Composition design – conscious or unconscious?

May 15th, 2019

When I show my students various master paintings to illustrate artistic principles and how they can be applied to enhance a composition, they often ask if the artist thought about all these principles before they began painting.

My answer is “yes and no.”

Most accomplished artists are well aware of the principles and how to apply them to enhance their visual concept for a composition.  But do they consciously plan how to use every one?  In some cases they do.  But to an even greater extent the principles may be applied intuitively rather than consciously … because it “feels right” to the artist.

Let’s back up a bit and look at the question from a different perspective.  The principles have been identified for a reason:  They work!  But which came first, the chicken or the egg, the principle or the application?

I believe the principles were identified because, originally, artists worked intuitively, positioning focal areas based on what was important, using color in ways that served a specific purpose, adjusting harmony to establish a mood, and so on, not because they had been taught to but because it was pleasing to their eye or served their aesthetic sense.  The commonality among the most pleasing works identified for subsequent generations of artists the principles that could be applied to create similarly pleasing or effective works.  So those principles were passed along to yet other artists so they wouldn’t have to “reinvent the wheel,” stumbling through so much of the process of trial and error themselves.

Trained artists today know how to consciously plan their compositions to most effectively express what they want their work to say, and they often spend a great deal of time working out many alternative approaches to the design, based on generally accepted artistic principles.  But those principles are not intended to create an image from scratch.  Instead, they merely refine and enhance the artist’s initial intuitive concept, guiding them in how to emphasize or de-emphasize certain elements to most effectively make their visual point.

So yes, some artists are very much aware of the principles and consciously use them to design a composition.  And no:  Other artists work intuitively, drawing primarily on their own aesthetic sense (usually based on the same aesthetics that are the basis for those principles) and what “feels right” to them, so are still applying many of those same principles but less consciously.

The former group is likely to have greater technical success because of their reliance on the principles, but may have more difficulty creatively if they become too insistent on following the “rules” too closely. The latter group may feel freer to paint creatively but is more likely to have inconsistent technical success because they may be overlooking potential enhancement opportunities or not recognizing some factor that actually weakens the design.

Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”  With purpose.

I expect that artists who do exactly that create the most consistently appealing work by consciously planning how to apply many of the principles as appropriate to convey their artistic vision while also allowing certain deviations for the sake of individual purpose and creativity.

Casting light on the subject … and on the palette

May 1st, 2019

One of my recent plein air outings taught me a valuable lesson.  I had gone with a plein air group to a local livestock ranch.  The morning was bright, sunny, and promised to become uncomfortably warm by mid-day.

As I wandered around, looking for a promising vista, I entered an open barn and, from the dim interior, was taken by the view out the open doorway.  I set up my easel to capture both the frame of the barn’s entrance and the view to the pastures beyond.

Setup in the barn.

Setup in the barn.

But as my eyes struggled with the intense contrast between the inside and the outside lighting, I discovered that they couldn’t adjust sufficiently to compensate for the low ambient lighting where I stood inside the barn.

By location, I knew which pile of paint was which on my palette, but the balances of the various paint mixtures were not so clear.  And though the value differences were somewhat easier to judge, the chroma was not.  Polyisochromes all appeared neutral, as indeed they were all leaning increasingly toward a neutral gray the more I worked with them.

I knew I was in trouble but, rather than finishing with the interior aspects and then repositioning my easel into better light, I struggled to continue in the original position.  That was a mistake.

After closing down and putting away my equipment, I checked the painting in the sunlight and was appalled at the outcome.  I later made some revisions to it in a well-lit studio, which helped.

"View from the Barn" - original version

“View from the Barn” – original version

“View-from-the-Barn,” with studio revisions, by Charlotte Mertz (6″x8″ oil, #190401-o)

Lesson learned:  Be sure there’s enough light on the palette to discern and judge the colors clearly.

Buzz about that Fly on the Wall

April 15th, 2019

Earlier this year I reviewed a French box easel, which I had found heavy and awkward to tote.  So in February, after looking for a lighter, smaller alternative for oil painting, I placed an order from the ProlificPainter.com website for a “Fly on the Wall” easel.  It arrived almost exactly a month later.  That’s a lot longer than most larger mail-order companies would have taken, but I understand that the Prolific Painter is a very small company—a sideline for Joshua Been, who is a plein air artist himself—so I allowed for the fact that easel sales are undoubtedly lower on his priority list than his own painting outings.  That being said, he’s probably not the best choice to order from if you need the easel for the following week’s painting adventures.

The easel itself is indeed a very compact box, 8¼” x 8¼” x 1¼”, when closed.  It is accompanied by a separate panel holder, which can attach either to a tripod (not included) or directly to the easel box with a specially designed coupler.  When using a tripod, the easel box has a pair of hooks that swing out to lightly embrace two of the tripod legs to hold it in place, while the panel holder is attached directly to the tripod head (with, it is assumed, a quick-release attachment – not included).  The coupled configuration, on the other hand, allows the artist to hold the entire setup in his or her lap or set it on a table without any need of a tripod.

The panel holder consists of a 14” vertical piece and two adjustable (detachable for transporting) 8” horizontal bars, which grip the painting panel by way of four small screws.  The screw heads fit over and under the top and bottom edges of the painting panel, respectively, allowing full brush access to the painting surface.  Unfortunately, because of the extra bolt needed to connect the panel holder to the easel box coupler, in the coupled configuration even when the gripping bars are as fully extended as possible above that, they were still ½” too close together to fit my 12”x9” vertical panel.  (By making some hardware substitutions and redrilling the screw holes, I was able to fit the 12” panel in.)  If the horizontal bars are both left attached but are turned to align with the vertical bar for packing, the minimum length is 16”.  The length may be reduced to the vertical’s original 14” length by turning the crossbars at an angle, which widens the combined width (though still less than 8” depending on the angle to which they are turned).  The coupler adds an additional 3” to the length when left attached.  Or all the pieces can be disassembled for repacking.  However, the bolts used are long, so are not particularly quick to assemble and disassemble.

The easel box itself consists of a 6½” x 6½” palette with a wing on both left and right sides that fold out for use as either equipment shelves or palette extensions (as I decided to use it).  I ordered it with a gray Plexiglas palette-proper, which came hot-glued around the edges to hold it into position in the palette box.  The beads of hot-glue usurped an additional ¼” or so of the already limited palette space.  But the gray background does make it easier for me to judge paint color than against the black of the box.  The Plexiglas does not extend onto the wings (which lap over the palette-proper when closed, allowing sufficient space for moderate piles of paint to remain in place for subsequent use).  I adapted both my wings for use as supplemental mixing areas by repainting the surface a mid-value gray to match the gray Plexiglas section between them.  That way, I still have the option of using them either as shelves or as extended mixing areas for my paint.

This is the coupled, tabletop configuration.  To maintain color harmony for the painting I was starting in this outing, I used only 4 tube colors and white. Unblended colors and their tints and a mixed neutral are in the center palette. I decided to use the wings for mixed secondaries and any chromatic variations.  I’d like eventually to make a practice of keeping warms on the left and cools on the right, but at this time I was still working out the best layout strategy. In case you’re wondering, the tripod-gripping arms have been extended here to anchor a trashbag behind the panel holder.

The Fly on the Wall, coupled, tabletop configuration.

To maintain color harmony for the painting I was starting in the outing shown above, I used only 4 tube colors and white. Unblended colors and their tints and a mixed neutral are in the center palette. I decided to use the wings for mixed secondaries and any chromatic variations.  I’d like eventually to make a practice of keeping warms on the left and cools on the right, but at this time I was still working out the best layout strategy. In case you’re wondering, the tripod-gripping arms have been extended here to anchor a trashbag behind the panel holder.

 

A lanyard is provided to hang both a half roll of paper towels and a can for medium (not included). Unlike the larger French box easel, there is no storage space within the easel itself for transporting paint tubes, brushes, palette knives, canvas or panels.  So a supply bag of some kind is needed to haul all the other miscellany most of us want along on a painting excursion.  I found that when set on a table, the coupled configuration was top heavy and tended to tip backwards.  Perhaps the weight of the medium can and paper towels is expected to offset that.  I don’t use a medium can so hung both the paper towels and my supply bag from the front (which effectively put the bag in my lap if I was sitting) to compensate for the weight distribution problem.

The written directions for setup definitely helped with the initial setup, but the accompanying explanatory photos are not easy to interpret if you’re not sure what you’re looking at in the first place.  A good editor for both the photos and the text would be beneficial.

Upon putting away the equipment after using it the first time (with a panel on which the painted surface extended to all edges—unlike the taped, unstretched canvas shown in the illustration), I realized belatedly that it’s important to immediately wipe down the gripping screwheads and the surfaces adjacent to the panel’s top and bottom edges to remove any paint that may have gotten onto them.  Otherwise, you’re almost guaranteed to pick up smears of paint on both hands and clothes.

I expect I will use the easel box as a supplemental alternative to carry with my watercolor easel on plein air outings.  The box attaches to the watercolor tripod the same way as to any other, and the tripod’s pre-attached panel support is at least as sturdy as the Fly’s, so precludes any need for either the Fly’s tripod panel-support setup or the coupled configuration.  Because of its size and shape, the easel itself is no problem to pack (though the panel support and coupler pieces aren’t as space efficient).

Recommendations:  Face it:  The concept behind the Fly on the Wall is cute.  It’s lightweight, the easel box is small and easy to handle, and it can be used in very confined spaces.  The wings appear to be solidly attached and allow space to leave piles of paint on the palette between setups.

This system is passable if you can be content with a very small palette, don’t mind being limited to smallish paintings, and can find a way to pack the peripheral components.   It could be a good option if you use straight tube colors requiring minimal mixing, as some of my plein air friends do.  … Or if you want to force yourself to control your color mixing tendencies.

On the other hand, despite its “cuteness,” the Fly is certainly not ideal for everyone.  I found that I needed to make several adaptations to be able to cope with its quirks.  It is also probably not the best choice to order if you need to receive it quickly.  And if your style is to mix high and low values of warm and cool variations of all your hues, as well as a plentiful supply of colorful grays, the Fly is unlikely to meet your spacial needs.

Evaluate your painting style, space requirements, and adaptability before selecting which easel is appropriate for you.

Busy, busy, … but on the right busy-ness?

April 1st, 2019

Hmm!  Did someone pull an early April Fool joke on me?  How did that happen?

It seems I got roped into working on some community projects these past few weeks, which are taking up an incredible amount of time … and unfortunately sidetracking me from much of the painting that I’d really rather be doing.  Sure, these projects are important and appreciated, but they seem to multiply, leading from one project to another, and requiring that I learn new computer programs to support what needs to get done, thereby utterly devouring my time.

I know that these are jobs that do need doing.  And we have a scarcity of volunteers.  (Perhaps because any potential volunteers know that, as in my case, once the job is “owned,” others don’t feel a need–nor may dare–to take it on.)  So it seems that, like the US Supreme Court judges, once you’re in position, the job is yours for life.

What to do?   How to get back to what’s important to me?  I’m sure I’m not the first person to get caught up on this merry-go-round.  What do you do when you find your time usurped in the wrong directions?  How do you reclaim control?

For me, it has meant scheduling more conscientiously to keep my priorities in place … and sticking as closely to that schedule as possible; carving out painting and personal time, cutting out some R&R time, and strictly limiting acquiescence to others’ demands and sense of priorities.  It hasn’t been easy.

I learned a long time ago the need to say “no.”  But occasionally there’s also a need to pull our own weight and contribute to society.  So then we need to say “yes!”  Where’s the balance?  Have you found it?  I welcome feedback.

Pursuing possibilities — Watercolor pencils

March 15th, 2019

As I look ahead to our spring and summer “seeing America” travels, I’m trying a different approach to quick, plein-air watercolor sketching–exploring the potential of watercolor pencils in lieu of using a full watercolor or oil setup.

I began by practicing with watercolor pencils in my studio, working from photos I had already used for previous paintings, just to get a feel for the process.  After creating the sketch and massing in the colors with the pencils, I used a moist brush to blend the colors to give the sketch a more traditional “watercolor” appearance.

From there, I graduated to doing some simplified sketches from life.  And now I take a small kit of pencils with me when I go out in the car so I can stop along the way to do a little plein air work without having to to get out an entire painting setup.  It’s also easy to use at our kitchen table or on our lanai for a spur-of-the-moment sketch to catch the atmosphere over the pond behind our house.

"Still Water and Riffles" by Charlotte Mertz  (5.5"x5.5" watercolor pencil, #190215wcp)

“Still Water and Riffles” by Charlotte Mertz
(5.5″x5.5″ watercolor pencil, #190215wcp)

My kit, which is roughly the size and form of a book (adapted from another less useful, commercial colored-pencil kit), includes a set of 16 (my own selection) of Derwent watercolor pencils, sharpener, Pentel waterbrush (with a reservoir in the handle), small piece of toweling, and either a 6″x6″ or a 4″x6″ cold-press watercolor pad. (Though hot-press paper would probably be better to use with the pencils, it is difficult to find HP in such small pads.) The pencils are held in place in groups of three with an elastic band and a fabric pocket to protect the tips.  Another piece of toweling wraps over the outside edge and top of the pencils to keep them from slipping out when the kit is being carried.

My watercolor-pencil travel kit

My watercolor-pencil travel kit

I may or may not use the brush on location, depending on how much time is available to complete the sketch.  If I haven’t time to use the brush, that part can be completed later.  The important parts are getting the sketch on paper and massing in the critical colors, either singly or layered, keeping in mind that they will blend more fully once they are moistened.  The resulting study may be a not-yet-ready-for-primetime sketch but is certainly sufficient for reference purposes or even personal souvenirs of a trip.

Learning the comparative strengths of the different colors and how much to apply of each pigment, particularly when layering, is my greatest current challenge and I expect it will become an ongoing study.

So far the process seems to be working well, providing a viable limited-fuss painting alternative for our upcoming travels.