Distinguishing Layers In Watercolor.

Most watercolors are painted in layers; not all in one go. But how do you decide how many layers you need to paint? How do you break down or separate the layers ? How many layers will you need to ‘tell the story’ of your painting? How can you add ‘enough’ layers to suggest shape and detail without losing the light and luminosity you strive for? How many layers are too many?

Seeing in layers.

While there is probably an infinite number of layers possible, the great artists of the past generally show only the essential aspects of a subject with nothing extra added. Their art is deceptively simple. Many of John Singer Sargent’s watercolors, for example, are created with only three layers. Arguably, Sargent’s AWARENESS of what is essential in an image, his vision, is just as impressive as his brushwork.

My Swamp

Simplify and plan.

Just as reducing the number of colors in a painting can improve your work (see Choosing Colors For a Painting…Less Is More!, 9/11/2019, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/09/11/choosing-colors-for-a-painting-less-is-more/ ),  limiting the number of layers (even brushstrokes) you paint is an effective way to simplify your image and create a strong painting. Avoid adding layer upon layer and overworking! Rarely are more than four or five layers necessary.

When planning your painting, IMAGINE a series of layers. This selective vision may take some practice. Strive to peel back each layer of paint to analyze how layers below might be painted.

Full Moon

Work backward – reverse the order in which the paint will be applied. You must mentally remove the darker layers (which will be painted later) from the image. Try to recognize the dark patterns as separate from the lighter shapes. Once you picture the darkest darks and mentally remove them from the picture, you can then analyze and separate light- and middle- value shapes in the same way.

Method.

Usually, you will strive to reserve some whites of the paper in a painting. With that in mind, the first paint layer will then be created by painting your light valued colors, a second layer will contain middle values, and a third layer will be made up of dark values.

More specifically, block in each of the major shapes with its lightest tone, avoiding any areas within the big shapes that should remain lighter and be reserved. The care you must take in painting each layer is dependent on the story to be told by the picture itself. You must decide early on which value layers will tell more of the important information in your specific picture.

Fall Queen Ann

For instance, in a high contrast picture with strong, bright light, the later dark values tell the story and pull the picture together. Therefore, the first layers of light and middle values might be applied with less attention, with the dark values painted more carefully. Details would be saved until the later layers. In contrast, in a more subtle image where light and middle values play a bigger role, more care must be taken in the first layers, with consideration of color and texture. Forms may need to be established early in such a painting.

In summary, when the lightest colors have been applied and dried, the second (mid-value) layer can be begun, shape by shape. Then, the third (dark) layer can be added. With each successive layer, less of the picture will be painted, until the final finishing touches (darkest darks) are complete!

Winter Ice

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Avoid Painting Lollipop Trees! (Part III.)

Tree color is dependent on several factors.  Never depict trees in your paintings as all the same color – a strong, unvaried green – because you “know” what color trees are.  Tree color varies with the type of tree (species), the season, and the distance from the viewer. You should look for blue/greens, yellow/greens, and red/greens.  Your work will be far more interesting if you include and even exaggerate these variations in color, paying special attention to the cooler, darker hues of the shadowed areas which appear on the side of the tree away from the source of light and on the undersides of the branches.

Spring trees display fresh, bright foliage.  Make the foliage translucent by mixing your colors with plenty of water, and try to keep your shapes well defined.  Leave lots of white paper showing between foliage shapes to suggest sparse, new growth.  Lemon yellow or Hansa yellow light with sap green would work well for creating bright greens and yellows.  Remember to paint foliage in at least two layers (light and dark).  For spring trees in the distance, strive for cooler greens by adding blue to your mixtures; the blue will complement the warm, bright colors of nearer trees.  A good reference for seasonal paint colors is my blog of 11/27/2018, entitled “Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter Palettes.”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/11/27/spring-summer-autumn-and-winter-palettes/.

Summer trees look more solid and richer in color than spring trees.  The foliage is fuller.  Build up the summer tree in two or three layers, starting with the outline of the canopy.  DaVinci Sap Green and Ultramarine Blue work well for summer foliage, with perhaps Payne’s Gray added for the darkest parts.  Remember to leave a gap or two for sky holes.

Autumn trees have somewhat less foliage than summer trees, and as the season progresses, the trees will, of course, drop more and more leaves, and foliage will become sparse.  Autumn colors are rich and warm:  siennas, reds, and yellows develop, and a few greens linger.  More branches are visible.  In bright sunlight, your autumn tree will appear somewhat paler than you might expect.  Try to mix your colors on the paper, dropping in several colors next to each other and allowing them to blend softly into each other on their own.  Trees are seldom a single color.  A variegated wash of Cadmium Yellow and Light Red with a touch of DaVinci Sap Green could be used to make a range of fall colors.

 

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Conifers have a somewhat different structure and shape than deciduous trees.  To paint conifers convincingly, you must take notice of their structure.  You don’t want to paint Christmas trees!  Conifers develop around a single central trunk.  Look closely to get the angle of the branches correct.  In general, limbs grow up and out.  More specifically, branches at the top of a conifer head upward, those in the midsection go outward, then head upward, and those near the bottom head downward, then upward.  Remember: all the branches are heading for sunlight.  Coniferous branches tend to be shorter and most branch out flatter than deciduous branches.  Try to leave space between many of the branches.

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White paper birches are tall, thin trees found in the Northeastern United States, growing singly or in clusters.  The trunks tend to be thinner than those of many large trees, with only a few large limbs but many smaller horizontal branches and flexible twigs.  The bark of the birch tree is paper-like and chalky white, sometimes peeling, broken with irregular horizontal textures and dark scars.  Larger branches are white, but the smallest branches appear black.  When you are painting birch trunks, brush strokes, shadows, and bark texture should follow circumferential lines, using blacks and grays (mixed by combining Ultramarine Blue with Burnt Sienna) and a brownish orange (made from Burnt Sienna).

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You should paint distant trees as simple masses of shapes with minimal detail.  Squint your eyes to observe shapes and groupings of light and dark areas.  The farther away the trees, the paler and less detailed they become.  Distant trees also have a cooler (bluer) color.  As you move from the horizon to the middle ground, you can very gradually warm up your colors by putting more yellow and less water in them.  However, you still need to reserve your richest greens and strong contrasts for foreground trees.

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Many of the previously mentioned details about trees may seem obvious or overly simplistic, but a lot of beginning painters do not paint with these many small details in mind.  Attention to such details helps you paint convincingly and accurately.  Details are important!

Avoid Painting Lollipop Trees! (Part I.)

Artists new to watercolor find painting trees an endless source of frustration and difficulty.  They may have been told to look closely and study their subjects carefully before attempting to paint, but the more they look, the more details they see, and the more confused they become!

If you want to become an effective and talented painter, you have to make up your mind to simplify and see your subject in terms that watercolor can accommodate.  This simplification is especially necessary when you are trying to paint trees and foliage.  Try to look at the trees through squinted eyes: look for shapes, and disregard many of the details.  Observe groups of trees, and pick out areas of light and dark.  In other words, focus on creating the shape and character, the color and texture of trees, not on producing botanically correct or precise illustrations.

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Individual trees are often irregular, but you can describe most of the individuals by their general shapes.  If the shape is wrong, the tree will be a confusing blob that detracts from your picture.  Countless varieties of trees exist, each type with its own characteristics.  You need to exercise thought and care when considering how to paint your trees.  They often have a more complicated shape than other elements in a painting.  Nevertheless, you can simplify a tree (or group of trees) and suggest the shape as round-topped, thin and tall, conical (conifer), or even flat-topped.

Part of the difficulty with painting trees is each person’s tendency to take visual information and categorize it to fit with prior experiences.  The conscious mind likes to generalize, identify, and name, then move on; thus, you end up painting what you THINK a tree looks like, the generality.  Instead, to be a good artist, you need to rely on your unconscious, visual brain to actually observe and register what is before you.  You can train yourself to gather the information that is normally unconscious and to then make it conscious.  “Paint what you see, not what you think you see.”  That is, paint what you observe, not a generalized idea of what your mind tells you a tree ought to look like.  Don’t let your intellect take over the painting process if you want to avoid lollipop trees.  A young child may paint a tree as a simple green circle atop a stick, but capturing a convincing image of real trees requires a bit more sophistication.  (See my 12/18/2018 blog, “Painting Begins with Looking and Seeing.”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/.)

Once you have noted the overall silhouette of the subject, look at the angle of the limbs (if the tree is close enough) and the character of the foliage.  Making trees look believable has a lot to do with understanding that the primary function of the trunk and limbs is to reach up and out far enough to hold their leaves in sunlight.  Each species does so in its own way, but trunk, branches, and twigs graduate in size as they get farther from the base.

Observe that the trunk grows out of the ground usually in one piece and is therefore the thickest part of the tree.  It also looks more solid and stable if you curve it out at the base.  From the trunk grow the limbs, which are thinner than the trunk but still need to be substantial since they bear the main weight of the tree.  Try to avoid making them leave the trunk directly opposite one another.  The trunk itself keeps the same thickness until a limb comes off it, whereupon it becomes less thick.  The same thing happens as each limb leaves the trunk, until finally the trunk itself splits into the last two limbs.  Limbs themselves split into branches, and the same reducing process goes on until branches split into twigs, which run out from the branch ends.

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This tapering and meandering of the trunk branches is a little different in each species of tree, but most branches are not straight lines.  Young trees tend to have smoother bark surfaces, while older trees have bark that is more textured.  Try to avoid lollipop fans by painting trees with volume.  Branches should spread out in all directions and grow toward (and away from) the viewer.  Give branches coming toward the viewer stronger tone, tighter drawing, sharper marks, and foreshortened outlines to create more convincing trees.

To be continued…

Properly Using A Photograph As A Painting Reference.

Getting outdoors and painting directly from nature can be very enjoyable.  You get a feel for your surroundings – colors, smells, temperature, atmosphere, light, and so on.  Sometimes, however, you need more time to work on your painting than you have at the moment: the weather may not cooperate (it begins to rain, or the temperature dips below freezing), the light changes quickly (the sun goes down, or clouds emerge), or other circumstances change (the birds you are painting fly away, or ripples disturb the water).  For these reasons, painting with the aid of photographs is often much more convenient and can increase the amount of time you can spend painting a scene.

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Christmas tree truck photo references.

Dangers do emerge, however, when you are working from photographs, particularly if you use pictures taken by someone else.  As an artist, you need to make sure that the photos on which you plan to base a painting are not copyrighted by the photographer.  Photos do belong to the picture-taker.  As a solution, you might ask the photographer for permission to use them.  Also, you might try a Google search (“Advanced Image Search”) and look in the “Usage Rights” section for content labeled either “Creative Commons” or “Public Domain.”  Alternatively, visit some internet sites that offer stock or copyright-free photos.  (I will include a list of some of these sites in next week’s blog.)

TAKE YOUR OWN PHOTOS.

Taking your own reference photos, however, is an even better approach.  You can think of your camera as a sketchbook, using it to compose pictures while you look through your viewfinder.  Each picture will belong to you, whether you combine it with a similar shot, crop and simplify the image, or make color changes as you paint.  Keep in mind, however, that photographs DO NOT reproduce an image in the same way that the eye sees it.  The camera tends to lose details in shadows and overexpose bright spots.  Photographs can also change actual colors in a scene and provide too much detail.  While your photograph can provide some excellent information (for example, architectural details, lighting conditions, and color references), the camera is simply a TOOL like any other tool (like a paintbrush or painting paper), and your eye and judgment as an artist must guide the use of any such tool.  Use photos not as ends in themselves but simply as sources of reference information.

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Watercolor “Pepperell Relic”, with photo reference.

Sometimes when you focus a lot of energy on taking photos, you may not take the time you need to study your subject and look at it with careful attention.  Sketching or drawing that subject, on the other hand, can force you to “see” what you are looking at, noticing the truly important information.

IMPROVE ON YOUR PHOTO REFERENCE.

Your goal should not be to paint an exact copy of any photograph; instead, you should simplify the scene.  Your job is to improve on a photo, adding your own personality and flair, expressing your excitement or the mystery you feel when viewing that scene.  What attracts you to the subject in the first place?  Take time before painting to look at your photo and think about what you might want to change in it.  Some elements in the photo might seem unnecessary or distracting.  You might be able to improve the composition or color.

If someone tells you that your painting looks like a photograph, don’t take that statement as a compliment.  The implication is that you have actually copied the photograph rather than using it for inspiration or information.  Do not attempt to include every detail from a photo in your painting.  Simplify; focus on your interpretation of the center of interest, and try to be creative.

You will get more out of your photographs if you use them as a starting point for your painting rather than as the desired end result.  You will often need to make some changes from the photo to turn it into a good painting.  The first type of editing of a photo is to make SIMPLE COSMETIC CHANGES while keeping the essential image intact, and many types of these cosmetic changes can improve your picture.  For instance, your photo may show dull, boring clouds that need some added drama.  You could also decide to reinterpret and brighten colors to produce an exciting or ominous mood.  You could tilt or angle your image for a somewhat different point of view.  Some artists who flip the image in the photo (as in a mirror) find that that change improves the way the viewer’s eye moves through the picture. One of the simplest changes to make is a change in season.  Another cosmetic change you could make is altering the time of day (and thus the mood) by changing the light and altering shadows.

By manipulating values, detail, and the quality of colors, you could create a warm, sunny picture or a soft, foggy image . . . or anything in between.  Similarly, you could add more shadows to add interest and visual pattern.  If a photograph does not show enough value contrast, you can create that contrast; sometimes, by simply changing the light direction, you can lighten some areas and darken others.  You can highlight important areas by making them light and by surrounding these light areas with dark colors (thereby increasing contrast around your center of interest).  You don’t have to use the colors you see in a photograph; you can increase color harmony in your painting by limiting the number of colors you use.  Alternatively, emphasize both warm and cool colors for contrast and interest.  You could make some exciting variations of color in an area that is basically one color by mingling other colors to add life.

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Watercolor “Maine coastline”, with photo reference.

Another type of edit to improve a photograph for painting is making a STRUCTURAL CHANGE to improve the composition and to build a picture that is more your own creation.  You can make changes to what is in the photo and to where things are in your picture.  First, evaluate your image to identify the most important object or the focus of attention.  Notice the big SHAPES, major LINES, and VALUES.  You’ll want to decide what to keep and what to eliminate from the photo.  Don’t keep anything that is irrelevant.  Keep in mind your knowledge of good composition (see my blog “Making a Strong Painting with Good Composition” from October 16, 2018, or review your favorite art books on the subject of composition and design).

Cropping a photo and zooming in for close-ups allow you to relocate the center of interest to a more dynamic position, thus improving your composition.  You could also highlight your center of interest by changing your format or the orientation of your paper.  For example, a landscape orientation may be appropriate for focusing on a farmstead with surrounding fields whereas a portrait orientation could highlight the magnificent tree in front of a farmhouse; on the other hand, a square format could work well with a flock of sheep grazing in a field, while an elongated format could effectively fit a vista of the mountains that provides the backdrop for the farmstead.  Exaggerating some details or colors can also improve a composition.  Similarly, you could change your point of view; try changing the level or angle from which you are viewing the subject, imagining, for instance, that you are looking down at the same scene from a plane flying overhead.  If your photo has been taken from the shore of a lake, would the painting be more majestic if you imagined the lake viewed from the edge of a cliff above it?  Use your imagination!

A third way of editing photographs for painting is making CREATIVE CHANGES; this technique can be quite dramatic.  You can add elements that are not in the photo or combine parts of several photographs to create a new image.  Birds from several photos can be put into one.  Flowers can be rearranged.  To a wintry field you can add skaters on an icy pond.  You can paint two different types of images together, combining an image of a wilderness lake with the image of a map showing how to get there.  The sizes of elements within a picture you can also alter; if the photo shows five trees of the same size, try making one the focus of attention by making it bigger while also varying the size and spacing of the others to support the dominance of the larger tree.  You can overlap images, fading one out as it joins another, and, of course, you can even produce an image that is pure fantasy.

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Watercolor “Mulpus”, with photo reference.

While you can paint from a photograph, painting on site is preferable because that way, you can view, experience, and even sketch the scene for yourself.  Using other people’s photographs involves some dangers, particularly if you don’t have permission to use them.  Furthermore, photos tend to distort and change some of the information they capture, in addition to including too much detail for a good composition.  If you take your own photo, you can use it for lighting conditions, architectural details, and further inspiration.  However, photographs can never tell you the full story, even though they can be helpful references.  You can (and should) edit a photo to improve and simplify its image.  Crop your photos, and combine them as needed to create effective, powerful paintings.

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Photo reference for future watercolor.

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