Archive for the ‘My way of seeing things’ Category

Value key vs. value dominance

Sunday, September 1st, 2019

I have noticed some confusion about the difference between the concepts of “value keys” and “value dominance.”  It is easy for beginning artists to confuse the two.

Value dominance means that most (usually more than half) of a painting is within a designated (high, middle, or low) value range.  A full-value-range painting may have high-, low-, or middle-value dominance.  But when a painting shifts from a full range of values to either high or low key, the values are compacted into a narrower range, usually at either the high or low end of the value scale.

That means that in a high key painting virtually all the lowest values will be in the middle or low-middle range, with very few exceptions because even  “black” objects and dark shadows will be influenced by the atmospheric effect of so much apparent ambient light.

Bato Dugarzhapov, beach scene

Bato Dugarzhapov, beach scene

This beach scene by the Russian Impressionist Bato Dugarzhapov is high key but shows a wide range of value within the high- and middle-value levels.  Even the lowest values in this composition, however, are strongly influenced by the ambient light so remain in the mid-value range, which keeps this dominantly high-value composition in the high-value key.

In a low-key painting, virtually all the highest values will fall into the middle or upper-middle range (with the exception, perhaps, of a “pure” light source such as the sun or a lit light bulb, which begs the question of why the artist tried to establish the scene in the lower key to begin with).  The rare high value appearing in a low-value image is more common in a photograph than in a painting, and even then, the points of light, like stars in a nighttime sky, normally appear quite small and neither obtrusive nor very influential to its immediate surroundings.

Van Gogh, "Starry Night"

Van Gogh, “Starry Night”

Vincent VanGogh’s “Starry Night,” shown above, shows low-value dominance rather than low key because the points of light in the sky are crucial to the concept: Their brilliance is exaggerated rather than subdued within the otherwise low-value field.  If, on the other hand, the composition had been limited to the lower right corner, showing only the village, with minor and subdued points of light in the windows of the buildings (see detail below), it could have been described as being low key.

Van Gogh, "Starry Night" (detail)

Van Gogh, “Starry Night” (detail)

Alternatively, mid-key paintings rely only on the middle range of the value scale, with very little in either the upper or lower range, which limits value contrast.

Loren MacIver’s “Morning Cart,” below, is an example of a mid-key painting.  The lowest values are no lower than mid-value and there is very little in a higher value range (compare it to Dugarzhapov’s high-key painting above.  The narrow value range severely limits the value contrast available.  In this case, the low contrast served the artist’s purpose to suggest atmospheric effects.

Loren MacIver, "Morning Cart"

Loren MacIver, “Morning Cart”

On the other hand, Winslow Homer’s “Fog Warning,” below, has middle-value dominance.  The mid-value grays and browns and overall low saturation are critical to convey the concept of the threatening fog, but the low value of the shadows and the high value of the fish and whitecaps provide a contrast to the scene that help to express the narrative by not only suggesting greater detail but also emphasizing the important overall grayness of the atmosphere.

Winslow Homer, "Fog Warning"

Winslow Homer, “Fog Warning”

The viewer’s (often unconscious) desire for value contrast is probably the main reason that full-range paintings are generally more appealing than strictly mid-key compositions.   But, as illustrated here, any key or value dominance can be applied effectively when used with planning and forethought to serve the purposes of the artist’s concept.

Head knowledge vs. experiential knowledge

Monday, July 1st, 2019

We learn through both head knowledge and experiential knowledge.  But there’s a vast difference between them.  What are the benefits and limitations of each?  How can they be combined to optimize our understanding and appreciation of art?

We begin our lives with experiential learning—primarily through cause and effect.  When we cry we get attention; when we touch something hot it hurts.  We remember these lessons well.

As we get into school, a higher proportion of our learning is through head knowledge—being told something and being expected to remember and apply it.  Difficulties arise when we “learn” (by rote) information for which we have no experiential understanding to which we can relate it.  To a young child, what real difference is there among the dates 1492, 1776, and 2001?  They were all so long before a child was born that they seem to be only random numbers and therefore must be memorized along with their significance.  And what is their significance?  The child is too inexperienced yet to fully understand.  For this reason, pure head knowledge is more difficult to retain.

On the other hand, our life experiences can be so complex and overwhelming that we don’t know what specific lessons we should be looking for or learning from.  Have you ever been somewhere with someone who keeps saying, “Did you see that?  What do you think about that?” while you were looking at or thinking about something else entirely and have no idea to what they were referring?  Each of us notices those things to which we are already attuned but tend to overlook those things to which our minds don’t immediately relate.

This is why, when we have been shopping for a specific model of new car, for instance, we tend to notice similar models on the road more readily than before we began car shopping.  Our eyes become attuned to it and easily pick that model out of the mass of traffic around us.  Suddenly it may appear that “everyone” is driving that model!

But how does this apply to art?  Art is like the traffic, whizzing past us this way and that–every vehicle from bicycles to 18-wheelers, junkers to Maseratis.  Some feel comfortably familiar; others may seem like our “dream cars,” while others feel intimidating.  Yet each serves someone’s transportation needs.  Each of these vehicles needs certain elements to be effective.  If the engine doesn’t run or the bicycle chain disengages, the vehicles won’t get very far.  If an expensive car doesn’t garner the admiration the owner was hoping for, it may soon be replaced with a different model.  Similarly, if a piece of artwork fails to fulfill its purpose it will probably not gain much of a viewing audience.

But what is the key that makes the difference?  What should we be looking for?  This is where head knowledge comes into play.  By having been told what to look for, it’s easier for us to recognize the answers when we see them.

Perhaps the most important element of head knowledge to look for is the purpose.  What is the car/art trying to accomplish?  A simple, quick sketch is like a bicycle—minimal fuss, but it gets the artist /rider where it’s going.  A fancy, expensive gas-guzzler may be on the road more to declare the driver’s taste and wealth than to provide efficient transportation, just as an expensive piece of art may be chosen to display financial success in a corporation’s executive suite.  Like a Flower Child’s rusty, daisy-covered VW, another piece of art may express the artist’s whimsical sense of humor or political stance with no pretense of refinement.

What appeals to one person’s needs/taste/desires will not necessarily appeal to everyone else’s.  But understanding the elements that makes a vehicle – or artwork – appeal to you will help you recognize why one option will serve your purposes better than another.

Understanding the specifics of what appeals to you (as either an artist or a viewer) is a matter of experiential knowledge.  Recognizing the mechanics of design elements that fulfill a specific purpose is a matter of head knowledge.  We need to develop understanding in both areas to make the best possible choices, not only in appreciating and selecting artwork but in creating it.

To reinforce my own head knowledge, and to share with others some of what I have learned through experience, I include in my monthly newsletter, “Around and About,” a critique of one of my artworks to review how certain design elements or techniques may or may not have been successfully applied, and in what ways the composition might have been strengthened.  See the sidebar signup form to receive Charlotte’s newsletter, “Around and About.”

Why paint?

Saturday, June 15th, 2019

The question arises periodically and eludes a simple answer.  “Why paint?”  It may be different for every artist, yet for many there are similarities.  So specifically, why do I paint?  Is it for money, prestige, appreciation, sense of accomplishment, self-satisfaction, recreation, …?  All of those elements may play into my reasoning to some degree—some more than others.  Let’s see if I can explain.

I love a sense of line, the flow and rhythms of fluid line, the gradual blending of colors, transitions from one form to another.  As a child, I recall studying a daffodil to observe how the petals’ curve transitioned into the cylindrical bell, and how a stem transitioned into a seed case and sepals.  My favorite colors then were not red and blue but turquoise and cerise and the curious change their blending rendered.  Even then I was asking questions:  If my skin is “pink,” then why did a “pink” crayon in the coloring book look more like sunburn?  I drew more pictures than took notes in my school notebooks.  I studied the illustrations in my story books, in chapter books, envied the fluency of C.W. Anderson’s and Wesley Dennis’s equine illustrations and began illustrating my own verses.  I drew horses, too.  But, for the sake of accuracy, my father recommended that I try observing real horses rather than drawing from my imagination.  It was good advice.  But I received little artistic guidance or instruction in school.  So I determined that I would become the teacher I had never had.  I would teach art.

In college, my classes taught me about teaching … but not about art.  I gave it up to become a writer and editor instead.  Decades later, my husband retired, and, on a whim, I took a beginning watercolor class.  It captured my imagination, and I determined to pursue it seriously.  You might say I fell in love with it.  The color flowed once again, and I haven’t stopped since.  The medium I choose to  work in now varies—I have worked with not only watercolor, but oils, acrylics, pastels, charcoal, graphite, and watercolor pencils, among others.  But the reason is the same.  I can’t NOT!

I still love a sense of line, the flow and rhythms of fluid line, and the gradual transitions between colors, forms, … and ideas.  And I still love to exchange knowledge with other people who have similar interests—whether they are my colleagues, students, teachers, or simply exploring a variety of possibilities and ideas.

I’m not one who needs continual praise or recognition, though sincere appreciation is, of course, appreciated.  And prestige is attractive, opening additional doors, but it isn’t my goal.  So it isn’t praise that drives me.

Neither am I one who seeks affirmation through financial return; nor do I need to support the family through my painting, though I do like to be able to bring in enough to more than cover my expenses.  So money doesn’t drive my painting.

So why do I paint?

Painting is enlightening.  It encourages me to see differently, more precisely, more deeply.  It helps me evaluate the whys and hows as well as the whats.

Painting keeps me real.  It humbles me as I enter a playing field with more highly developed technicians and alternative approaches, while the opportunity to guide novices reminds me of how far I’ve already come.

Painting challenges me.  I must identify a purpose, a concept to express and find the means to express it effectively.  It challenges me to continually strive for improvement, for accuracy, or for conciseness.  There are always questions to pose, problems to resolve, decisions to justify.

Painting brings a sense of order.  Like that of most of us, my daily life is fragmented—a few minutes at this task, an hour at that, meals to prepare, laundry to do, telephone calls, errands to run, …  Committing a block of time to painting focuses me, providing a restful continuity for part of my day.  I have time to think, to feel, to express myself visually, without interruption—or at least for extended periods with self-selected breaks.

So my motivation to paint appears to be in the challenge, the enlightenment it brings, and the re-creation and re-affirmation of my selfness.  If my work speaks to others as well, I’m blessed.

Composition design – conscious or unconscious?

Wednesday, 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.

Buzz about that Fly on the Wall

Monday, 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.