Archive for the ‘The School of Oops’ Category

What’s in a name?

Sunday, March 15th, 2020

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but the wrong title for a painting can stink.

"Zion, Face to Face" by Charlotte Mertz (9"x12" oil, 190701-o)

“Zion, Face to Face” by Charlotte Mertz (9″x12″ oil, 190701-o)

Initially, when seeking a title for this painting, I had been concerned that there might be some question regarding what was casting the canyon wall into shadow. But, by titling this painting “Silhouettes and Shadows” as a clarification, I inadvertently misdirected the viewers’ attention to unlit sections rather than to the sunlit area of the painting that the shadow underscored.

After allowing the painting to rest and resonate with me for some time, I knew that I needed to find a more appropriate title that would both identify Zion National Park as the specific locale the scene depicted and emphasize the lighted portion of the stone wall rather than the supporting features of the shadow and silhouetted trees.

In many instances, artists find it preferable to avoid citing specific locations painted, allowing the viewer to imagine a location based on their own background and experiences.  In the case of a well known or iconic location, however, it is often advantageous to specify it in the title.

In Zion National Park, the names of many of the geological features allude to biblical references.  The new title I selected, “Zion, Face to Face,” specifically cites the name of the park. “Face to Face” may be understood in either of two ways—first by suggesting that the viewer is seeing Zion “in person” through the eyes of the artist, and second by suggesting that the shadow is cast by a second wall facing the one illustrated. In either case, it draws attention to the textured rock face of the canyon wall instead of to the peripheral, shadowed areas.  The phrase “Face to Face” also alludes to a biblical passage in I Corinthians 13:12. For those familiar with the passage, this, in turn, underscores the brilliant light and clarity of the park’s atmosphere.

So the new title, rather detracting from the painting, now contributes to and enhances the intended concept of it.  Can it get any sweeter than that?

The value of comparison

Sunday, March 1st, 2020

Artists are frequently warned, “Don’t compare your work with others.” And, to a degree, that’s good advice. Particularly when we are first learning to paint, we tend to become caught up in trying to be “as good as” someone else and lose sight of how far our own work may have already progressed in relation to where it used to be. The tendency is to try to become “as good as” someone else by doing what they are doing or by adopting their methods or materials, rather than trusting our own voice and hand.

Although it is valuable to learn alternative techniques and extend our understanding and ideas by viewing the work of other artists, we also need to find what works best for our own approach and purposes. By comparing the quality of our early work with that of other artists, we are often (rightly) humbled that ours doesn’t quite measure up, while at the same time we can lose sight of what’s good about our own work. That kind of comparison gives us a challenge to overcome, something to strive for. But by mistakenly adopting methods or “tricks” of other artists, we may become discouraged because their techniques might not work as well for us.

So we need to be careful when making comparisons.

However, as our work advances and we begin to develop confidence in our own methods and style, comparison to the work of other artists can be helpful.  It can give us a more healthy and balanced perspective on how much farther we have to go, in what areas we could benefit from further improvement, and whether our price points may need to be adjusted to align with work at a similar level.

"Getting to the Point," by Charlotte Mertz  (10"x8" watercolor, #190906w)

“Getting to the Point,” by Charlotte Mertz
(10″x8″ watercolor, #190906w)

Showing my painting, “Getting to the Point,” in the National Art Exhibition (on display now until March 25, 2020) at the Visual Arts Center, in Punta Gorda, Florida, has given me just such an opportunity. It was a great honor to have my work juried into this outstanding exhibition. But it also called my attention to some areas that I ought to pay closer attention to:

For one thing, it brought to my attention how much smaller my work tends to be than most of the paintings on display. So I would probably be wise to consider working more consistently in a larger format, at least on any studio paintings, even if I keep them smaller when working en plein air.

I had framed the painting in a professional but simple manner in a way that complemented the subject, but I realized belatedly that a more elaborate presentation would have displayed it in a better light in comparison to the paintings shown nearby.

And my price point was by far the lowest of all the paintings shown, even taking into account the comparative differences of size and medium. Has the time arrived for a price increase? It would appear so. I have been undervaluing my work! (If you want to acquire one of my paintings for yourself, now would be a good time, before my prices increase next month! Contact me.)

So, without comparing the quality of my work (which is already high enough to be juried into a national exhibition), comparison with the other work presented in the show has still taught me a lot. I loved seeing the other artwork in the exhibit, and some of the paintings deeply touched me emotionally. I appreciated the judge’s comments about why she had selected each of the prize winners (a couple of which surprised me, but which I understood when she explained the reasoning behind her selections). The judge, Dawn Emerson, was also kind enough to seek me out to tell me directly what she had particularly liked about my composition, though it had not been awarded one of the cash prizes.

But perhaps most valuable to me was the opportunity to compare my work with other paintings presented in a high-quality exhibition, showing me that I need to revamp my thinking about the business side of my art even as I continue to further develop my painting skills.

From umber beginnings

Sunday, September 15th, 2019

This summer I have been working primarily in watercolor and oils.  However, the oils I have at my summer studio are made with slow-drying linseed oil and remain tacky after several weeks of drying time.  I realized that if I want to have them dry before we return home, I would need to use a faster-drying medium.  So I set aside the old paints, reserving only my three basic primary colors, which I supplemented with alkyd medium (since alkyd works well with oils but dries much more rapidly than the more widely used linseed oil-based paints), alkyd titanium white (to replace my slow-drying titanium white), and a raw umber, with which I had been wanting to experiment.

So my new palette for September would now consist solely of raw umber, the original primary yellow, red, and blue paints, and all the value variations available by incorporating the alkyd white.  The alkyd medium would serve as my thinner and only medium.  It was time to play!

I dug out some small pieces of canvas on which I had already applied and dried a monochromatic imprimatura (with leftover paint from previous palette scrapings) to seal the surface.  Then, referring to old photo files, I found a few images that I thought would work with two of the underpaintings—one green, the other a muted rose.

The first, “Lakefront Morning,” shown below, was worked over a green imprimatura.  Although the base color, in its original hue and chroma, does not appear anywhere in the finished painting, it contributed to the atmosphere when modified with the palette colors.

"Lakefront Morning" by Charlotte Mertz (5"x7" oil, #190901-o)

“Lakefront Morning” by Charlotte Mertz
(5″x7″ oil, #190901-o)

Focusing on the umber-and-white combination in various values, and incorporating the primaries to provide appropriate variations in temperature and hue, I was astonished at how much easier it was to create and maintain a strong notan structure.  It was also easy to maintain a sense of color harmony in both my paintings.

I realized that the reason for this new sense of ease was that my focus was on value first, since the raw umber (warmer and more transparent and lively than black) provided the necessary dark tones, while the white produced the lighter values.  Hue was of much less concern and required little more than a suggestion from any of my primary tubes to provide the necessary temperature bias and warm or cool variation from that provided by the underpainting.  A few spots of lightly blended or entirely un-diluted tube color were all that was required to provide some chromatic contrast, as well.

"Niagara" by Charlotte Mertz  (5"x7" oil, #190902-o)

“Niagara” by Charlotte Mertz
(5″x7″ oil, #190902-o)

“Niagara” was painted over a rose-toned imprimatura.  Once again, although little of the base color actually appears in the finished painting, it definitely contributed to the rich lighting effects of the low-angled sunlight, while the umber provided the critical range of value needed to suggest atmospheric perspective.

It’s not easy painting green

Thursday, August 15th, 2019

To paraphrase Kermit the Frog, “It’s not easy painting green.”  Not because it’s a boring color but because there are so many permutations of it, and most green paint pigments do not simulate the most common variations found in nature.  But greens are also difficult to avoid because they are so prevalent in most landscapes.

Unfortunately, the most common (single) green pigments, such as terre verte, viridian, and the phthalocyanine greens may mislead us into thinking that, because they are “green,” they are automatically right for the job.  That is rarely the case.  So what’s an artist to do?

Phthalo green (PG7, the somewhat bluer version, or PG36, the slightly yellower version) is an extremely strong stain, with a cool bias, and a hue not normally found in natural foliage, though it could prove useful in depicting the strong, deep greens of stones like malachite or emeralds.  Because the staining power is so strong, very little is needed to blend with most other colors. But because of that, it can be difficult to control, especially for inexperienced artists.

Viridian (PG18) is also a cool green, with a similar hue, but it has a weaker strength so is easier to control.  It can prove useful for some blue-green foliage or for sky-lit reflections off warmer foliage greens.  (Be careful–paints labeled “viridian” or “viridian hue” are sometimes actually made with the less expensive PG7, phthalo green. Check the pigment number on the packaging.)

Terre verte (PG23, also called green earth) is one of the weakest green pigments, with a somewhat warmer temperature bias than viridian.  Because it is an earth pigment rather than a stain, it is one of the few green pigments that can easily be lifted off a painted surface.  But it may be difficult to obtain a dark value with this pigment.

Additional single green pigments include the cool cobalt green (PG19) and the warmer but dull chromium oxide green (PG17).  Fortunately, any of these pigments may be mixed with other hues to vary the color.  And they frequently are, to create more usable “convenience” green paints, such as Sap green, Emerald green, and Hookers green.  But why limit ourselves to those?

It will help if we recognize that “green” is a secondary hue, derived from a combination of some variation of the primary hues yellow and blue.  So if we begin with those primary pigments instead of with a single green pigment, we may have better success finding a version of green that we really want.  Or we can blend one of the green pigments we already have with one of those primary pigments to change its temperature bias, making the green appear either warmer (yellower) or cooler (bluer) than the original green pigment, and moderating the chroma as well.  (It’s usually easier to dull a color down than to brighten it up.)

I will not attempt to reproduce a color wheel here because the colors may not show accurately on every screen anyway.  I recommend obtaining a color wheel if you don’t already have one to refer to (preferably a Munsell-based color wheel as the color positioning is more accurate for color mixing than on the more familiar triadic color wheel).  Although printed wheels might show hues as discrete blocks of balanced color, the color wheel is actually a continuum of hues, flowing from one into another, each balanced hue also having both warmer and cooler variations.

Hues close to each other are called “analogous.”  Hues across from each other on the wheel are called “complementary.”  The more analogous two hues are, the less radically they will change each other when they are mixed.  The more complementary (distant on the wheel) they are, the more the color will change and the grayer or more muted they will become.

The amount you use of each hue will depend on the degree to which you want to adjust the colors.  If you want just a little change in temperature bias, look for an analogous hue.  If you don’t want to change the temperature at all but do want to mute it, choose a little of the complementary hue.  If you want to change both the temperature bias and lower the chroma (gray it down), select a hue that’s analogous to the complement.

The method is to find the wheel location of the hue with which you’re beginning the mixture, decide whether you want to warm it or cool it, and how much you may want to gray it down.  Then locate a hue you think might be appropriate to mix it with to create the desired color.  Test it and see.  If it’s too warm or cool, or too gray or not grayed enough, try again.  It may take several tries before you find the variation you want, but don’t get discouraged.  With practice, you’ll soon develop a knack for being able to guess more accurately the first time.

However, you will need to be aware that blending is not a question of the amounts of the colors but balancing the strengths of the colors being blended.  For instance, you would need a LOT of yellow (which tends to be weak) to change a LITTLE phthalo green (which is extremely strong).  Try to start with the weaker color and add the stronger color to it, a little at a time, to find the desired balance.  (If you start with the stronger color and add the weaker one to find the desired variation, you could waste a lot of paint, winding up with a lake instead of a puddle before you achieve the color you want!)

Try blending each of your green paints with small amounts of your other colors to see what results you get.  Then try blending all your yellows and blues (yes, all the variations of them) in various proportions to see even more results.

Chart-of-yellow-blue-blends

Here’s part of a chart I made to explore some of the greens available to me in my existing watercolor palette, using just various blues and yellows.  But the technique isn’t limited to watercolors, nor to those hues alone.

You, too, can create reference charts using the colors in your own palette.  Be sure to make note of the name of each pigment so you can recreate the blend as needed in the future. Don’t forget to experiment with combinations of your existing green pigments with browns, oranges, reds, and purples as well as with yellows and blues.  You may be surprised at the usable outcome.

Casting light on the subject … and on the palette

Wednesday, 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.