Archive for the ‘My way of doing it’ Category

Scaling the heights

Saturday, June 1st, 2019

As I began planning some studio paintings of our most recent trip to the western U.S., I was drawn repeatedly to a scene from Zion National Park, in Utah.  At the beginning of our riverside walk along the Virgin River, the sun and shadows had crept slowly across the canyon walls towering overhead.  Heavy snows over the past winter led to a heavier-than-normal runoff this spring, resulting in a fine-line waterfall over the precipice, further feeding the swelling river, and rendering the Narrows (a twisting, normally wadable section of the stream) impassable on foot.  So although we were unable to hike the Narrows on this trip, we were treated to this rare view of the falls.  I thought it was worth commemorating in paint.

Hoping to capture the early morning light on the majestic stone walls, my first effort was in oils. I realized how critical it would be to include figures within the composition:  Something was needed to provide a sense of scale to the scene.  Without including any figures in the image, the trees in the foreground might be assumed to be roughly the height of a person, which would minimize the apparent height of the canyon walls.  With the figures in place, however, the viewer realizes how comparatively tall the trees, in fact, are, which in turn provides a more accurate scale for the towering walls of the canyon.

"Springtime Fall, Zion National Park" by Charlotte Mertz, 12"x9" oil on panel.  190501

“Springtime Fall, Zion National Park” by Charlotte Mertz, 12″ x 9″ oil on panel

But despite this preplanning, for several reasons I still wasn’t entirely happy with the resulting composition.  So I rethought the concept and reconsidered how to more effectively express it, ultimately placing more emphasis on the towering height than on the sunlight’s influence on the stone.  This time I chose an elongated format in watercolor to emphasize the verticality of the scene.  Another technique I used was to emphasize the vertical fissures and de-emphasize many of the curving and horizontal cracks, except where they were needed to describe the broken character of the wall and the interrupted fall of water. Once again, it was critical to include figures in the foreground to provide a sense of scale.

"From the Heights," by Charlotte Mertz (12"x6" watercolor, #190502w)

“From the Heights,” by Charlotte Mertz
(12″x6″ watercolor, #190502w)

The resulting composition much more closely approximates the overwhelming sensations I experienced at the site.  Ironically, the sense of light improved in the second composition, as well, due primarily to my choice of a warmer dominant color to describe the hue of the sunlit stone.

Pursuing possibilities — Watercolor pencils

Friday, 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.

Ideas adapted from life

Friday, February 1st, 2019

If you are a long-time follower of my blog, you probably already know that I take innumerable travel photos for reference purposes.  But I don’t always paint from them verbatim.  The same is true of plein-air sketches, painted quickly on location.  Sometimes they simply trigger an idea that I may want to explore, or suggest a similar scene translated to a different place or circumstance.

This studio oil painting was derived from an idea whose gist had been captured earlier in a plein-air watercolor sketch.

"Beached," by Charlotte Mertz (8"x10" oil on canvas, #181202-o)

“Beached,” by Charlotte Mertz
(8″x10″ oil on canvas, #181202-o)

Knowing that I didn’t have to copy the original scene exactly as it had been, I felt free to adapt the landscape and sky and even change the shape, angle, and colors of the boat to suit my vision for this studio composition.

But when the painting still appeared incomplete, it took some stepping back to recognize what it was missing:  Although the sailboat I’d seen on the shore had had a mast, it had no boom, and the shallow hull lacked a stabilizing keel, so would have required a removable centerboard. (It helps to be familiar enough with the subject matter that generalizations can be made for purposes of adaptation, but a more knowledgeable sailor than I am might still take exception to other aspects of the vessel.  For those aberrations I claim artistic license!)

Adding a boom with furled sail, a centerboard on the ground beside the beached vessel, and a threatening sky helped suggest a more interesting narrative about this apparently abandoned boat.  After making these editorial changes, I was much happier with the finished painting than I’d been with the original sketch.

The length and the breadth and the sweep …

Saturday, December 15th, 2018

Totally aside from the primary destinations of our travels, I enjoy seeing the unfamiliar countryside we pass between our stops.  Whether driving through open farmland, mountain ranges, forests, winding roads along tumbling rivers, or views entirely different, while my traveling companions may read or nap, I try to keep my eyes open to appreciate “the length and the breadth and the sweep” of the changing views.

I had been intrigued by the irregularity of the coastline, the network of meandering waterways, and the grasslands that separated them when we had flown over the Georgia coast last year.  In November this year, my husband and I had the opportunity to take a coach excursion through some of that area, particularly those low-lying tidal plains south of Savannah.

"Marshes of Glynn" by Charlotte Mertz  (9"x12" oil, #181103-o)

“Marshes of Glynn” by Charlotte Mertz
(9″x12″ oil, #181103-o)

The sky was overcast, and a persistent drizzle flecked the bus windows, but I found the lovely gray arch of the distant Lanier Bridge (named for the Sidney Lanier, author of the poem,“The Marshes of Glynn,” which lyrically depicted the wetlands) just as appealing as the autumnal colors in the marsh itself.

Although I could not disembark at the time to paint the scenery, and photos shot from the bus window were blurred with rain, I was later able to undertake a studio painting to depict my impression of the scene as we passed.

Sometimes paint can be a better recorder of memories than a camera.  It may not be as literally accurate, but it can be much more evocative of mood than a quickly snatched snapshot. And, when painted from memory or even poorly executed artist-created reference images, the painting process itself transports the artist back to the pleasures of the original experience.

 

Culling, culling, gone!

Monday, October 15th, 2018

The time is approaching to tackle one job that’s never much fun: (Have you guessed it?)  Identifying and ridding my studio of all those paintings that “didn’t quite make it.”

It isn’t easy. And it’s certainly not fun to recognize (and admit) that not everything is saleable … or should even be kept. Some pieces that seem to have made the grade a year or two ago, upon later consideration may not live up to current standards. So it’s time to do some aggressive culling.

When too many recent paintings are culled, it’s a warning signal to me that I may be getting careless and not giving it my best effort.

I tend to hold onto paintings for which I feel a personal sentiment–usually of family members or those with special personal significance to me–despite any compositional weaknesses.  But those don’t remain available for public consumption.

Yet the temptation is to try to salvage some of those other “almost” efforts, as well. Though it is occasionally possible to correct or overcome a weakness, it’s usually better to face facts and to put on my Critical Teacher cap.

At the top of the agenda is identifying specific weaknesses and acknowledging yet another lesson from The School of Oops: Were the colors poorly chosen, or wimpy, or overstated? Was the value pattern weak or too busy? Could the compositional design have been stronger? Was the perspective a little off? (If you’re looking for an example of how I critique, you may want to sign up for my monthly newsletter “Around and About,” in which I always include a painting critique—what works, what doesn’t, and how it might be improved.)

It’s worth spending time on an in-depth critique to figure out not only what did work well but exactly what went wrong with each one and why it didn’t make the grade. Only then can I consider modifications. If a piece is going to be culled anyway, I might as well play with it, experiment, and try retouching it to learn what I can from it. Yes, it’s gratifying to be able to salvage a cull or two.  But they’re the exception, and the rest must be dispensed with.

The culling process also brings to my attention that, while I may have succeeded in my primary focus goal (this year it’s been on small, plein air watercolors), I may have neglected other areas. (This year, for instance, I’ve done fewer figurative pieces, larger-sized paintings, and oils.) These are areas I will need to consider giving more attention to in the coming year.

Another benefit (and greater comfort) as I face another session of culling is recognizing once again that although not all my work may live up to my highest standards, it’s because those standards are continuing to rise that they become more difficult to meet.

No matter how good our work may get, the artist’s challenge is always before us:  to observe more closely, to stretch our skills, and to strengthen our work overall. So … onward! Are you with me?