Subject Selection

August 15th, 2016

The question for today’s blog poses an even more challenging exploration than the question of medium, discussed in my previous entry.

Why do I select the subject matter I do?   And how does that relate to who I am?  The truth is that I am drawn to such a wide variety of subject matter that it’s difficult to find the commonalities that will help me answer that question.

My personality is such that I like people to get to the point.  So I try to get to the point, myself.  And it holds true for painting, too, which is probably why my work tends to retain a certain degree of realism, concentrating on the focal area and merely suggesting, to varying degrees, the supporting information.  Fun and innovation are fine, but I try to be as considerate of my viewers as I want others to be of me, incorporating fun that my viewers can relate to and enjoy along with me.

What interests me in a subject?  I’m drawn to subjects that allude to universality more than specifics and that trigger the viewer’s imagination.  I like to use landscapes that, though usually of real places from my own life experience, may suggest similar locales from the viewer’s personal or vicarious experiences—allowing an armchair traveler, for instance, to liken it to something he or she has read about, even if not having experienced something similar in person.

Winter Point (#160711-o)

Winter Point (#160711-o)

I like to depict a sense of timelessness or indications of passing time more than modernity.  Graceful, organic lines appeal to me more than architectural angularity.

When considering light, I look for translucence, side-lit and back-lit subjects, or a glow of color that enlivens an otherwise unexceptional subject.   And I like the “language” and added dimensionality of reflections.

Gulf Beach (#150206-w)

Gulf Beach (#150206-w)

When my subjects are people or animals, I look for the gesture—a sense of action or dynamic tension that suggests the figure’s unique identity, what the subject is doing, or something about the subject’s character or personality.  In faces, I look for something interesting or characteristic in proportions, features, or expression that will help to define the subject for the viewer—more than the eye alone might normally notice.

Bailey (#081201-w)

Bailey (#081201-w)

To me, these things are beautiful and worth drawing attention to, and I want to express their value for my viewers’ consideration and appreciation.

Happy Mediums

August 1st, 2016

In order to maintain consistency and quality, I must continually review and evaluate not only my work but my motivation for painting.  I’m going to be raising some questions through the next few blogs to help me think through what I am doing and why I make the choices I do.  The questions I’ll be exploring in today’s blog are “What do I love about the mediums I choose?” and “How do I select which one to use for a project?”

As you may have guessed already, my two favorite mediums are watercolor and oils.  These paints have extremely different characteristics and methods for application, so what is it that draws me to each?

What do I love about watercolor?  As I’ve written previously, I love the flow and spontaneity of watercolor, the challenge of permitting it to “do its thing” while controlling its parameters.  I enjoy its transparency and the ease of taking it with me when I travel.  It is a wonderful medium for allowing the underlying paper to reflect the brilliance of sunshine and other light passages.  Darks become a counterpoint to those light passages for the sake of contrast, and even they can exhibit transparent, colorful undertones.

Dawn of a New Day (#160704w)

Dawn of a New Day (#160704w)

So what about oils, which behave so very differently?  In fact, it is those very differences from watercolor that draw me to oils.  What I like most is the control they allow me to maintain over the colors as I mix them on the palette.  There is much less guesswork in achieving and maintaining desired values, and in creating the desired blends of hues for repeated use throughout the composition than there is with watercolor.  Oils tend to stay put when I position them on the canvas, rather than running wildly when they contact an adjacent wet passage.   This is still a comparatively new medium for me, so much of my current work is experimental and investigative to develop my skills and to understand its use more thoroughly.

Morning Calm (#160705o)

Morning Calm (#160705o)

Why do I choose one medium or another for a specific project?  My selection of watercolor or oils for any specific painting depends not only on the subject matter and on what I want to do with it but on my purpose for the painting.  My mood at that time also plays a role in my selection, as well as my momentary sense of play or desire for control over my work.  Sometimes I approach the same subject in both watercolor and oils, as I did in the paintings above, to explore possibilities, to compare the outcome, or as a challenge to myself to overcome perceived difficulties or expectations.

Because watercolor begins with light tones and oils begin with darks, using both mediums forces me to think through how the composition could be constructed most effectively, where and how the basic design structure can be strengthened and how the desired effects might be enhanced.  It requires thorough preplanning, which ultimately ensures better overall work in either medium.

Rules made to be broken?

July 15th, 2016

Art is one of those pursuits that benefit from continuing practice and analytical study, as well as reaching out in different media.  As I delve more heavily into using oil paints, I am investigating the ramifications of a dilemma that long-standing rules of painting don’t appear (to me, anyway) to address sufficiently.

Traditionally, oil paints have been thinned with turpentine or other solvent for a looser, freer-flowing consistency, particularly in underlying layers that must dry before subsequent, “fattier” layers (with a higher proportion of oil to pigment).  This approach is stated in two ways—“fat over lean” (meaning that layers with lower oil content should precede layers with heavier oil content) and “thick over thin” (meaning that thin applications should go down on the canvas before thicker, more viscous layers).  A third “rule” is that darks go down before lighter values.  The first two of these rules help to ensure that underlying layers set up firmly and dry before the upper layers.  If the upper layers dry first, they are subject to cracking and possibly flaking off as the underlying layers continue to dry.

My dilemma arises through my preference to avoid using solvents.  I’ve tried using water-soluble oils, but I don’t like the feel of working with them.  The consistency and behavior aren’t the same as those of traditional oils, so I rely on thinning my paint with additional oil, rather than with solvents, even in the underlying layers.  So what is the best approach to layering my paint under these conditions?  By adding oil to thin the dark, underlying layers, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to maintain the fat-over-lean requirement.

I surveyed a number of colleagues who paint in oils, as well as a paint manufacturer (M.Graham) who advertises their paint as being ideal for solvent-free applications, to see what all of them would recommend.  The results were overwhelmingly that thin, underlayers should remain low in oil, ideally being used straight from the tube.  But “straight from the tube” is rarely (if ever) a thin application.  And if subsequent layers of the tube paint should have any additional oil incorporated into them, they would necessarily be thinner, not thicker, thereby breaking the guideline of thick over thin.

So which rule takes precedence—fat over lean, or thick over thin?

In order to overcome the problem, I’ve decided to try mixing alkyd medium (which promotes more rapid drying) into my darks for the initial applications.  This will allow the underneath layers to dry more quickly, before the later layers.

This brings to the fore a second but related issue:  To speed drying, to more easily transport fresh paintings, plein air painters often like to incorporate alkyd medium into their typically slow-drying titanium white, which is used to raise the value of tube colors.  For my purposes, however, it probably wouldn’t be advisable, as the alkyd incorporated into the value-raising whites would increase the drying rate for the later, higher-value layers.  This would compromise the relative drying-rate difference between the upper layers and the initial underlying dark layer, in which the alkyd medium was used for thinning.

Although the manufacturer recommended against using both oil and alkyd medium in the same composition, I am inclined to overlook that guideline to allow me to use additional oil in any final glazes used to incorporate detail into the almost-finished composition.

If you have faced and found a solution to this same issue in your own work, I would be interested to hear how you resolved it.

Deferred, not Deterred

July 1st, 2016

Totally aside from travel, sometimes simple demands of life interfere with consistent—or even any—painting.  I was reminded of this fact this past month, when, after having been out of the country for a month, my husband and I got caught up in the need to take frequent, time-consuming shopping trips to research and select materials and appliances for a rather extensive home update, demanding considerable time and energy I could otherwise have preferred to devote to painting.

Although my easel stood abandoned for yet another month, that didn’t mean my art was forgotten.  Instead, it simply meant that the mental exercises I would normally apply to observing and painting a locale were still carried out as though I were going to paint the scene.  I still shot reference photos with painting in mind.

Not only did I continue looking for interesting compositions, but I was also observing the finer points of color—the variations of hue between warm light and cool shadow, the comparative width of a penumbra (the diffused light at the very edge of a shadow) in relation to the strength or diffusion of the light source, the effect of backlighting, how value and saturation differentiated overlapping layers of foliage, and determining the actual hue and value of shadowed or reflective “whites.”

Foliage, rocks, and water, photographed for study and reference.

Foliage, rocks, and water, photographed for study and reference.

I also paid attention to the form (or “itness”) of different types of trees and rock formations in the area, and how I could express them in paint.  I considered what concepts occurred to me when I was drawn to certain scenes we passed along the road on our outings.  For instance, why did one cluster of buildings interest me while another did not?  How would I indicate the textural difference between two types of trees?  What pigments would I use to illustrate the color and translucence of backlit flowers?  How could I mix (and avoid desaturating) a color to achieve exactly the representation I was looking for?

Even when I couldn’t actually apply the paint to paper or canvas, I was still making a conscious effort to train my eye to observe these things carefully and my mind to consider potential approaches to representing what I would want to express to others.   Yes, even though the fun of actually painting had to be deferred, sometimes there’s real value in delayed gratification.


Handling Hurdles

June 15th, 2016

Those who have been reading my blog for some time know that although travel experiences frequently serve as inspiration for my work, the extended time away from the studio is always very disruptive to my routine and productivity.  As I considered how to overcome that hurdle this spring, wanting to get back into a consistent work flow after a month’s absence, I recalled that “hurdle” is not only a noun—a barrier in my path to be gotten over—but a verb to describe the very act of getting beyond it!

My trusty thesaurus confirmed that most of the synonyms for the verb are positive, reflecting joy, energy, and playfulness.  Terms like leap, jump, and vault suggest a joyful challenge, while words like caper, spring, and gambol (though literally synonyms of “leap” rather than “hurdle”) reminded me that hurdles can be overcome with playfulness and a sense of fun.

So why was I finding it so difficult to get back to work?  Was it fear?  Lethargy?  Loss of focus?  Had I simply forgotten the joy?  It was hard to say.   In any case, the hurdle must be faced.  It’s awfully difficult to get over any hurdle by turning away from it.

So I filled my water bucket, picked up a brush, and began playing with a watercolor sketch I had left only almost completed.  Using a palette of completely different colors, I set out to add greater depth of value, experiment with increasing contrasts of saturation, and dipped into fresh colors I hadn’t used in the initial applications.

Root of the Issue (#160501w)

Root of the Issue (#160501w)

It was fun!  (Why should I feel so surprised?)  My brush began to cavort across the paper, gamboling with the bounce of a spring lamb.  The painting took on fresh liveliness, and I began to feel the positive power prevail.   I was back on track and primed to keep at it!