Archive for the ‘The School of Oops’ Category

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.

Seeking the Right Match

Monday, February 15th, 2016

What do you do when you realize that your work is not the right match for the gallery that is representing it? There’s really only one good option, to withdraw gracefully and seek a more appropriate partnership.

160202w The Entertainer

160202w The Entertainer

That’s the position I currently find myself in. Although the gallerist at Island Art said he admired my watercolors, they are apparently not a good match for what his clientele are looking for. Therefore, I will be seeking representation better suited to my work elsewhere in Southwest Florida.

In the meantime, many of my paintings are still available for viewing here in my online gallery.  Please feel free to contact me for further information.

The Value of Counterpoint

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

Last time I wrote about adjusting values to separate the planes between foreground and far distance, which helps to indicate atmospheric perspective.

I was reminded of another use of values as I worked in oils recently. I have used this same subject for several different studies, in a variety of media.  (For a variation of this subject in watercolor, see #140913w – Maritime Study in White, currently in the Landscape, Seascape, and Beaches gallery.)


In my first go at this painting of Santa Margherita Harbor (above, #150906o) I left the masts the same value from top to bottom. A friend pointed out that I’d lost an opportunity to strengthen the image by introducing counterpoint in the masts. He was absolutely right.  I had entirely overlooked it.

The painting became much more interesting when I applied the principle of counterpoint, making the masts and guywires light against the dark hills, and darker against the lighter sky, as you can see below.

150906o Santa Margherita Harbor


Again, it was a very minor change that made a lot of difference. The medium matters less than the principles we apply.

Cleaning Up a Wishy-Washy Painting

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

While in Italy this past spring, I made a few quick pen-and-watercolor sketches in the mountains where we were staying. One, in particular, has continued to dissatisfy me because of its flatness. I understood the reason it happened, despite understanding the principles that would have prevented the problem: There was little variation in value, and thereby little differentiation of depth. This was caused by the weak washes I used while making the quick rendering. A thunderstorm had been rapidly approaching, and, in order to finish the sketch before rain reached my position, I didn’t take time on location to adjust the richness of the washes.  This was probably a wise decision because, even as I packed away my supplies, the first spatters of the deluge arrived.

I recently retouched the sketch to improve the atmospheric perspective. It didn’t require much–just a few darker areas in the foreground, made by using a stronger mixture of the same pigments. (When using transparent watercolor, the underlying white of the paper shows more easily through a thinner wash of pigment, creating a lighter value when compared to areas covered by a more dense mixture of paint).

I thought it was a good opportunity to show both versions here to illustrate the difference a change in value can make.

This is the original version.  When comparing the two versions, you will notice that the warm lighting in the first photograph affects the overall color cast of the painting, whereas in the revised photograph, there is greater difference between the warm and cooler tones, which also contributes to the sense of depth.  The colors of the actual painting fall somewhere between the colors of the two photographs.

150512m View of Licciana Nardi

The foreground is the same value (level of lightness or darkness) as the distant mountains. In fact, most of the foliage, village, and surrounding countryside are all virtually the same value, differentiated primarily by changes in hue. This becomes very apparent when we look at a black and white version, in which most of the image is all roughly the same level of gray.

150512m View of Licciana Nardi, b&w

The warmer hues and higher saturation (less muted colors) in the foreground help to suggest their closer proximity to the viewer, but because of the limited value range, the image still does not provide a strong sense of depth.

In the revised version below, the values in the foreground have been deepened by using denser pigment, especially in shaded areas, to make them appear closer to the viewer, while the more distant planes are allowed to remain lighter.  It’s still not great as a finished painting, but is more acceptable now as a quick reference sketch.


It’s a principle worth paying attention to … unless a thunderstorm is imminent.