For newer posts, please go to the new blog, Painting Partners.
Plan for Success
June 27, 2010
When you don’t plan your paintings, it’s kind of like throwing darts with your eyes closed. The odds are that you’ll hit or get close to the bull’s-eye once in a while, but if you open your eyes and take careful aim, you’re more likely to achieve your goal.
I spend a good deal of time planning out my compositions before I ever pick up a pastel. My first compositional steps are with my camera, if I’m taking photographs to paint from. If I’m painting out on location, my viewfinder may serve that purpose—though, often as not, I begin with the camera there as well.
I try to think about what it is in the scene that inspires me, and how I might paint it. One of the first things I do is identify the focal point. Then I think about contrast of values—where the lightest light and darkest dark come together, and whether I can use that to draw the viewer’s eye where I want it to go. I think about rhythm and flow; what will the viewer look at first, and where will the eye go from there.
When I’m working from a photograph in the comfort of my studio, I have time to carefully think through all these things before I start to paint. I like to pull the photograph up on my computer screen, and play around with cropping, enlarging, reducing and rearranging until I get the focal point where I want it.
A pleasing focal point is almost never in the center. To define a pleasing focal point in a rectangular format, I divide the painting in thirds. (I make sure the size of the image on my screen is proportionate to the painting size I plan to use.) With the photograph behind the grid on my screen, I select one of the intersections created by the division into three sections in each direction as the position for the focal point. Then, I think about, or sketch out, how I will use elements of the composition to direct the viewer’s eye towards the focal point and then move through the painting.
In my painting, Aspen Road, left, the focal point is the juxtaposition of the bright yellow and red trees against the dark silhouetted tree at the point where the road vanishes from the viewer’s eye. (Remember that the eye will always follow a path, river or road; it’s a good idea to have something interesting at the destination.) The road, the dark mass in the bottom right and the angle of the mountain all lead the eye there. Then the eye moves up along the shape of the edges of the tree on the right against the sky (contrast of warm and cool), follows back down on the edge of the left-hand one, and back to the focal point. Sometime when planning out the focal point and movement through the painting, I rearrange elements to make it work. In this case, in the photo, the brightest yellow and red small trees were in a different position, but I moved them. I also darkened the silhouetted tree a little.
Once I have a plan in mind, I move to the painting surface and sketch it out. Generally, I go from there to an underpainting, which gives me a chance to place large shapes of color in appropriate values, and analyze the composition one more time before I begin to lay in pastel. Changes made early on are much easier than changes after the tooth begins to fill!
I often think of the saying, “If you don’t have a goal, you will surely achieve it.” When I’m starting a painting, I like to have my vision fixed firmly on the goal, so my chances of a successful painting are greatly improved.
Create a Little Suspense
April 17, 2010
Sometimes it’s the little things that get attention. I like to think people are interested in my painting demonstrations, my discussions of technique, how I organize my pastels by value, and a lot of other things I offer in a workshop.
But again and again, they want to know how I mount my painting surface to the backing board.
I paint frequently on the Richeson Premium Pastel Surface on gatorfoam. It’s a lightweight, rigid surface, easy to frame, and I love the toothy texture. But I don’t like sitting the board by itself down on the ledge of the easel.
Maybe I’ve spent too many years working on paper, which I always taped to the backing board so that its bottom edge was an inch or so above the ledge of the easel. But when I tried sitting the board down on the ledge, I found I wasn’t painting clear to the edges, and that’s important if you plan to frame without a mat. So here’s what I do: I turn the painting surface face down, and place a strip of masking tape diagonally across the corners, sticky-side-down (left).
Then I turn the surface over and position it on my backing board, with the backing board laying flat on a work surface. The painting surface is centered horizontally and vertically, and I leave myself an inch or two above where the board will sit on the easel ledge. At this point, those diagonal strips of masking tape are sticky side facing me. I put strips along both sides of the corner, sticky-side-down. This nicely suspends the painting surface, and I have room to work without running into any annoying edges. See the bottom photo, left.
Even if I’m working on paper and not board, I like to do this. It lets me paint clear to the edges of the paper.
When the painting is finished, I pull the masking tape strips up and then carefully peel them off the back of the painting surface. Unless you leave the tape on for months, it will come off easily.
April 14, 2010
I like to work from photos. I like working in my studio, where it’s comfortable and quiet and I know where everything is. No wind, no rain, no hauling of equipment. It’s all there and convenient. The photos don’t move—the clouds in them never change, and no one comes along to park a truck in front of my subject.
But the down side is, especially when you have a really good photo, it’s tempting to just copy it. I like to work from photographic reference, not make a copy of the photo. So, when I teach painting from photographic reference, I encourage students in my classes to move away from the photograph.
The first thing to think about is, what can you omit. That usually starts with cropping. No matter how much you zoom in on your subject, there’s usually more than you need in the photo. After that, omit unnecessary elements. While working out the composition, things may need to be moved, exaggerated or minimized.
But beyond that, I like to think about what else you could do to move farther from the photo. So, in a recent workshop, we painted the first day's subject using my favorite “brilliant color” underpainting technique. This starts with blocking in large shapes of pastel in appropriate values but more brilliant colors than shown in the photo, then turping. Left: Spring Runoff, 16x20, pastel © Maggie Price (sold).
The next day, I asked the class to paint from the first day’s painting. In each area or object of the painting, they were to use a different color than what they had
used the first time. I wanted them to significantly change the image and the color scheme. Because I wouldn’t ask them to do what I wouldn’t do myself, I painted my subject again. I moved the setting sun to the other side and made it dawn, and changed all the colors. My demonstration, left: Dawn, 16x20, pastel © Maggie Price.
It was a fun exercise. A number of people changed the time of day; many changed the season, from spring to fall or vice versa. One midsummer scene became frosty and snow covered. All in all, the class enjoyed it and felt they learned a lot, and the paintings set up side by side for review were quite interesting.
On the third day, we worked on a black surface, and rather than working dark to light as we pastelists normally do, we started with the lights. It was another way to shake us out of our ruts. The light values look very light compared to the black surface, and you have to move fairly quickly to lay in middle values in order get the whole value scheme worked out. If you're not careful, the whole thing can get too dark. I like to work on a black surface when there are a lot of dramatic shadows, as in this subject from Palo Duro Canyon. Left is my painting, Canyon Afternoon, 16x20, pastel © Maggie Price.
The next two days we worked outdoors, on the ranch of one of the artists, in the far end of Palo Duro Canyon. We painted cliffs, trees, a creek, and other wonderful subjects. My demo from the final day is shown at left: Creekwood Spring, 11x14, pastel © Maggie Price (sold).
By the end of the workshop, I felt we had all enjoyed moving away from the photograph. It was a good week and I was sorry to see it end.
I often mention in my workshops that I believe it's good for artists to push out of their comfort zones. If you always paint in a horizontal format, try a vertical now and then. If you usually paint very large, try something very small. And if you always paint landscapes—well, maybe it's time to change the subject.
In the spirit of practicing what I preach, I've been trying some new subjects. I moved from the outdoor landscape to indoors to paint Shadowplay, 18x24, left. It's lit by outdoor light coming through the window, and the potted plants move it more towards the still life than the landscape. In spite of those elements, it did not feel entirely foreign to me as I worked on it, and I'm now planning several more paintings of objects just inside windows or doorways.
The next painting, Anna & Zoe, 24x18, left, pushed me even farther. While there are certainly landscape elements in the path and the woods, the figures of child and dog are not my normal subjects. But I had been intrigued by the photograph, keeping it in my “to be painted” file for several months, and sometimes the desire to paint a subject can overcome the fear of trying something new.
As I often do, I began with an underpainting. Unlike my usual fast and loose application of big shapes of color, I drew the figures carefully and underpainted with great care. I had discovered when I did a similar careful underpainting for Shadowplay that the new Richeson Square pastels gave me the ability to block in small shapes very lightly and still get rich color when I washed them with Turpenoid. I used softer pastels and a loose application of color for the foliage and path, turped it, let it dry, and then carefully blocked in color and shapes on the figures. Once I turped those, I felt confident I had a solid road map and was ready to move to building layers of pastel. (Underpainting for Anna & Zoe, below left.) Like Shadowplay, this is on white Richeson Premium Pastel Surface on Gatorfoam, an extremely toothy surface which alllows many layers of pastel.
I worked from the most distant plane forward, building the distant trees, foliage and dappled light before I touched the figures. Then I painted my grand-daughter Anna, working in around her figure to paint the path at the same time so that things worked together. Finally, I painted Zoe. I've been around Great Danes enough to think I knew something of their anatomy, but I discovered I actually knew very little about the bottoms of a dog's feet. I had to simply not think about what I was painting, and concentrate on shapes, value and color.
I'm pleased with both of these paintings, and am determined to try new subjects and approaches more often in the future.
We haven't had as much snow here in New Mexico this winter as many parts of the country have, but I always love the snow on the mountains. The view of the Sandia and Manzano mountain ranges from in front of our house is wonderful, ever-changing from one hour to the next as well as one day to the next. In the early morning and late afternoon, I find myself going to check the mountain from the front window every few minutes, especially when it looks like we might have a "pink mountain" night. Pink mountain nights happen when the setting sun, behind our house, casts a warm glow over the whole range of the mountain. They tend to happen more often during the winter, and can be quite spectacular.
But when it comes to painting snow, I like to get closer. The subject of this painting is in the foothills of the Sandias, across the valley and up a winding road from where we live. I like the interplay of the high desert foliage against the snow, and in this scene I particularly liked the arroyo, where the snow had already melted and the darker value of the dirt provided a nice warm contrast to the light snow colors. Most of all, my eye was caught by the shadow, which is a major focal point for the painting.
I started this on a white Richeson Premium Pastel Surface on gatorfoam, and began with a loose block-in of color. I often begin with an underpainting, and this is one of several underpainting methods I teach in my indoor technique workshops.
After all the color shapes were lightly blocked in, I brushed each section of color with a brush lightly dipped in Turpenoid, being careful to keep the colors separate. When the painting was dry, I began blocking in more realistic color. I like to begin with the sky, since the color, value and temperature of the sky sets the tone for the whole painting. Then I make notes of dark areas, draw where I need to, and proceed to work from back to front to complete the painting.
As I worked, I generally followed the "road map" created by the underpainting, but I always give myself permission to depart from it if a change will improve the final painting: Foothills Snow, pastel, 16x20, ©Maggie Price 2010.