Painting… With Attitude!

TECHNIQUE. 

Learning and practicing your watercolor TECHNIQUES until they become second nature will help you attain painting success. A little knowledge is helpful, as well. Get to know the ELEMENTS OF DESIGN (color, line, value, shape, and form) to create the effects you want. (See my blog posts Designing A Strong Painting With Good Composition, https://wordpress.com/post/leemuirhaman.com/401, posted 10/16/2018, and Creating Form and Space In A Painting, https://wordpress.com/post/leemuirhaman.com/390, posted 9/18/2018, for additional information about design elements.)

MINDSET OR ATTITUDE.

While technique and design elements need to be mastered, an artist’s mindset (or attitude) has a huge effect on every aspect of painting! Whatever emotions an artist is experiencing can often be observed in their painting. Uncertainty and fear can come across through tentative, uncertain brush strokes or pale, washed out colors. A creator in a rush can be sloppy and less than observant. A tense artist trying to control their pigment paints a stiff, tight picture, while a confident painter creates with a bolder, looser stroke. In many ways, painting echoes and reflects each artist’s attitudes and emotions.

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Sometimes the hardest thing to master about watercolor painting is our own mindset or attitude toward our painting. So what is an effective mindset for an artist to have? How might a painter think about the process of painting?

DON’T LET FEAR CONTROL YOU.

Try not to let fear of making mistakes or looking foolish hold you back. Everyone makes mistakes – that’s how we learn. No one will think less of you if you have difficulties. Don’t hesitate to paint – just begin taking action. Start! Everyone can learn to improve their painting!

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AVOID JUDGING.

Strive to not put yourself down. Show compassion and encouragement to yourself instead of judging and criticizing your efforts. None of us will ever paint a perfect picture. Give yourself credit for being brave enough to paint!

 

BE OPEN TO THE PAINTING PROCESS.

Make an effort to be open-minded. We don’t always know what will happen next in art (or in life). And that’s okay! Your painting may go in a direction you don’t intend or expect it to go. It may take longer than you expect for your skills to improve. You don’t always have complete control when painting in watercolor – trying to force watercolor paint to do your bidding instead of flowing with it can cause frustration. Trust the process.

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PERSEVERE.

Stay optimistic. Keep trying. There will be ups and downs during the learning process – learning (like a baby’s growth) seems to move in spurts, or a spiral. A discouraged painter will tend to avoid their art and be less likely to practice and improve. Persevere.

ENJOY YOUR PAINTING.

Try to find something you like in each painting you work on. Make time to paint what interests and excites you. Be inspired. Laugh. Enjoy yourself. Play! You’ll be more likely to continue with painting.

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EXPERIMENT.

Eventually, as you become more practiced in technique, you will become more relaxed when painting, and able to experiment. You will become better able to plan and respond to your painting as it develops. Your goal is to listen to your own reactions to your work and adapt to what is happening on the paper, without panic or self-criticism.

Remember to paint what interests you and pleases you. Play! To read more about how painting can be affected by attitude, see my blog post I’ve Always Wanted To Paint Watercolors But I Don’t Have The Talent (7/20/2018), https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/07/20/ive-always-wanted-to-paint-watercolors-but-dont-have-the-talent/.

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Those Troublesome Greens!

Green is one of those colors, along with gray and brown, that create problems for painters, which may be one reason that beginners seek out ready-mixed colors.  After all, color mixing can be confusing and unpredictable.  While the ready-mixed greens sold in tubes are convenient, the colors available for sale are generally NOT the greens found in nature.  And even if you can find some greens that look reasonably convincing, who can afford to buy even a dozen tubes of different convenience greens?

Foliage varies greatly in color and value, with each plant producing its own variation of green.  Color and value also change with distance, weather, time of day, and season.  In reality, the greens of nature show infinite variety.  Therefore, realistic, natural greens require the painter to be able to mix many suitable variations of green from a limited number of paints.  But where do you start?

The color green is made of blue plus yellow plus a small amount of red to tone the color down and naturalize it.  Take every yellow on your palette, and combine each with every blue.  Note that mixing a cool yellow with a COOL blue creates a bright and vibrant green (for example, Hansa Yellow Light with Winsor or Phthalo Blue).  By mixing a WARM and a COOL or two WARM colors, you get a duller, less intense green – because both the warm yellow and blue have some red in their pigment.

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Greens Mixed With Various Combinations of Blue and Yellow.

Another way to create natural greens is to use ready-mixed tube green as a starting point but then to add other pigments to it.  DaVinci Sap Green, for instance, can be the principal ingredient in a whole range of mixtures.

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Greens Mixed With Pre-mixed Tube Greens.

You can create even more mixtures by changing proportions of each color in the mix.  Catherine Gill in Powerful Watercolor Landscapes (2011) describes a very effective technique for mixing numerous related colors by changing proportions in a mixture.  She makes a “mixing trail” (p. 122), using two colors on her palette.  Instead of mixing two colors together in the beginning, she puts the two colors on her palette, leaving a space between them.  She suggests you take a little of the first color and mix it with the second.  Then, take successive amounts of the second color, and mix with the first until you have several distinct hues.  The space between the two colors is the area where you make the “trail.”  The colors will all be close in value because you haven’t picked up any water.

Catherine Gill also describes a “mixing hub” (p. 123), which is a collection of mixing trails laid like spokes around a central pigment.  The hub allows you to create a variety of related colors.  The hub pigment is in all the mixes of the hub, ensuring color harmony.  And again, since you add no water as you create the mixes, values remain constant.

To simplify mixing greens somewhat, you can think of five basic green mixtures, as suggested by Bruce MacEvoy (on handprint.com).  A BRIGHT green could combine Phthalo Green Yellow Shade (PG 36) and Hansa Yellow (PY 97).  A COOL green could combine Prussian Blue (PB 27) and Phthalo Green Yellow Shade (PG 36).  Combining Prussian Blue (PB 27) and Hansa Yellow (PY 97) produces a LIGHT green.  WARM green comes from combining Phthalo Green Yellow Shade (PY 36) and Burnt Sienna (PBr 7).  Finally, put together a DULL, DARK green with Phthalo Green Yellow Shade (PG 36) and Quinacridone Rose (PV 19).

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Five Basic Green Mixtures.

With experimentation, you will find many mixtures that work for you.  Make a chart, for handy reference, of your favorite mixtures.

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Condensed Chart of Favorite Green Mixes.

Finally, the way you apply your pigments to paper can alter the appearance of your greens and foliage.  The first option you have is to mix your color ON THE PALETTE before you apply it to paper.  A second option is to apply separate colors TO YOUR PAPER, allowing them to mingle on your paper.  This technique creates a more varied, dynamic color mix.  Third, you could GLAZE one color over a DRY wash of another color.  Glazing and layering are similar processes.  They both change value.  Glazing uses a very thin, transparent wash of one color over another color.  When warm colors lie below a cool glaze, the resulting color mix is luminous, vibrant, and glowing.  Starting with a cool color and putting the warm color on top gives a heavier, denser glaze.

Finding a variety of natural greens to paint convincing foliage can be confusing and frustrating.  As painters, we know that ready-mixed greens are not sufficient.  Therefore, you should take some time to experiment with all the yellows, blues, and greens on your palette, adding touches of red to some of your mixtures.  Make a chart of your favorite blends for handy reference.  Experiment, and have some fun!

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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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Creativity Can Be Learned!

CREATIVITY CAN BE LEARNED!

By adopting a creative outlook, you open yourself up to both new possibilities and to change.   You become able to find new answers, new solutions, and new ideas.  A creative mind can transform one thing into another – can look at the same thing as everyone else but think something different.  Creative artists can change their perspective and, by using their knowledge and experience, can make the ordinary extraordinary.  Creative ideas come from manipulating and transforming your resources, and you can choose from many creative techniques and strategies when transforming those materials. The stages of this creative process include identifying, preparing, incubating, reaching a breakthrough, and finding a resolution.  In the preparation stage, techniques for modifying and changing your vision can include comparing, reversing, connecting, imagining, eliminating, and rearranging.

Everyone has the potential to be creative.  In other words, with a little effort, you can increase your level of creativity.  The quickest way to kill your creativity, however, is to think you have neither talent nor creativity.  Believing that you have insurmountable limitations can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  In other words, if you think you are not creative, you hesitate to try, and – sure enough – you fail to be creative.

Instead, believe in yourself.  Attitude is important!  Develop your skills: skills build confidence.  Improve your drawing, and practice your painting techniques.  Improvement comes with practice.  Emphasize the fun of creating rather than the achievement of results.  Try to notice the good things you’ve done, and don’t dwell on mistakes.  Set yourself achievable goals, and persevere.

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Try new things, and expose yourself to new ideas.  Look at artwork in museums and galleries and at art fairs.  Read books and magazines.  Look around you, and observe.  New experiences stimulate your imagination.  Similarly, vary your routines, and do the unexpected.  CHANGE jumpstarts your creative thinking, and creativity becomes more accessible when you can begin to act more impulsively in your life.  Change a problem by sneaking up on it from a different direction.  You can try something fresh – a new way with an old theme, a different point of view, a new technique.

A childlike playfulness allows you to relax your mind so that creative images come to you.  IMAGINATION plays a large part in the process.  Take a few minutes every day to work on freeing up your imagination.  Think of this as a way of stretching your creative muscles, getting them limber.  You should aim for a state of relaxed attention, when you can be free of interruptions.  Let yourself daydream, and empty your mind of all the distracting “clutter” of chores or things that need to be done.  (Natalie Goldberg calls this negative state of mind “monkey mind.”)  Allow spontaneous images to come and go.  These images express your connections with your inner self, and that connection is what creativity is all about.

OBSERVING AND BEING AWARE of what is around you is important to developing your creativity as well.  People tend to look at things without really seeing them.  They block out the unfamiliar and allow access only to what they feel comfortable with.  (See my blog dated 12/18/18, “Painting Begins with Looking and Seeing”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/, at leemuirhaman.com.)  Try to focus your awareness on what is around you and discover things you may have overlooked, details that others don’t see.  CHANGING YOUR FOCUS increases your creativity.  Train yourself to look closely and refocus.

While no subject is totally new (everybody has painted water or mountains or trees), your unique experiences and observations influence everything you paint or draw.  You modify, add to, or subtract from what is there to make something new.  Your subject often chooses you.  It doesn’t matter how ordinary the subject is: what you bring to it that is new is YOURSELF.  Your point of view is different from everyone else’s.  Tap your inner resources to find your responses to life’s experiences.  What makes you happy, angry, calm, nostalgic?  Use your EYE, MIND, AND HEART in your artwork.  Strive to make your art your own and not to copy; copying denies your uniqueness.  When you paint or draw, you are making visible something that you might not be able to express in words, something that combines how the subject appears to you with what you think about it and how you react to it emotionally.

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There are definite steps to the creative process, whether they occur over a long period of time or happen very quickly.  The first step in the creative process involves the IDENTIFICATION of the subject or problem to be solved (for example, selecting what to paint or learning a new technique).  Nothing creative can happen until you recognize what you want to do.

The PREPARATION step follows, during which you consider many possible solutions.  You may make a thumbnail sketch, plan color schemes, consider altering the composition by eliminating or adding components, decide on the placement of a focal point.  You also consider the mood, time of day, and season of the year for the painting.  In watercolor painting, most of this THINKING AND DESIGNING phase is done before you start to paint.  It is advisable to decide exactly what you are trying to do and consider possible plans of attack.

In the INCUBATION phase, you set the project aside for a time.  All the information that you accumulated and thought about in the preparation stage needs to be sorted in your unconscious mind.  This stage may take only minutes while you organize your paints or take a quick break.  On the other hand, it may take a much longer time for all the information to gel into a final solution.

BREAKTHROUGH is the next stage in the creative process, when the solution/plan becomes apparent.  Your solution does not come out of the blue fully formed but is a result of all of your previous thinking.  At this point, RESOLUTION completes the process, and you’re ready to try your solution and see how it works.

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Okay, so you’re ready to be more creative!  Where do you find ideas?  If you can observe carefully, approach your art playfully, and not concern yourself with the approval of other people, you will discover painting ideas everywhere you go.  Ideas are in familiar places like libraries, malls, food markets, farmers’ markets, coffee shops, the beach; at work, in newspapers or magazines, at museums, galleries, art fairs, at home, in sunlight or moonlight, outside on a walk or inside looking out the window.  If you can change your focus to discover things you may have overlooked  and things that others don’t notice, you will have many images and ideas come to your attention.  Some images will interest you more than others, because we each have different passions.  It is helpful to get in touch with yourself and come to understand what issues and ideas are important to you.  Are you repeatedly drawn to animals in their natural surroundings or to baby animals?  Do you enjoy images of the hustle and bustle of the city or see people as isolated in the city?  Do you find connections between the grandeur and power of nature and an individual human?  The subjects that suddenly surface in your mind and pique your curiosity are usually topics you feel strongly about, and thus they will likely be excellent topics for you to paint.  If it feels good, paint it!

The faculty of creating is never given to us all by itself.  It always goes hand in hand with the gift of observation.  And the true creator may be recognized by his ability to find about him, in the commonest and humblest thing, items worthy of note.

Igor Stravinsky, The Poetics of Music

Add People To Your Painting.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO ADD PEOPLE TO YOUR PAINTINGS

As a beginner watercolor painter, you probably avoid painting human figures at all costs.  After all, you don’t want to ruin your painting!  Unfortunately, some of the strongest attractions you can add to your paintings are people.  Even when the figures are small, your eye is drawn to them.  On the other hand, every picture does not need signs of life, and you may want to leave a scene quiet, serene, and uncluttered.  Nevertheless, in many cases, the inclusion of people (or animals or images of man-made objects or of everyday life) brings a picture to life, adds interest, and invites a viewer to look more closely by suggesting a story.  Figures in a painting can also help you suggest scale and perspective.  Figures or man-made objects can increase contrast by introducing a man-made color not found elsewhere in your painting, like the color of a cobalt blue car or the red coat of a person walking.

Unless you are painting a portrait, chances are that any human figures you add to your picture will be relatively small.  As Frank Clarke says in Simply Painting, “What I would like you to do is forget people and paint CARROTS!” (p. 69). The carrot is the body of your figure, wider at the top than at the bottom.

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After painting twenty carrots with watercolor paint, “put dots on top of the carrots . . . . Don’t make them too big” (p. 70). The carrots now have heads!

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Some carrots can have longer hair. Some carrots can be facing the viewer. Some carrots might even wear dresses. “Baby carrots” look like children, having “smaller bodies,” but with “heads as big as a fullgrown carrot” (p. 71). Once you have practiced the basic shape and feel comfortable with it, it’s time to vary the shape and make it a bit more nuanced.

These figures are too far away to see facial expressions or features but close enough to see body language and gestures.  Capturing body language is what transforms your “carrot” into an interesting person.  Try to paint your figures with the least number of brushstrokes possible.  There are a number of ways to suggest body language.  First, where you position the head on your figure determines the direction it is looking or moving.  A head can tilt quizzically to the side or can indicate an aged figure leaning. Then, the width of your torso depends on whether you want a front/rear or side view.  The shape and position of the torso determine body language to a large degree.  Is the figure sitting, running, waving?  Also, when you vary the shape of the lower part of the body, you suggest more body language and information about your figure.  If you divide your “carrot” in half, you can create a rectangular shape for an upper torso and then create legs with long tapered strokes.  You can have a bend at the knee if you wish.  Legs in a side view should overlap.

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            And now, turn your attention to adding some simple arms.  (You don’t need to add hands or feet unless they are an important part of a gesture.)  Keep in mind that one arm is often hidden in a side view.  Make sure you attach your arms at the shoulder, not in the middle of your body, with a long tapered stroke similar to though shorter than that used for the legs.  You will want to make the arms long enough to reach mid-thigh.  Sometimes arms and legs are bent; paint arms in two strokes in this case, perhaps one part smaller than the other, or alternatively, paint in one stroke and blot one part of the arm lightly.  (Blotting will help you create a 3-D effect.)

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For a standing figure to appear balanced, the feet must be located close to or on each side of a vertical line drawn from the head to the ground.  You can imply movement, however, by placing the feet so they extend beyond a vertical line from the head to the ground; for example, if the body is leaning, you will need to counterbalance with an arm or leg extending, or the figure will appear to be falling or defying gravity.

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To suggest a figure is walking, simply shorten one leg or bend a leg to make it shorter and tucked behind the closer leg.  This makes the shorter leg look farther away.  A slight gap between foot and shadow can also suggest walking, as the foot will appear off the ground.

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Add colorful clothing to your figures by (a) letting the original color dry and then painting the clothing color on top, (b) dropping in the clothing color while the original color is still damp, or (c) painting the whole figure one color, then blotting the area you want to be clothing.  Paint the clothing color either when this area is still damp or when it has dried.  Remember that clothing and accessories often determine the shape that you paint your figure.  Is your person wearing a hat, holding an umbrella, carrying a heavy bag, or wearing a heavy winter coat?

Although one or two figures look good in a painting, figures tend to look better in groups.  (If you plan ahead, figures can be carefully masked with masking fluid to protect their shapes.)  To suggest the feel of distance, use several figures in diminishing sizes.  If you reduce the size of figures into the distance, it is important to remember that all heads need to remain on a similar (eye) level, no matter how far away they seem to be!

The most important concern in including human figures is to get the shape and proportion of the bodies and heads to look correct right at the beginning. I would suggest drawing the figures carefully with pencil before applying masking fluid to preserve them and before adding any paint.  It is also possible to add a figure part way through a painting. Draw a simplified, tapered figure shape on tracing paper and try positioning it to see how it looks the painting. When you have chosen the spot to place your figure, place this tracing paper on a cutting mat, and cut out the shape of the human figure with an X-acto knife.  Place the tracing paper on the painting again, and carefully lift with water and brush to remove the pigment, using the tracing paper as a stencil. When the paper is dry, paint the person with feet tapering to a point if you want to suggest walking.  Leave a gap for a collar to avoid making your person look hunched.

When painting a figure, it is tempting to try to paint eyes, noses, and mouths.  However, too much detail is often a mistake, making your people look overdone or even clumsy and ugly.  Minimal detail is better.  If a figure is sufficiently distant, don’t try to paint facial features at all because we can’t clearly discern distant details, even in real life.  When figures are closer, sunglasses can be a very useful device to help the viewer read a shape as a face.  Remember: it is the shape and scale of your figure that gets across the all-important body language of a human being.