Materials Evaluation Time!

June 15th, 2017

As I take a brief vacation break to do something different, I’m considering a short-term shift from watercolors back to oils for a few weeks.  The changed requirements for and approaches to preplanning, brushwork, edges, color blending, and so on, may help by refreshing my perspective on watercolor when I return to it, and perhaps to help me return to the style-seeking mode I mapped out for myself in April.

"Limited Palette" (#170303w)

“Limited Palette” (#170303w)

An article comparing some of the top brands of oil paint, published on* this past spring, reminded me to review my own oil paints and other materials to verify that they really suit my current needs.  Certainly there are always new colors to try and evaluate, but this kind of comparative article helps to narrow down the optimal choices of paint manufacturers.

In general, I’ve been very pleased with my choice of M.Graham’s walnut-oil based line because they can be used without solvents.  Even for cleanup, I use just walnut oil and Murphy’s Oil Soap, which means I don’t have to worry about the odor, health effects, or disposal of turps or other petroleum-based products.

I also occasionally use water-soluble oils (which the Wonderstreet article did not include).  But frankly, they don’t have the same smooth “feel” and are no easier to clean up with soap and water than the M.Graham paints.

But my needs and preferences aren’t the same as everyone else’s, so I appreciate it when comparative evaluations like the Wonderstreet article appear as a reference that allows artists to make informed selections based on their individual needs.  Here are some of the comparative references I’ve found most helpful, to date:

For oils: (Comparisons of major manufacturers’ oil paints, with pros and cons cited by working artists)

For acrylics: (Comparisons of major manufacturers’ acrylic paints, with pros and cons cited by working artists)

For watercolor:  Hilary Page’s Guide to Watercolor Paints (an extremely comprehensive coverage of most manufacturers’ colors and the characteristics of individual pigments as of 1996, with a more limited free update printout as of 2009 available).  Unfortunately, the original book is no longer available except through resale.

Another watercolor resource is WonderStreet’s article on watercolor paints,, Though the article does not delve into specific pigments or individual paints colors as Page’s book does, the article provides a general overview of what to expect from each product line.  It is a helpful resource when seeking desirable characteristics from a specific manufacturer’s products.  The information, compiled from findings by WonderStreet’s readership of working artists, is up-to-date as of this spring.

*Note:  Wonderstreet is a UK-based platform on which such artists as illustrator Kerry Darlington can showcase their work.

Another Route to Explore

June 1st, 2017

This past month my route of explorations took a more literal turn.  I was seeking out not new civilizations, but new landscapes, different qualities of light, and a variety of textural features.

Besides my usual goal of taking a bevy of photographs for future reference, my intention this time was to keep a travel journal of quick sketches to record some of the interesting physical features that caught my eye.  I knew that being on the guided tour we had lined up would preclude my claiming long stretches of time in which to paint at leisure.  But it would also challenge me to achieve accuracy and key visual impressions in a minimized time-frame—always a good exercise for an artist to undertake.

Would I also be able to capture, or at least suggest, some of my emotional impressions as well?  How well would the journal recall the story of our experiences?  I could only make the attempt and ascertain the answers after the fact.  So rather than taking a lot of equipment, I packed up a minimal art kit that could be stowed in a small shoulder bag or pieces of which could be tucked into pockets for opportune moments.  …

Despite all my good intentions, I discovered very quickly that it was unrealistic to expect to accomplish much more than very quick sketches, and even less realistic to take time to actually paint productively.

170505w  Sunset Lit Sedona

170505w Sunset Lit Sedona

I did manage to get a few sketches done while we were on our own, such as the sunset-lit Sedona mesa, above.  Once we joined the time-intensive Road Scholar tour, however, I found extremely few opportunities even for the briefest of sketches.  I tried some very quick pencil sketches during our hikes but then had to run to catch up with the rest of the herd. Nor did working on the tour bus work very well, as my hand bounced too much, and I feared dumping either water or paint on my traveling companions.  Ah well, I did give it the old college try.

Ultimately, I focused instead on shooting literally thousands of reference photos and maintaining a written journal, which included (among other things) color notes and conceptual ideas relating to the area and the culture of its inhabitants.

Despite the deterrents to painting on location, I was still able to closely observe the terrain, landforms, and their indicative color relationships, understand better their development and subsequent erosion patterns, and couple that with information about local flora and fauna and with an enhanced appreciation of the people who have not only struggled and survived but manage to thrive in that difficult environment. I trust that this added insight will benefit my work in the long run, leading it toward a greater level of maturity and expression.

Preliminary Patterning

May 15th, 2017

Continuing along the road to breaking away further from my usual approach, I decided to try building a composition around loose color applications.  I tried various methods for painting the initial background layers.  In one trial, I spread several very wet colors on a sheet of plastic wrap, allowing the hues to intermingle haphazardly, then laid my watercolor paper upside-down on top of that to transfer the color.  The plastic wrap was carefully removed and set aside, while the paper was allowed to dry.  Needless to say, the stain now on the paper could only suggest an imaginary image, which I was now free to enhance and detail as I chose.

"Garden Ground" (#170401w)

“Garden Ground” (#170401w)

Although others might disagree, I would liken this method of development as more of a craft than fine art. The finished painting brought me little satisfaction, as I felt I had actually put very little of myself into it.  Rather than my having designed the project to satisfy a previously identified concept (which I feel should be the directing force behind fine art), the concept developed over the course of the project, derived from the haphazard distribution of color on the paper (placing the project itself rather than the artist’s concept in the driver’s seat).

Another method I tried relied on pre-planned preliminary patterning.  In this case, the background colors were used to suggest general masses that would be later enhanced with detail and calligraphic marks for suggestion of further detail within limited areas.

"Windowbox" (#170403)

“Windowbox” (#170403)

This last proved more satisfactory, so far as I was concerned, but even so, I felt that the finished work benefitted from cropping down from its original format, an indication that the overall dimensions of the composition had been left largely to chance rather than being integral to the original design plan.

Windowbox (cropped)

Windowbox (cropped)

These experiments helped me investigate and stretch my “toolbox” of approaches beyond my usual methodology.  They also called attention to some weaknesses I could address in subsequent work.  But they did nothing to alter my existing style.

I’ve come to the conclusion that other things play a more important role than specialized application techniques in establishing or identifying individuality of style.

Instead, I think real style is found through recognizing a typical combination of an artist’s color choices and blending methods, brush choices and manner of manipulation, use of notan (light/dark) design, density of paint, amount and treatment of white space, treatment of edges, degree of looseness or control of the paint, and typical cropping choices.  Besides these, painters may also show a marked personal preference for a certain subject matter, locale, point of view (either physical or emotional), perspective, or certain compositional structures.  All of these contribute more to the artist’s inherent style than any imposed technique possibly could.

On the Road to Discovery: Abstraction to eliminate distraction

May 1st, 2017

I find that it’s all too easy to get so caught up in the literality of a subject that the key elements of the abstract compositional design are overlooked.  One way I hoped to overcome that tendency – and train myself to do so habitually – was to focus solely on the abstract design, if necessary sacrificing detail and other minor elements for the sake of emphasizing the overall compositional design.

I decided to look at line, value, saturation changes, interplay among hues, and contrasts of all these elements to see if they alone, without extraneous detail, could capture my concept of the subject.  Could these elements alone express my primary impression?  I felt it was a question worth investigating.

A Japanese-style iris garden provided a promising subject to play with.  The angularity of the man-made element of a boardwalk across a garden pond contrasted in an interesting way with the curving sweep of the pond’s edge and the natural, rounded forms of the interspersed plantings.  I also took advantage of the boardwalk as an opportunity to introduce (and exaggerate) greater hue and temperature contrasts beyond those minor temperature biases found simply in variations of the dominant hue.

"Watergarden Boardwalk" (#170308wh)

“Watergarden Boardwalk” (#170308wh)

The original 8”x10” composition incorporated far too much detail outside of the focal area.  Although the extraneous shapes and lines helped to balance the overall composition, they were superfluous and distracting in terms of the concept.

"Watergarden Boardwalk" (#170308wv)

“Watergarden Boardwalk” (#170308wv)

Cropping the composition down to 7”x5” (and changing the orientation from horizontal to vertical) eliminated most of the unnecessary information.  The encircling lines of the shoreline and the white boardwalk enfolding the plantings were sacrificed.  But the crop now emphasized the boardwalk’s angularity in contrast to the rounded shapes, thus enhancing my original concept.

Suitability of Style

April 15th, 2017

In the past few weeks, I’ve recently been realizing just how conservative my painting approach has been.  I’m finding that my attempts at “creativity”—or perhaps more accurately, my variations from the literal—are more in the realm of simplification, substitution of colors, and composition layout than in experimentation with application techniques to help express the painting’s concept.

I admire in others’ work the use of strong, vibrant colors.  But I have to struggle to paint with such boldness myself.  I tend to be a quiet, rather unassuming person, not comfortable calling attention to myself.  My work reflects that.  Boldness is not appropriate for my work.  But what is?  The answer to that question is one every serious artist seeks, either consciously or unconsciously, until a personal style gradually emerges.  For some, the answer presents itself more readily than for others.

With each painting I undertake, evaluation almost always calls my attention to some aspect that could be adjusted to improve the effect.  And from these observations and revisions I’m continuously learning, reviewing old lessons, refining my observation skills, and adjusting my planning approach, preparatory to taking on the next subject.  This is an organic form of style development, growing bit by bit out of experience, even if not so daring as such do-or-die methods of experimentation as spattering paint across a canvas or encouraging runs and drips for the sake of unifying the image.

Perhaps some of those alternative methods would enhance my vision of a subject.  But, although I often admire such techniques in others’ work, most don’t coincide with my own aesthetic, personality, or artistic vision.  When I experiment, it should be to enhance my own visualization of the subject, not to emulate someone else’s technique.

So I’m looking now at some of the earliest influences that attracted me to any artwork:  These include the minimalist efficiency of Oriental art, particularly sumi-e and woodblock prints, subtlety of hue, graceful line, translucence, and limitation of detail to key areas.  I ask myself how they have affected my aesthetic, how they have influenced my work, and whether they have already (or could) become signature characteristics of my work.  Through this evaluation, I can see that yes, they do still excite me and are, to varying degrees, already evident in my paintings.

These influences may also explain why I’m more consistently drawn to the subtlety of watercolor than to the vibrant potential of oils or acrylics.  This realization reinforces my decision to focus on watercolor rather than on those other mediums that many artists consider easier to control.

The next step beyond recognizing how those specific influences have affected my work and preference of medium is to consciously incorporate more of those characteristics into future work to see if they eventually integrate themselves to a greater degree into my style, even without such conscious intent.

So another route of exploration is mapped out, and the journey continues….