Saturday, February 26, 2011

Don't Paint Weird Stuff

It is very tempting, when using photos as a reference, to slavishly copy everything we see in the picture.
For some reason, judgment seems to fly out the window, and good design sense goes with it. So, today's post is just a reminder to take a close look at our photo reference (this is also equally true in painting from life) and ask ourselves:
Will anything look weird when painted?
Take that cloud in the photo above, for example.  Sure, it's a real cloud, and occurred naturally. But, let's face it, it's weird.  It automatically becomes the center of attention in the scene.  Leave it out! Change it!
How about this one?
Here's a nice little garden scene with sweet little girls.  What could be nicer?  But, those bushes are just plain strange. If you are tempted to paint this, keep the children, import another garden scene. Here's a thought to remember:
The best art touches the universal, not the particular.

That's only one reason not to paint weird stuff, but it's the most important one. Paintings should speak to the universal. By doing so, they touch us at a deeper level, than merely recording the detail of one place or experience.  A painting about children walking in a garden that could be ANY garden, or EVERY child, is much more powerful than recording the weird bush-trimming tactics of one local gardener.

Here's another pitfall.  Sometimes you have to look for these.  They can happen without our noticing.
I call it the "faces in rocks" motif.  This one is, of course, very obvious.   But I have painted several rock formations, only to have my hubby look at the painting and exclaim, "hey, there's a monkey face!" or, "I see an indian head."  So, watch out for these. They can creep up on you.

It's a good practice to ask yourself "What is this painting really about:?" If you can answer that question, then
it's much easier to decide what to leave out. Sometimes what you DONT paint is more important than what you do.

Friday, February 25, 2011



This is today's portrait study.  I almost wish I had attempted the full figure because her dress and shoes were just so cute. She had some killer hot pink 4 inch stiletto's to die for. But I decided to concentrate on just the portrait.   I look forward to Fridays and the portrait group - even though there were only two of us today, it is still good to paint WITH people.  I encourage you to get out and join others when you can... there's something electric about the shared creative energy....
I didn't get to finish the background, so it's a little rough, included what she is leaning her elbow on, but, this is, after all, practice and limited to about 2 1/2 hours painting time.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

More on Using Photos as References for Landscape

Today I thought I would show some average photos that you might take on a trip or walk in the woods, and how I might change them to develop a painting from them.
Nature is never going to give you a perfect composition.. or, it'll happen so rarely that you might as well say "never".  This is true in painting from life, and it is even more true in using photo references. Photos do not portray true values (the darks usually look TOO dark) or colors, so if you're going to paint from photos you really do have to be on your toes and THINK about these things, along with the design elements as well.

Here's the first photo:
This little street scene intrigues me. It has a nice center of interest.. that sunlit building on the right. It has nice light and shadow patterns, and a good lead-in with the road. Is that a sleeping dog in the road? I can't decide.
If I were to paint this, I would make these changes:
Change the road to dirt with nicely softened edges. That blends better with the ramshakle appearance of the buildings, and is a chance to add some nice color too.
Remove the telephone pol and the round object on the left roof. That would just become a plain chimney.
I would re-design the distant tree for a more abstract appearance.. it's a little too symmetrical.
 I would increase the size very slightly of the red building in the distance - that could become the focal point if you wanted, and I would give some hint that the road continues in the distance, perhaps rolling over a few hills or dips..
And lastly, I think this would be a perfect scene to place a few figures - they would automatically become the main attraction. Or, you could take advantage of that dog, and let him be a little note of "life".

After I published this, I thought, "Oh, what the heck, I'll do up a quick sketch of one of the photos as an example. So I did, and this is, literally, a 30 min. painting on a piece of scrap canvas. It's not intended to be finished work:. I just wanted to emphasize how you can use a photo as a "jumping off point" - but install your own ideas, color, and design.

I threw the front into shadow, and there is a wonderful opportunity here for dappled sunlight, both on the road and on the stone fence.  I hinted at a flowering vine growing over the wall.. that's a nice chance for some color in there.  I simplified the left building, and decided that  the far red "building" was really a fence (and yes, upon closer inspection, that IS a sleeping dog)  I just left the fence or stone wall, really, sort of ambiguous and put two figures looking over it to what I presume is a church yard, given the steeple we can see. There are some really great chances for beautiful colorful reflected light in here.. bright sunlight will have colors bouncing back all over the this could work up in to a really nice painting if you wanted.

The camera writes a book report, recording all the facts.
But painting is poetry.  You are trying to make a beautiful statement that is lyrical and engaging.  

Here's another with possibilities.

This is a  pretty good photo.. it has most of the elements you would want..  It has three planes: foreground, middle ground, and background.  It has a good lead-in with the shore and water. The break in the distant trees gives us an "escape route" to the mountain - the trees aren't a solid wall. All those are nice characteristics.
Here's some changes.
First of all, decide if you want the figures. I think they provide a nice focal point, and a chance to put some great spots of color, especially red, in a very green landscape.  You don't want ALL sets of figures however, only one is needed, so decide where you want it. Since we read from left to right, typically, our eye enters a scene from the left and travels, so I tend to put centers of interest towards the right hand side. Otherwise, the eye gets to them too soon, and the trip is over and no place to go! You could use one of these figures , or import another from a different photo. I would probably do that. I think a canoe makes a nicer statement than the rafts, so I'd go through my photo files and find some canoers. Remember if you do this that the light needs to be consistent, so make sure your imported photos have the same direction of light as your background photo, or you will have to change that when you paint it.
Second, the fir trees are too symmetrical.. Be sure an add some variety to their edges, and probably put a dead one in there, just for eye candy. They are also too GREEN (a typical shortcoming of evergreens), so
add more reds and browns in your mixes to change that up.
I'd also probably change the line of the distant mountains, so that there is not that big "U" shape formed between them and the nearer slope on the right.  That could become more cliffy instead of rounded, and maybe even redden that up a little - warm it up certainly, to differentiate it from the far mountains.
Decide whether we even need clouds in the sky... sometimes they can act as design elements. There's enough going on in the photo otherwise, that they might not be needed.  But that's a decision that you'll have to make.

Here's one more:

This photo has one major flaw.  There is foreground (grass and rocks) and middle ground (trees) but no background!  Try to find three planes- this tends to give you the best composition.
However, there's a real easy fix for that problem.  All you'd need to do is open up the line of trees somewhat and throw in a distant slope visible behind them. Problem solved!
This is good chance to use your design smarts too, as you could place those rocks as your lead in. Just be sure you group them, and don't dot them like little gumdrops over the grass.  Take advantage of those nice red weeds to add beautiful accent color.  And, you can also take advantage of the nice bright birch trunks against the dark pines - pick one of those to be your main focal point and make it "more" than the others..

That's probably enough for today.  I hope that gives you even more ideas of what to do with all those pictures you took on last summer's vacation!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Landscape using photos

The Reference Photo
Since the car accident, I have been unable to go outside and do plein air.  So I 've had to work from photo references.  As much as I prefer painting from life, there is something that can be learned by using photos, though I still don't think its ever a substitute for "the real thing".  It helps if you have been to a place before, and understand it - then you can bring some of your life experience to the painting above and beyond what is seen in a photo.
But photos can be traps. There are some definite pitfalls to avoid.
1. Some things that make nice photos do not make good paintings. That means you must look at a photo critically, with design and composition in mind.  Just because it's a pretty scene does not mean it will translate to a good painting.
2. Just because something is IN the photo doesn't mean it should go in your painting! It might need to be eliminated, or moved, or reduced in size, or changed in any number of ways to make it work.  Remember, just like in painting from life, you are not a camera, recording every detail that is there. You are an interpreter, pulling together various elements to make a statement that has poetry and beauty to it.   Painting should be poetry, not a book report.
3. Think of the overall shape of your painting... do you need to crop that photo?- make it vertical instead of horizontal, make it square?  Again, look at your photo with design in mind.
4. Decide what it is about the photo that speaks to you. Whatever it is, make THAT the focus of your painting, and eliminate everything that doesn't aid in that focus.

So, with those few ideas to start with, here's how I interpreted the reference photo you see above. That is me, by the way, and this is a picture from the beautiful San Juan mountains of Southwest Colorado.  I have been here many, many times, so I had a good idea what this place is really like.
This photo is nice has several planes to work with.. a foreground, a middle ground, a far middle ground, and a background. That is a good thing to look for in a painting. Try for at least 3 planes.
Here are the problems I saw with it.
1. I wanted the mountains to be the real focal point, so that big tree in the foreground takes away from that.
It should be smaller to reduce its importance in the scene.
2. the left treed slope sort of disappears behind the big tree, and the nice rock cliff section at its top is almost invisible. I decided I needed to move that inward, to make that middle ground more definite.
3. the trees in the foreground are all very similar... little conical triangles... They needed variety, and music!
4. There is no good visual "lead in" I knew that something was needed here to bring the viewer into the painting in the first place.
5. Lastly, that single solitary rock looks sort of lonely and out of place. Maybe a grouping of rocks would be nicer.
With those ideas in mind,  here's the painting.
I've marked in pink the visual lines that take the viewer to my center of interest, which is the snow covered sharp peak in the distance. the path is very slightly "s" shaped... a perfectly straight line would be not only boring, but would zip the viewer too quickly down the path. Some of those lines are very subtle, but they were intended - the lines of the snow on the mountains, or the slope of the cliffs - are all directional lines.
By the way, some of the natural lines of the mountains in the reference photo really creates a deep "V" shape visually... I didn't want that, so eliminated some of those ridges entirely, or otherwise altered them to
minimize this.

In white, I've outlined some of the major shapes. The grouping of rocks seems more natural than a single one, and I've kept the value down to keep them from overpowering the rest of the foreground mass. It's tempting to make them too bright - that would detract from the main objective.
Can you see how the tree shapes have been varied, and grouped together to form a mass? In addition, when you have a line of trees like this, remember to push some back behind the others.. don't line them up like soldiers in a row.  As  friend and mentor Johannes Vloothuis says, "think "front to back"...
I also intentionally added more sunlight to the peak, and very slightly altered the top outline of the mountain shapes to make them a bit more melodic. Avoid those "V" shapes that can so easily be found in mountains. Remember, it's your world,a nd you are the king of it. You can move mountains or change them with a flick of your wrist!

Here's the painting without the lines:
I hope this gives you some ideas next time you pull up a photo and say, "hey, that might be nice to paint!"
And, remember, you can also combine photos - say, a tree shape from one, and a sky from another, to incorporate into your painting. I keep a digital file of all kinds of shapes - trees, hills, rocks, water, skies, and sometimes can pull something from one of my references to put in a painting.

Monday, February 21, 2011

My history as an "Artist".

I was going through some boxes the other day, trying to organize a closet, and found these old (ancient, really) drawings and watercolors that I did as a kid. Back then, all (and I do mean "all") I drew or painted was horses, much to the consternation of any art teacher I ever had in school.
  From the date on the first one, I was either 13 or 14.. It is watercolor on a  piece of manilla paper.  I didn't know about watercolor paper. I remember going to some store with my mom, and seeing a little box of Chinese watercolors - what a thrill when my mother bought them for me. I think they cost a whole $3 or something.  I was probably 14 for the second one too.. I remember painting this one... I wanted to give it to a camp counselor that I admired, but never did send it off because it wasn't "good enough".,  The "mat" that is around it is a piece of colored construction paper cut with scissors.

I drew alot as a child, though grade school, middle school (we called it Junior High back then) and finally high school. Watercolor was the only "painting" I did, though of course I was doing it all wrong. But, who knew?  I took a drawing class my freshman year of college, and a couple more art classes later. I remember one so-called "oil painting class" - the teacher showed up the first day of class, and said, "I want you to finish 5 paintings this semester." and walked out. That was the extent of our instruction, no kidding. I don't think she really wanted to be there. . My mom has the only oil painting that survived that class.(moms are great for saving things like this!) I don't even know what the other 4 were, don't remember even making more than one!
A clay class had me doing sculptures of horses.  My teacher, who really preferred abstract, modern stuff, was not at all thrilled at my creations, and at first refused to fire them, certain that they would explode in the kiln and damage somebody else's work.  But she finally agreed to put one of them in the kiln, and it (miraculously, in her eyes) did not explode.  She agreed to fire the rest of them, which also all survived. I did 4 in all, as I recall.  Two of them sold, which for me back then was just an amazing, astounding thing...  you mean somebody would actually BUY my stuff? wow!!  One was broken, and one survives to this day.
After college, I did not really paint again..I did make a few crafty things, learned to quilt and sewed alot of my kids clothes.
About 35 years went by.
It wasn't until I was 51 that I finally "took that oil painting class" that started me on the journey to being a painter today.  I love oils - the texture and lusciousness of the  paint itself is so sensual and lovely. Plus, there's that whole "do-over" possibility with oils that you don't get with some other mediums. I make lots of mistakes, so I appreciate this quality.
That's probably enough information for one post.   I thought you'd get a kick out of these old childish drawings, as I did when I discovered them.
I always wonder, if I'd continued to paint instead of having that 35 year hiatus in the middle, where would I be now?

Sunday, February 20, 2011


I was finally able to go to the portrait drawing group Friday morning. This was the first time I have driven a car since Dec. 6!  It was a strange feeling being behind the wheel again.

Our model for this Friday was a retired Navy officer (sorry, I forgot his rank) named Doug. He was a delightful person, humble and soft spoken.  Doug served two tours in Viet Nam, as well as later tours in other offensive actions. To me, he is a hero.  It was a real honor to be able to try to paint this gentle man.
As we talked during the breaks in the portrait session, I learned that Doug was a long distance runner, and we found that we have a good friend in common.  It always amazes me how these kind of connections appear out of nowhere.

I am mostly pleased with how this portrait turned out - this is about 2 hours of painting time.