Friday, October 25, 2013

Confounding color and value in the landscape.

Hey Stape:

 Here's a plein air painting I did the other day. Maybe you could critique it for me? I call it "The Road Home" because it reminds me of  driving down to visit my mother. How I miss her larder and Ganesh cones.
 "Rusty" Phenolphthalein

Rusty,  you are 


You have failed to make a clear statement of your lights and darks. Look at the Metcalf below.  Do you see the clear pattern of lights and darks?

or how about in this Gruppe? Squint, that will make it even clearer.

Your painting looks "mushy" because you are making notes of the same value in both your lights and your shadows. Look at your mass of trees at the upper left, and compare it's value with the lower right hand corner that is in the light, common notes. You are including in your lights and your shadows notes of the same value.

I see  this fault in students work routinely. When a note is deeper in value, the student responds not by dropping it's value, but by increasing it's saturation. Conversely, they respond to highly saturated colors in the light by painting them low in value. I have wondered if part of the fault lies in our language. In the everyday world we use the word "bright" to mean both high in value and full of color. We might say that a white room with many windows is bright, and then reject a screaming yellow color for the walls as "too bright". We do the same for the word "dark", a room could be too dark if it lacked light, yet we also might refer to a  paint scheme as "too dark".

The easiest way to understand the difference is to think of a black and white photo, that is a pattern of values. Color doesn't appear. Color and value are both interrelated and hold hands in public. But they are two separate qualities that describe a note on your canvas. On gray days the values may grow very close together, but the division remains, even if the only deep shadow is in your pockets.

When we paint the landscape outside one of the most important tasks before us is to delineate the light and the shadow. This is drawing, even if it is tonal and not done with a pencil. It could be done in black and white, it is not a function of color.

"Rusty", look at your painting, see the nearest shadow crossing the road ? It shares values with the field in sunlight to it's left.

Above is your picture again. Below, I have strewn red dots across it noting where the same  middle value notes occur. That value is laced through both your lights and your shadows.

It is essential to use a different set of values to represent your lights and shadows. Imagine a deck of cards, with just two suits, dark cards and light cards. Now deal them into two piles on the table before you, dark cards in one pile and light cards the other. Sorting the lights from the darks in a painting is similar. There are two piles, light and dark. No card fits in either one, each card is either one of the light cards or one of the dark cards. Every time your brush hits that canvas you need to know, is this note in the dark or is it in the light?


Durham, North Carolina

I am teaching a workshop in Durham, on November 1-3,  Here is the link to that. 
I have a medium sized class, so there is room for a few more. Smaller groups are more like going on a painting trip together. There is time for lots of individual attention. I looks like there will be good fall color there too. This will be the last workshop for a while for the faint hearted, your next opportunity will be the dreaded SNOWCAMP.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Like driving an aircraft carrier

Have you ever driven an aircraft carrier? Me neither. But, I'll bet, out of my blog readership, somebody actually has. For the sake of metaphor here, lets assume our ship is about the weight of an anvil that size.

 If you want to make the aircraft carrier go, you step on the accelerator, and then in about an hour or so, the thing starts to move. Once you get it going though, it will ride along mightily over "old ocean's gray and melancholy waste" till you reach your destination. It takes a long time for that much mass to slow down, so if you want to stop in about an hour, you better hit the brakes now.

My job is lot like that. After I make the paintings, I put on a different hat. I am the owner of a micro business. A McDonalds is small business, I have more in common with a tradesman of the olden days, like a furniture maker. I am a cottage industry, a microbusiness. I make a small amount of expensive objects in a simple workshop, alone, I sell them to a small group of clients who  enjoy and can afford fine art. I work with dealers, clients, and a little promotion to sell the art and get it out into the world at a faster clip than the world is removing money from my pocket. If at the end of this month for instance, I have enough money to pay my bills and maybe buy a sofa, it is not because of what I did this month. The decisions and work that made that happen, were mostly made several months ago. If I am not in the black  the mistakes (or more likely misjudgements) were usually made months ago. If I go through a period where I am not hitting it and the pictures are not as good as they should be, several months from now that is going to show up on my ledger.

I am probably slower at production than lots of other artists, I discard at least half the paintings I start outside. I work on those I keep, sometimes only a few hours, or sometimes for weeks before they are ready to go out the door. Back in the early eighties when I was selling paintings for eighty five to one hundred and twenty five dollars, I tried to make one a day. I made and sold stacks of paintings, most of them very small. I had a tiny little art gallery in Rockport and didn't show many other places (there weren't many other places to show, in those days). I had more inventory then, but still sometimes I would be in a crises when that ran low. As  I have developed more expertise and a small following I have been able to raise my prices. I don't have a lot of inventory, I destroy my old paintings  that haven't sold, unless I really believe in them, or I see an obvious flaw that I can rework before sending them out again into the marketplace. I deal in newly made paintings, or at least paintings made over the last year or two. I  don't make carloads of art anymore. I make fewer, and far better considered paintings.

 If you are asking serious money for your art, a lot is going to be expected of you. There are many fine and tempting things that the limited number of art collectors in my price bracket might prefer to my latest daub.The paintings need to be as good as I can make them, my life actually depends on that. If I don't sell paintings I will eat snowballs this winter.They need to look like they are well worth buying at that price point.

Many single paintings can be finished and out the door quickly enough, and a request from a show for a single piece is sometimes easy to manage. But more commonly I need to deliver paintings in groups of six or so, because that is about the number a gallery needs to make a presentation. Less than that and a gallery is probably not stocked well enough to sell my art. Often that group of paintings need to be of a special sort or area, like South Carolina, or Maine. I have to travel to that area, make lots of paintings then return home and finish them, discarding the weaker or stymied efforts as I go. That's not something I can do quickly, it takes planning and lead time. And after all of that, it might be months before the paintings are sold, maybe a year or two sometimes. Unfortunately some will not sell, and the knackers must come to the farm. To add complexity to my inventory management, the Maine pictures cannot be sent to South Carolina if they remain unsold. Thankfully, if I am patient, there are few of those.
Often a gallery is seasonal and I might be stocking them in anticipation of a coming busy time a few months out.

So months out, I have to plan what I am going to make and where it is going to go. It is only sometimes possible to capitalize on a sudden opportunity. Most of the big deals and events are on the chart and planned for months in advance. I have to choose carefully which galleries I stock, because I can't do that many.  I can't be in all the shows that I would like, particularly not shows for which I must hold a painting long time prior. If I get invited to be in a show, the gallery will usually want an image a month or even several months before the show opens. I try to give them the best painting I can.Then I have to hold that picture until the show, not let one of my galleries have it. After the show,which might run a month, or several,whether the painting is sold or not, I am now about three months into the project. If it is sold the gallery will wait a month to pay me. That pushes the cycle on that piece out to four months.

What this means is that in my art business, this month is mostly determined by what I was doing about three months ago, and I am today working toward sales that I hope will happen several months in the future. Although there are the pleasant surprises when a gallery calls and a sale has been made suddenly or a client e-mails me ready to buy a painting, most of the time it is like driving an aircraft carrier. If I want to be making money several months from now the efforts have to begin now.


Canton, Mississippi

Gee, I hope you all know I am doing a workshop in Mississippi real soon, October 18th 19th and 20th, if you want to come and paint the beautiful street scenes of historic Canton with me go here to sign up!
I have taught this one before and it is a splendid place to paint. Canton is not too far from Jackson, which has a major airport. Below is a demo I did last time I was there. In the evenings I will lecture from my laptop over dinner, I am rolling out  new and improved versions of my evening presentations.

Durham, North Carolina

I am teaching a workshop in Durham, on November 1-3,  Here is the link to that. 
 I like being in the South, Its a lot different than New England, ( I have become such a New Englander) but I have been in the South many times and I always enjoy the southern culture, food, architecture and history. Late fall should be a lovely time to paint in North Carolina.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

My little studio and a line of tape on the floor.

My studio measures eleven by twenty feet. That's big enough for me. If I were doing portraits or  figures I would need more space, but for what I do it works just fine. I start all of my paintings outside, the studio is where I operate on them when they come home.

My  studio is a miniature version of one I had in the seventies in the historic Fenway Studios building in Boston. The studio is the former garage next to my house that I have reworked. I removed a roll up door on steel tracks and closed up the hole where it had been. The garage had a cement floor and bare wooden studs for  walls.There was a low ceilinged second floor above. I removed half of that and kept the back half as a loft area for my stretchers and failed paintings. The front half of the room where the easel is has a 14 foot "cathedral" and dormered ceiling. There is another set of small french windows set into a dog house dormer above the window in the photo, so I have lots of light. The studio is wainscoted in dark wood, extra high, and has oak floors. The floors take a real beating because this is a workshop. The windows are true divided lights and also stained dark walnut like the rest of the woodwork.  The walls are  linen white. The walls go up so high that all that white  counterbalances the dark wood and keeps the studio from being darker than the inside of a cow.

For me, a north light studio is essential. The studio is a big light box, like a camera, there are no other windows on the sides of the studio so the light only comes from one direction. North light is unvarying over the course of a workday, any other direction and the sun will strike into your studio. That would mean that if you painted a still life, the shadows on the objects would move over the course of the day. Under north light they do not. I don't paint still life, but the glare of full sunlight streaming through  a studio window makes it hard to work. I want soft, cool, and even natural light. Late in the day I do get a little direct sun beaming in, and I take a break as the bright  parallelograms cross the walls behind me.

My easel has a simple homemade rack sitting on it that has a 1"by4" extension six feet long. I can place two 24" by 30"s next to one another, The rack takes the level of the tray of the easel up about 2 feet, I like that because I am tall. Also sitting on the tray of the easel is a three by four piece of plywood to which I can tape photos of paintings that I find inspiring, or references.  Above the easel on arms of carefully selected #3 pine hang several fluorescent fixtures. I prefer not to  paint under artificial light. Sometimes I have to work at night to get things done, so I have them.  Studio lighting can be set up much better, but I get by with this. I don't want to mount any light fixtures on my window wall, it wouldn't look pretty.

Here is a closeup of my taboret, the table on which a painter sets his palette when he works. Mine is a very heavy homemade cabinet full of drawers, upon which a key grinding machine once lived in a Maine hardware store. Steel casters allow it to be shoved about as needed. I want it to be heavy so it is stable. On one side of the taboret is a hook where I hang the backpack I use outside, so whatever I keep in that bag is close at hand.

My open paint box is on the sideboard behind me. I have only one palette and paintbox. When I come in from outside, I take the palette out of the box, and set it one the taboret. The dozen or so drawers on the right hand ( not visible) side of the taboret hold paint that I buy in quantity and tube myself. That adds weight too. The top of the taboret is heavy oak and will withstand great abuse. I use it like the bench in a woodworkers shop when the palette is removed.

On the floor is a cheap rug from Home Depot which I replace every few years when it gets too splattered with paint to be presentable. On that rug about five feet away from the easel is a piece of masking tape.

 I paint from two different points in my studio. 

If I am doing small or tightly detailed work I stand right at the easel. I almost always work standing. But when I am finishing full sized paintings that I have started outside I stand back from the easel on the taped line. I observe the painting from this point, I mix the note on the palette beside me, and then I walk up to the easel and make my brushstroke(s). Then I return to my distant observation point again. Doing this causes the paintings ideal focus to be out about five feet from the canvas. That makes a big difference in the way a painting looks and helps me keep a more impressionist look in my pictures.

I have found I get better results if I stand back from my easel. I get a broader looking picture if I work from this distance. It also seems quicker to me, I do try to use the largest brush I can and at that distance working in bigger marks is easier. It really does make a big difference in the way a painting looks. The distant viewing station gives a more impressionist and looser look than standing right at the canvas.