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Saturday, August 13, 2016

Keeping Colors and Values Clean

Many emerging painters complain about their values not being “clean” and most are at a loss as to what to do about it.  If you’ve never heard this particular term before, having “clean values” is simply artspeak for a work of art with convincing colors and strong, visually meaningful values like in this little forest scene painting by James Gurney.
Gurney’s darks, midtones and lights each play a role in defining something specific about the forest. His shadows and lights describe the position of the light source as well as its effect upon the subject, so there’s no doubt about what’s going on.  Let's take a closer look at some of the mechanics at work here.
1.  Meaningful Focal Point
Notice how clearly defined are the lights on the tree and the deep dark shadow shapes contrasting on either side of it.  

2.  Clearly Rendered Shadows
Look at the value, hue and intensity modulation in Gurney's moderate and shallow shadows, and how easy our eyes transition from the shallow shadows in the upper tree foliage to the deep shadows near the ground. 

3.  Readable Angles of Light
We have no trouble discerning the angle of the sunlight nor reading the scene as being lit from a single light source. 
These composition considerations go a long way towards yielding clean values and colors, but they must go hand in hand with a few technical practices.  Here are four I suggest:

1. Constantly clean your brush
Make a habit of holding a brush in one hand and a paper towel in the other. Any time you switch colors, rinse and wipe the brush by squeezing it out with the paper towel.
2. Don’t skimp on paint—cover the surface
Too little paint often results in weak color. Use adequate amounts of paint to cover the surface and avoid trying to stretch your paint by spreading it so thin that the texture of the surface comes through.
3. Avoid over-stroking and over-blending
Start thinking of your brush as a tool to shape the paint, not just as an applicator of paint. This means slow down. Be deliberate with each stroke and avoid repeating a stroke in the same spot.
4. Find the right hue to lighten your colors
Do you reach for white each time you want to make a color lighter? Well stop.
Adding white changes the color temperature AND the value, making the color look dramatically different. Rather than automatically reaching for white, try to find another color that will give you the value change you need without neutralizing the original hue. (Watercolor painters will know to use the water for making a value lighter.)

Saturday, August 6, 2016

A Way to Choose Colors for Modulation

To modulate is to make a gradual change within whatever is being modulated. In music, a single chord can modulate to another key just by passing through a chord both keys have in common.  In painting, one way we can modulate color is to use this same principle--move from one color to another THROUGH a hue each has in common.
Within this image of a fall tree, we can see greens reflecting onto the orange leaves. 
One way to modulate this in paint is to use the hue both green and orange have in common:  yellow.  We'll take our color from the small sample I have circled.
 In the example above, I've modulated in a high intensity.  If we change the intensity, the modulation looks more realistic for the shadowed areas.
But the one thing we've not yet mentioned is VALUE.  For modulation of hues and intensities to be successful, it works better for colors being modulated to be in the same value range.  Give it a try.    

P. S. This principle of modulating with a hue both colors have in common is perfect for any two colors that are not both primary colors.  If you want to modulate two primary colors, simply mix one into the other at the SAME value and intensity.  You'll be modulating through their secondary hue.  

Our August Series of Video Tutorials
If you feel like you're in a wrestling match when working with color, this new series of video tutorials might be just what you are looking for.  I've focused the series on two of our most difficult colors with which artists work:  greens and yellows.  This week's lesson Tacking Greens hones in on how to modulate greens by varying their intensity and hue within local value areas.
What You Can Expect When You Become My Student
When we're filming the video tutorials, I have you in mind.  I have learned to think of the camera as my classroom filled with students eager to learn the concepts with which I'm working while giving that particular lesson. Those decades of teaching college and in my own art school prepared me for this.

When you purchase a video lesson, you become my student, but you become a member of a virtual classroom as well.  We have set up the Forum on Facebook for you to interact with others as well as get reinforcement from me. Today's technology allows me to talk directly to you via video on Facebook, a free service included when you purchase any video lesson, whether download or DVD.  

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Getting Shadow Values Correct on a White Image

Of all the visual elements we work with, value seems the most challenging, especially when an image is white.  Let's take a look at that.  

What happens to us is that we allow our thoughts to be about what the image is rather than what we see within it.  For example, when we look at a white horse do we see a white horse or variations of values?  If we look for values with intention and without thinking "white horse", chances are we will be surprised at just how dark shadows on a white horse can be.

White horse seen as a white horse
White horse seen with not thinking "white horse", rather thinking variations of values
There's an easy way to get this value relationship right:  learn to ask yourself, "What's in shadow?"  Shadows, no matter the color onto which they are cast, range from shallow to deep. If we practice seeing them this way, we can force ourselves to make our colors dark enough to indicate what kind of shadow we're observing.  

Here's an analysis of the deep and shallow shadows I see in this photo of a white horse.


Here's a video critique I did for Stella Messina, addressing the topic of this post--shadows on a white image, among a few other little things. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Five Pivotal Questions for Composing Paintings

What causes us to begin a painting or a drawing?  My guess is that our answers will vary, but let's take ourselves to the times when a subject catches our attention and pulls us towards it.  Chances are something will be there that's junk, not useful to the composing of the painting.  On the other hand, the subject as is might need some rearranging to pull together a sound composition.

Here's a subject that got my attention a few years ago.  For the first time ever, each member of my bed of bearded irises sprang forth into full bloom.  One section caught my eye and pulled me towards it.

Without some selecting and placing as well as editing, it's a jumbled mess, but the way the light was striking those center flowers excited me.  That brought me to five pivotal questions: What to use? What to ignore or leave out? What to emphasize? What to subdue? What to change?

Using the the rule of thirds option from the Selecting and Placing principle, I found a beginning of What to Use. Finding what to change,  I spotted the flower on the upper right that I could move to the left a bit and another mid-left that I could scoot inward.  And rather than use the withered blossom in front, I chose another (not in the photo) to use.
Within this rough crop, I  chose to ignore the azaleas and tool building in the background, to subdue some of the textural details, to emphasize the light pattern and  the shadow area of the foliage.  This reinforced what caught my attention in the first place:  the light.

Here's the resulting oil painting, "Irises in Light".​​​​​​​
Asking these questions--What to use?  What to ignore or leave out? What to emphasize?  What to subdue?  What to change?--can help us more closely scrutinize possibilities and make more aesthetically sound decisions while composing our paintings and other art works. 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Using Contrast as a Tool

What do a hammer and value contrast have in common?  
Answer:  Both are tools that we learn how to use and both can do a single task, but towards a number of intentions.  
One of the reasons people tire of dealing with composition principles is that they seem so academic and restricting.  That's why in Finding Freedom to Create I changed the nomenclature, calling them generators, a word with all that baggage.  I call one group of these Results and another group, Workers.

Among the Workers is contrasting and value is an element with which contrasting works.  The painting below is dull and uninteresting because value contrast is not doing its job.

But if we go back into the same painting and put value contrast to work, we can achieve visual clarity.  The painting becomes more dynamic, more life.  . 
We can use degrees of contrasting value to control where the eye goes in a painting or how fast the eye moves within the piece. We can pull the eye to a focal point by setting a strong contrast then lead the eye towards that area using reduced degrees of contrast.

It's a fun thing to work with and is what I'm doing in this week's video lesson in which I take the study from Lesson 3 of Series 16, Focus with Value to a finish by using value contrast as a tool to do just this.  

Saturday, May 28, 2016

To Look at or To See

Our eyes scan thousands of images every day.  Many of them go unnoticed, some get a momentary glance, but how much do we really see?  And how do we know if we're merely looking at something or actually seeing?

(Read slowly here) Observe. Scrutinize. Recognize. Pay attention to. Contemplate. Discover.  The English language contains an array of words describing ways of seeing.  (Slow down again) Glimpse. Glance. Gaze. Survey. Regard. Review.  The "look at" words have a different flavor, a passing by rather than sinking in.

Scrutinize this scene.

How many compositions do you discover?  Did you recognize this one?

Or this one?

What about this one?
One way to see a potential composition is to observe through a rule of thirds grid, finding horizontals and/or verticals that align with those in the grid, or to align potential focal points with the grid's intersections.  What a super tool for taking us beyond looking at to really seeing.

You can build your own adjustable rule of thirds grid. 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Avoiding Visual Cacophony

We know it when we hear it, but what do our eyes do when we see it? Cacophony!  Vocabulary.com says this: "A cacophony is a jarring, discordant mix of sounds that have no business being played together. When the orchestra tunes up before a show, it sounds like a cacophony because each musician is playing a completely different tune, at different times, and at different volumes."  

Although each of our senses has a unique function, they communicate in concert so it is not out of line to apply one sense's definition to another.  Here's an example of visual cacophony that might fit very well with vocabulary.com's definition.
From an artist's viewpoint, if our resource is in clutter, it has visual cacophony. That doesn't mean it is unusable, but it does require some clearing out of junk before selecting and placing images we want to work with.  In other words, rather than use everything we see, we'd do better to decide what needs to be left out.  

This image is visual cacophony.  The llamas might be the subject or the tree or the house, but the scene with all these images from this point of view is cluttered.  

We can begin by taking out everything except the llamas, the front fence and the upper parts of the big trees.  Already, it feels like we can breathe.  The cacophony is gone and instead, we have visual clarity.  We have cleared the clutter.
The key to avoiding visual cacophony is to make an intuitive decision about what is important, then be willing to leave out anything that doesn't in some way help give clarity to the subject without sacrificing interest.  It's a kind of visual purging of the resource.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

That Fascinating Golden Ratio

The Golden Ratio was used by the Greeks beginning around 400 B.C and it is suspected that the Egyptians used the principle to design the pyramids long before that.  It is a proportion ratio from length to width of 1 to 1.618.  It can be found in growth patterns within plants, sea creatures, the human body, microscopic cells and the entire universe.  It is so effective that in addition to the visual arts, it is used in music, in science, in mathematics, and even in industry.

It is an incredible mathematical ratio that in some mysterious way seems to harmonize with the human psyche. The Golden Rectangle is built on this ratio. In fact, this shape is so aesthetically charged that architects and other artisans have depended upon it to design their constructions and painters have relied upon it for their image placement ever since it was discovered.


Volumes have been written about the Golden Ratio.  But what is important for us to understand is how we can use it in placing our images.  Artists over the centuries have discovered that placing according to two principles--rabatment and rule of thirds--can give a close approximation to the same aesthetic balance achieved when using the Golden Ratio.

I am exploring these two methods in our new series of video tutorials, Selecting & Placing.  Lesson one shows how to use rabatment, lesson 2 shows aligning images with the intersections of rule of thirds, lesson 3 uses rabatment for helping clear clutter and lesson four aligns with the verticals and horizontals of rule of thirds for finding hidden compositions.   Rather than follow these as rules, I prefer using them as tools for expanding our creative choices.  

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Thinking with a Color Wheel

Learning to think with a color wheel can take a lot of guess work out of getting the right color while painting.  First, we train ourselves to call colors we see by their hues rather than common names. For example, some might name the color of these stacked rocks beige, but what hues do we see?

If identifying the hues eludes you, hold up a color wheel next to the subject.  Close your eyes for a few seconds then, open your eyes and without thinking, name the wheel's hues that feel closest to the subject's hue.  Don't allow yourself to THINK about it.  Just respond.

Test It
     Rarely do we see hues at their fullest saturation, so we might need to make some adjustments.  If we don't have a tube color of the intensity we need, our next move is to reduce the saturation with a complement.  Here are the steps I suggest for testing out the hues you named.
Step 1:  Find a tube color closest to hue.
Step 2:  If it is darker than the subject, adjust its value with white.
Step 3:  Find a tube color closest to its complement.  If you don't have that color, mix it.  
Step 4:  If the mixture is darker than the subject's hue, raise its value with white.
Step 5:  Gradually bring the complement mixed in Step 4 into the value adjusted mix in Step 2.  That should tell you if your correctly named the hue.

color wheel  

After a series of experiences like this, we can automatically read a color by the wheel.  The payoff is that while painting, when we see a color about which we are uncertain, we can "think with the color wheel" and easily find it.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Setting Up a Limited Palette

Let's play with color.  The photo below has in it a number of colors.  Coming up with a limited palette scheme for this can take us on an enlightening adventure.  

A limited palette that follows a scheme has inherent harmonizing potential.  But knowing how to find that scheme can be challenging.  Here's a four-step process I use:

1.  Identify visible hues
The major hues I see (top to bottom) are blue, yellow-green, yellow and orange.

2.  Begin with one or two hues you see.  I'm choosing two--blue and yellow that I can combine for a third hue I see, yellow-green.
Blue + yellow=green, giving me a range from yellow to yellow green to green to blue green to blue.

So it looks like both Ultramarine Blue and Hansa Yellow Light could be candidates to yield at least three hues I see--blue, yellow and yellow-green.  

3. Find these chosen hue's complements
The complement of blue is orange, so I can add to the palette
Quinacridone Burnt Orange (a good candidate because mixed with hansa yellow light, it will produce the oranges I see plus provide a range of darks)
The complement of yellow is purple, possibly Dioxozine Purple. (This will give a range from yellow to yellow ochre to brownish purple to purple as well as a good range of values).

4.  Test the scheme
     By doing these steps, I've come up with a possible limit palette scheme of blue, orange, yellow and purple--two sets of complements that, when I plot them on the color wheel, show up as a double split complementary scheme.  JOILĂ€!

A double split complementary scheme is any two sets of complements formed from colors on either side of a single set of complements.
Mixing with these complements plus white, I can get the lower intensity hues I see, especially in the vase and on the rock window casing.
    Just to be sure, I squeeze out onto the palette these choices along with white and explore all the possible hue, value and intensity mixes I can come up with from various combinations of Ultramarine Blue, Hansa Yellow Light, Quinacridone Burnt Orange, Dioxazine Purple and Titanium White.  THERE'S where I begin to see potential.

   If you'd like to learn more about ways to work with color schemes, take a look at Series 10, four video tutorials on Transposing Color found HERE.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Why Notan?

Let's take a little journey with notan.
Using this photo as our subject without doing a notan study, we might ignore some key shadow patterns that unite the composition.  Because we know there is white on both horses and a light colored fence behind them, we might not notice that the majority of the fence is in shadow and that portions of the white of the horses also are in shadow just as portions of their dark colors are in light.  Neither might we see that terrible tangent where the top of the horses' backs mesh with the bottom fence line back of the pasture.
Any strategy that causes us to refocus our attention enables us to discover things that otherwise we might not see.  By switching our focus from horses to shadow shapes, not allowing ourselves to see the images themselves, we discover an inner-connectedness within the fields of light and the fields of shadow.

Notice how the upper field of light merges into one shape when we get rid of the tangent by lowering the edge of the pasture shape.  And notice the pattern of not-in-shadow that emerges when we acknowledge the light on the dark colors of the frontal horse.
Notice how the upper field of light merges into one shape when we get rid of the tangent by lowering the edge of the pasture shape.  And notice the pattern of not-in-shadow that emerges when we acknowledge the light on the dark colors of the frontal horse.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Translating Notan Excerpts

Notan: A Creative Journey

The subject is Herefords grazing.  One cow is looking out at the audience while the other three go about their business.  Light coming from the left joins with shadows entering from the bottom and upper right to create the context within which we see these subjects in their environment.  This interrelating of shadow and light creates the Notan of the scene. 


Notan is a Japanese word meaning dark-light.  Its original visual use was to create two-dimensional designs in black and white, the purest and most ancient we know being the yin yang symbol.

The Notan concept relating to visual thinking didn't enter western art until the 19th century when we believe it was introduced by Oriental art scholar, Ernest F. Fenollosa.  In the early 1920s, American artist and teacher, Arthur Wesley Dow, a colleague of Fenollosa, was the first to apply Notan as a principle to Western art in his book, Composition.  In this text he attempts to blend the Eastern concept of dark/light with the Western approach to negative/positive.

But Dow was handicapped by the mainstream trend of his time.  Consequently, his efforts could not transcend that attitude beyond abstraction.  With that era's concern being two-dimensional space rather than a translation of images within space, shadow as a construct of light was not a consideration.  He took the idea of Notan as far as he could within the context of his time.  We sometimes forget that during the Abstraction Expressionist era, shadow and light gave way to negative-positive shapes and value relationships.  

What Dow did though was to introduce an idea that has become a valuable tool for realistic painters today.  Even though he could not quite see the Notan construct in the natural world, subsequent artists have seen it clearly.  Like any discovery, this one began with an insight that eventually became a working tool.  Today we understand it as a principle with which we can comprehend shadow and light and one we can use to undergird the composing process.

Winter Morning on the Tallulah   Oil on Canvas
For several decades, my personal work has been based on Notan. It is the basis for all our instructional videos.  Our newest series digs deep into the Notan process, showing how we capture and create Notan, how we can find variations with in it and how we can creatively translate it into a painting.  We hope you will find within these tutorials a breakthrough that will burst your creative stream wide open.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Tracing Debate

One of the hottest controversies in the painting world revolves around tracing projected photos onto the painting surface versus setting up a preliminary drawing free hand.  Many painting teachers actually teach students to trace projections rather than showing them how to do a preliminary drawing.  Students follow the practice innocently without realizing the limitations tracing puts on their work as well as their artistic growth.


Here are my thoughts about this practice: 
  1. Tracing projections deceives the artist into thinking he/she is a more accomplished artist than they really are.  
  2. Tracing denies the artist the exhilaration of making visual discoveries during the process of setting up the preliminary drawing as well as during the painting process.. 
  3. Tracing deceives the viewer into thinking the artist actually shaped the images.
  4. Tracing blocks opportunity for growth.  It creates a dependency.  
  5. Tracing inhibits making open-ended composing decisions.
  6. Tracing creates a fear of learning to draw.
  7.  And most important, I think:  tracing blocks individual expression.
I know of nothing more freeing than feeling confident about drawing.  I suspect, though, that the practice of tracing began because of shaky drawing skills or at least an insecurity about drawing.  But five decades of teaching drawing have proven to me that anybody who wants to can learn to draw. I've seen it happen again and again.  And with the right teacher, it can be easy to learn and a joyful experience.  

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Creating Your Style

(Note:  Henceforth, content from each Composing & Drawing Tip Newsletter will appear here each Saturday morning.  If you are subscribed to both, feel free to unsubscribe from one of them to prevent duplicates arriving via email.)

During the twenty-four years of our private art school, we held a student show at the end of each twelve-week session.  Amid these, responses to student work that delighted me most were people asking how many teachers we had.  Folks couldn't believe that the diversity of styles had emerged under the same teacher.  Even the first quarter drawing students' work was already showing a unique style.


What I have noticed among all performers, whether artists or athletes, is that those who excel and reach greatness have a unique style, unlike any other.  An example is evident in baseball pitchers.  Craig Kimbrell, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz each have baffled one hitter after another, yet each stance and pitch is totally different from the other.


There are three kinds of styles:  the imitated style, the evolved style and the hybrid style.  The imitated style comes from the performer's intentional adapting a style of someone else.  The evolved style is often called "self-taught" because it is one that comes naturally to a person without any conscious influence.  The hybrid style mixes all that comes naturally mixed with influences by what one sees in or is taught by others.  What we notice is that the style of our greatest performers is most often hybrid.

To the question of how does one find one's style, the real answer is by not trying.  Those who do try eventually lose their natural expression to mechanical imitation, but those who focus their attention of developing the skills required for masterful performance will evolve their unique style without trying. 

We are not to worry about whether our style gets influenced because whatever we identify with in another's skill set is inherently ours to begin with, otherwise we would not recognize it nor desire it. A skill is universal, it is how something gets done.  It is not a talent, but an ability.  In the long run, when our focus is on developing and practicing our skills, each of them will become our own.  We will grow our own signature use of it.  And out of that our style emerges.