Sunday, June 30, 2019

Just keep swimming

green landscape 8x10 painting
"Hide and Seek", 8x10 oil on canvas panel

I go through this cycle of painting something that doesn't turn out the way I want (quite often it's that things are much darker than I intend), then diving into some painting lessons to try to figure out a solution, becoming overwhelmed with options, and trying something new once or twice. And then getting frustrated when an approach doesn't work for me the first time. I thrive off of the learning part because it fills me with enthusiasm and generates ideas, but my patience runs out so quickly if I don't execute on the ideas well.

On that note, I'm toying with the idea of choosing one palette of colors and one block-in technique to use for several paintings in a row to help give me a fair chance to see if I like them. My brain knows it's nonsensical to think some new skill or process should be immediately successful, but I feel this sense of urgency to get these things figured out quickly. I try to keep in mind what I've heard on several painting podcasts, which is to slow down and savor the beginning stages of learning to paint — to enjoy this time because eventually the freedom of it passes and it becomes harder to just paint for yourself.

This week I started meditating for a few minutes before beginning my painting sessions. My goal is to help my body relax (I've developed a wicked knot behind my shoulder blade from mixing paints on my palette like my life depended on it), and get into a more open state of mind. I'm out of practice with meditation, and I spend most of those three minutes thinking about things I want to do, but at least I'm thinking positive thoughts!

For this painting, I started with a loose and washy block-in, aiming for cool colors in the shadows, warmer colors in the light, and the values in the right ballpark. This type of block-in appeals to me because by putting average colors in from the start, there's something to respond to. I was finding that with a monochromatic underpainting, it put me in a mindset of premixing colors and then sticking to them instead of course-correcting along the way. I'm not sure why that would be, but I hope I can work past that hurdle because I love the process of making a monochromatic underpainting.

In any case, I decided to start this painting in a generalized and noncommittal way. It felt very out of control, but also exhilarating. The thing I liked about it was that there was no question that adjustments would need to be made — it was total chaos! But there was something there to build off of. One thing I found remarkable was how very cool in temperature this initial stage was. I didn't notice it so much during the block-in process, but after taking a break and coming back into the room it really surprised me.

Thin, washy block-in

I had to remind myself to keep painting through the ugly stage. And I didn't put a time limit on myself, or worry about thin, transparent darks and advice to "put a stroke down and leave it alone". Maybe I would make mud, and there was white paint all over the canvas, probably making everything all chalky. There's a ton of sound advice I pushed to the side while I focused on painting in a way that felt good to me. It was fun to work in a lighter key with colors that were not so intense.

Now, on to planning that focused practice challenge! I may need to issue media ban for myself to stay focused and avoid shiny object syndrome…

Saturday, June 29, 2019

30-minute quick study

30-minute study, 6x8 oil on canvas panel

I liked using this photo during my 30 Days of Value Thumbnails project, and wanted to try a different take on it for this quick study. Since the last few timed studies got more detailed, I thought it would be an interesting challenge to cut the time in half to 30 minutes. This would force me to make sure I get the big shapes all in before getting sidetracked by smaller shapes.

When my timer went off and I stepped across the room to have a look at it, I was struck by how cool the color temperature is in this one. Especially compared to the little color study of it I did the first time!

Previous color study on the left, latest study on the right

A few things I'd do differently next time:

  • make the blue sky darker
  • make the trees in the distance lighter
  • add warmth to the sunlit sides of the trees and the lightest part of the ground

Friday, June 28, 2019

Evening road

Evening Road painting Jun 26 2019
"Evening Road", 6x8 oil on panel

To continue practicing the feeling of finishing a painting in 60 minutes, I chose this photo I took one evening on a country road. I loved the way the sun was just coming over the trees and lighting up the road and ground. It was also a good opportunity to incorporate atmospheric perspective, creating the sense of moving back into the distance.

For the most part it was finished when the timer went off, but I did keep working on details for about 15 minutes longer. The important parts were done though, which is what I'm trying to cultivate because outdoor light changes so fast. I went out to the front yard the other evening to paint a little section of grass and pine straw, and before I knew it the sun that had been raking across the yard was completely gone behind the trees. Needless to say, that study did not turn out great!

I'm still working on applying thicker paint for a variety in texture. But I am happy with the colors in this one. I concentrated on making subtle shifts in the greens on the right as the trees get further away.

One of the hard things for me at this point is learning to ignore the tiny details and focusing on the bigger color and value changes that describe the forms. I've noticed that when I get sucked into the little changes in darks and lights, my shapes break down and become difficult to read. Mostly this is because I try too hard to stick to the photo and forget about making good shapes. When I was initially sketching this one in on my panel, I made the reference photo on my monitor black and white, posterized it to 6 values, and reduced the size so it looked like a thumbnail. This really helped me see the bigger shapes so perhaps it would be a helpful technique during the rest of the painting process, too.

Value thumbnail of simple shapes

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Snow shadows and golden shrubs

snow shadows and golden shrubs painting Jun 26 2019
"Snow Shadows and Golden Shrubs", 6x8 oil on canvas panel

For the past several days I've been diving deep on color mixing exercises, and it felt like time to actually do a painting with some of what I've been learning. My drawer of oil paints is suddenly out of control and I used this little painting as a way to test out a plein air palette. My normal set of red, yellow, and blue hasn't been cutting it for me so I want to expand my selection, but not to the full gamut of colors I have available to me.

I was pretty happy with my ability to mix the colors I wanted with this set, which included:

  • cadmium yellow light
  • cadmium yellow medium
  • cadmium orange
  • cadmium red light
  • alizarin permanent
  • ultramarine blue
  • cobalt blue
  • viridian hue
  • yellow ochre
  • burnt sienna
  • ivory black
  • titanium white
I chose this scene because I liked the violet shadows stretching across the snow combined with the earthy golden shrubs. I started with a notan thumbnail of the shadow and light families, then sketched the drawing onto my panel. My goal was to paint quickly (it was a 60-minute study) with minimal detail and lots of paint. 

The timed part went fine, but I definitely didn't get the paint on as thickly as I wanted. Will have to keep trying on that! 

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Atmospheric perspective study

Imagined landscape study of planes and atmospheric perspective

I made up this simple landscape composition as a way to experiment with the principles of atmospheric perspective. Rather than be concerned with using a reference photo or scene from life, I wanted a simple setup to focus on getting using the prismatic palette to create depth and form in a landscape.

I was really trying to reduce the chroma of my colors but they're still very intense! It was also harder than I would have guessed to paint from my imagination. But I think the overall effect is close to what I wanted to achieve.

This exercise helped me see the importance of establishing the lightest area and darkest area. I started by blocking in the shadow sides of the trees, but when it came time to put in the mountains and treeline in the background, they were darker than the two little trees in the distance. Adjusting the values helped a little bit.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Early Evening Clouds

early evening clouds over the trees Jun 20 2019
"Early Evening Clouds", 8x6, oil on canvas panel

To help with the time restraints of painting outdoors, one of my projects is to practice 60-minute timed paintings in the studio. For this one, I didn't start my timer until after doing a thumbnail sketch and making a loose drawing of the shapes on my panel, but it was a happy surprise when I finished the painting stage in an hour.

I'm working with the prismatic palette, feeling my way through using it to create atmospheric perspective and adjusting the chroma of colors. Having the 10 value steps is helping me wrangle my values better, and the blue and grey color strings are allowing me to lower the chroma much faster and with less paint than by using the complements like I was doing previously.

The reference photo I took one evening in the park didn't capture the warmth I saw in the clouds when I was there. The relatively low early evening sun on the brightest parts of the clouds was really striking in person, and I had fun trying to capture that sense of warm light in my painting.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Front yard value study

plein air study in front yard Jun 20 2019
Black and white oil study painted outdoors

I went outside this morning to do a value study of the magnolia bush in our front yard. This bush is probably my favorite plant out front because this time of year it bursts into white blossoms and smells amazing.

My scene for this study

When I positioned myself in the shade of the house, I was able to frame the subject with a bit of the driveway and yard next door. I liked the way there was a dappled shadow going across that area. After sketching it out, I assigned the different shadow and light shapes values based on the 10-step value scale. For blocking in the major shapes, I used just a few values, and added more detail and form with the remaining values.

Seeing all of those values on my palette helped me remember to include the darkest and lightest values, and give structure to the scene by comparing what was darker and lighter relative to each other. It's a lot to keep in my head though! I had jotted value notes in my sketchbook for reference but I'm hoping that with some practice it becomes more automatic.

value study in front yard Jun 20 2019

The cast shadow on the driveway should be a little lighter to distinguish it from the grass next to it, and the part of the bush being struck by direct light could use some shadows to add more depth. But overall I'm pretty happy with how this one turned out. While painting it, I was frustrated by bug bites which made me feel rushed. Next time I need to remember to actually use the bug spray I pack with me every time I go out!

Monday, June 17, 2019

Painting at Falls Lake Dam

plein air value study in oil at Falls Lake Dam Jun 16 2019
My goals for selecting a scene were big shapes, atmospheric perspective, and shade. This spot fit the bill!

Yesterday we took a little road trip to Hickory so I could see an exhibit of pastel paintings at the art museum. And even though it took us forever to actually get there, I left feeling inspired! There was also an exhibit of paintings by the Blue Ridge Realists, and I recognized one of the artists from the North Carolina Plein Air Painters group I joined last year. Scott Boyle's landscapes were a treat to see in person, and he also contributed to a special little collection of plein air painting equipment and studies. After we got back home, I decided that in the morning I'd go out for some outdoor painting.

I wish I had stuck to the "morning" plan — instead I took care of some household chores in the morning and set out to paint after lunch. The problem was that it had gotten so warm out that as I walked around to find a good location for setting up, my energy got totally sapped. I packed it in and headed home. Except I took a wrong turn along the way as I often do here and found myself driving along the Falls Lake Dam. At the end of the road, there was a promising view of the kind of thing I wanted to paint (big shapes, tree masses layered into the distance, water) in a patch of shade.

I set up my gear and promptly lost all track of time. It was an enjoyable, although hot, plein air session, and I'm really glad I didn't go home empty-handed.

plein air value study in oil at Falls Lake Dam Jun 16 2019
Experimenting with an 11-step value scale to capture the effects of aerial perspective


This time I did a black and white study, leaving out the color element and just focusing on values. I did a few plein air studies last week that were total flops and the main reason was that I didn't handle the value structure well. It's one thing to look at a photo and determine a structure for the values, but doing it outdoors has been a much different experience for me.

I'm currently fixated on learning about using a prismatic palette to help wrangle my colors. I'd rather not do so much guessing and hoping that things will come together on the canvas, and one of the main characteristics of this approach is arranging colors by value and setting out equivalent steps of grey, blue, and green. This kind of organization appeals to the methodical side of me. And although I resisted it because it seemed more structured than I wanted to be, it may actually be an effective tool for learning the ropes of outdoor painting.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Value and color study of a park scene

study of park scene Jun 10 2019
Color study, 5x7 oil on primed paper

I've been watching some new painting instruction videos with different demonstrations on ways to start paintings. I feel like I have a good handle on monochromatic tonal underpaintings and wanted to explore the simple color shapes approach.

I started by making a series of thumbnails to sort out the composition and values. If you're familiar with Edgar Payne's Composition of Outdoor Paintings, you can see how mine is a blend of steelyard and three spot. Then I used black, white, and grey paints to make a monochromatic value study to see how things would look on my panel. 

value study of park scene Jun 10 2019
Value study using oil paints in black, white, and greys


After finishing the black and white study, I was curious to see how it would look as a notan. I took a photo and adjusted the contrast to two values. I mostly liked what I saw, except now that I look at it again, I can see a few shapes that are the same size. My lesson here is to be willing to make changes if needed! I was pretty much in the mindset to keep moving forward, so even if I had noticed the mimicked shapes before moving on to color, I likely wouldn't have made adjustments.

value study of park scene Jun 10 2019-notan conversion
High-contrast value study to see balance of light and dark

For my color study, I didn't premix any colors, and worked with thinned paint for the initial block-in. This felt very different to me compared to the tonal underpainting style — looser and more exploratory. I'm not sure how it would feel if I didn't have the value study sitting right next to it for reference though.

It's been a few days since I was able to paint, so I really enjoyed getting this time at my easel in. Plus I got a new white glass palette to try to combat my overly dark and dull color mixes, and it was super fun putting the little blobs of paint around the perimeter of the clean, bright palette. We'll see if it's a good fit moving forward, but today it certainly brought me a lot of joy.

I'm not sure how much I like the highlights on the tree trunks in the distant trees. Thinner and darker marks would be better. I definitely don't like how one of them lines up perfectly with the shrub on the right. And I did the same thing above the shrub on the left… wow you have to watch that sort of thing like a hawk!

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Shadow shape study in front yard

plein air painting in front yard Jun 4 2019
Plein air study of shadow shapes, 6x8 oil on canvas panel
I didn't have plans to paint outdoors today, but when I took the dogs out after their breakfast I was blown away by the beautiful weather. I was very tempted to set my easel up outside to find something to paint, but there's always an accident to clean up when I leave them alone. I say "accident" but it feels more like revenge. In any case, I remembered something I heard from Matt Smith the other day (either in a podcast or one of his video courses I recently purchased) about listing his excuses to not get outside with his paints, and knocking them out one by one. It inspired me to get out there, even though I was certain I'd have to clean the floor when I got back inside.

Which I did. But it was totally worth it. It was perfect outside — not too warm, not too cold, and the sun was out, making a strong shadow pattern on the sidewalk. Since this shape established the structure of my composition, I quickly sketched out a thumbnail of it before it moved too much as the sun got higher in the sky.

Quick sketch of light and shadow shapes

I used a limited palette of ultramarine blue, naphthol red, cadmium yellow pale hue, and titanium white. A neutral grey would have been useful to lower the chroma of some of the colors, but I didn't bring one out with me. Plus it's kind of fun to see the vibrancy of the colors I mixed compared to the dullness of the photo I snapped as I was selecting my scene.

The view I used for my study

I started by blocking in thin layers of the average color of each shape, then went in with details and thicker paint strokes. There were patches of warmer and cooler colors on the sidewalk that I had fun playing around with because they added interest to those flat planes. And using the average local color block-in has been a nice change of pace from the monochromatic earth tone or complementary color style underpaintings I've been experimenting with lately. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Plein air mini challenge with soft pastel

plein air pastels collage
The order I painted these: top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right

My main goal with buying a few soft pastel supplies was to get outdoors to paint more. Ultimately I want to be painting more outdoors in oils, but the setup is more involved than soft pastels and there's not always time for that level of time commitment.

I put together a kit that fits in a relatively small messenger bag that includes a small set of soft pastels, some hard pastels, precut 5x7 Canson Mi-Teintes papers, a backing board to clip the papers to, and various supplies for sketching and cleanup.

When I got myself outside to do a few studies in our yard, being new to soft pastels was actually working in my favor. I didn't have expectations that they would turn out well, just that I wanted to get more comfortable with the process of making a thumbnail, putting the drawing on paper, and the general process of painting in the shapes of lights and darks. My limited palette of colors and the moving sun meant that I wouldn't have time to match my colors to what I was seeing, so instead I could focus on values and temperature.

This mini challenge (based on one Karen Margulis mentions on her Patreon page) was about choosing simple subjects in my own yard. As she puts it: poems, not novels. It was exciting to see the nuances in the shadows, the reflected light, the dark accents…and putting in those marks of direct sunlight really make them come alive for me.

My two favorites are the rock and the tree trunks. I love the warms and cools on the rock, and the dark accents that give it dimension. My favorite moment was adding the shadow on the lower left that grounded it nicely.

Soft pastels on Canson Mi-Teintes Moonstone paper

On the tree trunks, I enjoyed seeing how the trees on the left were bouncing light back into the tree on the right. And how the evening sun was dappled on the trunks, causing spots of high contrast.

Soft pastels on Canson Mi-Teintes Steel Grey paper
Having this kit is a good step toward doing more plein air painting. Now I just need to shuffle it aside in my crowd of art supplies!

Monday, June 3, 2019

Painting at Historic Yates Mill County Park

plein air painting scene at Historic Yates Mill County Park Jun 2 2019
Painting my view of the pond and trees at Yates Mill County Park

After moving to North Carolina (it was a year ago this weekend!), I joined the North Carolina Plein Air Painters group. Every once in awhile there's a casual paint out organized in the Raleigh area. Last September I attended one of the meetups, where I did my first plein air painting. The other day when I checked in on the events calendar I was excited to see there was a paint out scheduled at Historic Yates Mill County Park. This was a location on my list of places to paint, and luckily my Sunday was open, so I made the commitment to attend. Being an introvert, the temptation to skip it when the time comes is strong…but I got myself out there and enjoyed it so much.

The surface of the water changed often due to a gentle breeze across the top, making it look either almost white or a perfect reflection of the treelines.

I had a whole plan in mind for what procedure I would follow for my painting. Which quickly went astray after I began applying color. It started well — I made a value thumbnail to establish my shapes, and used that thumbnail as my reference for drawing on the canvas. After drawing it in with thinned burnt umber, I scrubbed in the shadows of the tree masses with thinned paint, trying to match the average colors I saw in the landscape. I wanted to see if I could get more luminosity by skipping the monochromatic underpainting to establish values and going straight to a block-in with average colors.

My intention had been to be very methodical, blocking in the shadows and then going back to block in the halftones and light areas. My thought was that this would give me an idea of the relationships between all of the colors, values, and shapes. But I quickly got hung up working on the trees, fussing around with their shapes instead of moving all around the canvas. It was much more overwhelming to be out there in nature painting than I anticipated in my head! Thankfully I had at least found a good spot in the shade, and there were very few bugs bothering me.

For my palette, I used ultramarine blue, burnt umber, transparent red earth, naphthol red, yellow ochre light, Winsor lemon, and titanium white. I didn't pre-mix any colors on my palette. I wanted to make continual mixes as I went along in order to vary my colors more and be more responsive to making adjustments. I'm finding that when I pre-mix, I get pretty dedicated to using those mixes rather than adjusting them to better suit the painting.

I didn't end up using the burnt umber, transparent earth red, or yellow ochre light very much. It was simpler to just use the red, blue, and yellow. I'm sure if I do more color mixing exercises in the studio it will make it easier to incorporate some of these colors for convenience.

There are elements I really like about my painting, like the bright green lily pads along the shoreline, the distant bridge, the warm and cool colors in the water, and the fact that I didn't overwhelm it with big lifeless dark areas (something I've been struggling with in the studio)

A few things I could be working on to make progress on the outdoor painting front:

  • Do timed paintings in the studio. I was very aware of the idea that the light changes fast outdoors, changing the light and shadow shapes. This awareness distracted me and made me feel a sense of urgency. I want to quiet that rushed feeling.
  • Get more practice by doing outdoor painting exercises. Things like monochromatic value studies, making color notes, and establishing light and shadow would be useful. The key will be to remember that they're not meant to be anything like finished paintings.
  • Make a checklist to stick on my pochade box to remind me what steps I want to follow. This could change each time, but if I at least have it there as something to guide me it would make me feel less overwhelmed.
  • Spend some time outdoors just studying the landscape, writing observations of what I'm seeing without drawing or painting anything — sort of like a mock plein air painting. I noticed that I rushed right into getting started without really understanding the scene I was looking at. Learning to look at the scene critically and connect with what I see would help the process be more enjoyable.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Wrap-up of 30 Days of Value Thumbnails challenge

30 Days of Value Thumbnails
Studying value structures and composition with simple shapes, mostly from photos but a few plein air in the mix

My 30-day Value Thumbnail challenge is complete! I've loved this project for so many reasons.
  1. Developing the habit of doing thumbnails to quickly see the strengths and weaknesses of the composition
  2. Great practice for breaking a complex subject down into simple shapes
  3. Got me more comfortable making decisions on the value structure of a landscape scene
  4. Gave me experience with troublesome or tricky value structures
  5. Taught me more about creating depth and atmosphere in a landscape
  6. Helped me appreciate the importance of the underlying shapes, values, and color relationships over brushwork, details, and color matching
  7. Lots of experimentation with the temperature of the light and underpainting colors

In general, it helped push me to try many different things much more quickly than if I had planned out full paintings.

30 Days of Value Thumbnails - mini color studies
Exploring color and atmosphere in little 3x4-inch painted studies

I also incorporated some plein air value thumbnails into the mix which I'm really excited about. Painting outdoors is something I want to do more of, but the mental blocks I have about it have held me back. I'm very grateful for Karen Margulis and all of the resources and training she provides on Patreon. Even though her primary medium is pastel, her approach to daily painting has been key for me: start with a plan (decide the why, create value thumbnails and good composition, select colors), then loosen up and have fun. I adapted this value thumbnails challenge from a combination of a few of her weekly challenges. She's excellent at making things that feel overwhelming and complex much simpler and achievable.

The project helped uncover some areas I'd like to work on developing:
  • getting the values of the dark shapes the way I want them (typically the upright planes like trees in landscape painting) when mixing paint colors
  • how to choose underpainting colors that support the mood of the painting
  • lightening colors without dulling them down
  • accurately reading the values of the colors I mix on my palette
  • mixing greens and choosing colors to use with them for harmony, interest, and atmosphere
I'm in the middle of the plein air challenge I started a couple of weeks ago, and hopefully I can be incorporating some of these other topics and working on some completed paintings as well.