Archive for the ‘The School of Oops’ Category

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.

Busy, busy, … but on the right busy-ness?

Monday, April 1st, 2019

Hmm!  Did someone pull an early April Fool joke on me?  How did that happen?

It seems I got roped into working on some community projects these past few weeks, which are taking up an incredible amount of time … and unfortunately sidetracking me from much of the painting that I’d really rather be doing.  Sure, these projects are important and appreciated, but they seem to multiply, leading from one project to another, and requiring that I learn new computer programs to support what needs to get done, thereby utterly devouring my time.

I know that these are jobs that do need doing.  And we have a scarcity of volunteers.  (Perhaps because any potential volunteers know that, as in my case, once the job is “owned,” others don’t feel a need–nor may dare–to take it on.)  So it seems that, like the US Supreme Court judges, once you’re in position, the job is yours for life.

What to do?   How to get back to what’s important to me?  I’m sure I’m not the first person to get caught up on this merry-go-round.  What do you do when you find your time usurped in the wrong directions?  How do you reclaim control?

For me, it has meant scheduling more conscientiously to keep my priorities in place … and sticking as closely to that schedule as possible; carving out painting and personal time, cutting out some R&R time, and strictly limiting acquiescence to others’ demands and sense of priorities.  It hasn’t been easy.

I learned a long time ago the need to say “no.”  But occasionally there’s also a need to pull our own weight and contribute to society.  So then we need to say “yes!”  Where’s the balance?  Have you found it?  I welcome feedback.

An epic failure revisited

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

In my previous blog I referred to learning from our unsuccessful efforts.  Obviously, I had gone through the process of doing exactly that. You may be asking to what painting I was referring in my previous blog, regarding learning from flubs.

I hate to admit it, but I had jumped into too large-sized a painting when I undertook to paint “Dawning Light,” at 30”x40” after having ignored any canvases larger than 8”x10” for several years.  Though I had fun painting it and learned a lot in the process, the final result deserves the sorry status of “starving artist” work.  It was definitely not one of my better efforts, and certainly not one I should have signed off on.

So what exactly went wrong? … Aside from a weak compositional design, multiple focal areas, lack of dominant value, and trite color harmony?  Well, not too much, I suppose, … after I addressed some problems with perspective, brushwork, edges, optical color mixing, halation, and a few other issues.  (A more specific  critique of the painting appeared in my November newsletter, “Around and About.”)

Lessons learned include a reminder to preplan the notan structure, color harmony, and overall composition carefully before beginning (and not changing my mind in mid-project).  It also served as a reminder of the value of optical color mixing, use of halation, practice in creating a sense of iridescence, observing the behavior of bounced light, the importance of observation of such natural phenomena as skies and ocean waves, being generous with paint, maintaining discrete values on my palette, … and being content to take smaller steps to get where I want to go.

(What?  You don’t really think I’d post an image of such a disaster here, do you?)

But it wasn’t a total loss.  It was a wake-up call to review early lessons and continue striving to reach a consistently higher standard.  And that’s never a bad thing.

Every effort—a learning opportunity

Thursday, November 1st, 2018

Does an artist always need to practice?  Absolutely!  The old adage “Use it or lose it,” applies here just as much as in any other realm.  Conscious and deliberate practice sessions are often undertaken to develop or strengthen a specific skill.  But every painting I undertake … or even consider and reject before ever setting brush to palette … gives me additional practice in skills that continually need honing.

Whether to paint, or not, is a continual question:  Is this subject worthy of the time and effort needed?  Is the concept interesting or evocative?  What makes me want to paint it?  Can the subject or scene be treated in an interesting enough manner to create an appealing composition?  When the answer is no, I keep looking.  When it is yes, it poses further questions:

How varied is the value range, and can it be adjusted or simplified to create a stronger statement?  How should I handle the color harmony?  Does the subject lend itself to a limited palette or beg for a broader spectrum of hues?  What is the chromatic range?  Will it translate well into paint?  If not, how can the scene be modified to improve its effectiveness?

What structural design will best serve the subject to effectively express the concept?

All of these questions and many more need to be dealt with before painting should actually begin.  And the act of simply going through the exercise of seeking the answers (either consciously or subconsciously) sharpens my artistic eye and multiplies the creative possibilities.

Finding alternatives to the obvious answers helps keep my work fresh.  Why allow it to bog down by approaching the same types of subjects in the same-ol’-same-ol’ ways?  It’s good to play with fresh approaches to see what might evolve.

No matter how hard we may try, not every painting is going to succeed.  But that doesn’t mean that the effort is wasted.  Every painting, whether successful or not, serves a purpose.  It is another step along an endless learning curve.  It may reinforce previous successes or call attention to a need for stricter attention to some technical skill; it sharpens my perception and hones my technique.  And it broadens my experience, which in turn nurtures my creativity.

Oh yes, it’s wonderful to find encouragement in achieving a difficult effect.  But it’s also a welcome challenge to recognize the need for developing a different approach to a seemingly insurmountable problem.  That simply serves as a goad to keep me trying.  And that, in itself, is valuable.

We rarely underestimate the satisfaction of a success.  But neither should we underestimate the positive potential of a failure!  We should always ask what we can learn from it.

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?