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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Glaze To Mix Luminous Watercolors!

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Watercolor painters learn many different ways to combine and paint color to produce varied effects. While color can be mixed ON THE PALETTE, single colors can also be added to and partially blended ON THE PAPER (as in wet-in-wet, or charging). Adding single colors to paper tends to create lively and vibrant color mixes with lots of variety. (See my recent blog post titled “Charge Ahead and Mingle: Blending Colors on Watercolor Paper,” https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/06/04/charge-ahead-and-mingle-blending-color-on-watercolor-paper/, published June 4, 2019, to learn more about ways to mix color on the paper.)

Glazing is a somewhat more advanced variation of altering color ON THE PAPER. Colors are NOT mixed! A glaze is a transparent wash of color over another (thoroughly dried) layer of color. This stacking or glazing of pigment modifies the underlying color to create a full range of interesting values and colors. (A simple example would be a glaze of pink painted over a layer of yellow to create an orange or peach color.) Glazing can be done on large wash areas or on smaller parts of a painting. Often the light-value colors are applied first, but reversing the order of color application can affect the final appearance in interesting ways. Under most conditions, a painting also progresses from large general areas of light washes to small specific areas of darker washes. When you glaze over only part of your work, try to avoid hard edges left from the glaze by softening or fading out the edges with a clean, damp brush. (See my blog post titled “Softening an Edge or Fading Out”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/23/softening-an-edge-or-fading-out/, published October 23, 2018, for more information on softening an edge.)

Ford:Footbridge LAMH.jpg

Ford and Footbridge (Glazed water).

Strive to use only fairly pale mixes of color in glazing. If a glaze color is too intense, the underlying layer will have difficulty showing through. By properly applying a glaze, in pale transparent layers, an artist can achieve a “glow” of light as the white of the paper and the colors of lower layers show through later layers of color. Stop adding layers when you have arrived at your desired visual color, because painting too many layers will eventually cut down the amount of light reflecting back from the paper and will deaden any glow. Be careful about using more than three or four glaze layers.

End of the Day LAMH.jpg

The End of the Day (Glazed sky,  buildings, and snow).

What specific pigments work best for glazing? Most often, the best artists use the three primary colors and make sure their pigments are transparent. Specifically, you might use non-staining Aureolin or Hansa Yellow Light, Permanent Rose Quinacridone or Permanent Rose, and Cobalt Blue. If possible, avoid using transparent, staining pigments such as Indian Yellow or Gamboge Hue, Winsor Red or Permanent Alizarin Crimson, and Winsor Blue, which tend to dye the under layers and start to dull or destroy glow or translucence. If you must use staining colors, make sure they are quite diluted (unless, of course, your intention is to revive a dull dark).

Glazes are most effective when the colors used contrast with each other — e.g., warm over cool, blue over orange, etc. The farther away from each other the chosen colors are on the color wheel, the more dramatic their glazing impact on each other. A beautiful, luminous gray can be created by layering yellow, then red, then blue.

A soft brush (often a large flat) will give the best results as it disturbs previous layers of paint less. Layer each wash gently in a smooth, even application over a dried surface, and DO NOT scrub. (If the first layers of color are still wet, the colors can blend and not stay in the separate layers that you are aiming for — you will not be glazing.)

Remember that if the colors you use in glazing are transparent (NOT opaque), the colors beneath will continue to glow through glazes laid on top. Colors will appear to be mixed even though each is in a separate layer. These layers are more luminous than colors mixed on the palette because light passes through each separate layer and takes on each color’s characteristics. (NOT all watercolors are transparent! Cerulean Blue, Indian Red, Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Orange, Payne’s Gray, and Yellow Ochre are some of the opaque watercolors in common use.)

 

Mating Season LAMH.jpg

Mating Season (Glazed background).

With glazing, you have to think ahead and in layers of color. As you draw your picture on watercolor paper, plan the white areas to be saved. Further, also determine where you DON”T want your first glaze to be painted. (Often the first glaze is yellow, which is relatively light and does not readily cover other pigments.) If you planned a cool section for your painting, you might not want to cover that area with your warm yellow glaze. (You needn’t apply glazes over your whole paper.) Once you have applied your yellow glaze, evaluate whether it is too light, too dark, or just right. Adjust color intensity NOW, before adding a second color, by lifting lightly with clear water to lighten or by darkening with a second yellow layer.

While waiting for the yellow glaze to dry, plan ahead and consider what areas you want to cover with the pink (red) glaze. Will you paint some of the white areas with pink as you work to a final lavender color? Will you leave a snowy area untouched by this pink glaze? Will you still preserve some white paper to ‘pop’ in the final image? Paint a layer of pink, saving all areas as planned.

While waiting for this layer to dry, plan for the next glaze. Decide which areas of the painting will be covered by the blue glaze. Glaze some of the white with a layer of blue —  for example, in a snowy area or a shadowed  space. Avoid painting the blue glaze in a sunlit spot, ending the blue glaze and then softening with clear water into a sunny field or sunlit side of a building.

Finish your painting when the blue glaze is dry (or drying) by adding mid-tones and darks. Strive to preserve a good deal of your glazed area, however, to maintain the luminous, clean color mixes created by glazing.

Paintings with problem areas can often be rescued by using glazes. You can adjust and improve a painting that may lack mood, unity, or focus. Painting a thin, pale wash can add mood to a foggy scene. A single layer of color over the whole painting (or some parts) can add unity by giving all the colors a similar flavor. Further, darkening a section of a painting with a glaze can urge the eye to focus on more important and lighter areas. In the painting below, all of the background was glazed with Ultramarine Blue to tone down and bring more unity to disparate colors as well as help the background fade away and frame the center of interest (i.e. the blossoms).

Apple Blossoms LAMH.jpg

Apple Blossoms (Glazed background and shadowed buds/blossoms).

Glazing can also help you avoid muddy, opaque, or dull shadows. Bring a dull dark back to life with a glaze! To create a luminous shadow, first paint the subject (through BOTH the light and shadow side of the object) with the same local color. (In the above apple blossom picture, the buds and blossoms were painted with varying amounts of pink.) Then, when the first layer has dried, glaze a shadow color over the portion of the image in shadow. The first (local) color will show through the transparent shadow glaze (mixed in this case from yellow, red, and blue to create a transparent gray).

Transparent glazes applied separately change the colors under them. Color is built up optically on the paper by layering instead of mixing color on the palette  prior to painting. Learn to overlap your glazes to produce satisfying colors. Develop your glazes from transparent watercolors, preferably non-staining. Begin with your lightest pigment, usually a yellow. Keep your washes diluted and pale. Remember to dry the previous layer before painting a new glaze. Always use the three primaries — don’t eliminate a layer! Instead, control the final appearance of color by strengthening one or two of the three primary colors. To create interesting, vibrant color, avoid making all three layers equal in intensity (which  instead would produce a dull neutral).

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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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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

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.”

Dusk farmhouse snow darker.jpg

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.

 

nighttime City at Night.jpg