Sunday, February 28, 2010

Ask Stape; why not just work from photos?

Dear Stape;

I've been following your blog for a while now and while not a real 'painter' (I paint digitally, not with traditional medium), I still love reading your columns and advice.
My question is on this line of your last update entitled 'Take That':

"Learning to paint landscapes from a photo is like learning to swim at home on the sofa.

I'm wondering - why? Is it because our peripheral vision? I'm just trying to have a more complete understanding of this. I mean, is the photo of the landscape not the same as the landscape? (minus the obvious fact that it is cropped)? What are the benefits, etc? (outside of some nice fresh air!)

Signed; Morlock

Dear Morlock;

I could give you a lot of different technical reasons about depth of field and inaccurate color, cropping, the difficulty of creating that D which is three from D by two image. But there is one really, really good reason I can give you that will slay the beastie once and for all.

Can you imagine me saying " I was so moved by this lovely photograph that I painted this picture?" I didn't think so!
If I am outside on location I am experiencing the beauty of nature before me. I convey that through my paintings. I love this world and I want to do something with that. If you are working from a photo it is like doing a portrait of a cadaver. A painting from a photo is a design project or a cold rendering, but the spark and excitement of the experienced world is gone. If you get the same thrill from a photo as from life, you might as well marry a girlie magazine.
Art comes from passion and inspiration, that's why its called art and not mechanics.

That being said, there are times when photographs are useful. There are fleeting effects, posthumous portrait commissions (often of dogs for some weird reason) and places that are impossible to set up an easel. It is a different thing if you are a very experienced artist who has learned to paint outside, (which is where the landscape is stored). Painting a long time outside gives you a mental library of the moves that nature likes to make. I virtually never start a painting from a photograph, but I do take photos of the locations and sometimes use them while finishing in the studio. When I do, I never let the photo use me.

One of the problems with working from photos is that when I stand before the landscape I have binocular vision, I see that D which is three, I use a convention called "form" to mimic that experience. I can't do that from a photo. The colors in a photo are very different than what the eye perceives, I don't copy those colors but they are my starting point. Lastly even a 30 by 50 monitor is far smaller than the viewable image I get outside, its as big as the whole world.

When I am on painting trips I often am struck by a scene and I photograph it, thinking that it would make a great picture. When I get it home I am always surprised, it seems like the picture opportunity has evaporated somehow. I always think, "why did I take that, what did I think was there?".

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Take that!

Here's an Emile Gruppe painted on Rocky Neck in Gloucester, I think that's Smith's Cove in the background.

This evening I think I will amuse myself by listing some of the most common mistakes amateur and beginning painters make. of course I am, of course, not talking about you, your friends or anyone else you know. I mean those other people.

  • Too little paint on the palette resulting in stingy mixtures.
  • Trying to push their paint around on the canvas until it looks right, rather than decisively mixing and placing their notes.
  • Quitting before they have worked through the problems on the canvas.
  • Painting with too few values.
  • Trying to make the painting out of turpentine rather than paint. This comes from prior watercolor experience.
  • Putting excitement about the subject ahead of design. Failure to arrange the painting effectively.
  • Wobbly inadequate easels made of aluminum and bobby pins with paper palettes and xanthin gum.
  • Painting with student quality pigments . Using hues instead of real colors.
  • Patented sure fire systems developed by prating blackguards, cookbook style methods and painting systems often found in books with the phrase "free and easy" in the title.
  • Over reliance on painting the day rather than deciding how the painting should look.
  • Insufficient knowledge of and interest in historic painting.
  • Total unfamiliarity with the difficulty involved in making good paintings
  • Excessive concern with gear ie. parasols, weird pochade (pronounced pochade ) boxes, carts and foolish wagons.
  • Over-reliance on Walter Foster books.
  • Idolization of one local artist mentor over all other input.
  • Painting landscapes exclusively from photographs in the studio.
  • Believing that there is nothing to learn, that everything they need to know is already inside of them needing only to be expressed.
  • Over belief in talent and under belief in long term effort.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Where is Waldo?

Here is the piece I am working on right now. This is the photograph I took to check my painting for errors. It is not terribly faithful to the original but I will let you all see it. This is not New Hampshire. Where do you think I am?

I still have spots left in the workshop in Rolling Forks, Mississippi, are you tired of winter and want to get a jump on spring? You can take a warm weather break and workshop in the middle of March. If you missed snow camp, now's your chance for a trip to the warmth of the Mississippi delta. The land of the blues and Muddy Waters hometown. I am looking forward to checking out the historic blues trail . This is a five day workshop. It will give intensive instruction in outdoor painting and I intend to do some instruction on building an art career, getting shown in galleries and dealing with dealers. Here are some pictures of the sets.

I have to paint this one below. I can see a great picture in there.

Those are live oaks, which are just great to paint. They are a great subject. I have been painting them all week.

Here's tonight's lesson.
When I travel somewhere on a plane, I don't always want to pack my paint. Usually it is not a problem, but sometimes it is and I would rather avoid the whole situation. If I can drive, I always prefer that. But if I am going to a place where I have a gallery or a friend I call Jerry's or one of the other mail order ccompanies and order all of the paint and solvents and medium I need. I give them the galleries address that I am visiting. When I arrive, my paint is there in a box waiting for me. At the end of the trip I throw the leftover paints back in the box and mail it back home. Works great.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

More about finishing pictures.

Boldini image from

There are several things that have to happen before I call a painting finished. I take a picture of it with my digital camera and and either look at it on the computer screen or better still, print it out. I figured this out when I would see my work reproduced in magazines. I would often be surprised at how they looked reduced. Sometimes paintings that I though were fine had faults in them that I only noticed when I saw them shrunk down, Now that photography is digital and so instant it is any easy matter to check your paintings this way.

I generally let a painting sit around the studio for a week or so if I am not on a tight deadline. I also show it to my wife, or my kids, whoever, to get their opinion. Sometimes something will bother them about a painting that hadn't occurred to me. I ask them, does anything jump out or bother you?

There is an odd phenomenon I have noticed when doing this. Often they will be bothered by an area of the painting and say something is wrong with it. Often there IS something wrong in that area, but they are pointing at something else. They know the general area but not what the problem is.

After the painting has sat around in the studio for a week or so it should be dry enough to shoot with retouch varnish before you send it out to a gallery.You will also be able to look at it with a fresh eye after that much time has passed. Maybe something will jump out at you then. It is essential to fully troubleshoot a painting before it goes out into the galleries. I have gotten a few paintings back, and thought "what was I thinking". I had the painting out in the gallery for a year and all along it remained unsold, possibly because of one error that I had missed.


Did I mention that?

In art class they tried to be nurturing, and told you that there were no rules. Many art students don't want teachers telling them anything unfavorable about their art. But some pictures ARE better than others, and you want to be the one making better paintings. You may say, and I hear amateurs say frequently, "I don't want people judging my art". The only way you can avoid that is to put it in a closet. People will judge your art. When they do, the greatest compliment they can pay you is to buy it.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Finishing paintings 3

Above is a Carl Peters. I will do much more on him, but I have a lot of art history to churn through before I get to him. Below is Celia Thaxters garden as painted by Childe Hassam.

I have a number of questions In ask myself about a painting when I am intending to finish it in the studio. Here are some that come to mind. I am not particularly talking about adding detail, though some of that might be necessary, nor do I mean tightening up the painting, although sometimes that is necessary too..
  • Is this MY painting, or could it have been made by someone else?
  • Is there anything in the painting that accidentally looks like a fish or a goats head?
  • Are all of my shapes varied and interesting?
  • Does the main line of the painting guide the viewer the way I want them to go?
  • Have I got good contrast in the painting? Do I need to add more light? Strengthen my shadows?
  • Have I drawn everything well enough?
  • Are all of my edges handled well, soft or hard?
  • Are any of my light passages, such as the sky, dirtied by careless smearing from a tree or other neighboring mass?
  • Are the lines in my buildings vertical that need to be vertical?
  • Are my colors right, do they relate well to one another?
  • Have I got consistent light, in direction, color and temperature?
  • Is the overall tonality of the painting working?
  • If their are technical details are they correct. For instance, is there a boom crutch on that catboat? Are the tops of the windows on the house above or below the returns on the gables? Is the girls sweater correct for the period of her hairstyle. All of those things matter if you are selling a painting to a sailor, an aficionado of period architecture or a woman who loves fashion. If you paint boats, your customer likely knows and loves them.
  • Are there any problems with the surface? Do some brushstrokes catch the light in an unpleasant way. Does the picture need retouching varnish. Is it tight on its stretchers?
  • If there is a body of water or a horizon line is it level and straight? Do the subjects in my painting perspect towards it?
  • Would the painting be improved by adding a figure.? A walrus?
  • Is it signed? Is the signature level? Unless you sign on an obvious diagonal, a crooked signature looks amateurish.
  • Are there little spots of canvas showing at the edge of the canvas that didn't get painted?
  • Did I look at it in a mirror to see if I missed anything?

Sometimes I will sit down in front of a half finished picture and write a numbered list of everything that needs to be done to it. Then I check them off on the list as I go.

The list above contains typical entries and I could probably double its size, but you get the idea. It is a self critique to find the errors in a painting and fix them.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

More on finish in impressionist paintings

Above is a Pissarro courtesy of the

I have posted this Pissarro because it is an example of an impressionist piece that has a good degree of finish. it isn't tightened until all the life is gone out of it, but it is all well thought out and resolved. There isn't any passage that doesn't work. It contains no errors. Every bit of a painting has to be right.


I finish my paintings in the studio. If the outside work has gone well, the inside part is pretty easy. Sometimes I bring home a painting that isn't worth putting any more effort into as it is just never going to be any good. That happens. My father was an eye doctor. Every morning when he got to work, he knew how to be an eye doctor. It wasn't as if some days he showed up at the clinic and had no idea what he was doing. That's not the case with me, some days I get killed out there. You'd think I would know how to do it every day. But I don't.

Usually though, I return to my studio with a painting that needs to be finished. I am going to try to explain what I do over the next few posts. I have shown my process on the blog before, but I hope I can figure out how to tell you how I do it.

Often I bring home a painting that has a lot right about it, but it is what I call, a "picture with a problem". That is almost always a design problem. I look at it for a while and decide if there is a way I can fix it. Sometimes there is, and sometimes there isn't. It may be that an element in the painting is unnecessary, or there is a problem with the way the viewer is directed through the painting, or the painting doesn't balance well. Often I can fix those things.

I tend to paint in a lower key. Working in a lower key gives me the ability to use my pigments more nearly as they come off the palette. Every drop of white you use is a drop of color you don't.
When it works I get rich color. When it doesn't, my paintings are darker than the inside of a cow. When these paintings arrive in the studio it is often easy to bang some lights into them. I will return to this idea in a later post.

The most common problem is that the painting is well enough drawn and looks like where I have painted. But it isn't interesting. There are lots of paintings in this world. The world doesn't need another average one. Because I have painted so many years, pretty much everything I do is professional in quality, but that doesn't mean they are good art. Sometimes these paintings can be made more interesting. I might add contrast, or increase the power and color of the light. I might add a sunset or eight tiny reindeer. Whatever it takes. However a lot of paintings with this problem get culled.

Culling paintings is good, it is integrity. You should be throwing art away, at least if you are an outdoor impressionist painter. The academic guys can avoid this by doing lots of studies and throwing the worst of those away before making a painting. If you think everything you do is good, you aren't reaching to be better. Its over. Get a straight job. Go dig a hole in your back yard and pull the dirt in on top of yourself.
See you tomorrow.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A definition of impressionism

I received this query today, I think I will riff a little on it tonight.

I am doing a little research on Impressionism, so that I can clearly define it for the students and help them begin playing with Impressionist concepts in there work. I want to put together a little workshop instructional pamphlet as a hand out. My question for you is, do you have an suggestions about specific writings that would make good reference material? Any insights you could offer off the cuff would be greatly appreciated. Thanks,

The painting above is an impressionist painting! I can hear some of you muttering, "no way"!
The painting is typical of the work of William Paxton, one of the Boston School. Below is another by Frank Benson.

Usually people expect broken color landscapes painted in a high key when they hear the word impressionism. But there are other sorts, the Boston painters of the late 19th century were impressionists who sometimes, but not always, painted with broken color, and with visible brush strokes.

At the turn of the 20th century these men and others used a definition of impressionism that is a little different than you might expect. When they referred to the French Impressionists with a capital "I" they meant a specific group of painters with Monet as its founder. When they talked about impressionism with a small "i" they meant a method or philosophy of painting. They felt that painters throughout history were roughly divided into two camps, impressionists and academics. They defined these two groups by their intentions.

An Academic painter is moved by a piece of literature, a historic event, the Bible or a story he himself wishes to tell. Academic paintings are assembled in the studio from drawings, studies from models and involve envisioning things that either never took place, or had to be imagined. Leon Gerome or Ingres will do as examples of this type. This sort of painters tend to work over drawings transferred to the canvas and carefully colored, often thinly in glazes. They usually work sequentially and indirectly.They often conceal the hand of the artist and have no visible or minimally visible brushstrokes.

An impressionist painter (the word here refers to an approach to painting rather than the French coterie of painters) is moved by the world before his eyes, and attempts to place that on his canvas. He is thus standing before that which he paints. His paintings are not assembled from drawings or imagination but observed. Often, but not always the impressionist works with visible brush strokes and opaquely in straight paint, or alla prima, rather than in transparent glazes over a fixed drawing. Examples of this approach would be Monet or Childe Hassam.

Now here is where I am going to introduce you to a controversial idea. This is not a commonly accepted idea today and you may find it strange, but it was a common idea at the turn of the 20th century when impressionism was in vogue. The impressionist painters of that day would argue that Rembrandt and Velazquez were impressionist painters too! They felt that these artists also met the criterion above. They stood before their subject and painted what they saw filtered through their personal interpretation. This would apply to some Rembrandts of course, his Biblical subjects were more academic in intent.

Regardless of whether you buy that assertion or not, it is an interesting one, and from it we can extract a rough working definition of an impressionist painter. The impressionist stands before nature and is moved to portray it on his canvas. An outdoor landscape painter is virtually always an impressionist by this definition.

The second part of the question above asks me to recommend a text for impressionist painting. Since it is a workshop and not an atelier level course I will recommend a book I think is very usable and approachable. It is "Keys to Successful Color in Landscape Painting" by Foster Caddell. this book is available from and though out of print is not hard to find. It is a wonderfully simple and easy to read text explaining the basic ideas of impressionist color. This book could be used as a high shool text or perhaps even in middle school because of its basic and simplified explanations of how to make color vibrate. I highly recomend this book to those of you learning about impressionist landscape painting.

Thanks to the for the Paxton painting.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Finish in impressionist painting

Willard Metcalf, Gloucester

Above; Dennis Miller Bunker

I wanted to begin talking about finish by establishing that it is normal, and that fast and loose is not the only way to paint the impressionist landscape. I know that today there is a big trend toward one shot plein air work, but when you go to the museum to see impressionist work, the overwhelming number of them are not one shot paintings. I know that I am more interested in historicism that many of you are, and that's fine, it just interests me. But I like to try and get my roots down into our cultures history. The history of impressionist painting is not written in one shot 5 by 7's. I should restate that there is nothing wrong with the one shot thing, just that there is another way to go, and I prefer it. There are purists out there who have organizations that use some kind of a formula to determine if a piece is plein air or not. I don't join those organizations. I don't qualify. I do what ever it takes to make the painting. If that means returning for several days or working on a piece in the studio, that's fine with me.


Above and below are two paintings by Camille Pisarro. They are both impressionism, full of brushwork and color. They have life, vitality and aren't one shot paintings. They also have lots of drawing in them. They are not sloppy or careless in their handling. Every bit of them is carefully considered. The bar is set pretty high here. These are demanding pictures for an artist to make.

Notice the careful drawing in the tree on the right in the image above. It has been studied out. It is THAT tree and not a symbol for every tree. This is a drawing of the tree that is sure and highly finished. Incidentally none of these paintings are small, all are of middling size.

The Pissaro above contains all sorts of detail and it is all drawn out. It is shown in a sort of brushy shorthand, but that reflects the sureness of Pisarros drawing. If you want to get finish in your paintings you will have to be a good draftsman. Impressionist paintings that have more finish contain more drawing. So if I could throw out a first principle of finishing paintings, get the drawing "right". By right I don't mean so tightened up as to remove the playful brushwork and evocative description that is the fun in an impressionist painting, it is drawing of a different sort. Impressionist drawing is understated and related to the whole of the painting, it keeps its place within the general unity of the canvas.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A large bird visits the blog

I encountered this fellow today. I stopped for coffee on my way to a painting site and there he was! He was friendly and mild mannered, the lady who owned the car eventually picked him up, gently set him on the ground and he padded off. Nice bird.

I worked today on a painting that I started the day before. It was an 18 by 24, a size I usually try to paint in one shot. I then finish them in the studio. You have seen me do that on this blog . But today the painting wasn't better at the end of the day than it was at the beginning. That happens sometimes, and I always feel so beaten when it does. Not discouraged, just disappointed that I had lost my focus and made the painting truer to nature but more disjointed. I had lots of information, but the painting no longer worked as a unit.I will now attempt to steal a victory from the jaws of defeat by writing some about "pushing' paintings beyond the rough impression and my thoughts on finish versus looseness.

I will print out a photo of the scene and work on it in the studio, probably I will be able to save it. I don't need to go out and work on it again, as I have more than enough information, I need to get the"art" part installed in the painting. Some painters I know are only interested in making one shot loose paintings. There is nothing wrong with that, but I like to take paintings a little further. We often hear people say that it takes two artists to make a painting " one to paint it and another to stop them before they ruin it". I disagree.

You can continue to work on a painting as long as you can continue to make good decisions about what to do to it.

It is this ability that enables me to make a living. I can get more finish in a painting and still keep it looking like an impressionist piece.

Lots of the French and American 19th century painters did this. The museums are filled with examples. I think no era has been as enamored with one shot sketches as our own. Some painters develop the ability to knock out a painting very quickly that seems to me a little half baked. There are, of course, wonderful one shot paintings that are full of life and excitement, but for every one of those, there are a thousand lazily executed and poorly thought through paintings.
I will begin tomorrow a series of several posts on finish .

Friday, February 19, 2010

Overlapping diagonals to create distance

Above is a Hibbard. I want to continue with the designing for distance ideas I have been talking about for the last few days. This Hibbard is of Rockport. I was standing and looking down on this spot from above a few weeks ago. It looked pretty grown over now. Many of you who are readers of this blog know that Aldro Hibbard is a hero of mine. if you don't know his work, there is a little book available on him from the Rockport Art Association in Rockport, Massachusetts, you can order it from them at (978).546.6604.

The illustration is presented again with lines drawn on it showing overlapping diagonals opposing one another, crossing again and again in succession. Object is placed behind object, behind another object as they march down into the picture plane.

This is another mechanical method of introducing recession that doesn't depend on atmospheric perspective. In this example Hibbard also uses atmospheric perspective in the background. Using design methods to get recession doesn't preclude using atmospheric perspective.

Above is a Gruppe of winter in Vermont, showing the same strategy. Here is the defaced version with its annoying little lines.

The first set of diagonals physically overlap. But that is not essential to this game. Several sets in there have an implied overlap. That works well too.

I want to remind those of you who are in the deep South that I will be doing a workshop in Rolling Fork Mississippi. Below is the information on that.

Mar.15-19 Rolling Fork, Mississippi

This is going to be a five day workshop and I will do my usual total immersion style event. We will be painting the Land of the Blues, on location in the Mississippi delta. I will teach the material I do on the blog, but because I will actually be able to answer questions and show you what I mean in paint, you should be able to learn a lot. I will also be discussing the business of art. I will cover relationship with dealers, pricing and getting started showing your work. I hope to see you there. I am going to load my iPod with Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson for the occasion.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

More on gettting distance through design, ut ut!

Here is another Gruppe for me to unpack. This was painted in Waterville, Vermont, near Jefforsonville. I would like first to call your attention to this.....

This is another distance making ploy, a little like the one I talked about last night. Gruppe has drawn a diagonal line across the canvas and put all of the subject matter behind it. Everything in the middle ground is "over there". The side of the line marked 1 is the foreground, the side marked 2 above it and to the right, is the middleground and distance.

This is a physical way of obtaining depth. You all know about atmospheric perspective, but the problem with that, is it forces a blurry high key scheme on the whole upper half of a painting. That is OK sometimes but there are other ways to go. You want to always be in charge of the design of your painting, and choosing whether or not to use atmospheric perspective can give you control over your values and colors. I am not knocking atmospheric perspective, merely noting that there is more than one way to skin a cat. Gruppe has retained his strong values and color all the way up the canvas in this painting.

Here are some of the "pointing" lines in the picture. The road leads you into that dark bridge and then out the other side and up to the church with its triumphant spire joyously rocketing up into space. Notice several other pointers concealed in the picture, all directing you inwards. In the upper right there is a nice rising line in the clouds taking you out at that corner, if you must leave.

Here are the linked darks you have grown so tired of hearing me talk about! If you squint at this picture it is almost one big dark filigree laid over a white ground.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Getting distance by design

Above is last nights Gruppe again. A commenter mentioned how dark the transoms of the boats and several other shadowed portions of this painting were. They do seem real dark and I am not sure if that is the reproduction or the way the painting really looks. I have seen a number of different versions of this painting. Gruppe returned repeatedly to a place and made the same or a similar picture many times.

Here is the big zig-zagging design that leads you into the picture. It takes you out of the foreground shadow, past the illuminated boat that is the big punchline and out into the distance. Gruppe put this here on purpose. The ice in the foreground may have been suggested this treatment but you can be certain Gruppe installed that big zig-zag. Incidentally I know and have painted this location, in Gloucester, on Rocky Neck. Very little of the old Gloucester waterfront that Gruppe painted still remains. I am glad I saw the last of the wooden draggers there, which are now all gone.

This entire painting is also filled with inward pointing arrows. Here is an illustration of them. All of them give commands to the viewer, "right this way, please" That red building in the background is the only thing he has delineated for us to look at, so it is important. Look at this tactic he uses......

Everything on the left hand side of the picture (1) is in front of everything on the right hand side (2).
That is an effective way of establishing depth in the painting. The objects on the left are in close and those on the right are out in the middle ground. The contents of this picture march inwards starting from the lower left. This oblique procession is the opposite of a fault I often point out in student work, where the entire painting marches across the picture from one wall to the other, equidistant to the viewer like a frieze. This is using design to establish depth. Also everything on the left hand side of that diagonal division is in the shadow, and that to the right of the divider is in the light. The picture has about 2/3 of its visual weight on one side of that line and 1/3 on the other. An artistic balance of unequal elements.

The size of his marks decreases as they go into the background. He tells us very little about what is going on back there, allowing us to fill in the details.

Gruppe has also linked a lot of the darks, particularly in that foreground. Squint down and see how they are joined. He then has thrown one nice chunk of dark against the light of that boat on the right. That is a nice touch that gives the area drama.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ramalama, wipadudu bootie! Ut Ut 2

Sorry I missed a day. I am traveling, at midnight I arrived at the private home where I was staying. They didn't have an Internet connection so I went to bed. Tonight I am back, blogging and traveling is difficult sometimes. I didn't get lazy or lose my discipline, I just couldn't get on line. I will see if I can find and post a baby animal to make it up to you.

Above is an Emile Gruppe. I have posted a few over the last days and I want to speak a little about loose painting. The famous quote from Richard Schmid is that "loose is how a painting looks and not how it was made", is right on target. Loose paintings work not because they are loose but DESPITE being loose. They are loose, BUT they still contain enough accuracy and control that they are little wonders. WE are amazed at the magic of how this abbreviated thing can say so much. It is the slight of hand, the amazement at seeing the rabbit come out of the hat that is the thrill. Good loose painting makes the viewer want to supply the things that make the painting whole.

But in the hands of weak draftsmen loose painting becomes sloppy painting. The people who paint well loosely are often later in their careers, or have drawn casts, or done portraits, something that has provided them with the drawing chops to actually end up with the rabbit and not something that should better have remained in the hat.
I think if you want to be a loose painter, you should learn to draw tightly first. Economy of means gradually acquired will make strong loose paintings. Just working fast and sloppy has you hoping for happy accidents. Watercolor painters of a certain sort trade in those, but oil painters seldom do. I believe that;


You don't imagine that you could play a great piece of music by lucky accident, or build a piece of fine furniture or replace a mitral valve in a patients heart using happy accidents. I think that people who wait for happy accidents hope they will be able to do things that are very hard without learning how. That attempts to shrink art to fit your abilities, rather than grow your abilities to meet the requirements of art. I wouldn't look for success in luck, instead better to put your faith in knowledge and skill, practice, experience and persistence.

I will return and dissect this painting tomorrow.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Ramalama, wipadudu bootie! Ut Ut.

Above is an Emile Gruppe. I posted a Gruppe the other night, I ran into this painting while I was looking for that. This is an exciting loose painting that compels you up through its center in a rythmical chimney of pointing lines and shapes perspecting upwards. The eaves of the red shack are a big arrow, also pointing the same direction.

I am not always fond of paintings this loose, and I don't want to make paintings like it, I do like this one. I have always liked Gruppe's work in reproduction more than in the flesh. Shrinking them down tightens them up a bit. I am very fond of Anthony Thieme's paintings. He did the same sort of thing, at the same time a few miles away in Rockport or traveling about the Americas. He had a little more finish, although they must sometimes have been painted with a house painters brush.

There is a book on Thieme available from the Rockport Art Association in Rockport Mass. I guess I am getting ahead of myself tonight. I promised you I would continue with the history of American landscape painting, and I will soon. I guess this is a preview of coming attractions, ultimately I will show the regional art of my grandfathers generation. These guys died off in the 60's and 70's.

One advantage of painting really loose is that you can do designs that don't seem to survive a tightening" of the painting. Painters who work really loose make lot of starts. Starts are the part of the painting where the image is designed. Since loose painters make lots of starts, they often get very good at design.

Ramalama, wipadudu bootie! Ut Ut.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Finishing the Vermont Barnyard painting.

Above is the painting after I worked on it in the studio for a day. Below is the Vermont barnyard scene as I brought it in from outside.

First I wet sanded, with 150 grit and mineral spirits, the bothersome passages in the sky where several areas of brush strokes caught the light in the wrong way. That problem is called sueding. I took it down to the ground in those areas then repainted it. I used viridian so that the sky would graduate from blue to blue green. Viridian is a handy color to use in skies.
  • I straightened out the lean in the barn by putting a T square on it and then checking it in a mirror.The eve on the right hand wall with the door was too low and threw the whole thing off. I also threw a little more color in there to get more light and make it more interesting. I straightened out the house too, while I was in the neighborhood.
  • I buffed up the red truck and put some additional work into that passage. On the other side of the barn I worked up the farm machinery and played up its pattern against the snow. That gave me decorative outrigger filigrees extending Tahiti style out from the barn on either side! Kon Tiki!
  • I lightened the right hand barn and accented its shadow. I cleaned up the tree that ran in front of the middle barn.
  • I reworked the hay rolls on the lower left, I separated them from the edge of the frame. I felt like they called too hard from their corner down there.
  • Lastly I defined the trees a little better, they are really important in this painting. In New England a landscape painter is often just a tree portraitist.
I felt this piece came off pretty well. Tomorrow I will hand it to Banks gallery of New London.This post is really a continuation of the first post showing the process outside, here.

Friday, February 12, 2010

More Gruppes of that same bridge, and another along with one of mine, not that I think I am Gruppes equal because I am not, not even close, but hey, i

Here is an 18" by 24" picture I did as a demo during the second snowcamp. I did a version of it during the first one, but I wanted another whack at it. I was asked in the comments if I ever did this, and the answer if yes. If I like a scene but not the picture I made there, I will try again. I am working at about a Gruppe level of finish here. Usually I work with more finish, but I do like to mix things up.

I was showing two versions of a covered bridge by Emile Gruppe, and I had a couple more handy, so here they are. Emile produced a lot of paintings. He painted for the market more than some of the others, and was repayed handsomely for his efforts. It does mean that his work can be uneven. There are some really good Gruppes, there are also some abominable ones. I am getting a little ahead of the syllabus on this , I intend to continue posting the history of American landscape painting. When I get to Gruppe, I will do a lot more on him. But that is a ways out. I intend to return to American landscape painting history soon, in fact.

This is the same bridge again. This time painted from the other side. Notice the colors that Gruppe has put on the side of that bridge. He is running compliments over top of one another. Red with green thrown on it.One of the commenters asked me if I thought it was good to retrofit a bridge that was too pristine with a more weathered look. I replied "absolutely" the picture is the thing, If it won't look good otherwise it is an essential thing to do. I am in favor of any change that makes a painting look good, and opposed to anything that keeps it from looking good.

Emile has really simplified this one. I like the soft way he has handled the transparent branches in the trees. We so often think of loose as being brutal. Here Emile is operating with great lightness and delicacy.

Their is a double Z composition here. The stream cuts to the right and gives a Z pattern, the road echos the same line and also makes a big Z. There is a nice repeated an rhythmic series of shapes in the three distant hills as they recede one behind another into space.

Across that bridge lived Tom Curtin in a little house with a storefront. He was one of the reason s all of the artists went up their to paint as they all knew him. I heard a story once about Tom Curtin putting some old paintings out in his trash. Gruppe came along, found them, finished them and signed his name to them. When Curtin found out he was furious. Maybe its just a story, I don't know. But these guys were Yankees and the depression had a big effect on them. Many of the places that they painted up in northern Vermont are relatively unchanged, although some are grown over a bit. Below is a shot of Waterville, Vermont that is totally unchanged today.

Gruppe and others made a lot of pictures in this town.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Two similar Gruppes

A savvy reader e-mailed me another version of this bridge, painted by Emile Gruppe. I am happy to have it to make a point. Gruppe arranged things in his painting to improve his design. You may remember my suggestion for a neck tattoo,


If you take anything away from this blog, that would be a good lesson. Besides using his broad handling, and simplified way of presenting things, Emile has obviously changed a few things to make this picture work. Look at the line of hills above the second covered bridge. Those hills are running in opposite directions. They can't both be right, therefore one has to be a rearrangement.

The window has disappeared from the side of the bridge and in the upper image there is a missing board above the entrance to the bridge. I have painted pictures of bridges bearing this same injury. It must be what happens when a truck too tall for the doorway tries to enter. I wonder if it was there or he imported it? I too have added that affliction to a bridge that seemed too pristine.

These similar but different"takes" on the same scene show that Emile was not painting what he saw, he was making an arrangement based on what he saw. He probably painted more pictures of that bridge, and I'll bet they are all different from these. When he stood in front of the scene he asked himself not only "what does it look like" but "what can I do to it?"

Both of these were painted on location and in one shot. That was Gruppe's modus operandi.
Here are some links to a couple of classic books by Gruppe with Charles Movalli. They show his techniques and tell how he thought about what he did.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Eye control

I want to talk a little about eye control tonight. I have talked about lead ins and this piece by Emile Gruppe is a great example of a lead in followed by eye control. By eye control I mean the ability to seize the viewers attention and direct their gaze the way YOU want it to go through the painting.
This painting has been set up to lead your eye from the foreground snow to the bridge and then along the road to the second bridge and then up to the snow covered hills beyond. It is simple, obvious and compelling. It is also very rhythmic.

Notice the relationship between the dark forest atop the distant hills and the swooping road across the middle ground. The road sweeps you in to the right, and the line of the hills sweeps you back the other way. All of this is invented by the way. Gruppe used what was at the location to assemble his picture but the swooping roller coaster of a design was installed. Incidentally I have stood on this location, the second bridge is gone and the first is now unused and much overgrown, but it is still picturesque.

Notice too the parade of dark shapes arranged along this serpentine pathway. The whole bottom third of the picture is white, and the middle is an arrangement of dark shapes that are almost all connected to each other. You have probably read my posts suggesting "linking" your darks, here is a picture that does that well.

I was asked to talk about how I painted the gray of the weathered boards in that barn I painted last week. Here is Gruppe handling a similar subject. On the side of that bridge Gruppe has painted a violet tone and then thrown yellow and some blue down into that for variation. Them he pulls the dark lines in it that make us see boards and the cracks between them. Not all of them, mind you, just a few. This is a passage that is a trap for the unwary painter as the tendency is to overstate those boards resulting in a stiff and busy design. Most of the sweet things in a painting are the result of restraint and not of hammering the viewer to make your point.

Do you know why they covered bridges? Usually people say it was so you could get out of the weather or to ease snow removal, but the real reason is that keeping the weather of the deck made it last. Just as the roof on your house keeps the floors from getting wet and rotting out, the roof on a covered bridge assures a long life for the deck.

I will write about it more in a day or two, but the Stapleton Kearns workshop in the land of the blues, the Mississippi delta is beginning to fill.

If you live in the south and want to take my workshop this is your chance. Rolling Fork is the birthplace of Muddy Waters, I intend to bring an iPod full! See you there on March 15th. This is a five day workshop so there will be lots of opportunities for individual attention.

A short post

It is going to be a short post tonight, I taught all day drove a couple of hours to get home and I am ready to sleep. Snowcamp W went well, and I believe that people learned some things they will be able to use. I did a seascape demo for them today. Painting snow and painting surf have some things in common, besides, it was snowing and I painted the falling snow yesterday.

Here is the barn and house from the barnyard painting. One of the commenters asked me what gray I used to paint the siding on the barn. I painted it from a mixture of scrapings I had on my palette.

As I work my palette fills with paint mixtures that I have formulated until there is no longer room to mix new ones. I scrape them into a pile and set that over to one side. I then often throw a little "what not" into the pile to make it gray. But that gray contains every color I already have on the canvas. That makes it a very useful note as it is in harmony with the painting. It is also often a subtle and interesting color. I use that as I can,"stepping" on other notes with it as a modifier, and in this instance making the weathered barn board with it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

More about the barnyard painting

Here are some of the participants of Snowcamp W enjoying a fine cigar. It snowed today so we painted from under the porch of the inn.

OK, back to the analysis of the painting I have been showing the last few days. Here is , as requested in the comments, a photo of the location, I will post a photo of the painting below that for comparison.

I have made a number of design driven changes in the landscape. Some of these are;

  • I "humped" up the mountain more to make it more important.
  • I moved the little cart on the right, to the left and into the cluster of objects surrounding the barn.
  • I threw reflected light up into the barn and the house to make them light and glowing.
  • In front of the barn I edited out "Casper".
  • I forced the hay rolls in front of the barn onto a diagonal line leading up and to the right.
  • I have edited and simplified the tracks in the snow that are the lead in.
  • I dropped the value of the snow in order to leave myself room above its value to place my sunlit highlights.
Another commenter asked that I break down the painting of the barn and its grays. Tomorrow I will do that.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Barnyard snow passage

I am going to discuss the making of this piece a little more. Yesterday I showed a series of photos of the creation of the piece. I want to dig a little deeper into my method tonight. Below is how the piece looked as I began to lay in the snow.

Here is a close up of the lower left part of the painting. Above you can see I started by painting white tinged with cobalt over the passage. Next I made a pile of white tinged with cadmium yellow on my palette. I then used that to model the snow. I am painting the white tinged with cadmium yellow down into the cobalt violet and white already wet on the passage. Where it received the most light it got the cadmium yellow, as the forms curved away from the light it remained cobalt violet. Where it went into shadow or a furrow in the snow I hit it with a cobalt blue and white shadow note.

I then accented the few planes that turned towards the raking light enough to catch the full sun with a thick stroke of the cadmium yellow and white mixture. The ruts were actually the footsteps of the group of painters I worked with that day, stomping around and scoping out the various places to set up in the barnyard.

So I built up my snow using an orderly system of putting one color down and throwing a compliment into it in increasing amounts as it turns into, and then is hit by the light. I like to do this with cobalt violet and cad. yellow. But you could do it with many pairs of colors, such as ultramarine and burnt sienna or viridian and cad. orange. I am exploiting the fact that the shadows are the compliment of the light. I am also dropping the value of the halftone parts of the light enough that I can model within them. Had I kept them very light, the sunstruck portions would not have been enough brighter to show up. Keying snow down slightly makes it far easier to model, or show its forms. Just white paint won't cut it.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Vermont barnyard

Here is a series of shots of a painting I did this week. It is an 18 by 24 in oil on panel.

This is a long mornings work and it will get worked on in the studio before it is finished. I sometimes work things out completely in a monotone before I move into color and opaque paint. This time I worked outwards from the middle of the painting, extending my drawing outwards as I went. I lightly sketched things in with the edge of a #4 flat bristle and turpentine, sometimes adding a little Liquin. The canvas is untoned, it appears cool because I shot these on my easel as I worked. I am rethinking things that don't work as I go. Notice that the hay roll on the lower left above, disappears below. Because I am painting thinly and for the most part transparently, I can wipe things out with a paper towel and some of my mineral spirits.

I completely reworked the mountain on the right, bringing the line down into the house where I wanted your eye to go. I am deliberately keeping most of the action in a band across the middle of the painting and leaving the foreground snow as one large and spare shape.

Here I continue to expand outward from the middle adding the second barn and the house with the porch. I really enjoyed putting the light on the bases of those big maples. They had an orange glow that was really warm and looked great with all the snow. Below I have laid in the snow, mostly in white and my cobalt violet. I also am developing some warm notes in the distant mountain. I have also reestablished the hay rolls in a position I felt made a better design.

I am working at getting a rhythmic structure running through the painting. I am arranging the lines on the various items in the painting to set one another off and I have made of the snow one big shape.

Using yellow ocher and white and a little cad. yellow I establish the form in my snow by carving the lit planes into my middle tone I put down initially. I also build the swelling form of the snow the same way. Above I begin working out those big trees and the junk strewn around the barn.

Here is the panel the way it looked when I packed up for the day, at about 1:30. I started the painting at about 8:30 AM. Those spots in the sky are brushstrokes catching the light. I took this photograph of the painting while it was lying on the ground. I have attempted everything in the landscape. I probably won't need more information about the location. The finishing process will mostly be about making it look good, not adding detail.