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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.

Realism: Better Than An Exact Copy!

Realistic painting often gets a bad rap nowadays.  The implication seems to be that abstract painting is creative, raw, cool, and trendy; that realistic painting is merely like a copy of a photograph.

Well, realistic painting (the seemingly straightforward representation of objects as they appear in the physical world) can be every bit as CREATIVE as making an abstract image.  Good realistic painting has a great deal in common with abstraction.  Paintings of each type may assume different positions on a continuum from more realistic to more abstract, but both need to use sound structural designs (that is, well-organized images) to be effective.  Good design directs the viewer’s eye through the picture by using shapes, line, color, edges, value, and manipulation of space.  Planning and structuring your painting do not stifle your creativity.

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Artist Georgia O’Keefe commented on the dispute over realism versus abstraction:  “It is surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract.  Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense.  A hill or a tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree.  It is lines and colors put together so that they say something.”  Even the ideal subject must be shaped and adapted to fit the idea and emotion the artist wants to express. 

Copying an image exactly without determining a focal point or eliminating distracting details does not improve that image.  Painting ought not involve simply copying what you see; slavishly reproducing an image is not the goal.  To create good realistic art, you need to make it PERSONAL.  Your art needs to reveal what you want to say and what the image/scene means to you.  The goal for most realistic painters should be to combine the realistic image with a distinctive INDIVIDUAL PERCEPTION and expression of the subject.  You must select and arrange colors, lines, shapes, and other design elements.  You can create an unusual color scheme; use a dramatic value contrast; emphasize texture, pattern, or line.  As an artist, you transform the subject by filtering it through unconscious thought processes so that it reflects your past experiences and personal beliefs.

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If something intrigues you, it is worthy of your interest and of your audience’s interest.  Explore any subject if you feel you have something to say about it.  You paint best what you know best.  One artist may seem successful at selecting unusual subject matter.  Another artist may be a people person and prefer portraits.  Yet another may enjoy the refreshing feeling of landscapes.

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In the classroom, students often copy the work of other artists.  Copying can be useful for practicing skills and techniques – that is, as a way of learning – but a number of pitfalls to copying can emerge.  It is difficult, for instance, to capture the emotion expressed by the artist who made the original.  You might also simply copy mistakes or poor techniques without being aware of those flaws.  Furthermore, copying prevents you from learning to organize a picture on your own; some people become dependent on copying.  Since the creative experience is missing when you copy, you need to move beyond copying to become a creative artist.

Much better sources for images to paint are your own photographs.  However, you will need to adapt even your own photographs when you use them as source material; remember that even a well-composed photograph needs editing to become an effective, forceful painting.  Also try working from life to design your own picture.  Observe carefully.  Pick and choose, simplify and rearrange until you have transformed a literal image to fit your impression.  Leave out distracting or extraneous details.  Focus on essentials to turn nature into art.  Use your memories to visualize something that isn’t there now, and imagine or invent something if you think it would make a good picture.  In any case, strive to be selective and imaginative rather than literal.

In composing your picture, think about what you want to say.  You might make a list of descriptive words that characterize your subject; include details about its physical appearance and qualities that make it unique or interesting to you.  These could be related to mood or emotion.  Brainstorm as many ideas as possible; then narrow these down to one clear meaning – this is your concept, what you want to say.  Concentrate on this meaning; you can have only ONE focal point.  Start with the real, but enhance it!

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Painting Begins With Looking and Seeing…

Many inexperienced painters believe that to produce a good painting, all they need is mastery of technique.  However, it takes more than finely executed techniques to achieve an artistic result.  Artists need to observe closely what they intend to paint.  When you’re an artist, seeing isn’t simple.

Most of the time, we look at things with only part of our attention.  We see only what we expect to see.  We assign a label to every image.  For instance, if what we are looking at is a “tree,” we may not look closely at what is really there.  This habit of not paying close attention keeps us from actually looking at things.  In the everyday world, we quickly categorize and move on.

However, to paint or draw successfully, artists need to slow down so they can examine and study the shapes and values that make up an observed object.  Artists try to avoid labeling an object as “tree” or anything else and instead train themselves to interpret what they see in a new way.  Seeing means focusing attention, looking at shapes, values, and colors before beginning to paint.  Where is the light hitting the tree branches?  Can you see through the branches?  What is the overall shape of the tree?  Are branches straight, upturned, crooked, rough?  Is the tree lopsided or symmetrical?  Are the highlights a different color from the shadows?  What is the weather, and how does it affect the appearance of the “tree”?  By asking such questions and looking carefully, you can accurately paint what you see, NOT what you think you see.

Drawing helps you see, and seeing helps you draw.  Drawing trains the mind, hand, and eye to work together.  Many beginning artists avoid drawing altogether if they can, feeling that their drawing skills are not good.  However, you should not feel obliged to render precise drawings of what you wish to paint!  Do not let your concerns about drawing technique prevent you from trying to draw what is before you!  One of the main purposes of drawing is to train yourself to see shapes and spaces more accurately – to “see” like an artist and take note of details.  By keeping your drawing SIMPLE, just getting something down relatively quickly, you can allow yourself to see.  Look for basic shapes, and notice how they are connected.  Find larger shapes first; then fit smaller shapes into them.  More specifically, see the image as a whole; then concentrate on individual components.  Distracting details are only decoration on the surface of these shapes.  Concentrate; work slowly and intently.  Give yourself the time to observe and take in information before rushing to produce an image.  Ultimately, you should be able to perceive everything you see as totally abstract forms, values, lines, and color, as in a jigsaw puzzle.  Remember that shadows are shapes!  Reflections are shapes as well.  Backgrounds have shape and should act as frames for the subject of a painting.  Only when you can “see” in this way will you begin to be able to suggest three-dimensional reality on your flat, two-dimensional paper.

Frederick Franck, artist and philosopher, says in The Zen of Seeing/Drawing:  “I have learned that what I have not drawn I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing I realize how extraordinary it is, sheer miracle . . . .”  So do not hesitate to sketch and draw what you intend to paint.  As you draw, you will notice important details and sharpen the mind/hand/eye coordination necessary to improve your painting skills.  Drawing is not something you can or cannot do; it is a skill that requires practice and time, just like any other ability (including painting).  The skills and mental processes necessary for drawing are the same as those used when painting with a brush.

Another benefit of drawing and sketching, in addition to developing necessary observational skills, is that you will learn to condense observed information into a simplified format, and this ability will come through in your painting.  With a drawing you are more likely to end up with your focal point being prominent, because you concentrate mainly on that particular feature.  Your drawing will be simplified, easier on the eye of the viewer, as you collect only the information that counts and leave out extraneous material.

Reference photos:

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Line drawing:

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Strive to “see” the world in terms of shape, pattern, color, line, and texture.  Having observed carefully, use the information to record an image skillfully.  Mastering these techniques will improve the quality of your work.  Your personal viewpoint or individual perception of the world will become apparent as you interpret what you “see” and choose what to record and include in your drawing or painting.

Your picture has your touch in it.  You can pick a subject that appeals or has special meaning to you.  You can rearrange what you’re looking at any way you like.  You can simplify or exaggerate parts of what you see.  Look beyond the normal, the everyday, the expected for your painting subjects.  Notice the negative shapes, the rhythms, the reflected lights, the colors.  Look at an object close up for a new viewpoint.  Consider a portrait approach or botanical style.  Look for varied shapes and unusual forms to add interest to your picture.  Each person sees the world in a different way.

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.