Forsythia House.jpg

Forsythia House copy.jpg

The relationships of the interlocking shapes in a picture will determine balance and interest. Good painters make more interesting shapes!

Contour sketch Primroses.jpg

Primroses small.jpg

 

Try to see the world around you as made of shapes, and you will find it easier to become an arranger of shapes. Make an effort to avoid focusing on drawing or painting ‘a tree’, ‘a boat’, ‘a dog’, ‘a car’, or ‘a streetlight’. Paint what you ’see’, not what you think you see. (Check out my related blogs “Avoid Painting Lollipop Trees – Part I, II, and III”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/03/13/avoid-painting-lollipop-trees/, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/03/19/avoid-painting-lollipop-trees-part-ii/, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/03/26/avoid-painting-lollipop-trees-part-iii/, published March 13, March 19, and March 26, 2019.) Beginning painters can get so preoccupied with NAMING details (“Is this a tail?”, “Are the feet crossed?”, or “I can’t tell what this is!”) that they forget to look at shapes and their relationships to each other. You need to paint SHAPES!

Contour sketch Dog.jpg

Dog small.jpg

One way to define shapes is to think about their geometric form. Are they circles, squares, rectangles, triangles? These are simple shapes, but very static and dull. They should be improved and made more dynamic by varying their size and shape contour, connecting two or more shapes together, overlapping shapes, avoiding symmetry. A building is much more interesting when viewed from an angle, as opposed to looking at it straight-on. Don’t forget that skies, shadows and reflections are also shapes. Interesting and unusual shapes are better than regular or precise shapes!

Contour sketch sunset River.jpg

Nashua River Glow.jpg

Once you have selected your scene to paint, simplified, rearranged and refined the dominant shapes, then choose one shape to be more important than the others. This shape will be your center of interest, what you want your viewers to notice. There can only be one center of interest in a painting. Plan how you will arrange your values (lights/darks) to highlight the most important shape for more emotional impact. More impact can also be created by the skillful use of color. White paper, for instance, can be a luminous and striking unpainted shape!

Contour sketch Floating Xmas tree.jpg

Floating Xmas tree small.jpg

Then, finally, having completed your planning for the best composition, by simplifying shapes and perhaps sketching out a couple of different arrangements of shapes in a black & white thumbnail sketch, it is time to carefully draw your shapes (not merely the outlines of specific objects) onto watercolor paper in preparation for painting.

In summary, everything has a shape! We tend to want to paint shapes just as they are, without changing them or making them more interesting. This can, however, lead to busy and confusing, static, or just perhaps even dull and boring paintings. It’s important to be able to conceptualize flat shapes for your flat watercolor paper, rather than just to think about three-dimensional objects (such as “mountain” or “boat”). When you can focus on shapes, it becomes easier to change shapes to suit your painting, move shapes to improve your composition, and remove clutter (get rid of boring or poor shapes), and add different colors to highlight certain shapes. So, strive to create simple but exciting paintings by making dynamic shape combinations.

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Why Should I Bother To Use A Gray Scale?

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TONAL VALUES (tones) refer to how light or dark something is. Tones have nothing to do with color, although each color does have a tonal value. For an artist, value is seemingly the most important aspect of color. Color and value usually work together to give each picture its impact.

Colors (hues) themselves each have their own tonal value. Yellow, for instance, has a relatively light tonal value, whereas red has a darker tonal value. Some blues appear almost black, having a very dark value.

Gray scale--.jpg

The VALUE RANGE of colors refers to the number of values an artist can mix between a color’s darkest value (straight from the tube) and lightest value (When mixed with water in watercolor). Yellow, which has a light value, has a short value range. That is, not as many variations of tone are possible as with some other colors. In contrast, red has a long value range, with many variations of light and dark red possible.

Value range.jpg

Value is important in painting because changes in value are used to describe an object’s shape and form, as well as suggesting space and depth, thus creating the illusion of three dimensions on the paper. It is the contrast between light, medium and dark values which creates the illusion of light falling on an object.

Every object has a RELATIVE VALUE; its value is compared to its surroundings. In nature, as light falls on different objects it affects their relative value. A light colored object in deep shadow may appear darker (in color and value) than it actually is. On the other hand, a dark object in bright sunlight may appear lighter (in color and value) than it is in reality. In this way, tone/value describes the relative amount of light an object is receiving. A light value suggests something is lit, while a dark value shows an object in shadow.

As painters, we strive to have a convincing balance of light, dark and mid tones in a painting. But, sometimes our eyes can fool us. We’ve all been deceived by optical illusions. We know that sometimes we shouldn’t believe our eyes.

How, as artists, do we judge these light and dark values as we attempt to accurately capture details in a scene? A GRAY SCALE (or value scale) can help to measure and replicate lights and darks. The absolute value of objects needn’t always be measured and reproduced exactly, but the relative value is extremely important to approximate correctly! By comparing the values in our paintings with values on the gray scale, we can insure consistent value relationships within in our pictures.

The gray scale (or value scale) is most often comprised of five to ten sections of even, gradual gradations of gray, progressing from white (value 1) to black (value 10, in a ten section scale).

                Rankin's value scale.jpg

Without color, that is, using just variations of black and white, it is easier to see and focus on value.

Color often distracts the less experienced painter from the importance of value/tone. By using the gray scale, you can determine the values of colors (or colored objects). To use a gray scale, you generally look at your colors while squinting your eyes. Squinting makes the hue less dominant and value more obvious. As the hues of the color diminish, you gain the information you need about value. The highlights and darks are still visible, while ares of similar value unite and non-essential details fade. With practice, discerning the value of each color without being distracted by the color itself becomes easier.

Rankin's values of colors.jpg

(Above) Location of some palette colors arranged along a gray scale.

Since value is relative, rather than absolute, we try to think in terms of ‘lighter than’ and ‘darker than’. In a painting, the lightest tone may not be white and the darkest value may not be black. Therefore, use the gray scale (value scale) to determine the strength of one value in relation to another and in relation to the whole.

Another way to evaluate light and dark values is to use a black and white photocopy. Print out a copy of your reference template in black and white, and compare its values to the values in your own painting. You could also photocopy your own painting in black and white to help you judge how well it approximates the desired values. Or use a sheet of red acetate (which sometimes is included in value finder kits such as Don Rankin’s Magic Value and View Finder, available at cheapjoes.com or at Lee Muir-Haman Watercolors, 64 Meadow Road, Townsend, MA, 01432, 978-772-2001). Hold the red plastic over a scene and look through it. The red color will eliminate other colors, leaving visible a range of values.

Jan Kunz explains that the shadow side of objects is a full 40% darker than the sunlit side (Painting Watercolor Florals That Glow (1993), p. 68, Watercolor Basics (1999), p. 30, and Watercolor Techniques (1994), p. 3, and cast shadows are somewhat darker still. Even the shadow side of clouds is 40% darker than the cloud areas in sunlight.

If our gray scale (value scale) has ten sections, we count up or down four values (on a gray scale with 10 sections) to arrive at the 40% difference in desired values. When local color (the actual, true color of an object) is darker, the shadow color will also be darker, yet the 40% difference in value will still be accurate. So, to paint the illusion of sunlight, first determine the value of your subject in sunlight. Kunz suggests counting four values down to get the value of the same object in shadow. Then, simply match the value of your colors to the gray scale and you will have a reasonably accurate illusion of sunlight and shadow. Since values are relative to their surroundings, you can relate all values in your painting to each other in a similar way.

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Drama In the Skies!

In a landscape painting, the sky affects the tone, mood, and atmosphere of the whole painting.  As painters, we strive for an interesting, perhaps a dramatic sky whether or not that is what we see in front of us.  Clear blue skies can appear bland and less than inspiring.  In a painting the artist hopes to design a sky that helps create the most effective mood for the subject.  Ask yourself, “What does this subject need to make it work well?”

If a landscape or seascape is busy, with lots of details or information, a simple sky treatment might be a good choice. 

Rusty truck painting.jpg

On the other hand, a moody, vibrant, or striking sky would complement a composition with a low horizon line, as in a stark, brooding moor or a bold sunset. 

Sky after Mucillo painting.jpg

As another example, a roof in the rain could take on a gleam of silver as the sky reflects off it.

Rainy sky painting.jpg

It is essential to decide what sort of sky is involved in a landscape painting BEFORE starting the painting.  This statement is true even if a sky will not actually be seen in your picture, because the appearance of the light depends entirely on the sky.  A landscape can be creatively transformed by altering the light or weather conditions in a painting.  Light and shadow, color and mood should be consistent throughout your composition, so skies must be part of your initial planning.

Hikers painting.jpg

Wilfred Ball, in Weather in Watercolour (1986), describes the “creative transformation” of planning a composition by altering sky and weather details.  “Buildings, walls, gates, fields and mountains tend to be relatively formal features of the landscape, but the effect on them of such variables as the light, seasons and weather is capricious and magical” (p. 9).  And changes in the sky and weather are “merely an extension of the creative process that goes on whenever we paint.  Almost without thinking we strengthen this, weaken that, miss out a tree here, heighten the colour of an autumn tree to focus attention on it.  These devices are all ways of recomposing the subject to increase its impact.  Indeed it is this kind of alteration, that we make to the subject matter as we saw it, that is the creative process in what would otherwise be a straightforward copying procedure.  Using the weather creatively is one of the most effective of all the transformation devices a painter can use” (p. 11).

Thus, you should not be afraid to use a bit of imagination when creating a sky.  Think about the colors you will use in your painting, and have them mixed and ready to go.  Mix up large, juicy puddles of the sky colors you will use.  Mix lots more than you think you will need to insure that you won’t run out or have to skimp while painting!

Have your plan thought out before wetting your paper.  Skies are often painted wet-in-wet, though other techniques (wet on dry, for instance) can also be used.  To begin, wet the sky area with clean water.  As soon as the shine goes from the paper (and when it appears to have a more matte finish), DROP in your colors by floating the pigment across the paper.  Try NOT TO PUSH the colors around, instead letting the colors mix together on their own.  Do not overwork or touch the paint while it is drying.  During drying time, the sky continues to develop ON ITS OWN with a subtle blending of colors.  Timing is all-important.  Don’t paint back into your sky; be assured, and paint with confidence.

To increase the feeling of distance in your sky, lighten the sky toward the horizon.  Colors can be warmer and darker higher in the sky.  Don’t view the sky as separate from the rest of your painting.  Remember: it affects your entire landscape.  You can achieve the needed harmony by echoing the sky colors in the rest of the picture.  For example, include warm sunlight on the side of a building or reflections of a sunset on water or snow.

VT farmhouse painting.jpg

Rainy field painting cropped.jpg

What colors should you use?  Sometimes you may want to add yellow highlights to a blue sky.  Have you ever laid down a sky with blue and yellow and had it start to turn green where the two colors met?  The effect has something to do with color bias and color mixing.  Certain blues have a red bias (they contain some red pigment), while others lean toward green, and whichever blue you use will react with other colors according to its bias.  If you are unsure how your colors will interact, try several combinations of blue and yellow on test paper.  Alternatively, lay down your pale yellow wash, and let it dry before adding blue.  This way, you will have less chance of creating green, even though you will also lose some of the soft mingling of color that occurs with the wet-in-wet technique.

To avoid surprising or unpleasant color mixes when combining colors in the sky, try arranging your color sequence like a rainbow.  In a naturally occurring rainbow, the colors appear in a sequence similar to (but not precisely the same as) the following; so from the top of the sky to bottom (horizon), you could use:

*Ultramarine (which has a red bias)

*Cobalt (no real bias)

*Cerulean (yellow-green bias)

*Raw Sienna (red-orange bias)

*Permanent Alizarin Crimson (or Perylene Maroon or Permanent Rose) mixed with  Ultramarine Blue. (Be sure not to use too much red.)

Put your colors in bands in this order, just overlapping the edges so the colors soften.  Keep in mind that you needn’t use every one of the above colors in your sky, but use at least two.  Your choices of colors will affect how each color blends with its neighbor when they touch.  Test your colors and technique on a test sheet before applying paint to your picture.  Make sure you understand the affect of your color choices so you can avoid unpleasant surprises.

A sky affects the tone and mood of the whole painting.  Plan ahead for a dramatic, interesting sky that integrates well with the rest of your picture.  The sky will suggest proper placement for shadows and even some of the colors you should use throughout your painting.  For example, strong Mediterranean sunlight will create harder lines and sharper contrast than a misty morning in the Scottish Highlands.  Don’t be afraid to use your imagination when creating a sky.  Don’t paint back into your sky, don’t fiddle, and don’t be impatient.  Instead, try to apply your colors confidently, with a large brush, and let the colors mix together on their own.

Great wass island painting.jpg

Avoid Painting Lollipop Trees! (Part II.)

When you practice painting trees, begin by studying the bare outlines of winter trees (deciduous), because you can better see their whole structure and their proportions.  In general, the proportions of a tree can be divided into thirds: one third trunk, one third branches, one third twigs.  This principle may not always apply, but it gives you a helpful place to start.  Observe whether the tree exhibits a single vertical trunk or multiple trunks; a twisted and contorted trunk, possibly weeping branches, or angular or smooth-flowing branches.  Very few trees are symmetrical.

Use a round brush to paint the main trunk and thicker branches, then a rigger to paint thinner branches or twigs.  (A palette knife or liner can also be useful for painting small twigs.)  Alternatively and more simply, you can scumble in the smallest branches of a winter tree with a light tone to suggest the smallest growth.  For a winter tree, work from the bottom upwards.  Establish the trunk and main branches boldly; then begin to “suggest” a few smaller branches before rendering a light tone (by scumbling or dry brushing) for the fuzzy tiny twigs.

Maple winter.jpg

Maple summer.jpg

Maple autumn.jpg

The complicated outlines of trees in leaf can be overwhelming without SIMPLIFICATION.  It is important to remember that the same basic structure as is there in winter still lies beneath the cloak of foliage.  You should paint the foliage as several large masses, varying them in size and making the shapes interesting, while also leaving rough edges; nevertheless, each should have three dimensions.  Some masses should overlap others, but leave gaps between some to form important sky holes.  Paint branches and twigs in these sky holes, NOT on top of the foliage shapes (Lost and Found).  You should not paint individual leaves.  Definitely do not paint detail you cannot see from a distance.

In general, when painting foliage, prepare a wash for the lighter areas and another, stronger wash for the darker spots.  (You have the option of using even more color layers to increase color and tone variations.)  If you apply the first light wash in a series of quick strokes with the side of your brush, the resulting shape will tend to look more spontaneous than overworked.  Then, before the first layer of color dries, drop in some of the darker wash to correspond to the darker, shaded areas you have observed.  You must remember to leave random sky holes.  For trees in leaf, begin your painting with the foliage; then add trunks and branches.  Tops of trees  (facing the light) will usually be the lightest areas.

 

To be continued…