Archive for the ‘The School of Oops’ Category


Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

Even small successes nurture confidence.

A month ago I had the delightful experience of watching my youngest grandchild learn to walk.  He’d already taken his first unsupported steps some time before I arrived for my visit, but on my first day there, he was still toddling only a few steps at a time before landing on his well-padded seat and having to cautiously resume his upright stance before making another attempt.

"Stepping Out," by Charlotte Mertz (7"x5" graphite pencil, #170801p)

“Stepping Out,” by Charlotte Mertz (7″x5″ graphite pencil, #170801p)

The second morning of our visit, he was able to walk for several additional steps at a time.  But if he swiveled his head or tried to turn, he lost his balance and would drop down onto his seat again.

By the third morning he had mastered his turns enough to make a game of pivoting, and by evening was able to not only cross the entire room but chase his brother halfway down the hallway.  His efforts weren’t perfect; he wobbled a lot and frequently lost his balance.  But he had developed enough confidence to prefer his upright mobility to his previous four-point method of locomotion.  And the more he drew on his confidence, the more adept he became.

The same is true when we practice any skill.  Our advancements may not be as apparent as those of a young child, but even our baby steps do improve with practice, and, despite minor setbacks, “wobbles,” and sometimes-less-than-stellar results, the more we succeed, the more confident we become.  That confidence becomes apparent in the results of our efforts, which, in turn, encourages us to stretch our skills even further.

So whether our practice is in walking, drawing, painting, playing a musical instrument, or some other skill, even small successes indicate progress.  And progress generates confidence that our efforts are worthwhile.  So let’s focus on our successes, however small.  We’re getting better all the time.  Let’s keep at it!

Preliminary Patterning

Monday, May 15th, 2017

Continuing along the road to breaking away further from my usual approach, I decided to try building a composition around loose color applications.  I tried various methods for painting the initial background layers.  In one trial, I spread several very wet colors on a sheet of plastic wrap, allowing the hues to intermingle haphazardly, then laid my watercolor paper upside-down on top of that to transfer the color.  The plastic wrap was carefully removed and set aside, while the paper was allowed to dry.  Needless to say, the stain now on the paper could only suggest an imaginary image, which I was now free to enhance and detail as I chose.

"Garden Ground" (#170401w)

“Garden Ground” (#170401w)

Although others might disagree, I would liken this method of development as more of a craft than fine art. The finished painting brought me little satisfaction, as I felt I had actually put very little of myself into it.  Rather than my having designed the project to satisfy a previously identified concept (which I feel should be the directing force behind fine art), the concept developed over the course of the project, derived from the haphazard distribution of color on the paper (placing the project itself rather than the artist’s concept in the driver’s seat).

Another method I tried relied on pre-planned preliminary patterning.  In this case, the background colors were used to suggest general masses that would be later enhanced with detail and calligraphic marks for suggestion of further detail within limited areas.

"Windowbox" (#170403)

“Windowbox” (#170403)

This last proved more satisfactory, so far as I was concerned, but even so, I felt that the finished work benefitted from cropping down from its original format, an indication that the overall dimensions of the composition had been left largely to chance rather than being integral to the original design plan.

Windowbox (cropped)

Windowbox (cropped)

These experiments helped me investigate and stretch my “toolbox” of approaches beyond my usual methodology.  They also called attention to some weaknesses I could address in subsequent work.  But they did nothing to alter my existing style.

I’ve come to the conclusion that other things play a more important role than specialized application techniques in establishing or identifying individuality of style.

Instead, I think real style is found through recognizing a typical combination of an artist’s color choices and blending methods, brush choices and manner of manipulation, use of notan (light/dark) design, density of paint, amount and treatment of white space, treatment of edges, degree of looseness or control of the paint, and typical cropping choices.  Besides these, painters may also show a marked personal preference for a certain subject matter, locale, point of view (either physical or emotional), perspective, or certain compositional structures.  All of these contribute more to the artist’s inherent style than any imposed technique possibly could.

On the Road to Discovery: Abstraction to eliminate distraction

Monday, May 1st, 2017

I find that it’s all too easy to get so caught up in the literality of a subject that the key elements of the abstract compositional design are overlooked.  One way I hoped to overcome that tendency – and train myself to do so habitually – was to focus solely on the abstract design, if necessary sacrificing detail and other minor elements for the sake of emphasizing the overall compositional design.

I decided to look at line, value, saturation changes, interplay among hues, and contrasts of all these elements to see if they alone, without extraneous detail, could capture my concept of the subject.  Could these elements alone express my primary impression?  I felt it was a question worth investigating.

A Japanese-style iris garden provided a promising subject to play with.  The angularity of the man-made element of a boardwalk across a garden pond contrasted in an interesting way with the curving sweep of the pond’s edge and the natural, rounded forms of the interspersed plantings.  I also took advantage of the boardwalk as an opportunity to introduce (and exaggerate) greater hue and temperature contrasts beyond those minor temperature biases found simply in variations of the dominant hue.

"Watergarden Boardwalk" (#170308wh)

“Watergarden Boardwalk” (#170308wh)

The original 8”x10” composition incorporated far too much detail outside of the focal area.  Although the extraneous shapes and lines helped to balance the overall composition, they were superfluous and distracting in terms of the concept.

"Watergarden Boardwalk" (#170308wv)

“Watergarden Boardwalk” (#170308wv)

Cropping the composition down to 7”x5” (and changing the orientation from horizontal to vertical) eliminated most of the unnecessary information.  The encircling lines of the shoreline and the white boardwalk enfolding the plantings were sacrificed.  But the crop now emphasized the boardwalk’s angularity in contrast to the rounded shapes, thus enhancing my original concept.

Casting Light on Lights

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

When striving to get our lightest values light enough, the temptation is to substitute white for a more accurate color.  Although this practice is both expected and acceptable in watercolor, since the lightest tones are actually taking advantage of the brilliant white of the underlying paper.

But in oils, the practice of using white, straight from a tube, isn’t so successful.  For one thing, tube white (usually titanium white these days, since zinc white tends to yellow with age and become brittle) has a cool cast, which doesn’t ring true as a highlight for warm colors.  For another thing, unless the subject color is intentionally white, pure white paint seems to glare and stand out unattractively from the rest of the composition.

The only unmodified white in the painting below is in the highlights on the paper towel roll (behind the canvas on the easel), and the highlights on the blue-white gloves, shoes, and turps can.  All other “whites” have been modified.

160409o---En-Plein-Air (original)

So what’s the answer?  As with mixing any other color, it’s a question of blending the appropriate hues to achieve the desired value.  And when that desired value is almost white, the mixture may require only the tiniest quantity of pigment to modify the tube white.

As I’ve been familiarizing myself with oils, I’ve found that my lights don’t always get quite light enough.  What I think will be a light tone, like the highlights on the hair in the painting above, proves to still be close enough to the middle tones to undermine my intention.  In this case, the highlight on the woman’s hair was so similar in hue, value, and saturation to those of the canvas that her head (which should have been a secondary focal area) and the canvas appear to merge into a single shape, which in turn disappears into the foliage behind them.

A few slight modifications to “En Plein Air” (#160409-o), below, made a big difference.  I lightened the hair highlights a bit, and both slightly lowered the value and increased the saturation of the canvas, which served to separate the two shapes, bringing greater attention to the head and allowing the canvas to appropriately replicate the colors of the background.

160409o---En-Plein-Air (revised)

The difference such subtle changes in contrast can make demonstrate for me again how important it is to really understand value control, even in the highest range, and to practice monitoring those values closely as I prepare the colors on my palette.  I didn’t have to worry about the lights so much when using watercolor.  I’ve been learning that it’s much more critical when working with oils.

Errors Ennobled

Tuesday, March 15th, 2016

Barry John Raybould, author of the Virtual Art Academy curriculum, writes that “by doing something and getting it wrong, you learn much faster than doing something and getting it right! The trick is to make as many possible mistakes as you can in the shortest possible time.”

And that’s what the School of Oops! is all about. So by all accounts, I should be advancing by leaps and bounds!

In fact, I do learn from my mistakes … if I allow myself to. That means not only being humbled enough by the failure to acknowledge the mistakes and to identify specifically what they were, but also to have the knowledge and wisdom to figure out how to rectify those ignoble errors.

On a plein air outing this winter, I undertook a watercolor sketch that turned out to be a total flop, both in planning and in execution. Almost everything about it failed. I gave it up as a bad job and began another painting that was much more successful (though that, too, demanded a few strategic corrections in the studio to bring it up to high enough standards to satisfy me).

Using the Virtual Art Academy’s “Visual Music and Poetry” (VM&P) critique format proves extremely helpful in isolating specific aspects of any painting that either succeed or could be improved. By following the format, I was able to get most of the answers I needed for both the paintings. The second of the paintings required only a few adjustments. But the first sketch required some hard evaluation to identify what, exactly, had gone wrong. As I analyzed the work, I realized that the problems were not only in the execution but in my work habits, which, much to my chagrin, I realized had become careless. I was painting like a raw beginner, ignoring many of the principles I had learned over the past several years through the academy.

By identifying both the problems and potential solutions, I gained enough confidence to try the subject again. Then, keeping in mind the ever-important principles I had previously forsaken, I was able to undertake another version of the scene with somewhat better success. (See “Old-Florida River,” #160301, below.)  It’s still not ideal, but it’s a great improvement, and as I study it further, I recognize further corrections I could make and lessons to incorporate in future work.  Learning is an ongoing process in the School of Oops.


So even as we make mistakes, we can allow ourselves to learn from them. The more we make, the better? Maybe not. But the more quickly we can improve.