Saturday, September 29, 2018

100 Starts - numbers 11-20

Continuing my 100 Starts, based on Kevin Macpherson's prompt…

100 Starts - Kevin Macpherson prompt - Days 11-20
Days 11-20 of the "100 Starts" exercise, painted in acrylics from 11-17 and oil 18-20
Numbers 1-10

Number 11 notes

I added two new things to the way I do this exercise: used multiple brushes (one for lights, one for shadows, and one for the first easy color which is typically higher chroma) and a little test sheet to organize my colors in the light and shadow families. They're very small changes that made a huge difference in the experience! I didn't spend time cleaning out one brush over and over as I moved through the stages of color mixing and painting. I also had more confidence in the colors I put down due to the immediate feedback of the test sheet.

light family and shadow family test swatch chart

It helps that that my objects were only green and white, but I finished this one in the 30-minute time goal. Tomorrow I'll mix up the colors more and hopefully these new techniques will keep things moving quickly.

Number 12 notes

One more change to this exercise: instead of doing a thumbnail sketch first, I went straight to sketching in the objects on my panel. Since they're such simple setups I wanted to see if it would hinder anything to skip that step, and happily it did not. Once I'm doing more complete paintings it would be smart to bring back the notan thumbnails though.

My little test swatch strip came in handy again.

test swatches 100 starts number 12

Number 13 notes

This drawing got a little squatty and small for the panel, which I don't like. But I really like the shadow shapes that were created with the arrangement of the blocks — and I brought back the jar candle that I loved so much from number 9. As I compare this with number 9, there's a big difference in the luminosity of the study. I'm not sure if that's because of the small brush I used on number 9 which shows the white of the gesso, or if it's the way I mixed the colors. The shadow shapes in the candle seem more dull in this one. I'm thinking it's a matter of them getting muddied up and losing vibrancy. .

Tomorrow I'll keep an eye on that and use an additional brush if it would help.

100 Starts Day 9 next to Day 13
Number 9 on left, number 13 on right

Number 14 notes

Wonky shapes aside, I'm really happy with this exercise. The shadow shapes are pleasing, and as I look over the completed study I see how I could have easily connected them together nicely for fewer shapes overall. I'm also thinking about whether I've simplified enough, and if it would make sense to put the sides of the cubes in light all in the same color note. It would be more in the spirit of the exercise: to represent the subject in the fewest and most basic shapes, with the colors necessary to do so. By choosing different colors for the sides of the cubes in light, I'm essentially modeling the form with light and halftone. Which helps make the image more readable, but takes longer and is more colors than necessary.

Tomorrow I'll see what it's like to link the shapes in the shadow family and reduce the number of colors for the shapes in the light family.

Number 15 notes

I got almost all of my shadow shapes linked, except for a tiny area on the right where my brushwork smooshed it apart. I also used just one color for the light family on two of the blocks — on the third the color shift was just too great and I decided to paint all three sides with their respective colors. Since the surface the cubes were on was a mid-value grey fabric, all of the cast shadows were darker in this one.

I've been obsessing over what colors I'd like to get for a three-primary oil palette. So I switched things up from the cad yellow light, alizarin crimson, and ultramarine blue (artist quality acrylics) to cad yellow medium, cad red medium, and ultramarine blue (student quality acrylics). I was hoping to get a feel for how this group mixed compared to the first group because I have a hard time mixing a rich golden brown that doesn't tend toward purple with the alizarin and cad yellow light.

Number 16 notes

As I reflect on the last few exercises, I think my cast shadows are getting too dark. It happened around the time I decided to push the lights and darks and they're pushed too far for the particular light I'm using. It may be partially a factor of acrylics drying darker and me not compensating for that. I definitely forget to do that! Today at the art store I picked up some new oil paints: a set of primaries plus a big tube of white. I'm very tempted to switch over to oils tomorrow to see how they compare to the acrylics and start getting familiar with them.

It seems like the drawing stage is going more quickly lately — it's becoming easier to see the relationships between shapes, especially when I remember to view them as shapes and not objects.

Number 17 notes

Instead of starting with oils, I finished up the acrylic paints that were leftover in my stay-wet palette. My plan is to use the palette box to store my oil palette for working in the studio, so I wanted to get it cleared out without wasting paint.

I didn't use the artificial light on the still life — just scooted the setup closer to the window and used that. It was enough to cast a shadow, but relatively soft natural light. The value difference between the shadow family and light family is not as great as previous studies, but the cast shadows are still too dark. Part of my problem may be in being too strict with the color isolator tool. There's probably more luminosity and color in those cast shadows than I'm seeing with it. Will try to adjust next time.

I thought it would be fun to do a comparison of my painted exercise next to a photo of my still life, both converted to greyscale to see if the values are close. With the exception of those too-dark cast shadows I'm happy with it:

100 starts number 17 value check
A greyscale photo of my still life setup on the left, a greyscale photo of my painted study on the right.

Now I'm thinking about the subject of transparent shadows with opaque lights…it's something I've heard many times and I'm curious whether Kevin Macpherson intended for that to be a factor in this 100 Starts pledge. That'll take some thought and research!

Number 18 notes

I set up my palette for oil paints. Woo hoo! To compare this exercise with the last one, I didn't change the still life setup (although it is overcast so the light coming in the window is different). For colors, I'm using cadmium yellow light, naphthol red, ultramarine blue, titanium white, and ivory black. I premixed the secondary colors on my palette so there's a full color wheel going on and used a mid-grey paper palette inside the Masterson stay-wet palette (sponge and paper for acrylics removed). I'm very curious to see whether this will help keep the paints fresh enough to keep using day to day without setting it up all over again each time I want to paint. Luckily with this 100-start project I'm painting every day at least a little so I don't need to worry about the paints sitting for days on end.

I definitely need to mix up bigger piles of paint for this project because I want to see thick, juicy application rather than thin and scrubby. I really enjoyed using the hog bristle brushes. I felt like I had more control over the paint application, which helped me make nicer shapes and get better coverage.

Number 19 notes

I'm so enjoying the feel of oil paints! Little things, like the way a shadow edge softens with the adjoining brush stroke, are delightful after working with acrylics. If I don't get stingy, this small tube of cad yellow light might go quickly — plenty of naphthol red and ultramarine blue though.

Instead of the color blocks, I set up an onion, a small wooden bowl, and a chunky candle in a ceramic pot. They're all sitting on a bright yellow fabric which looks vibrant but is making me face my fear of using up too much yellow paint, haha.

This week I started reading Kevin Macpherson's book Landscape Painting Inside & Out, a followup to Fill Your Oil Paintings with Light & Color. It strikes me as much more advanced, and makes me appreciate beginning with Light & Color and the 100 Starts pledge. Something I read in the second book struck a chord with me: he said to look at a color note for just a second to record it in your mind and make a color decision, rather than staring at it for a long time because that makes it go rather dull to your eyes. That's definitely been happening to me. In my effort to really get the color note right I'm looking so long and critically that the color loses its essence and greys way out. I'm going to try doing it as he suggests and see if the color shapes become more interesting.

It's occurred to me that I'm getting much better at seeing shapes instead of things. I don't even really care what I'm painting right now, it's just so exciting to see the colors I'm putting down work together to form an image. Especially when there's life and color in the shadow family. It was such a mystery to me how a painting comes together and I'm so glad to have Kevin's book to help break it down into manageable steps.

Number 20 notes

This one was a struggle for me. The blocks were lit by the window, so it was somewhat soft light but it did cast clear shadows. One challenge was the fact that two of my blocks are painted in rather dark colors, and while I could clearly tell what was in light and what was in shadow, I had a hard time seeing how to make the darkest colors in the light family lighter than the lightest colors in the dark family. I also did a poor job of looking quickly and judging the color shapes. I stared much too long, and everything ended up rather dull.

My mission for the next few exercises will be to bring back some of the life I see in number 9 and refocus my efforts on finding one representative color for each simple shape. One thing that's getting me into trouble is the fact that the planes have gradations in them which distracts me from the bigger picture and makes me second-guess my color choices. So…look fast, mix fast, apply fast!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

100 Starts - Kevin Macpherson prompt

The down side to being a book lover is that I tend read them one after another without pause. With novels this is no big deal. But with art instruction books it's not very effective to blow past them like that. Especially when there's so much valuable content and fantastic advice in them.

When I read Fill Your Oil Paintings with Light & Color by Kevin Macpherson I knew following his prompt to paint 100 starts would be a good idea. The basic premise is that you give yourself 30 minutes to get the simple shapes of your subject blocked in with correct color notes (and as he describes it, if the color is right the value will be right as well). And after 100 of these studies, you'll be better and faster at doing them.

My goal is to complete one study a day for 100 days to see what I learn — and also to experience sticking with one teacher's technique for a decent length of time. It's super hard for me to focus on one approach because I love trying them all, but I really think I'll see benefits from sinking into one approach and getting familiar enough with it to see if it works for me. And if at the end of the 100 studies something isn't fitting I can always adjust.

His exercise was also appealing to me because it incorporates the use of notan and in-shadow/not-in-shadow principles that I learned from Dianne Mize. It feels like a different, simpler way to start compared with the 4 major plane value divisions I tried out with my recent focused practice on values, which were less intuitive for me to decipher.

I began the 100 starts challenge on Monday, September 10, 2018.

100 Starts - Kevin Macpherson prompt - Days 1-10
My first ten days of this "100 Starts" exercise, painted from life in acrylics.

Number 1 notes

  • Set up a still life with cool bulb shining on colored wood blocks. 
  • Sketched a notan thumbnail, then drew the still life on my painting surface (gessoed poster board) with small filbert and acrylic paint. 
  • Using a color isolator and acrylic paints in ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, cadmium yellow light, and titanium white, put down color shapes one at a time:
    1. Lightest light
    2. Darkest dark
    3. Easy color
    4. Colors in the shadow family
    5. Colors in the light family
A couple of the colors should have been a little darker or lighter and the brushwork needs improvement, but overall I am completely wowed by this exercise. When I look at the painted study I really believe the light. Plus, it's fun to be working in color after six weeks of black, white, and grey studies!

I had to keep an eye on the clock because I started at a leisurely pace and realized I'd never finish the study if I didn't speed things up and make quicker decisions. Putting the paint down on my panel went quickly, but the color reading and mixing was more time consuming.

Number 2 notes

Same process as Number 1 with different blocks. By using the color isolator I read the brown block as leaning toward purple, which surprised me. My cast shadows seem too light, which may be a factor of the direct light and a light cloth surface. The shadow family is technically all darker than the light family but it's not very clear what's going on with it from a viewer's perspective. I'll try switching to a darker ground and see how that affects the color notes. Yesterday's cool-colored blocks in the cool light is much different in my eyes than today's warm-colored blocks in the same light. Wasn't expecting that!

Number 3 notes

I switched the cloth background to a mid grey and changed the lighting angle from side (rim) to 3/4 (form). Two color areas gave me trouble today: one was the shadow side of a light yellow block that I made too light for being in the shadow family. The reflected light from the white sphere next to it threw me off. And the other was a green color that was in the light family but it's too dark. I'm not sure yet about how to resolve that situation…

I need to watch my still life composition more carefully. With this study, a strangely-shaped shadow cast onto the vertical backdrop makes for a very confusing and unappealing composition.

Number 4 notes

The bright red block in today's still life gave me huge color matching troubles. I resorted to bringing out my cadmium red light for the brightest side. I like the strong contrast between the shadow and light families on this one.

Number 5 notes

I set today's still life up to mimic a very rough landscape scene. I love the beige sandy foreground contrasted with the cool grey background. I'm noticing that my light family tends to get a little dark, making it hard to clearly distinguish between the light and shadow. However, the shadow side and cast shadow of a dominant black block in front are particularly pleasing to me. Looking for the colors that exist in shadows is fascinating!

Number 6 notes

Today I concentrated on making the light family lighter and more easily distinguishable from the dark family than I have been. I had trouble matching some of the most intense hues with this one — the bright royal blue of the cylinder and the brightest side of the orange triangle. I need to figure out whether it's jut not possible with the pigments I'm using or if I just haven't mixed properly. I'm really happy with the light yellow block, although the cast shadow got a bit too red.

There's something incredibly satisfying about mixing these colors and applying them as simple color shapes. I don't think I'd pause to look at someone else's versions of the exercise, and they're not very compelling as compositions or anything, but the experience of making them is rewarding. The fact that I created them myself makes them much more interesting to me. And since they're meant to be studies and nothing final, it's truly about the experience and not about the outcome which I appreciate.

Number 7 notes

I've been adjusting my still life setup — the surface it's on and lighting — over the last several days. I'm finding I prefer to have my easel set up over near a window with the still life in a corner beyond it. I also remembered that when I originally painted the blocks I used some colors that just won't be possible to mix with my current limited palette selection, so I can stop attempting to match the intensity and just aim for hue and value. Which is fine because my desire is to paint the natural world, which tends toward greys and not so many high-chroma colors.

Today's blocks were cooler in color with a cool bulb directed at them, and I enjoyed painting the warmer shadow family colors.

Seven days in a row feels like an accomplishment! At some point I'll change up the subject, but for now will continue with the blocks. Most important to me is that I continue painting from life.

Number 8 notes

Today's blocks were neutrals and earth tones. I think I did well with the color shapes and indicating what's in the shadow family, but the dark browns in the light family should probably be lighter. Tomorrow I really need to push the lights to see what that feels like. I may be struggling with the fact that I "know" the dark brown background paper and block are dark, instead of really seeing them for the color they are as light.

Number 9 notes

Well, I forgot to push the colors in the light and shadow families like I had intended — clearly I need to put a note on my easel as a reminder! Despite that, I still think there are some good color notes and for the most part the relationships hold together well. I used a small flat brush (synthetic bristle) today for more control over the small shapes. I liked having more control but not how thin and splotchy the paint is applied. I also introduced a new object: a candle in a white and lavender ceramic jar. I love the shadow and light pattern on it.

I'm having trouble staying within the 30-minute time goal. Today's, and a few others, took me 40 minutes. I just can't bring myself to leave one unfinished so I need to work on not over analyzing the color mixing and go back to a larger brush.

Number 10 notes

I remembered to push the lights and shadows today and some areas it resulted in the desired effect but on the white mug I introduced to the still life the contrast is much too extreme. The shadows on it aren't the right color notes given the lighting. It was a good thing to try though. I got this one done in just over 30 minutes, which is an improvement from yesterday.

Ultimately the big thing I'm trying to get right is to make the colors in the light family all lighter than the colors in the shadow family. I need some system in place for checking that — maybe something as simple as a white strip of paper that's divided into light side and shadow side where I can test swatch everything before I paint it in.

Another new thing I tried today was setting my palette between where I stand and my easel, instead of off to the side on my tabouret. My default posture is often poor and intensely hunched over whatever I'm concentrating on, and turning to the right to mix colors was giving my horrible upper back and neck pain. Mixing straight down in front of me was much better and hopefully if I continue that way the pain will disappear.

Monday, September 10, 2018

First day plein air painting

plein air sketch on Neuse River path
My gouache sketch along the Neuse River Trail in Raleigh

Well, you gotta start somewhere! My first plein air painting is under my belt and it feels great. The sketch is rough, with lots of room for improvement, but I'm so happy I got out there and finished one.

my view of the Neuse River for a plein air meetup
View of the area I chose to paint

I used gouache to get started because I wasn't prepared to take acrylics out there on the trail yet. And I haven't even cracked open my oils. Instead of purchasing an easel and paint box setup, I cobbled together some existing supplies to see how the experience painting outside felt before committing to a particular solution.

plein air painting setup cobbled together from various supplies
My ad hoc plein air setup: scored and folded corrugated plastic board, palette made from a gift tin of flavored salts (I knew that tin would come in handy one day!), and gouache painting accessories.

While it was comfortable to be seated with this on my lap, it was cumbersome to hold everything and some of my tools had to be stashed in the bag that was sitting on the ground next to me. But it gave me a bit better feel for how materials are used in this type of painting. Of course now I'm dreaming of all kinds of portable paint boxes and easel solutions.

It was really cool to implement the techniques I've been practicing for this sketch. I started with a few thumbnails to determine the composition, and did a couple of value studies. Then I took my small panel that had been toned with a mid-value earthy red acrylic, sketched in the placement of each element with burnt sienna, and mixed up my color value lines of the basic colors that I saw using prussian blue, burnt sienna, yellow ochre, and titanium white gouache. I followed the process of blocking in darkest colors, then lightest colors, then going back to work on details.

The sky was overcast, but you can't really tell that from this painting — it's more warm than I intended. I also wish it wasn't so high contrast, and that the middle value colors were developed more. The things I'm happiest with are the drawing and the color of the winding river.

Perhaps the coolest thing about the experience was how even though the bugs were an obnoxious distraction at times, they didn't make me want to pack it in and go home. I got into the zone and I stopped paying much attention to them. That's in stark contrast to times when I've been sitting outside to relax, and was driven back inside by bugs. I took it as a good sign!

My goal for the next one: simplify. Oh, and to choose a view that's not obscured by stuff I don't want included in the composition.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

French Bulldog study in acrylic using Zorn palette

zorn palette study of french bulldog
French Bulldog acrylic sketch using Zorn palette

An odd thing has happened now that I have oil painting supplies in my studio: I feel released to play more with my acrylics and be less concerned about being as economical as I can with them. It's liberating!

After finally making my Zorn acrylic color chart, I wanted to try painting something with it. I found this image of a French Bulldog and the colors looked like they'd translate very well. I started by doing a thumbnail sketch to get familiar with the shapes and values. In addition to trying out this palette of colors, I wanted to use a looser block-in approach by marking just a few key points in lieu of a full drawing, and massing in the large shapes with the dominant color I saw in the shape. My hope was that it would be a looser experience and unlock me from trying to be too exact.

Another thing I did for this study was identify the major color families and make color value lines on my palette before beginning to paint. I used the stay-wet palette and no mediums, other than spritzing the top of the paint piles from time to time with a water-retarder mix.

I'm setting aside my nice bristle brushes for the time being for use with the oils, but of course have many other brushes to choose from. For this study I used a variety of synthetic brushes including some Silver Brush Bristlon flats, a large Mimik Hog filbert, an Isabey Isacryl filbert, and a small Princeton Imperial round, on 9x12 Strathmore Canvas Paper. As I worked with them, I concentrated on the way the character of the brush felt as opposed to simply using the brush to apply paint.

During the painting, I got rather hung up around the eyes and nose so I think doing a bit more drawing to at least identify their boundaries would have helped. But I did enjoy how much more loose and casual the experience was overall. Having the color value lines set up before I began was enormously helpful for keeping the colors on the canvas more harmonious. Having the limited palette contributed to this, but I felt much more confident about picking up a color this way as opposed to mixing on the fly. Perhaps with more experience that will become more intuitive, but for this stage I loved the premixing.

Some things I'd improve next time:
  • sketch in the placement of eyes, nose, and mouth
  • think more in terms of large shapes and not discreet elements (ongoing area of study)
  • choose a background color that doesn't contrast so much with the subject (I chose this cool color intentionally to contrast with the warmth of the dog, but it looks more modern than I was shooting for)
  • lay down a coat of retarder on the background area to allow time for blending (like with the cloud exercise)

Friday, September 7, 2018

Zorn palette with acrylic paints

Zorn palette color chart in acrylic paint
Acrylic Zorn palette chart

Perhaps it's my frugal nature, or the way color harmony is simplified, but limited palettes fascinate me. The Zorn palette is one that caught my attention because of its muted greens and limited use of bright, saturated color. When I chose which acrylic paints to buy, one of my considerations was getting colors to work with this palette. (But I also supplemented with ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow light, alizarin crimson, raw umber, and burnt umber.)

For my Zorn color chart, I used yellow ochre, cadmium red light, bone black, and titanium white (all Golden acrylics). I followed the model from this blog post. At least I attempted to — things got a little hazy on the bottom five rows. But hey, it was still very valuable even if I went a little rogue there.

I'd love to do some landscape studies with this palette. It would be interesting to see how I could interpret the North Carolina greens! I could see this palette working great out west, with the desert landscape.

It's clear to me why artists often recommend beginners start with a limited palette. There's an overwhelming number of possibilities when it comes to paint color and color in life that it can be so challenging to know where to begin. Creating this color chart shows me the range of possibilities within just a few colors while providing some parameters that help diminish the obstacles to simply starting. As a graphic designer, I always appreciated project parameters that allowed me to focus my energies in a smaller set of directions, and this feels like the same thing.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Focused practice: acrylic wipe out underpainting

Daily Art 08-27-2018 - 08-31-2018 wipe out value underpaintings in acrylic
Experiments with the wipe out underpainting technique in acrylic paint — except for the lower left which ended up as an opaque monochromatic underpainting.

My sixth and final week of this focused practice I've been doing on values marked a big turning point for me: I bought oil painting supplies! After trying to get acrylics to behave more like oils (which was an informative process and helped me understand acrylics a bit better, so really I do think it's been a valuable effort) my husband suggested I just get the oil paints and give them a try. He reminded me that traveling from watercolor to gouache to acrylic has all been an enjoyable and worthwhile experience, so it made sense to give the oils a try soon rather than get ten years down the road and realize I'd been missing out on something cool.

I couldn't argue with that and I think I've been avoiding oil paints based on some preconceived misconceptions — like that they are unhealthy to use or caused fumes that would irritate me. I learned that it was the solvents that cause most issues and did some quick research on solvent-free painting options. After a trip to Jerry's Artarama and a couple of supplemental online orders, I have a path to getting more familiar with them that I'm excited about. I think it will be great to have options, more tools in my tool box.

But back to the value studies. I started each one with a series of thumbnails, planning out my composition, focal point, and value structure. I primarily used an L-shaped armature to guide the eye. To do the wipe out underpainting, I experimented with a variety of grounds (sometimes gesso and sometimes prepped with an isolation coat) and approaches for the paint itself, sometimes adding glazing liquid and sometimes water.

My favorite combination was with a Grand Prix bristle brush, using water to thin the burnt umber acrylic paint for the initial wash, and the isolation coat surface. I worked quickly, but it gave enough flexibility to be able to brush on the darker values without them just sliding off from too much glazing liquid. Toward the end of the session, if I needed to pick out more lights I used the bristle brush to loosen the paint on the surface and wipe out with a smooth rag.

Six weeks of value studies: wrap-up

  1. 2-value notan studies
  2. 3-value plans
  3. 4-value block paintings from life
  4. 3-value block paintings from life
  5. 4-value paintings from reference photos
This six-week series of focused practice has been really valuable for me. I loved having a plan for each day and knowing that I was using my time effectively to gain new knowledge. I feel more comfortable with determining values, designing compositions, making several preliminary thumbnails, getting paint on the canvas, my brushes, and acrylic paint.

Going through this process has given me a greater understanding of the painting process in general, and dispelled the myth that "real" artists just pick up a brush and whip out a masterpiece. I like how this series has helped me feel out possibilities for more methodical approaches, which resonates with me. It also drove home the point that there's no one right way to make a painting — for different situations something might work better than others, and some people just have their personal preferences. I appreciate artists who remind us that there are many, many ways to do this stuff and sure, some people have their own recommended approaches, but that's because it's what works for them personally.

I may take a little time for free-form exploration next week and then get back to a new unit of focused practice.