Saturday, October 17, 2009

Crossin' The Mississippi

You may remember the post about the group of fine ladies that came to Cincinnati and did a Still life workshop with me.
Despite this experience, they invited me to come to Iowa to teach a 3 day Landscape painting workshop. The organizer, Pat Bereskin has an art school in the Bettendorf area of Iowa. With over 100 kids and some adults taking her classes at any given time, she is offering some amazing exposure to the arts, with various lessons, trips and guest artists. I don't want to put words in anyone's mouth, but I get the feeling that I am their absolute favorite guest artist from the Clifton area of Cincinnati who has a beard. I can only assume they like me because of the vast amount of information I bombard them with, or it may be due to my rugged handsomeness and charm. We'll assume it is both.
So my wife and I drove to Iowa.

I am ashamed to say that this was my first time crossing the Mississippi. I have been in most of the states east of Cincinnati, but I have rarely ventured west. Being my first time in Iowa, I must say it is a fine state. While it is very flat, there are some wonderful vistas for landscape painting- miles of corn filled fields and farm houses. John Deere tractors are everywhere. My first 'job' when I was a kid was to work in my great uncle's John Deere dealership in Hillsboro, Ohio, so while I was in Iowa I bought a JD hat just to show my loyalty.
Here is a photo of my lovely wife and I being welcomed to the 'Food Capital of the World'.Please note: this photo has been adjusted in Photoshop because I blinked.

I am not sure I would suggest organizing a landscape painting class in the middle of October. It was unseasonably cold in Iowa for early October. One thing you don't want hear on the radio when you are driving into a city you are visiting is the phrase "Arctic Blast". Even with the cold, the class went quite well. It helps to have a smart and attentive group to work with. I did a lecture and brief painting demo- during which I did the best painting of a stuffed turkey I have ever done.
Stuffed Iowa Turkey, 7"x5", oil, 2009

Even though there were tons of lovely views, it is hard to find a spot for 10 people to stand that happens to be near bathroom facilities. We ended up working in two local parks. The second day was a bit more successful. The weather was better, and the view was more typically an Iowa landscape with a long, open horizon. It was a much simpler subject for the beginning landscape painters. The class was mostly beginners, some had never painted before.

This class was pretty much about doing landscape sketches rather than finished paintings. The idea of a sketch is to get the basic value, color and look of the day, with a little bit of drawing that is relevant. A sketch can be done with some skill to have the look of a finished work, but often they either need to be worked on again, or are to be used a reference for larger, more finished works.
Pat and her group of painters plan on working on their landscapes from the workshop after I have safely left the state. I am going to offer some suggestions to them and to anyone that might be interested in how to work on a painting after the initial lay in. I know they plan on working on them in the warm of the studio, finishing them up from photos they shot before we left the location.

Let's discuss the desire and tendency to work on the sketches after the fact- from photos.
Of course I generally do not condone working from photos. It is easiest to get the look of nature by actually being in front of it. Photos are big flat liers. They lack form, good color and accurate values. You will get false results if you rely on photos.
I suggest you return to the vista, same time of day, same kind of weather (it can be warmer) and same light effect.

If you are going to use photos, think of them as tools, not as a replacement for nature. Use photos as a reference or slight reminder for the impression that you hopefully have some memory of. The sketch was your attempt to get the impression, now you need to keep that impression and improve any issues that the sketch may have. Your notations of color from nature are going to be more accurate. The photo may show you some proportion errors. If the photo is shot well, it may hint at some value problems as well, but be careful as often a photo will exaggerate the value range- darkening the shadows and brightening the lights. A camera will also exaggerate edges by seeing them all equally. Standing back from a tree, a camera will record all of the leaves, whereas the human eye can really see only a few dozen with any clarity. The rest evaporates into a blur. We can see that leaves are there, but can not make out any detail. Most good painting will replicate that effect. If one goes in and renders all edges equally, it destroys focus, evaporates atmosphere, and makes the image appear harsh and photographic. So, when working from photos, make sure you do your best to not stupidly follow a print-out of a photo taken by a machine that happened to be pointed in the direction of your motif. Look at the photo with a squint or blurred eyes as you would the actual scene and maybe you can keep yourself from being a photorealist.

How do we go back into a painting?
It seems most people think paintings are done in one session. Rarely is this the case. To get any kind of finish on a painting, one must keep going back in, correcting and refining. I would say the typical portrait may have as many as 20 or so 3 hour sittings with the model. When working on a painting think of it as if you are doing a series of 'coats'. You can of course finish a sketch in one session or one coat, but most fully realized painting have a number of coats.

It is not recommended that you do not work on a sticky painting. It's an unpleasant surface that is like painting on glue. Make sure the painting is either wet from the previous day, or wait to go back in after the painting is completely dry. In the summer I often set landscape paintings in the sun to dry so I can be sure I can work on them the next day. The dash board of your car can be useful for this.

The most important thing I want to mention is the idea of painting wet into wet. If you are not painting wet into wet, you are not painting. If you are working on a painting again, you have to work with all wet edges. Meaning, when you stand with your palette before a dry painting and you decide to work into an area that has a blue mass adjoining a red mass, if you realize that the blue mass needs to be moved to over a bit, you need to get both the blue and the red areas wet to really paint that edge. Don't just paint the blue edge into the dry red area. This is not painting. You want the edge to be wet so you can accurately render it.
Once you start in on a dry painting, you should of course attack the 'back straggler'- the thing most off or lagging behind. Go into that area, restate all the major color units by getting them wet, making sure to do any correction to shape, value, color and temperature while you are there. Once the area is wet you can start pushing the painting forward- correcting and improving.
This does not mean that the entire painting will get wet every time. The first day you goal is to cover the canvas. The second day you must improve on the first day, which may involve re-wetting everything again. As the painting most ahead, smaller and smaller areas will need attention. You may just wet a quarter size area of the canvas that needs some adjusting, but in that area, you have to get all relevant areas and edges wet.

My final suggestion actually came up recently during a studio visit with one of my private students while she was working on still life painting. She had been working on her painting that day, and when I grabbed her palette to make some corrections on the painting, I realized she had only put out a few colors, in the 'local color' family in which she was working. To explain that better- she was only working on the orange flowers so she only had yellow and red out. This is a major no no!
Always work with a full palette. I already recommend a pretty limited palette, but it has everything you need to hit the "note". Think of it this way, if you are going to compose a musical composition in the key of F you would not just work on a piano with on the F keys. You need all the other keys to compose a song worth listening to.
Any given color that we paint may have some amount of red, yellow or blue in it. So, you should at least have those three, with white. To decrease the intensity of a red- a blue, a black or especially it's complement- green may be just what you need. Without them you are just making it harder on yourself. Fully loaded does not mean you need all the blues and all the yellows and all the reds, but you should at least have one of each of the primary colors.
Make sure you always paint with a fully loaded palette!

1 comment:

Patricia said...

Richard it was a wonderful weekend seminar. You name is now a household word among my students AND it doesn't contain any swear words connected with it!
We are finishing the pieces up in the warmth of the studio and will send photos upon completion. Some of the high school students are finishing them up to include in their portfolio review this week.
Now I can't wait to come to Cincy to paint with you there. Let me know when your next seminar is over a "fat" weekend.