Friday, May 15, 2009

Every brushstroke 2

Thomas Moran, A Miracle of Nature

These are the first three of the points on the checklist I suggested in the previous blog entitled "Every brushstroke". I will go through those points in the next few posts. Remember I suggested that you monitor every brushstroke you make for these qualities;

  • 1) Is this brushstroke in the right place?
  • 2) Is it in the light or is it in the shadow?
  • 3) Is it the right value?
1) Is this brushstroke in the right place? A painting is made up of marks, or notes. Sometimes they are visible and sometimes not, but they must be in the right place. This point is about drawing. Most of drawing is about measurement. You are comparing the sizes of one part of the drawing against another,. You may be noticing other relationships in a drawing too, like this falls directly under that, or this is at the same height as that, etc. A note needs to be in exactly the right place. Tolerances in a painting can be very close. Likeness in a portrait for instance is dependent upon very accurate assessment of the placement of each form and feature.If an eye is in the wrong place on a beautiful girls head by even a tiny amount, she will look wrong. The viewer may not actually know why, but they will have an uneasy feeling about the painting.

You can have every other quality of a note right, but if it is in the wrong place that will make absolutely no difference. So you must place each note carefully. Then look again, compare what you have done, with nature and then ask yourself, "is this note in the right place" Always double check. Many times a beginning painter will the make the observation, hit the note and then move on. That's a deadly habit. Unlearn that one now. After you hit a note ALWAYS look back at nature and compare it to your note again.

2) Is it in the light or in the shadow? You may have been following this blog when I wrote about the bedbug line. If not I would suggest that you go back and read it as I wrote extensively about light and shadow. Every time that brush touches the canvas you need to know absolutely for sure whether the note you are painting is in the light or in the shadow. It is always one or the other. This is important because no value occurs in both. Every painting has a set of values used only in the lights and another set used only in the shadows. The illusions of form and light are dependant on this being right. 100% right by the way, if you overstate a halftone in the light for instance the illusion of both light and form instantly vanishes and will turn a sphere into a dirty disk.

Often when I was a student a more experienced painter would correct just a few notes of the wrong value in one of my paintings and the whole thing would suddenly begin to "work". Often times every value in a passage has to be correct for the passage to work. Even a single wrong note will keep a passage from working, and its subsequent correction will seem like a miracle as an entire problem area of a painting "comes together". Its a little like a math problem. Even though their may be dozens of numbers in the equation, every one of them must be correct, even a single wrong number will spoil the result.

Many times I have pointed to a note on a students canvas and asked "is that in then light or in the shade?" and they will tell me it is somehow in both or that you cant tell. They think they have the concept, but they don't. If you can't execute a concept in painting you don't got it. So here it is once more.


3) Is it the right value? This is actually sort of a subset of number 2, the light and shade factor. But you also will be observing nature and recording the values you see before you. You may need to adjust a value for some design reason, but the default starting point is, "what does it look like in nature?"In painting outside, some days every time you look up, everything is a different value. You cannot change your painting every time the light shifts. It is impossible to make a painting outdoors if all day long, all you are doing is chasing the changing light . Some painters actually block in their shadows as all at once at the beginning of a painting session so as to "lock" them down. So you have to know why each unit of your painting is the value it is and once you have established the note, you must leave it alone. That is, unless later in the session something happens that is so cool you decide to "follow" the light.You don't want to do that except in the most special circumstances.

Generally the value of a point in a landscape is determined by its relationship to the sky or light source. John Carlson in his wonderful book, John Carlsons Guide to Landscape Painting, lays out what he calls the theory of consequent angles. I will return and do a whole post on this at a later time. I will summarize for now by telling you that in the landscape before you, there are walls and floors. The ground or the ocean, and the roofs of houses etc, that present themselves in a horizontal position under the sky, take the most light. They are the "floors".

Things which stick up vertically in nature take less light. These are "walls" . They are going to be darker than the floors. The" walls" might be trees or the sides of houses or the slopes of a mountain. Because they are turned at some angle away from the light they will receive less light than the "floors"

As you paint you might try mumbling to yourself, "top of something, side of something, bottom of something, side of something, shadow of something" etc. Always know what relationship to the light the object you are painting has.


willek said...

Looking back after a stroke or a passage. Now that is what I needed to hear. I don't do that enough and I never heard that anywhere else.
How about a knife to throw it up there. Do you use a knife on occasion? Any pallet knife techniques up your sleeve? WillEK

JAMES A. COOK said...

As I said in an earlier comment, I do and I don't know what exactly I should be thinking about as I paint. Part of that is lack of confidence. Sometimes I freeze and get stuck and just do not know were to go next in my painting and end up just standing there looking like and idiot. Now with your CHECK LIST, this is exactly what I need. These blogs are great , I print them out and post them and study them .
Don't stop teaching. Man are you making a difference with my painting.

Todd Bonita said...

I'm definitely digging the bullet points, thanks again. BTW, I saw a painting of yours at The Powers gallery in Acton today, very cool to see them in was The Adirondack chairs.

All the best,

Stapleton Kearns said...


I layed a painting in the other day with a knife, and I occasionally cut back a shape with a knife,but i don't use them to paint with much. I like the control I get out of a brush better.

Stapleton Kearns said...

When you don't know where to go with a painting I suggest you turn it against the wall for a week and work on something else. Then return to it. I do that a lot.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I had forgotten they had that. I don't have much with them right now. I never have enough good art.