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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Magic of Alternating Brushstrokes

Have you heard of alternation? A rarely discussed design tool, alternation can sometimes be the very method you need for moving the viewer’s eye through your painting, or making dull areas interesting.  It means a sequence of changes in direction. 
Here are some examples we see every day. 
When painting, there are many ways to use alternation.  The most dynamic is alternating brushstrokes.  Among our contemporary painters, one who is a master of brushstroke alternation is Qiang Huang.  Let's take a look at his "Demo at Huntsville 2016 1"
Here are two sections from Qiang's background.  Look at the alternation of stroke directions, then glance back at the whole painting and notice how those sequences of alternating stroke direction give movement to the painting.
Here's a similar analysis of Qiang's pear on the right. 
If you remove your attention from the imagery in Qiang's demo and focus only on his alternating brushstrokes, you will see how much energy just his brushstroke alternating gives to this piece.   

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Keeping Colors Clean and Crisp

Often artists complain about their colors feeling dull or dirty and are at a loss as to what to do about it.   Dirty color is easily corrected by revising work habits.  Here are four suggestions that can go a long way towards getting clean, crisp color.
1. Constantly wipe your brush clean
Make a habit of holding a brush in one hand and a paper towel in the other. Any time you switch colors, wipe the brush by squeezing out excess paint with the paper towel.
If you’re switching to a new color that’s much darker or lighter, don’t just squeeze out the brush—instead, rinse the brush, squeeze out excess moisture, and then dip into the new color. 
You will discover that keeping your brush clean while working goes a long way towards giving you precise values and clear, crisp colors.  
2. Don’t skimp on paint
Too little paint often results in weak color. Load your brush with adequate amounts of paint to stroke the surface and avoid trying to stretch your paint by spreading it so thin that the texture of the surface comes through. Consider each stroke an expression, not an application of paint.
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. Connect a new stroke to reshape a previous one, then move on to the next one somewhere else. Over-stroking and over-blending can flatten out and muddy up a color very quickly.  
4. Find the right hue to lighten your colors
Do you reach for white each time you want to make a color lighter? Let's rethink that habit.

Adding white alone changes the color temperature, 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 while allowing the color to remain in character. 

For example, notice the difference between alizarin crimson lightened with cadmium red light, then white as compared to alizarin crimson lightened with white alone.  
White is among the most beneficial and versitile paints on our palettes, but learning to use it with other colors rather than as a crutch to lighten will go a long way towards keeping those colors clean.
Note:  This week's tip is a dusted off and polished redo from my Empty Easel article published in 2008. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Problem of Muddy Color

No single color can be muddy. Mud happens in relationship to surrounding colors. If a vocalist sings a flat note or a guitar string is out of tune, the off-note by itself would not be offensive, but combine it with another tuned note or two and we cringe. The same is true for color. It requires a sour relationship to its neighbors to become muddy.
One way muddy color can happen is when the shadow values are out of context, meaning they don't relate chromatically to not-in-shadow values.  We see it especially in light colored images such as Caucasian faces, white vases and snow. The shadow colors in this child's face are muddy, causing the child's face to appear dirty.
The mud is caused by a poor chromatic relationship.  A chromatic relationship is a sequence of color values from light to dark (or dark to light) that follow how hue, value and intensity change as light on a shape moves into shadow or shadow to light. One doesn't simply add a dark color to create shadow.  That color should relate chromatically or it will not feel like shadow.
In this next version, there is no mud.  The chromatic relationship is right.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Color of Light

Below are azaleas from the same area of the bush, but under different colors of light.  Those on the left are on my dining table and on the right, on the azalea bush outside.  We might note here that the camera interprets the colors differently from how my eye sees them, nevertheless, it records something about how the color of light changes the color of everything it illuminates.
Taking my experiment a bit further, I took four photos of one the inside blossoms.  For each shot, between the light source and the flower I held a different colored transparency, changing the light color. The changes are subtle, but seeing and translating these nuances can mean everything to color harmony in our work.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Getting to Know Color as a Language

What are these colors?
If your answers are mauve, tan,and olive green, you are not speaking the color language
Begin here:  Color is a language within itself.  It has three major parts of speech--hue, value and intensity--as well as temperature which gets created by hue and intensity.  Once we get to know each of these components of color, we can create any color we want just by asking three questions.
    1.  What is the hue?
    2.  What is the value?
    3.  What is the intensity?
The questions can be asked in any order.  But what do they mean? 
The color wheel was invented to help us work with hue.  We can recognize hue if we call it by its color name such as red-violet, yellow-orange, yellow-green.  We can know these like a parent knows the face of a child.  We can see them in our minds when their names are called.  Committing this to memory is the first step towards getting to know the language. 
 The intensity (or chroma) of a color is the degree of saturation of its hue.  The color wheel shows the hues at 100% hue saturation. An absolute gray has zero saturation.  When any hue's complement (the hue opposite it on the wheel) is mixed into it, the saturation decreases--becoming more neutral-- causing a lower intensity.  Complements neutralize each other just like an acid neutralizes an alkali.  Changing the intensity doesn't change the hue although it might change the value.  Note:  The labels intensity and chroma are interchangeable.
The swatches at the beginning are all reduced intensity.  The first one we might have called mauve is actually middle-intensity red-violet.  The easiest way to label an intensity is to use the words low(almost neutral), middle (slightly neutral) and high (highly saturated).
Value (also called tone) is the degree of light or dark within a color.  We show it in a scale to help discern it.  Unfortunately, color scientists have screwed up the numbering of this system.  Earlier systems use 10 to indicate the darkest value (that's the one I learned), but more recent systems use 10 to indicate the lightest value. 

The number matters only in so far is it helps to distinguish degrees of value.  A better way to communicate the language of value is to call it high(light), mid-tone(middle) or low(dark). 
And Here's How the Language Works

Thursday, March 16, 2017

In Praise of Halftones

Our moon can help us understand the language we use when looking for halftones.
We don't see it in a full moon, but it's there in all its other phases.  It's called the terminator--that area where the earth blocks the sun's rays from the moon, throwing it into shadow. 
In the visual arts world, we use that term to indicate any area turning away from light into shadow.  It's in that illuminated side of all things where we find our halftones.  Call it the light side of the terminator or, as I like to call it, the not-in-shadow field.
When we can differentiate not-in-shadow fields from shadow fields, we can more clearly know how to interpret them.  We use the word "fields" to indicate a general area either being lit or being in shadow.  In the photo below, I've drawn a terminator between those two major fields of the child's head. 
It's in the halftone not-in-shadow fields where we find the most brilliant and definitive colors.  Look at the colors I found in just the child's ear and compare them to those I found in the shadow field back of his head.
One of the joys of being a painter is discovering those hidden jewels that were there all along:  we just didn't know how to look for them. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Finding the Magic of Halftones

In the visual arts world, there is a lot of confusion about halftones.
Halftones are found wherever images are illuminated.  Shadow tones are everywhere else.  We can grasp the concept more easily if we look at what happens to a sphere in direct light.
 It is within these magical areas of light where we find nuances--subtle changes in light values and in color temperature--that can give real depth to our work.  Master painters like John Singer Sargent had a eye for translating these, a skill that enabled him to do this portrait of Mrs. Henry White.
They seem insignificant, but even the tiniest change in value and/or temperature can make a big difference.  And we can learn to see these by closely looking for them. 
Once we find them, we can paint them.  And once we learn to do that, we can find ways to exaggerate and manipulate them in all kind of creative ways.  But seeing comes first.  Once we see it, we never forget it.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

How Edges Influence Our Paintings

Look at this abstract composition.  Notice that all the shapes' edges are sharp.  How our eyes move over the piece is determined more by location of shapes and their value contrast with their surroundings.
Let's change that up a bit and throw all the edges out of focus.  Notice how you react to that--we want something to be in focus:  Anything!
Now in this next design, pay attention to where your eyes go first.  Do they migrate to that dark triangle on the right?  The only shape that's in focus?  I bet they do. 
How do your eyes perceive this one with all but three shapes in focus?  Scan backwards now and notice the difference in your response to each design.  The shapes, colors, values and placement are the same.  Only the handling of the edges is different. 
Here's one more.  How would you handle the edges in this one to make the design more pleasing to you?    
Whether our designs are realistic images or abstract, how we handle the edges of all our shapes will influence the perception of the total piece.  All these examples play only with soft and sharp edges.  Other choices are broken, jazzed, lost, gradated--possibilities are limited only to the imagination.  What's important is that we notice what we are doing and find ways to use edges to strengthen our compositions. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Your Edges Can Give Expression to Your Painting

An edge in a painting is like a pause between two musical phrases:  it marks the ending of one shape and the beginning of another. The two sides of any edge can be isolated from each other or transitioned into each other, depending upon how the artist has handled the painting of the edge itself.
Whereas sharp edges bring shapes to an abrupt halt, calling our attention to them, soft and lost edges enable shapes and images to flow from one area of the painting to another. The soft edge makes a gentle transition, but in the lost edge, we don't see a break between where one shape begins and the other one ends. 
Here's a challenge for you:  Examine this little painting by Qiang Haung and find all the lost edges, soft edges and sharp edges.
 Now, look specifically at just the sharp edges you found.  Notice how your eye migrates to them.  Next focus on the soft edges.  Notice how they create a transition from one area to another.  Finally, the lost edges.  Imagine how stilted the painting would be if these were clearly defined rather than being lost. 
Our eyes want to participate, to become involved in paintings we view.  We want to be challenged, not spoon fed. When an artist uses just enough sharp edges to bring us into the painting, then employs soft and lost edges, our eyes become involved.  We feel like we've been invited to become a part of what the painting is all about. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Trap of Painting by Formula

How do you paint a tree?  That's a generic question painting teachers get all the time.  Books are written and videos made on How To Paint a--(You name it.)   
Three points:
  1. To memorize a formula is tedious and affords you only one way of rendering an image
  2. If you learn to paint by formulas, you will not be able to paint what your eyes are perceiving. The formula will blind you.
  3. If you are not painting your own perception, but instead are depending upon a formula to render an image, you greatly thwart your individual expression and style.    
When judging art shows, I have seen many skillful paintings that did not make visual sense because the artist was painting by formula rather than from perception.  Below is a photo typical of what can happen.  Do you see the discrepancies? 
An artist can be so intent on describing each individual image that he or she will not notice the effects of the light source.  Notice that the cast shadow from the orange is from one light source while the cast shadow from the candlestick is from another. Also, the light on the orange is more dispersed than that cast on the candlestick
I used the two photos above to construct our first picture. The photo on the left shows a more focused light source coming from the right.  The one on the right shows a brighter, more dispersed light source coming from the left. Each photo is a different interpretation of the still life, but within each all images are in context with the light source.   We can show that when we paint from our perception rather than a formula.
Where an image is located, its relationship to other images, the artist's vantage point, the kind of and direction of the light source--all these influence how you perceive images.   No formula will interpret that, but your perception will.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A Matter of Focus

Do you pay close attention to what your eyes are seeing? Try this little game:
Looking at the photo below, take note of all the things that are red, then go to the next paragraph below the picture..
Now without looking at the picture, list all the things that are blue. (Shameless disclosure:  I lifted this idea from someone else, but I don't remember who.)  If our vision is narrowed to one thing we are looking for, we're likely to miss other things.  We see what we expect to see and little else.
A new painting idea can cause the same thing to happen.  Suppose we decided to do a painting of that red umbrella to the far right. 
 If we just dove in to paint a red umbrella, something like this could happen. 
If it did, it would be because our focus is on "red umbrella."  We might have missed those basic shapes we see because we didn't focus on the shapes. 
Focusing on the idea of "red", we might have missed those variations in color where very little of the umbrella is actually red, rather several variations of red in light and dark values. Look at the differences among A, B, C, D, E, and F. 
We're better off not to focus on red umbrella at all, not even to have any expectations around "red umbrella."  When once we find a subject, we're more likely to have success if we forget all about what it is and focus our attention on asking what shapes do we see, what colors to we see, what textures...and so on.  We WILL paint what we see, it's just a matter of where we focus.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Small Changes in Value Contrast Can Give Clarity

A scene might call to be a subject for painting, but will have so much going on it has no clarity.  Scenes found in historical cities often do that, but so to other subjects.  The photo below caught my eye as typical.  The foreground monument wants attention, but is visually fused with the background structures.  Can it be given clarity?  Let's find out.
First, let's look at what's causing the visual fusion (resulting in confusion). 
We can see clearly the background structure and the foreground statue each contain the same degree of value contrast.  That is why they are visual fused.
I've taken samples from the darkest darks and the lightest lights in each image, confirming how close the value contrast is in each. 
To give that area visual clarity, we can reduce the contrast in the background structure. The illustration below shows you what will happen.  Look at it and notice to which set of squares your eye sees first.  Answer (of course):  the stronger contrasted set. 
Applying that principle to this scene, here's what happens. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Getting Rid of Eye Sores Before Beginning a Painting

Here's a photo I found on Pixabay. 
 If I happened upon this scene while out looking for a subject to paint, I'd probably set up my easel and get to work.  But to begin working without looking for potential eye sores would be a recipe for an inferior piece before even getting started.  
For one thing, that line where the grassy hill ends and the field begins forms a tangent with the roof of the house. I'd want to move that edge down.
 That clump of dirt to the left of the tree feels out of place.  I think I would delete that.
The little light green bush in front is too isolated and adds clutter to an already busy scene.  It's got to go. 
There's too much space on the left between the tree and the left edge AND that space is too much the same width of the tree.  I'll crop that. 
 For such a busy scene, the value contrast is too strong.  To calm that down, I'll darken the sky a bit.  This will help make the light on the house the focal point.
That really dark edge between the grassy hill and the field is too harsh, splitting that area and causing it to attract too much attention.  It needs to be subdued. 
That takes care of most of the stuff that is visually incoherent.  From this point, I could choose to begin with this design or I could crop to a different format.
In the crop on the left (as well as in the uncropped piece). I'm still bothered by the space of that hill being about the same width as the sky space. In the crop on the right, the widths of the tree and house are a bit too similar, but I can adjust that while composing the painting.   (Remember, we set the design, but the real composing begins with oubrushwork.)
What's important when we are selecting a subject for painting is that we look at one thing at a time and that we are willing to edit and rearrange for the best design so that when we begin composing, we have a head start.