A Few Of My 2021 Painting Successes And Struggles. 

Even after painting for many years, every artist has good days and bad days. Don’t ever think that every painting proceeds smoothly. In this post, I will share a few of the successes and some struggles that I experienced in my painting this past year while teaching my weekly watercolor zoom class.

In my zoom classes, I choose the image that students and teacher (that’s me) paint together. Each picture is chosen to teach several specific art lessons. Students learn to evaluate various reference photos, create a plan of attack for each painting, and proceed step-by-step toward completion of a painting. We share our work throughout, giving each other feedback and support. 

Watercolor ‘Flowing Forward’.  (Photo: Tristan T. Haman)

My painting of ‘Flowing Forward’ is one of the year’s more successful pictures. It combines sun and shade, flowing water and ice, some reflection on the open water, warm and cool colors, verticals and horizontals, hard edges and soft to create an effective image. A complicated scene was simplified to avoid too much detail.

Watercolor ‘Where Are We?’.  (Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, Topsfield, MA.)

‘Where Are We?’ caused some problems. It was a struggle to keep the center of interest (the  stone bridge) a lighter value than its surroundings so it would stand out. Further, the ripples and highlights on the water disappointed me. Warm and cool colors were, however, used to good effect. And I was pleased with the distant trees.

                    Watercolor ‘Beach Shadows’. (Photo: Dan Scott)

‘Beach Shadows’ was a difficult picture which eventually turned out well. The contrast in values (lights and darks) was striking. The picture is a good study of how colors (both warm and cool) change when in shadow. Both soft and hard edges were painted after close observation.

Watercolor ‘Bottles And Oil Lamps’.  (Photo: pixabay.com)  

‘Bottles And Oil Lamps’ was a challenge. Careful observation of the reflections and refractions in the backlit glass was important. While there is a good range of values in the painting and a bit of ‘glow,’ the picture doesn’t seem very dynamic or suggestive of feeling.

Watercolor ‘Red Geranium’.  (Photo: Unknown artist)

‘Red Geranium,’ on the other hand, feels soothing and inviting to me. I can sense the luminous glow of the winter sunlight as it shines through the homey lace curtains and onto the window sill. Warm and cool colors, hard and soft edges, and contrasts of values succeed in highlighting the center of interest.

Watercolor ‘Water Under The Bridge’.  (Photo: Courtesy of Karen Morris)

‘Water Under The Bridge’ also employs warm and cool colors, hard and soft edges, and contrasts of values; however, a few problems distract from the painting. Sunlit ‘glow’ on the side of the bridge has been lost, perhaps because of the choice of paint color. And the yellow-green water reflection is strong and distracting. The foreground rock also needs work.

Watercolor ‘Autumn Dirt Road’. (Photo: Tristan T. Haman).

‘Autumn Dirt Road’ is a painting of opposites and contrasts, bright sunlight and shadows, and warm and cool rich color. Autumn foliage is hard to capture in a painting. Details in the foliage and on the road are simplified here and merely suggested. The viewer is drawn down the dirt road toward the orange tree and into the afternoon sunlight. I really want to walk down that road!

I hope you enjoyed hearing about some of my 2021 painting experiences. While painting can sometimes be frustrating and complex, it is extremely rewarding when it goes well. I feel very strongly that artists only fail when they give up. So, keep painting and enjoy yourself.

Is there a part of the painting process you struggle with? Do you tend to get stuck in the middle, like me? Do you have trouble critiquing your own work? Do you have difficulty knowing what to simplify? Are you not sure where to start a painting? Do you want to paint details everywhere in your paintings? Let me know in the comments.

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Let’s Get Shady!

Why are there such variations in the appearance of shade and shadows, even within a single picture? How, as artists, can we capture that variation with paint? Why do some shadows have hard edges and others appear soft? Why are some shadows darker than others? Read on…

Value.

We know that mastering light and shadow is key to successful watercolor painting. By using VALUE (light and dark) a painter can give an object shape, form, depth.  PATTERNS of light and shade are, in effect, what we are actually trying to capture in paint.

Light Source.

When beginning to paint, an artist needs to consider where the light is coming from, the LIGHT SOURCE. The way light hits an object affects how it is seen and how it will be painted. Are you painting a bright sunny day, a dark overcast day, or a gloomy interior, for example? Light affects mood, and will determine the types of shadows you need to paint. Beginning painters sometimes try to avoid painting shadows, but then wonder why their image looks flat and incomplete. Shadows create form – add shadows to a drawing of a circle and it becomes a rounded sphere. So, at the outset, analyze how and where the light strikes an object. (Keep in mind that there may even be more than one light source!)

 

Complexity!

Initially, shadows may look as if they are made up of only two values, light and dark. But look more carefully and you will see a much more complex reality.

Barn Interior

Shadow components.

Break down a shadow and you will find many components. The HIGHLIGHT is the area hit directly by the light source. There is often little or no detail visible here, as it is too bright. Paint a highlight with a very pale tone or leave the white of the paper.

The area of an object that is transitioning from the highlight to the darkest shadow area is called the HALFTONE. If the object is curved, as a sphere or rock, this transition of value is gradual, and would be painted with a soft edge.

The actual SHADOW (sometimes called a LOCAL or FORM shadow) will be in the area of the object that is hidden away from the light. It is generally the darkest area, receiving the least amount of light. Shadows are dark, but rarely black! To mix shadow color, you might mix the local color of the object with some transparent blue (sky light) and some of the local color’s complement.

Often, light can be reflected back into the shadow, illuminating it. This REFLECTED LIGHT bounces off a nearby surface and carries some of the color of that surface into the shadow. Reflected shadows would be lighter than the actual shadow, but never as bright as an area directly in the light. The amount of color reflected depends on the intensity of the light source as well as the character of the surface reflecting the light. Observe carefully how much reflected light you see in shadows and what colors are introduced there.

A CAST SHADOW is created by the object interrupting the light, and its shape relates to the shape of the object and the ANGLE of the light source. The cast shadow will follow the contour of what it falls on, for example, uneven ground. It will grow LIGHTER in value and softer-edged the farther it extends from the subject casting the shadow. The darker and harder-edged you paint cast shadows, the brighter the light will appear. Choose clear blue shadows for sunny days, whereas on overcast days, a cool gray or grayish purple would be a more appropriate choice for shadows. As the weather and quality of light in the sky changes, so do the color, value, and edge qualities of the cast shadows.

barn walshaw

 

Wet-in-wet is an ideal technique to introduce color into a still wet shadow. You might paint a base shadow wash in a lighter tone than your final desired value, then drop in additional colors, each successive color mixed to a somewhat drier consistency than the previous ones (to avoid over-wetting and creating pools of paint). Don’t overmix colors when you add them into a shadow, which would create a dull uniform gray that appears flat. You want to retain separate colors and variation of color within a shadow. Remember to use transparent colors in your shadows if your aim is to deepen and darken the shadow. On the other hand, bright opaque pigments, such as yellow ochre or raw umber, could lighten the shadow and suggest reflected light. You might also lift out patches of color to build lighter spots of dappled light, or reflected light.

Hard or soft?

Several factors affect the softness/hardness of shadow edges. We know the SOURCE of light changes the appearance of shadows. With a single bright light source, such as the sun, shadows will be strong and sharp. Diffuse light, on the other hand, such as through a window out of direct sunlight or on an overcast day, produces shadows less defined and with soft edges. In diffuse light, value contrasts will also be less strong.

Jamison's Ocean Light

So, sharp edges and details are found in well-lit areas, whereas soft or lost edges and ambiguity are located in the shadows. It doesn’t make sense, for instance, to try to paint sharp, crisp details in darkened, poorly lit room. Instead, blur or soften details in shadow, even painting shadowed areas wet-in-wet on dampened paper with a passage of mingled colors. (Remember to dampen as evenly as possible, however, to avoid puddles or pools of water. Don’t flood the area with lots of water. Pre-wetting evenly encourages a soft blend of paint.) Leave your paper dry where you want to retain details, perhaps under bright lamp light.

Also, the DISTANCE FROM THE OBJECT casting the shadow to the shadow itself also has an effect on whether shadows are hard or soft edged. Where the shadow lies close to the object, such as plants in a flowerpot casting a shadow on the ground, the shadow will tend to be crisp and dark. A tree, farther away from the ground, will cast a lighter, softer shadow, since as the distance increases, more light is able to reach the shadow.

Try to apply what you just learned in this blog post about shadows. Take a look at this Kenny Harris painting (below) and see if you can analyze and make sense of the many and varied shadows.

Turquoise window-kenny-harris.com

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No Light Without Shadow!

\All painters want to know how to portray light in order to create atmospheric and dramatic effects. When an artist can emphasize light, an everyday scene can become far more exciting. Since light is represented in watercolor by the untouched paper, the light is already in the painting. The watercolor artist must preserve the white/light while painting mid-tones and shadows in order to accentuate the light. Only by painting the darks or shadows that surround the light can the light be made obvious.

Light on Hill

 

On a bright sunny day, very pale washes (or untouched white paper) suggest direct sunlight, for instance, while darker mixes of color indicate a more shadowed area. Be bold! Without darks, your lights will lack liveliness. Take a look at Paint Your Shadows Bold…And Transparent!, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/01/29/dont-be-afraid-to-paint-your-shadows-dark/, my blog post from January 29, 2019, for more tips on painting shadows.

Value contrast (with lights close to and emphasized by darks) can create the illusion of light, depth, and a center of interest. On the other hand, if there are too many areas of equal light intensity (or a lack of shadows) in a painting, the image will tend to look flat, less interesting, or bland. If you tend to avoid painting dark colors, perhaps by adjusting your values you could create a picture with more impact.

In many ways, almost nothing is as important in a watercolor painting as how you handle lights and darks (value). (For more in depth information on value, read Why Should I Bother To Use A Gray Scale?, a blog post from May 21, 2019, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/05/21/why-should-i-bother-to-use-a-gray-scale/.) Protecting the light areas is crucial, so try to plan what areas of the picture you want to save as light before the painting begins. While you can mask, scrape, scrub, or use opaque white gouache to save/regain the white of the paper, it is often much more successful to preserve the variations in light from the outset with a painting plan of attack.

By seeing light and learning to capture it with paint, we can create the dramatic illusion of light in our work. But as Jean Haines says on page 43 in Colour And Light In Watercolour, “Before we can even begin to paint light, we have to be able to see it. Once you start to look for light it becomes an addiction. No painting feels right without it. It becomes a part of your being as an artist. You find yourself searching for ways to bring light into your work, and even more ways to paint it.” So, think about where light plays a part in each of your paintings, and observe what it is about the light on your subject that grabs your attention.

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Composition!?!

Composition is simply the study of the way things are arranged, whether in art, music, a plate of food, or the furniture in a room. Where we put things makes a statement about our point of view.

DO I HAVE TO FOLLOW ALL THESE RULES?

A lot has been written about composition and it may seem overwhelming to you. There have been many rules formulated about creating good paintings. Often, however, learning these formulas and rules can be dry and boring! It can be difficult to know HOW TO APPLY these rules to specific scenes. And it sometimes feels that the rules prevent you from being creative or being yourself.

First, let me assure you that you need not follow all composition rules slavishly in order to improve your picture. The formulas are guidelines that help you achieve dramatic, effective art that holds your audience’s attention. You can choose several rules that you feel are important to apply to a chosen image – use whichever rules you feel are most useful in getting across what you want to get across in each of your paintings.

WHY?

Composition (arrangement) is everywhere! Since a good composition need not reproduce reality exactly, you are free to use the composition guidelines to rearrange components of your painting. When non-artists look at art they don’t necessarily think about or understand composition. They merely like or dislike a painting. If the art appeals, then you can be confident that the artist used composition skillfully to reach the viewer at an emotional level. Beginning artists, too, can sometimes be surprised to learn about all that is involved in planning a good painting. Strong paintings don’t just happen! They need to be composed.

Winter Birches.jpg

To get a viewer to see what, as artists, we want them to see, we therefore arrange the elements at our disposal. The TOOLS we use are SHAPE, VALUE, COLOR, TEXTURE.

With the above-mentioned tools, we can create EFFECTS in our composition or arrangement. We consider UNITY and DOMINANCE, try to achieve BALANCE (of value, color, type of line, e.g. diagonal), use PERSPECTIVE, create CONTRAST (of color, value), MOOD, RHYTHM and MOVEMENT, PATTERN, and any other visual effect we might be able to think of.

Simple Red Barn.jpg

To better understand these concepts, take a look at three of my related blog posts:

Designing A Strong Painting With Good Composition!, 10/16/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/16/designing-a-strong-painting/ ,

Formats For Effective Compositions (Volume I)…, 10/30/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/30/formats-for-effective-compositions/ ,

Formats For Effective Compositions (Volume II)…, 11/6/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/11/06/formats-for-effective-compositions-volume-ii/ .

SPECIFIC SUGGESTIONS.

More specific suggestions for a good composition include choosing only ONE center of interest. This center of interest should be the reason you are painting the picture. Strive to concentrate the most DETAIL and the greatest CONTRAST (light vs. dark) here.

Nasturtium.jpg

Further, decide on COLOR DOMINANCE during the initial planning stages of a picture. To avoid confusion, try not to bombard the viewer with every color on your palette in the same picture. Choose early on what the MOOD (feeling) will be for your project. Mood is achieved through the quality of colors chosen for use. Will your painting be cheerful, mysterious, forboding, perhaps subtle? Will you use dark, cool colors and strong contrasts to paint a dramatic, somber, or intense scene? Will you choose lighter, soft colors for a calm serenity? Or you could focus on warm, dulled colors to suggest, for example, a hot, hazy summer day. Both color TEMPERATURE and the INTENSITY (quality) OF LIGHT contribute to mood.

Snowy Rockies.jpg

Also, for a successful painting, attempt to include interesting SHAPES (two-dimensions), then creating FORM (the suggestion of three dimensions) by adding patterns of LIGHT and SHADOW. When form has been established, the artist can establish TEXTURE (after careful observation of relationships between shape, form, light, and shadow).

GO-TO REFERENCES.

Many good beginner painting books include a section about composition. Some are incomplete or confusing, and some are better than others. My recommendations for resources on composition include:

The Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook: Keep Painting, (2017),  by Gordon MacKenzie.

Watercolor Composition Made Easy, (1999), by David R. Becker.

Mastering Composition: Techniques and Principles To Dramatically Improve Your Painting, (2008), by Ian Roberts.

Watercolor Success!, (2005), by Chuck Long.

Wonderful World of Watercolor: Learning and Loving Transparent Watercolor, (2008), by Mary Baumgartner.

Wren's Hen.jpg

SUMMARY.

Composition, the way things are arranged, has to do with balance, and many factors can be considered. Watercolor artist Zoltan Szabo, in Artist At Work, (p.30-31), (1979), describes good composition as a “balance of shapes, value, color, and texture”. He has said, “I keep the mood (I see), but rearrange the details to emphasize what I consider important, and play down or leave out the trivia. I like to pick a strong center of interest and subordinate everything else to complement it. I feel that composition is a personal thing, and I like my composition to be the way I decide, not the way it really is. I use the elements I find, but rearrange them in a new, more personalized balance.”

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Ten Fun Things To Liven Up Your Art!

Don’t know what to paint? Disappointed in your last paintings and feeling inadequate? Bored with your art? Need some inspiration? Craving some creative calm? Try something new!

Here are a few things to excite you and help you change your art up:

1.) Invest in a new brush! But, don’t buy just any old brush. As a watercolorist, it’s so much easier to paint well with a decent brush! Here is my new favorite brand. Give yourself a boost with an ESCODA Versatil brush, a SYNTHETIC brush designed to have the attributes of a natural kolinsky. These brushes hold a lot of water, have a firm spring, a sharp point, plus durability. A size #10 pointed round sells for about $20 (on dickblick.com, jerrysartarama.com, or cheapjoes.com). Nothing makes play more fun than a new toy! What a treat!

2.) Take an actual (or virtual!!!) trip to a museum to get inspired. For instance, the Museum of Fine Arts Ghent, Belgium, currently has a Jan van Eyck exhibit up ( through April 30, 2020) entitled “Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution”. While the actual exhibit is closed until April 5, zoomable images can be found at closertovaneyck.kikirpa.be and on their Van Eyck page.

request.jpg

request-1.jpg

What art did you enjoy looking at? What did you especially like? Can you borrow some ideas about technique, treatment of light, or use of color to adapt to your own paintings? Track done another museum you’d like to check out. Look at the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibits (https://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/current-exhibitions), The Worcester Art Museum (https://www.worcesterart.org/exhibitions/), or The Wadworth Atheneum Museum of Art (https://www.thewadsworth.org/), for example.

3.) Try a new brand of watercolor paper. Make sure it is ARTIST GRADE 100% cotton fiber (NOT cellulose), such as Arches, Waterford, Fabriano, Lanaquarelle, or Indigo Handmade. Most of these brands can be found online (dickblick.com, jerrysartarama.com, or cheapjoes.com). Remember that you can sometimes buy an assortment of different papers, or a pad or block of a different brand – you needn’t buy full sheets. I recently got some Indigo paper from amazon.com and am looking forward to giving it a try. These papers made of cotton absorb paint much more evenly and make it easier to paint well! They are definitely worth any extra cost. Experiment!

4.) Find some inspiration by buying yourself a new or used watercolor book to immerse yourself in. Learn about all the critical ingredients that turn paintings into art with Joseph Zbukvic’s Mastering Atmosphere and Mood in Watercolor or Thomas W. Shaller’s Architect of Light: Watercolor Paintings By a Master. Or look into the amazing John Singer Sargent: Watercolors (https://www.amazon.com/John-Singer-Sargent-Erica-Hirshler/dp/0878467912/ref=sr_1_6?crid=2FWU61E1CBLTR&keywords=john+singer+sargent+books&qid=1585064924&sprefix=%2Caps%2C162&sr=8-6). Looking to shake things up? Try Mark Mehaffey’s Creative Watercolor Workshop. Or, if you’re a beginner, check out Watercolour For Starters by Paul Talbot-Greaves, Let’s Get Started by Jack Reid, or Painting For The Absolute and Utter Beginner by Claire Watson Garcia.

zbukvic.jpg

5.) Gift yourself a new tube of watercolor paint in a color you might like but do not have. Wouldn’t Daniel Smith’s Lavender be beautiful? Try a tube of Cobalt Teal Blue, Quinacridone Gold, or Bloodstone. Fun!

6.) Look at your paints in a new way by arranging them in a round palette (see robax.com) in a color wheel format. To learn how much easier color mixing can be with a color wheel format read my recent blog post Color Choices For a Circular Palette, published 2/11/20, https://leemuirhaman.com/2020/02/11/color-choices-for-a-circular-palette/.

7.) Sign up for a watercolor workshop with a talented artist. Now is the time to plan! Get a couple of your friends to go with you, if you want, and make a day of it. I’m really looking forward to a Robert J. O’Brien workshop with two of my friends at New England School of Fine Art, Worcester, MA., http://www.nesfa-worcester.com/index.html, entitled ‘The New England Landscape’, on May 30, 2020.

8.) Or perhaps you’d enjoy taking an online workshop. Many artists offer online instruction. I have been developing several online art workshops that will be available in the near future. Stay tuned for news, or contact me to express interest. In the meantime, look at the offerings from artists Angela Fehr, Rebecca Rhodes, Anna Mason, or Birgit O’Connor. Courses are also available from Artist Network, https://www.artistsnetwork.com/, or Art Tutor, https://www.arttutor.com/classes. Some classes can also be found for free at jerrysartarama.com. And finally, YouTube has many free videos on watercolor technique.

course page image jumpstart.jpg

9.) Find yourself a new piece of art equipment to help you paint better and LEARN TO USE IT. A gray scale or value scale, for example, can help you create more dynamic and effective paintings by improving your light and dark contrast. Don’t know what a gray scale is? Read my blog post Why Should I Bother To Use A Gray Scale?, posted 5/21/19, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/05/21/why-should-i-bother-to-use-a-gray-scale/, for more information.

Rankin's value scale.jpg

10.) Finally, try something NEW or BREAK SOME RULES! Don’t take things too seriously. Paint with some unexpected colors, or unusual color combinations. Add some complementary colors that you don’t actually see in your reference image to add interest to your painting. Or zoom in close to your subject to crop out unnecessary details. Change your viewpoint in your picture to either raise or lower the horizon line. Try looking down on your subject, e.g. painting a lake looking down from a cliff. Alter the mood in your painting, perhaps creating a more somber, dark, heavy, moody image. Or try charging your colors ON your paper (see the watercolors of John Singer Sargent, especially his images of sunlight on stone, one of which is below) to add life to your picture and prevent a flat lifeless wash. Or exaggerate your lights and darks. Above all, focus on the PROCESS of painting without worrying about (or even considering) the result.

john singer sargent.jpg

John Singer Sargent watercolor.

Choose one of the ten above suggestions to try – begin with the one that excites you most. Then try another – just keep painting or thinking about your art. Strive to keep calm through your creativity. And ENJOY your painting!

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