15 December 2010

Wrapping up 2010

The term at Watts is over in a few days, and so is 2010.  I am so ready for a break.  I'm hunkered down, trying to get the brush mileage in, as they say...ultimately, the only way to learn how to paint in oils is through experience.  This requires lots of starts and oil sketches, which is what I'm posting today.  These paintings from life (12 x 9 on linen), completed in Meadow Gist's portrait painting class, took about 2 hours each.  Each painting taught me something new about color, technique, materials, my own motivations...I strive for a painterly look, the big planes and broad strokes à la Sargent and Sorolla, but that is so much easier to read about than to achieve.  I have a long journey ahead.  There is so much to know and so many possibilities on the way forward.

My hopes for 2011 are that I evolve as a painter (ie. I master putting paint on the canvas where I want it to go), I launch a website, and my art becomes financially self-supporting.  It is time.

Sincere thanks to everyone who connected with me this year.  What a complete pleasure and inspiration to hear your candid words about your work and mine. Passion for art makes quick friends...I am grateful for our exchanges.

I'm  spending the holidays in Greece with friends and family. Won't be back here 'til the first week of January.  I hope you enjoy the quiet deep dark days of Winter, with those you love close by.  Put on a warm sweater, light a fire, pour a glass of blood-red wine...give thanks for your art.

Best in 2011.

15 November 2010

Recent Head Drawings and the Egg Effect

I'm back taking head drawing this term with Meadow Gist.  Meadow can draw heads, and she's a good teacher, too.  One of my professional goals is commissioned portraiture, so learning to draw (and ultimately to paint) a convincing head with a good likeness is important to me.

One of Meadow's recent class tips was the importance of the "egg" effect when modeling the head.  That is the gradation of tone moving away from the light, both laterally and top to bottom. I know the concept, heard it many times, but didn't fully grasp it's importance until now. Just wasn't ready. I always modeled laterally, but not so consistently from the top down, which flattened my results.  My chins were as light as my foreheads.  Below are portraits drawn in the last 3 weeks.  Compare the bottom head (without top-down "egg" modeling) to the 2 upper heads (after getting the "egg" tip).  The tonal differences are subtle but the improvement is clear.  It's a simple tip, but the good ones usually are.

If you are interested in looking at the work of other artists who really know their head drawing, check out:
All drawings took approximately 2 hours, from life, using a Conte Pierre Noir 1710 B charcoal pencil on 24 x 18 smooth newsprint.

22 October 2010

Inspired by Rembrandt van Rijn

Portrait of Tom van Watts 2010, 20 x 16, oil on linen
Today's post shows the second of 2 paintings from the Rembrandt master study class. This portrait was inspired by Rembrandt's methods and incorporates his very limited palette.  I laid the painting in from life, then finished it from a photo.  The painting took about 25 hours to complete.  The model (a Watts student named Tom) wore 17th century Dutch attire made by our instructor, Meadow Gist. He grew his beard out for the job...very authentic.

Not sure I was true to Rembrandt's methods, but I stuck with the limited palette of yellow ochre, cad red light, alizarin crimson and burnt sienna, plus black and white, and used only bristle brushes.  I kept this Rembrandt self-portrait close by for inspiration.  I modified the head tilt and length of the model's neck, lightened the feather, and pushed the color notes in the face to energize the flesh tones, something Rembrandt would have done. However, I used a detailed underpainting (shown below), something Rembrandt would not have done. Since I prefer painting wet-into-wet, I stored the painting in a freezer between sessions to slow drying, and used clove oil on my palette.


An added note:  For personal reasons, it's been a few months since I posted.  For most of that time I wasn't doing anything art-related.  Oddly, that 6-week break improved my painting somehow.  Must have done some mental processing during that break that helped me move forward.  Good to know that we don't always have to be deliberately doing something to improve. Our subconscious is part of the learning process, too.

17 August 2010

Rembrandt Master Study

Master study of Rembrandt self-portrait, 16 x 12, oil on linen board

 Master studies are such a powerful teaching tool.  I'm always amazed by how much I learn each time I do one.  My post today is a master study for a class exploring the techniques of Rembrandt van Rijn, taught by Meadow Gist.  If you study portraiture in the West, it's hard to avoid Rembrandt. He casts a long shadow.  It's good to be familiar with his work.

Rembrandt painted many self-portraits.  Unfortunately, I couldn't find much info on this particular sitting.  Judging from his hair color, it's was painted before 1652 (he was born in 1606).  The image (see original below) came from the book Painting Techniques of the Masters by Hereward Lester Cooke.  Several things about this painting appealed to me...the unusual lighting, the strong core shadow down the contours of Rembrandt's face, the subtle handling of value in the shadows, and, of course, that beret and earring.  He had panache.

Self-Portrait, 36 x 29, canvas, Widener Collection

For the current class, after completing a master study, students will create an original portrait from life. The portrait should be inspired by Rembrandts' techniques and style, and incorporate his very limited palette, chiaruscuro, and the manipulation of thick paint layers to achieve his characteristic textural effects.  I'm working on the second portrait now.

Here's one more self-portrait.  Click on it to see Rembrandts' loose brushwork. Beautiful effects. (from Rembrandt: The Painter at Work by van de Wetering.)

Rembrandt self-portrait, 1659, 33 x 26, canvas, Washington Natl Gallery of Art

20 July 2010

First Studio Painting

That's Close Enough 2010, oil on linen, 16" x 12"
During this last break I tackled my first studio painting, a portrait of my 16-year-old daughter, Amanda.  Human beings are so complicated at this age, and I was trying to capture that whole teen angst thing. I hope that comes across in the image. I followed the procedure described here, from the "Staging Artwork" class.  Briefly, this involved value studies on small b/w thumbnails, followed by a small oil color comp, transfer to the final canvas using a free-hand/grid method, then paint.  The painting took about 30 hours to complete, not counting the photo shoot.  For the shoot I used a single overhead light to illuminate the subject, placing most of the face and torso in shadow, and brightly illuminating the arms.  Warm reflected light bounces from the arms back onto the face. I wanted a lighting scheme that required a second look.

I used the limited palette of yellow ochre pale, cad red light, transparent oxide red (TOR), viridian, ultramarine blue, titanium white, ivory black. Keeping the palette simple let me focus on value, shape, and edge.  Color will come later.  

I'm trying to avoid over-blending, it's so easy to do.  My preference is the flowing, painterly brushwork style shared by Zorn, Sorolla, and De Laszlo. In fact, the abstraction in the upper left corner of my painting is an homage, inspired by a similar pattern in the corner of a portrait Sorolla painted of his own daughter, Maria.  During the break I picked up a few books, including Joaquin Sorolla by Blanca Pons-Sorolla, which I highly recommend, if you like his style.  Also picked up a book on Degas and one on De Laszlo, both affordable and recommended.

07 July 2010

Painting Progress

At times I don't see much progress in my technical skills.  Effort does not always immediately translate into improvement.  That's when it helps to compare my work over time.  The paintings above are from a class I just finished with Jeff Watts called "Portrait in Oil: Exploring Different Lighting".  They're in sequence from first (at the bottom) to most recent (at the top). Each week I painted a 9x12 portrait in about 2.5 hours from life.  Timed portraits are exhilarating because you don't have time to mess around.  Make your decision and move on.  They're about learning, not about a nice finish.  Good practice.  I think I see some progress here between the first and last portraits.  Mainly, I see my brushwork improving and I'm getting more paint on the canvas.  Baby steps.

Marc Delassio posted a worthwhile blog entry with some thoughts on this topic of improvement over time.  The graph at the bottom of the post says it all IMO.  Technical skill and artistic progress (real or perceived) are not always directly related.  Progress is unpredictable and non-linear.  You never know when lessons learned will finally gain traction and kick in.  What a thrill and relief when they finally do.

09 June 2010

Portrait Painting from a Photo

This portrait was painted for a class I'm taking called "Better Color Through Observation", taught by Meadow Gist. The portrait was painted from a photo of a school model, using the Zorn palette (Yellow ocher, cad red light, titanium white, ivory black) as an exercise in observing and mixing color.  The Zorn palette is a good starter palette, especially for portraiture.  Lots has been said about it, so I'm not going to dwell on it here, except to point you to this recent interview with the painter, Ignat Ignatov.  Ignatov spent a year with the Zorn palette, and has good insights on it's value.

The other benefit of this exercise was learning how to paint from a less than ideal photo.  Realistically, we can't always paint or draw from life, so it's important to know how to use photo references effectively. Two things I learned from this exercise: 
  • Cameras are designed to average out the values in an image, which usually under-exposes shadows or over-exposes the lights. Therefore, when painting from a photo, make the lights a bit darker and the shadow side a bit lighter...the way the human eye would see them.
  • Under standard shooting conditions, the camera records most edges as sharp boundaries, which is not how we perceive them as we view a focal point. To mimic the natural view soften edges away from the focal point, reserving hard edges for the center of interest. Poor edge control flattens an image and ruins the illusion of form.
Note:  Meadow painted the forehead area.  This painting was completed in 5 hours. I blocked the drawing in free-hand in graphite using a 3-inch grid as a guide.

Island Girl Brianna 2010, oil on linen panel, 12 x 9

05 May 2010

Photographing Your Artwork

I was planning to post new art today, but a more important subject presented itself while I was pushing to enter some pieces in a competition...how to photograph artwork. Since I started blogging, I've been frustrated by the poor quality of the images in my posts. Now that I'm starting to enter competitions, it's time to get serious about improving my photo method.  I wanted a process that was quick and didn't depend on natural light conditions or Photoshop improvements. The method I adopted gives decent reproducible results.  My guiding principal: The most important factor for photo quality is proper exposure during image capture. Much easier and quicker than trying to improve a marginal image later through digital processing.

Here's how I do it:
  • Set the artwork at camera level, illuminated by two 23W BlueMax cfl's (equal to 100W incandescents) in inexpensive swing-arm desk lamps, one on either side of the piece.  (My lighting "system" cost $75 total.) Minimize all other light falling on the artwork. Move the lamps around to eliminate hot spots and harsh reflections.
  • My camera is a Canon 30D with a polarizing filter and 24-135mm lens, set on a tripod about 6 feet from the artwork. I also carry a Canon PowerShot SD770, that would work, too. Any decent pocket camera will do. The polarizing filter is important, get one.
  • Set the lens on telephoto (greater than 70mm) to minimize shape distortion.
  • Set the aperture to f8 or higher (on aperture priority) to increase depth of field and give the sharpest possible focus.
  • Set ISO to the lowest possible setting (100 in my case) to minimize noise.
  • Use the self-timer set to 10 seconds.
  • For capturing the truest colors, always use custom white balance. Easy to set by following your camera instructions. You only need to do this once, your camera will store the setting for your lighting situation.
  • For the best value control and to overcome the camera's tendency to record the image as a middle gray, bracket your exposure setting. Exposure compensation is usually a really easy process, check your camera instructions. If your image is predominantly low key, adjust to negative values (-.67 and -1.33) to capture the darkest darks. Adjust to positive values for high key artwork, to keep the light areas bright. Play around with the setting. Exposure is usually the factor that needs the most attention during shooting, since values vary with each image.
  • After shooting, I process in Photoshop Elements 8 (good program, recommended). If image capture is good, digital processing will be minimal. After importing into Elements, I pick the best exposure, lightly sharpen it (100%, radius 1, threshold 1), crop and resize. That's usually it. If the colors are drab, I'll go into hue/saturation and adjust the saturation, sparingly.
  • If I get a color image that's way off base, I adjust white balance and exposure then re-shoot, rather than trying to salvage it in Photoshop, where I'm more likely to run into trouble. I shoot an old color chart along with my paintings. If I need to adjust colors, I use that as my guide.
      Here are some pieces I re-photographed using this set-up.  The original posted images are shown for comparison.

      Here's the "after" shot, using the improved method, minimal photoshop processing was needed.

      This earlier photo was taken using automatic camera settings then digitally processed to improve values. I originally posted this image here.

      Another example:

      Another "after" image requiring minimal photoshop processing. It's a good approximation of the actual drawing.

      Here's what it looked like using the older, less controlled procedure. Originally posted here.

      One more example, in color...

       The improved photo. No photoshop adjustments needed. Just cropped and resized.

      The original photograph (posted here) took some effort to clean up.

       To summarize:
      • Set up the artwork, camera on tripod, and lighting.  Close the curtains.
      • Set the camera as follows: lens on telephoto, aperture to f8 or higher, ISO to the lowest possible, self-timer on, white balance to custom, adjust polarizing filter, bracket your exposures, shoot.
      • After shooting, lightly sharpen, crop, and resize.
      It's easy.  Any questions?

      Back to art in my next post.

      11 April 2010

      Making a Painting

      Morgan 2010, oil on linen, 12" x 16"

      This painting is from the class “Staging Artwork” taught by Meadow Gist at the Watts Atelier. The purpose of the class was to guide students through the development of a piece, from model shoot to preparing a composite image to the final painting. A great exercise, especially for beginners. This is not a straightforward painting from life. It's a process more suitable for a narrative-type painting using multiple figures or elaborate settings.

      Rather than describe each step, I have just a few comments on the process...

      Of 400 images shot during a 1-hour session with the model, I found 3 images I really liked! My advice…shoot lots of pictures. Get extras of the background. Make sure your chosen photo reference has good resolution, a dominant light source, and clear definition in the light and shadows. This is my final photo reference. I used the "steelyard composition" for my design concept; the bright lace cuff balancing the head and torso. I changed both hands, using images from other photos.

      Value and color studies save time. I did value studies by manually spot-adjusting b&w thumbnails printed from Photoshop. My color comp (at left, 6’x8’ on canvas; with Meadow’s improvements) was where I decided on the palette and worked through problem areas (flesh tones, background, edges). It was indispensable during the final painting. Color sketches were standard for Sargent, Zorn, et al. The practice gave rise to alla prima painting.

      I transferred my image onto stretch linen freehand, using graphite on a 2" grid guide. I spray-fixed before painting to preserve the graphite under-drawing.

      The palette was yellow ochre pale, cad red light, transparent oxide red (TOR), viridian, ultramarine blue, titanium white, ivory black. The basic color scheme was complementary (red and green). I used TOR in every brushstroke. It was the basis of my black (TOR+ultramarine blue). I used it to neutralize the greens. It was in all my fleshtones. TOR throughout helped harmonized the color scheme. You could do this with any color.

      I tried Sean Cheetham’s “mud” system for the flesh tones. Sean mixes paint pools for the light side, the shadow side, and the darkest darks. He modifies these starter hues with warms or cools to achieve subtle temperature and value shifts. In his approach, if the value and temperature are correct, the painting will read properly with any color. That makes a lot of sense.

      Finally, I completed this painting in about 40 hours. Meadow painted the feather and front headband in the final painting.

      26 March 2010

      Bridgman Anatomy

      I just finished an anatomy class taught by Erik Gist. Mention anatomy and the eyes glaze over...it's dry and challenging. But solid anatomy is part of good figurative art. The class was based on drawings from Bridgman's Complete Guide to Drawing from Life. These drawings are rendered in Bridgman's scratchy style, but contain all the information needed to understand anatomy.

      The directive to students was to draw fully modeled images based on these loose sketches. Get input from other anatomy texts if needed.
      Then, to reinforce the lesson, draw the same area using reference photos of athletes. We spent 2 weeks on each of 5 major areas (no head, hands or feet). As an example of the technique, see Bridgman's original leg sketch and my interpretation (below). I did about 40 sketches like this during the course. The approach is effective, and any motivated art student can train this way at home.

      Our final assignment was to draw from memory. While my proportions were off (see below), I was surprised by how much anatomy I remembered. Still can't draw a perfect human form from memory, but next time I see a figure, I'll know the source of that bump or shadow, and draw it with more confidence.
      One other technique I finally figured out after 2 years of art classes is the "before-and-after" shot of instructor demos. Most instructors work directly on student work to demonstrate ways to improve. Next time it's your turn, photograph your piece before the instructor begins the demo, then again after they are done. Voila, personalized instructions for improvement. Study the photos. Apply what you see.

      The "before"
      (left) and "after" (right) comparison below is from Erik's anatomy class. It shows me how to improve my shape definitions, especially obvious around the arm pits. Very helpful to know where I need to focus.

      04 March 2010

      Long Pose Portrait in Graphite

      Today's post is a graphite portrait drawn from life during a 10-hour pose...the so-called "long pose". The benefits of a long-pose drawing are many. It's where all the skills developed during shorter sessions are consolidated and polished. My focus here was to experiment with edges, values, and shapes to understand which elements were critical to the likeness. The pose was broken into 5 2-hour sittings. Before each session I assessed the weaknesses in the image and came up with a plan for the next session. ( I also made adjustments from a photo reference outside of class. Photos can be misleading, though, since the lens usually distorts shapes and values.)

      Unfortunately I got the seat in class where the model looks straight on...not the best angle. To add interest, I pushed the tilt of his head to his right, and his gaze left. The ultimate goal is to apply this knowledge to (portrait) painting, which is my main focus going forward.

      Van 2010, 14 x 11, graphite on bristol board

      14 February 2010

      Portrait of My Valentine

      I was determined to get this posted today, a charcoal and chalk portrait of my husband. He asked for one after I did the recent portrait of my daughter, using the same materials and methods. The second image is a graphite portrait I drew of him last year. One of those year-to-year comparisons, always fun to see.

      A few comments on today's piece.
      • Even though the lighted side of the face draws the eye, my focus was the reflected light on the dark side, inspired by a Zorn painting.
      • The hand (taken from a second photo) was enlarged slightly to make it seem closer and advance out from the picture plane.
      • The symmetry of the facial features is essential to the believability of a portrait, so I always go through and make sure all features are properly aligned. I tend to place the eyes to far apart, so I always check that the outer corner of each eye falls on a line made by connecting the middle of the upper lip to the outer edge of the nose. A good trick, it helps me every time.
      • I had to re-draw Tim's right eye 3 times, the last time it practically drew itself. The redrawing reminded me of how the Impressionists would scrape down paintings at the end of a session and re-paint the identical image again the next day on the same canvas. Sargent and Whistler did it all the time. I can understand how this procedure would fine-tune the rendering, and leave some interesting values/colors on the canvas. I plan to give it a try.

      18 January 2010

      Figure Drawing - Fall 2009

      A few recent figure drawings. The top drawing was done at home in 2 hours from a photo. The other drawings were from a life-drawing class taught by Erik Gist, also done in 2 hours. Aside from model vs. photo, the main difference was that at home I was able to step back from the easel and take a good hard look at the reference photo and the drawing. I caught drawing inaccuracies earlier, saving more time for the finish. It's hard to step away from a drawing when you have a limited time with a live model, but it may produce a better result. I'm going to give it a try next life drawing class.

      I recently watched Morgan Weistling's newest instructional DVD called "Painting for the Impatient". One of the points made was how over-modeling can ruin the illusion of form in a painting (or drawing). Over-modeling here simply means using an excessive number of values, making the form look lumpy and distorted. After I mapped in the general shapes in the first drawing above, the image looked busy and unconvincing. I knocked down the value range with a light charcoal glazing over the entire figure, then went back in and picked out light areas selectively with a kneaded eraser. The effect was to unify the overall form. Something to try if your figure looks like a group of disconnected shapes, rather than a single unified form.

      The photo reference for the first drawing came from a book called Art Models:Life Nude Photos for the Visual Arts 2, which comes with a CD containing high definition images of all the poses in the book. There are 4 books in the series. At the publisher's website you can also download a variety of individual poses. Much cheaper than hiring a model for a photo shoot.

      Final note: The images above were drawn in 2 hours with a Conte Pierre Noire 1710 B charcoal pencil on 24 x 18 smooth newsprint. Erik worked up the torso areas on the 2nd and 4th drawings, and the model's foreshortened right arm/hand on the third drawing.

      13 January 2010

      John M. Mora at typos.daylight.fate

      A quick note about a blog I follow and enjoy...typos.daylight.fate. Distinct from the type of art I post, but compatible. John M. Mora is a photographer who shoots candids with his BB around Manhattan. Aside from just being fun to look at, I find the abstract compositions in his photo library to be a rich source for ideas and inspiration. See a few of my favorites below (hope you don't mind, John). John also does photo montages or "quilts", and just posted one made by sampling my "Emma Zorn" master study. It's allowed me to see that image in a new way, and gives me some inkling of the appeal of artistic collaboration.

      Look through the photos in some of his older posts...find some favorites.