How Do I Develop A Personal Painting Style?

What is it that makes a painting meaningful and gives it a personal touch or style? Most artists spend a lot of time and effort practicing technical skills and learning technique. They study and practice to improve their competence.

Nevertheless, a well-executed painting, even if technically perfect, can be lifeless and without feeling. What exactly do we mean by style? How can an artist paint with feeling?

CHOOSE SUBJECT MATTER AND INTERPRET IT:

Style is more than the SUBJECT MATTER an artist chooses to paint, although it begins there. Style includes a personal INTERPRETATION of a subject. Each of us will see and describe a scene in a somewhat different way. When we paint, we hope to express our own POINT OF VIEW, our FEELINGS about the scene. By omitting or SIMPLIFYING details that seem unimportant and highlighting other details, you can focus on what is important to you. You might make an effort to limit your reliance on reference material, at least to some extent, to allow for more interpretation. Decide what touches you about a scene, rather than blindly copying (without thinking) all the details of what is before you. Do this, and you will begin to develop your ‘style.’ Tell your own story!

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GET TO KNOW YOUR OWN FEELINGS AND LET THEM SHOW:

It is not easy to create art that expresses your feelings and personality. You may need to get to know yourself better and begin to identify what truly interests and excites YOU. Instead of copying other artists by painting what they paint in the way they paint it, don’t be afraid to do it your way. What makes you an individual is what will give your painting style. It’s your feeling about a work that helps the viewer to connect, on an emotional level, to your picture. Strive to show an imaginative, original, unusual, perhaps even surprising, viewpoint. Experiment!

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PAINT BOLDLY:

TIMIDITY and FEAR OF MAKING MISTAKES are two obstacles to developing your painting style. When you paint with hesitation and uncertainty, you tend to create tight, stiff, overworked images. Strive to loosen your BRUSH STROKES, painting more BOLDLY and with LARGER brushes. Small brushes make it too easy to paint minute details, leaving nothing to the imagination of the viewer. Instead, suggest and omit nonessential details, thus allowing a viewer to become involved in imagining and filling in ambiguous specifics for themselves. One technique to increase viewer connection is the use of LOST AND FOUND EDGES in painting. (For example, vary your edges by using hard edges as well as soft or disappearing edges to create interest in your picture.)

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USE COLOR IN YOUR OWN WAY:

COLOR CHOICES can play an important part in developing your style. The paint pigments on your palette affect the feel and flavor of your paintings. The Zorn palette, for instance, created and used often by Anders Zorn, consists of primarily four colors: yellow ochre, ivory black, vermillion, and titanium white. Vincent Van Gogh, on the other hand, tended to prefer other color combinations, as did Johannes Vermeer and Claude Monet.

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CAREFULLY OBSERVE AND EMPHASIZE SUBTLETIES:

Beyond the colors on your palette, style also depends on how you ’SEE’ what you choose to paint AND how you might choose to EXAGGERATE subtler colors. (For more information on ‘seeing’, check out my blog post entitled “Painting Begins With Looking and Seeing,” https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/, published December 18, 2018.) Painting with style thus involves looking carefully and analytically at a subject, and taking the time to observe. Without careful looking, your paint colors can tend to be flat, conventional, tired, and uninteresting. We have all seen beginners who paint trees or grass an unvaried, unnatural green. Strive instead to observe subtle color variations which are almost always there to be seen. Further, use your imagination to emphasize some of the subtler, more elusive colors to suggest to your viewer WHAT YOU FEEL about your subject.

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CAPTURE THE LIGHT:

Observing and capturing the QUALITY OF LIGHT in an everyday scene will help you to paint with style and feeling. Again, study your subject and really look for the nuances and subtle variations of light at different times of day and in different locations. Light affects how everything appears, whether it be the strong golden light of summer or the soft purple-gray mist of a rainy day. Shadows, whether cast or reflected, also tend to have rich and subtle color variations that you will want to get across to the viewer of your art.

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IN SUMMARY:

One artist will interpret a scene differently from another. In choosing the essentials and leaving out unimportant details, a painter begins to develop a personal style. Further, your selection of colors, materials, and techniques to use in painting will be unique, contributing to your style. Over time, each of us develops our own characteristic and distinctive shorthand for dealing with familiar objects; these habits can become recognizable. For instance, I often paint trees by scumbling the leaves, and I use lots of dry brush when painting rocks and stone walls. An artist’s selections, simplifications, and techniques are individual, making style a natural evolution within an artist’s work. However, to develop style fully, you must move on from simply considering materials and techniques to delving deeper and getting to know yourself and what you value. Be sure to express your feelings about a picture; be creativeRemember, your style is yours!

To delve even deeper into the subject of creativity, check out my blog posts entitled “Fostering Creativity” (9/24/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/09/24/fostering-creativity/,  and “Creativity Can Be Learned!”  (1/8/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/01/08/creativity-can-be-learned/.

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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.

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Pepperell Relic.

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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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Realism: Better Than An Exact Copy!

Realistic painting often gets a bad rap nowadays.  The implication seems to be that abstract painting is creative, raw, 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 ought 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 will 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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I Have an Image I’d Like to Paint. Now Where Do I Start?

As you approach a painting, it is absolutely vital that you think hard about what you’re doing. You can avoid many problems if you PLAN ahead and think through the sequence of painting steps. Before you begin to paint, you must stop and analyze the subject to be painted.  Learn to ask yourself some basic questions.  First, determine what it is you want to show and what you want to say about your subject. Why did you choose to paint this picture? Why were you drawn to this image? Does your image remind you of a favorite place?  Does the picture make you feel calm? Do you feel like laughing when you look at your subject?

Think about your MOOD. How does the scene make you feel? Happy, sad, excited, nostalgic? Respond to your emotions – these feelings are what you will try to get down on paper and share with viewers of your art. People will connect to YOUR art with THEIR emotions! For instance, does your painting depict hay being baled and loaded onto a truck on a sweltering hot, hazy summer day?  Can you just imagine your clothes clinging to you and your skin itching where loose hay sticks to your sweaty skin? You would definitely be looking forward to a tall glass of cold iced tea later while sitting in the shade! The mood and setting of this kind of picture should suggest certain paint color choices and techniques to you. You might use rich, warm summer greens for trees, ochres to show for dried grasses, bright, warm blues in a sky full of billowing cumulus clouds. In the distance, details might be a bit soft, paler, and obscured by the haze and humidity.  Cloud formations and vegetation during sunny high summer have certain characteristics they do not usually show during other seasons or weather conditions.

Come up with a plan of attack. Remember that there is not just one way to paint a scene! What approach are you drawn to? Will you paint background first? Do you want to paint all your underlayers first? Have some idea of what you want to do, but be open to adapting your plans as you proceed. Feel free to rearrange objects to strengthen your composition. You can also change the atmosphere, season, time of day, or direction of the light source in your picture. Decide on a center of interest to anchor your painting; then in view of what you choose as your focus, pick what details you will emphasize and what elements you will remove. It is best to SIMPLIFY your image – learn to really look at your picture and see Shapes, Values, Edges, and Color Changes – instead of “clouds,” “trees,” “roads,”or “faces.”  Then, ELIMINATE some things. Sometimes less is more! Don’t copy every detail you see – filter the details through your own eyes. Wouldn’t a few details be more interesting than having everything in precise imitation of the reality? (If you detail everything, you have NOT created a CENTER OF INTEREST to draw the eye of the viewer.)  Making such choices is one of the important steps in moving from being a painter to being an ARTIST. Your painting should share your impression of and emotions about a scene. You should not be striving for a rote photographic copy that expresses no feeling.

Once you determine the mood of your painting and think about what paint colors and techniques would give your painting the desired feeling, you can progress to make a light pencil sketch of a few IMPORTANT details of the image. Consider whether you intend to save the white of the paper with masking fluid before you begin painting. With masking complete, decide which parts of your painting you will paint first and with what techniques. Every picture is different, so in a way you will need to be a bit of a detective. If you enjoy puzzles, as I do, figuring out how you proceed through a painting can be an enjoyable challenge. The goal is to have a PLAN, with the construction of your painting broken down into small, manageable steps from the start to the finish of the process.

Often I begin a painting by painting the sky. If there is no sky to paint, I tend to start with the background and work gradually toward the foreground, painting light colors prior to darker colors, building up layers to create shape and form. Watercolor is seldom painted as one layer. I like to have light colors surrounded by dark, or vice versa, to create emphasis and impact, and to attract a viewer’s interest.  I also consider adjusting the colors in a painting to suit my own taste or to set the mood that I want to create. Fine details in the foreground or at the center of interest I often paint last.

As you gain experience as a painter, you will find it easier to rearrange objects, adjust colors, or simplify in your art. Try to be BOLD! You are a unique individual unlike anyone else.  Get your OWN feelings down on the paper. Dare to be yourself, and work to master your techniques of painting, and you will develop your own style and be likely to have success as a painter. And remember: the more you paint, the faster you grow!

Why Did I Change My Palette Colors?

For many years, I used the colors and brands of watercolor paint that my instructors used. (Interestingly, each instructor had different preferences.) There were so many different colors to choose from I was unsure why they used some colors and not others. I didn’t worry too much about their color choices when I was just starting to paint, being more focused on learning technique, but as I gained experience, I wanted to understand why we used those particular colors. Was it just a matter of personal preference, or were certain colors better for some reason? Why?

LEARNING ABOUT COLORS.

‘Color’ became more and more interesting to me. I became fascinated by how many different ways there were to mix colors from the paint that was already on my palette. There was such variety! Yet at some point, I began to feel some dissatisfaction with certain black, gray, and green paints straight from the tube, and began to prefer my own mixtures. Unlike blends that I created from mixtures of often primary colors, some of these tube paints began to appear dull, flat, uninteresting, and lifeless to me. Other tube paints looked stark, strident, unnatural and out of place in certain pictures. What a revelation! I began to notice details that I had not been aware of before. And I was starting to feel unhappy with a few of the colors on my palette.

QUESTIONS.

Why did some paints, like some of the reds, greens, and browns, look so flat and dull?  Everyone talks about ‘Transparent Watercolor,’ but what is it exactly? Are all watercolors transparent? And why is transparency important? How are opaque colors different from transparent colors? Where does the elusive ‘glow’ or luminescence of watercolor come from? Is it in certain pigments, or does it result from how the paint is applied? I decided to try to make my paintings glow!

As I studied and experimented, I learned more about the characteristics of pigments and how they behave. The issues were confusing! Some paints worked well in certain situations but not in others. Some colors mixed cleanly with others, but similar-appearing colors, when mixed with another color, turned into mud! Ugh! I realized that all watercolor pigments are NOT transparent or equal in intensity. All blues are not interchangeable. In fact, sometimes tubes of paint with the same name do not even contain the same pigments! How could one expect them to behave the same? And, further, some tube paints are not made from a single pigment but are mixtures of a number of pigments, each of which  has its own characteristics.

HOW NOT TO MAKE ‘MUD’!

Jeanne Dobie, in Making Color Sing, describes how she makes vibrant, glowing color. She recommends transparent and pure color pigments as a base for your palette colors. To capture the ‘effect of light’ in watercolor, use transparent and single ingredient pigments! Jeanne says, “Because transparent colors permit the greatest amount of light to pass through to the paper, reflecting back to the viewer, they impart luminosity. Moreover, they remain transparent when mixed together – so there’s no mud!.. If you begin a watercolor with opaque pigments, you’ll lose the effect of light. Opaque pigments are denser and heavier, which greatly reduces the amount of light transmitted through to the paper. Because of this ‘thickness,’ an opaque pigment does not mix well with another opaque color. It only becomes thicker! If you mix two opaque pigments together, you are flirting with a muddy mixture. Should you mix three opaque pigments together, the result may be too lifeless to call a watercolor.”

WATERCOLOR INGREDIENTS.

Watercolor pigments are composed of several different types of materials. First, some pigments are made of ground MINERALS or EARTH. These have a tendency to float on the surface of the paper, whether transparent or not, and so may NOT be very good for mixing. (I think it is interesting that some mineral pigments are quite transparent — for example, genuine ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, raw sienna, cobalt blue, viridian, and manganese blue.) Second, some pigments are ORGANIC DYES. Third, other pigments are SYNTHETIC DYES. The dye pigments are NOT all transparent as one might expect, because some are combined with various fillers.

MY PALETTE COLOR CHANGES.

Gradually, I have added more transparent primary colors (red, yellow, blue) to my palette and reduced the number of opaque pigments. I have tried to find transparent colors made from a single pigment (i.e. ‘pure’, as Jeanne Dobie describes). I now have a wide variety of  transparent red, yellow, and blue primaries which can be mixed into numerous clear variations. I chose each paint for a particular quality; while some are very similar, no two are exactly alike.

On my palette, I continue to keep some additional “occasional use” colors that are opaque, such as cerulean blue, cadmium red, Winsor Newton Payne’s gray, and burnt umber. Many greens I mix from primary colors, but I have a few transparent greens on my palette. I removed any ochres and use burnt umber with care, as they are opaque. I like the siennas because they are transparent or semi-transparent, depending on how diluted the mixed wash is. While the above earth colors look beautiful when wet, they do seem to lose their richness as they dry, appearing flat and somewhat dull. (I plan to discuss the specific colors that I have on my palette in a later blog. Stay tuned!)

GLAZING.

Jeanne Dobie also maintains that selecting pure transparent pigments is just the start. An artist needs to learn about color relationships to use the colors successfully – color mixing could be the subject of yet another, later blog post, perhaps. And, yet, there is also a place for the opaque colors on your palette. “To complement the pretty (transparent) colors” and to enhance their jewel-like tones, you need to use more subtle, “non-brilliant mixtures.”  Thus, my first discovery in the search for “GLOW” was that the glow begins with the use of transparent colors.

The second part of creating glow in a painting seems to be related to a technique called GLAZING. Most watercolor painters are aware that it is possible to paint one wash over another, a process called glazing. (The secret is to apply each wash, usually the lightest color first, to a THOROUGHLY DRY sheet of paper.) Now why would a painter want to do this? It seems like a lot of trouble! Is it worth it?

Yes, properly applied, layers of washes are what actually produce the characteristic GLOW of watercolor and a stained-glass effect that cannot be achieved by any other means. To achieve the much sought after GLOW FROM WITHIN in watercolor, an artist glazes layers of mostly transparent pigments. Pigments applied in glazes have MORE luminosity than the same colors mixed on the palette and applied in a single wash!

Once you have practiced your wash techniques and feel you are a bit proficient at them, here is the procedure for glazing:     1. Develop your glazes from transparent watercolors (eg. Indian yellow or Hansa yellow light, Winsor blue or Phthalo blue, Winsor red or pyrrol red).     2. Begin with your lightest pigment, usually a yellow.     3. Keep your washes DILUTED and transparent.     4. Make sure, VERY SURE, that all previous washes are COMPLETELY dry before a new wash or glaze is applied.     5. Use the most opaque paints toward the final stages of your painting. Using them in the initial stages runs the risk of creating mud or chalky washes. (I must give credit here to Don Rankin, who, in his book Mastering Glazing Techniques In Watercolor, gives these clear and simple ground rules for glazing.)

IN SUMMARY.

I now have more transparent pigments in my palette, fewer of the opaques. I try to employ the glazing technique with transparent color more often than I previously did. I like the effect! If you too are a painter who strives to find a way to have your work ‘glow from within,’ try what I have described above. See what you think, and let me know.