Apple Orchard [poetry repost]

Apple Orchard
Apple Orchard, Oil Painting

In small acreage on a hilly clearing,
Sunny morning shines golden on chalky-pink blossoms;
I pause and prolong my hike to watch sunbeams lick away dewdrops
Soaking in shaded greenery of an apple orchard.

Craggy, crabby branches nod jaggedly at a breeze dashing across the way;
Wasps complain from gray papery hives swaying above me;
A hummingbird pauses and peeks inside a blossom—
Perhaps she smells the jellies, pies and cider clearly on my mind.

I head away on journey once more,
Longing to return and sample ripe fruit from the trees.

© 2006

Black Bear Painting from the Archives

In an attempt not to be a stranger to everyone who follows my blog, I’m recycling some of my old blogs from years ago. I have many new followers since I began this venture in 2011, and I’m certain few of them have riffled through those blogs of yesteryear.

This post features an acrylic wildlife painting on canvas from 1989. It’s from a September 26, 2012 post I titled “Evolution of a Painting.” Enjoy.

In 1988, black bear weren’t a common sight around Corry, PA. I had caught a glimpse of one during the spring while I was on one of my many field hikes into the swamps in and around Corry. I was sketching a beaver dam when I saw the big bear ramble through less than 50 yards away. I stayed as still as possible for several minutes after it disappeared into the underbrush, then I disappeared in the opposite direction.

The sighting stayed with me throughout the summer; I purposely scanned the woods and waterways for another glimpse of the bear. I planned to photograph it, but we never crossed paths, although it may have been out there, nearby, out of sight, watching me. Swamps have a plethora of hiding places. That’s why deer take refuge in them during hunting season.

From this near encounter came the idea for my next painting.

The hardest thing for me as a painter is getting my signature right. By that, I mean legible and in a pleasing location.

Although the painting looks done, I wasn’t happy with it. I changed my signature again and got rid of the halo around the front of the bear.

As you can see in the above photo, I glazed the water with Ultramarine Blue. I decided that it looked too “vivid” so I changed it back (see photo below). Now I had a finished painting. Here it is at the gallery, April 1989.

Sunset Photo Manipulation

Manipulation 02
Manipulation of photographs and painting on paper.

I wrote in a recent post about my interest in manipulating my photographs to make them look like paintings. The sample I included was a skyscape. I like skies. And water.

Skies would not be skies without clouds. I could look at clouds all day.

The photo above is another skyscape. It is a combination—a collage—of photographs and paintings. I used oil paint for the sun and some of the clouds and watercolor for parts of the sky. It looks almost surreal.

A lot of effort went into making this picture—more time and effort than I usually contribute to this style of art.

But it was fun. And for me, that’s what art is all about.

Skyscape Photo Manipulation

Manipulation 01
Photo manipulation of mixed media on paper.

Photo manipulation has a long history, beginning not long after the creation of the first photograph (1825) by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Anyone interested can read the history at Wikipedia.

I recently became interested in manipulating some of my photographs to make them look like paintings. I tried various methods of applying paints and inks to the photos and came up with some interesting if not bizarre results. Learning to control those results has become a skill with a bit of good luck thrown in.

Other methods—to name a few—are cutting and pasting different photos into “coherent” collages, scanning and printing photos to paper, and using computer programs like Adobe Photoshop to manipulate the photo images. These three methods are not new either. I made photo collages 50 years ago in high school, scanned and printed photos at college, and played with Photoshop in the 1990s. Using Photoshop is a major task to learn and one I never had time for or took seriously.

Manipulating photographs has a stigma of deception to it because it fools the viewer into believing something that is not true. This issue arises because too many of us believe the camera does not lie. Any photographer can tell you that our camera lenses distort reality every time we snap a photo.

But I am not here to argue the science of photography or the ethical implications of photo manipulation.

For me, manipulating a photograph is another artistic form of expression. I did it with 35mm film when I froze it before loading it in my camera. Freezing cracked the emulsion on the film and made interesting web-like lines on the photos when developed. Adding inks and dyes often enhanced the crackled images.

I also experimented with double exposure, negative scratching, shooting with special lenses, and darkroom manipulation involving dodging, burning, and masking.

Lately, manipulating images has been fun to do again. And having fun is the key to being an artist who constantly produces art. The more I work with manipulation, the more abstract my art is. I understand better how colors, shapes, and designs attracted abstract artists.

Whichever side of the fence you are on, photo manipulation is an interesting visual tool—it makes a picture well worth a thousand words or more—and requires a lot of creativity, precision, and skill.

Hypnagogia [painting]

I awoke today with an intention to write something profound. Then I got out of bed.

There are moments between sleep and consciousness when our minds are busy creating. For me, whether when I’m falling asleep or awakening, that’s when stories play out and I see artwork happen in my mind. Psychologists call this stage “hypnagogia,” a borderland between sleep and wakefulness characterized by surreal visions and strange sensory occurrences.

I learned to use hypnagogia to my advantage when I was a teenager, which sometimes resulted in “trippy” art while I was in high school. I also used it to form story ideas. The best times to do this were those waking moments, which left imprints in my mind that I recorded as best as I could into drawing pads and notebooks I kept by my bed.

Cloud Ruler
Cloud Ruler, Acrylic Painting

A routine sleep schedule helped me to have hypnagogia occurrences during the same time every morning. I was most creative with my art and writing during my school years and later when I worked a routine 9-to-5 day job. But when my sleep schedule was everything but routine, my creativity was at its lowest. This occurred when I worked as a steward, baker, cook, mess hall manager, truck driver, bartender, and housing manager in the Navy, and again when I became employed in retail.

My current retail employer insists but doesn’t demand that I make myself available to work at any time and day … except Christmas (subject to change, I’m sure, by a growing mental illness among CEOs called Wealth Accumulation Disorder). Luckily, my department is a “day department,” so I have been able to stay away from what the company used to call third shift. I’m a “day person,” which means I don’t have to work past midnight, but I should be available to begin working at 6am. Luckily (and I’ll take all the luck I can get), my department doesn’t open until 9am, which means my days begin at eight thirty. Quitting time is 10pm, so each day is fractured into two shifts: 8:30am–5:30pm, and 5:30pm–10pm.

Hypnagogia rarely occurs when I’m scheduled a 5:30pm–10pm shift followed by an 8:30am–5:30pm shift. I’m certain the lack of hypnagogia happens because I’m used to going to bed at 10pm and waking at 6am. When I go to bed later than 10pm, I struggle to fall asleep and end up reading until midnight or later. My mind is blank at 6am on these nights, and so I spend the hour reserved for recording ideas hitting the snooze button before I have to take my morning dose of Synthroid before I can eat a proper breakfast.

Without hypnagogia occurrences, especially right before I awake, I find myself less alert on the job as well. Perhaps it’s because experiencing hypnagogia is a condition I’ve grown accustomed to. When I miss out, I’m like a junkie without his fix. I need my moment to be creative. And when I’m feeling creative, I do more than make art or write stories, I function better at socializing. My brain’s gears are working best and in full throttle. I’m that smiling guy who greets you with a friendly hello because I got a night of good sleep bookended with hypnagogia.

Maybe someday big pharma will sell it over the counter. For now, I’ll take it when I can get it, and call myself lucky on the days—I mean nights—it happens.

Rock Sketches In Acrylic [painting]

It was time to be a visual artist again, so I spent a couple days getting my artist’s eye back in shape by working on some sketches. I decided to look at rocks and study their shapes and colors. I’ve chosen 3 better ones to share.

They’re all acrylic paintings on paper and cardboard—something I started doing years ago when I painted field studies of wildlife. Paper and cardboard are cheap and easy to find around the house, and they’re lighter to lug around outdoors than canvas and canvas boards.

Rocks study, large rocks, 8×10

I love earth colors. But they can be a bit dull, gray and dark, so I punched the colors up a bit. One facet of art is the exaggeration an artist puts into their artwork. I had fun with color and tried to be as painterly as possible too.

When I’m a bit rusty with my craft, I tend to draw with my brushes instead of painting with them. Squinting blurs the image and keeps me from seeing edges. Then I load my brushes and lay down paint and color, mixing values on the paper. That way the objects look like they haven’t been cut and pasted on.

Rocks study, creek rocks, 8×10

I exaggerated the colors in the above illustration with reds, blues and a spot of green, which was a lot of fun to do. No masterpiece here. But, oh well. I needed a break from writing and this was the perfect escape.

Rocks study, more creek rocks, 8×10

I have always enjoyed going to the local creeks and wading with bare feet over the large flat rocks and turning them over to see what aquatic life lay underneath. Good times.

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Painting with a Color Triangle

This is part of a lesson plan I used when I taught my young students how to mix colors on their palettes. If this is new to you, give it a try.

I keep the colors on my palette simple: 4 yellows, 4 Reds, and 4 blues. I have listed these 12 colors in the color triangle below.  This simple tool enables me to know which colors to use when I want to darken a color effectively without creating mud.  Some artists refer to the process of darkening colors as “cooling,” “shading,” and “graying.”  This tool is also useful for lightening the darker colors effectively.  “Brightening” and “warming” are other terms artists use for lightening their colors.

Color Triangle
My Color Triangle for mixing clean colors.

My 12 colors consist of 4 yellows, 4 reds, and 4 blues.  My 4 yellows are Cadmium Yellow, Lemon Yellow, Yellow Ochre, and Burnt Umber.  My 4 reds are Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Red, Indian Red, and Burnt Sienna.  My 4 blues are Cerulean Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Prussian Blue, and Payne’s Gray.  The outer triangle represents my highest intensity colors based on a split-primary color wheel.  Split-primary colors are colors of the highest intensity (brightest) that are warm and cool colors of the same family.  Cadmium Red is a warm red; Alizarin Crimson is a cool red.  If I want to cool my Cadmium Red, I add Alizarin Crimson, and if I need to warm my Alizarin Crimson, I add Cadmium Red.  Ultramarine Blue is a cool blue; Cerulean Blue is warm. Lemon Yellow is warm; Cadmium Yellow is cool.

I mix my own secondary colors: orange, green, and violet (purple).  To make a bright, vivid orange, I mix Cadmium Yellow and Cadmium Red.  To make a vivid green, I add Lemon Yellow to Cerulean Blue.  And to make a vivid violet, I add Alizarin Crimson to Ultramarine Blue.  If I need to darken my orange color, I can add a mixture of Lemon Yellow and Alizarin Crimson.  To darken green, I add Cadmium Yellow and Ultramarine Blue.  And to darken violet, I add Cerulean Blue and Cadmium Red.

Of course, there are other ways I can darken both my primary colors and secondary colors without making muddy mixes.

Small Color Triangle

Think of the colors on the outer part of the triangle as colors with lots of light.  The next triangle has colors with less light.  These are my middle intensity colors.  I use these colors to shade or “gray down” my highest intensity colors.  I use Yellow Ochre to lower any of my two highest intensity yellows, Indian Red to lower either of my highest intensity reds, and Prussian Blue to lower my highest intensity blues.

The innermost triangle or third triangle has my lowest intensity colors.  These are colors with the least amount of light.  They further lower the intensity or brightness of my outer colors.

As I mentioned, I can darken my secondary colors this way, too.  To further lower/darken my original orange, I can add either a mixture of Yellow Ochre and Indian Red, or a mixture of Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna, depending on how dark I want my orange.  To lower/darken my original green, I add either a mix of Yellow Ochre and Prussian Blue, or a mix of Burnt Umber and Payne’s Gray.  And to lower violet, I add either a mix of Indian Red and Prussian Blue, or a mix of Burnt Sienna and Payne’s Gray.  This way, I keep my colors from becoming dull looking and muddy.  This happens when artists try to lighten their colors with white, and try to darken their colors with black.

Keep this handy color triangle with you when you’re mixing colors and looking for the right lightness and darkness.

Happy painting. 🙂

Painting with Knives

Another old art piece of mine. This article was first published in an art newsletter dated 1998. The photos of my artwork that I’ve shared for this post range from the same year to 2001.

While oil painting this month, I’ve been having fun painting with knives. Frosting the cake is what I call it when I spread thick paints of color on my canvases, and then add flicks and swirls like a jolly decorator in a bakery.

Using a painting knife on canvas board.
Using a painting knife on canvas board.

Anyone who hasn’t tried painting with knives should give it a go. All you need is either a painting knife or a palette knife of your choice and several rags to clean your knife. I prefer using one knife to keep my painting area uncluttered. And the knife I prefer most is the painting knife. I enjoy the painting knife’s flexibility over the palette knife’s rigidness.

Just like brushes, knives come in a lot of shapes and sizes that lend themselves to various uses. The Dick Blick Company, where I buy my art supplies, explains the differences between painting knives and palette knives.

  • Painting knives are blunt with a slightly flexible steel blade and no sharpened cutting edge. They are used in place of a brush for applying paint colors, paste, pigments, and so forth directly onto the canvas or painting surface.
  • Palette knives are blunt with a very flexible steel blade and no sharpened cutting edge. They are primarily used for mixing paint colors, mediums, additives, paste, pigments, and so forth directly on the palette before applying them to a surface. Palette knives are symmetric, like a kitchen spatula.

I prefer using a large painting knife simply because it allows me to be freer when I apply paint to my canvas, leaving a variety of edges in the finished work, giving the artwork life and engaging the viewer with the painting.

Hard and soft edges and color contrasts.
Hard and soft edges and color contrasts.

Although I prefer painting on canvas, there are various kinds of surfaces to paint on. Stretched canvas allows me to dance the knife across the surface and create a variety of irregular shapes. This is why I use the less flexible painting knives because I prefer some control when I paint. Canvas board and Masonite let me control both knives better, but my pictures sometimes look motionless when I use a painting knife on them. I recommend using the more flexible palette knives on hard surfaces.

More hard and soft edges with color contrasts.
More hard and soft edges with color contrasts.

Whichever knife you choose, painting with knives gives your pictures abrupt color changes, making edges in the paint appear razor-sharp, which is nice when contrasting areas of your major focal points. But when an unimportant edge looks too sharp, a zigzag of the tip of the knife through the paint breaks any edge and puts it in its proper place.

Edges can be hard, soft, and lost. Using a variety of edges engages the viewer’s attention by preventing the picture from looking monotonous. I like to alter the edges in my paintings to enhance the rhythm and composition.

Lost edges look good in snow scenes.
Lost edges look good in snow scenes.

When hard edges are placed horizontally, they accelerate the movement of the viewer’s eye. When placed vertically, the eye of the viewer comes to a sudden stop.

Soft edges slow down horizontal lines and allow passage through vertical ones. Creating soft edges with a brush is easy; with a knife, not so much. That’s where the flicks and swirls I mentioned earlier come in play.

A mixture of hard and soft edges creates a type of movement like a driver operating a car with both the accelerator and brake at the same time. These stop and go edges are called  broken edges and are sometimes described as a Morse Code type of painting.

Lost edges are in water and atmosphere.
Lost edges are in water and atmosphere.

Lost edges are almost invisible edges and help keep the viewer’s attention focused on where the hard edges are. Lost edges play a major role of supporting hard edges, which, as I mentioned earlier, are often found in the main subject. You can see lost edges in the shadow areas of my paintings as well as in the main subjects. Using lost edges with hard edges lets the main subject look as though it is truly part of the scene, and not like it was cut out and pasted on. And equally important, lost edges keep the viewer’s eye flowing evenly from one area to another.

When painting lost edges, I find it’s important to use colors equal to or close to one another in value to keep contrasting values from creating hard value edges. Plus, to avoid hard chromatic edges, I use colors in the same temperature range. This unifies the elements of a painting and creates pathways, like light flowing from one room into another.

The paint dances across the field grass.
The paint dances across the field grass.

I recommend that every artist try doing an entire painting strictly with palette knives. Go ahead and give it a go. And most of all, have fun.

Using Canvas Stretcher Bars To Stretch Watercolor Paper

You may, like I do, have stretcher bars normally used for stretching canvas waiting to back your next canvas. But have you ever considered using those bars to stretch paper instead?

A sketch of a wooden stretcher bar
A corner of a wooden 20” stretcher bar

Here’s an easy technique for stretching watercolor paper with those bars—a technique that has many advantages over other ways. One, it avoids the awkward weight of a solid board. Two, the paper will dry faster because both sides are exposed to air. Three, you’ll have to be gentle while painting (which is what watercolor painting is about). And four, the clean-up time consists of simply removing pushpins from the frame. Afterward, the frame is ready for you to attach a new sheet of paper.

  • To begin, you will need to assemble your four stretcher bars into a frame. (I use 16”x20” because they’re easy to assemble and carry.) I glue my frame together and allow the glue to dry overnight before I begin attaching watercolor paper to the frame. This makes the frame permanent, but you can choose not to do this.
Once the stretcher bars are assembled, you can tack watercolor paper over the front
Once the stretcher bars are assembled, you can tack watercolor paper over the front
  • You will also need a box of pushpins and a soaking tray filled with room temperature water. My soaking tray is a shallow 24”x30” Formica baking tray that I bought from a bakery, but a large aluminum baking tray or a clean bathtub work just as well. Fill the tray or tub with a half-inch of water (I use the distilled kind).
  • The dimensions of your watercolor paper should be two or three inches longer than the height and width of the stretcher frame, which means I use 20”x24” sheets of paper.
  • Before attaching your paper to the stretcher bars, draw any information you intend to use in your painting on the paper’s front side. Do not draw on the paper after you have stretched it.
  • Next, soak the paper for a minute or two by submerging it in your water. Do not soak the paper too long. You may end up washing off the sizing and your pencil drawing.
  • When both sides of the paper are completely wet, drape the paper over the stretcher frame so about two inches overlap the edge on all four sides. (The frame should be laying flat on a tabletop or workbench, with the stretcher frame’s front facing up.)
  • Once the paper covers the frame evenly, attach the paper to the sides of the frame using your fingers GENTLY, and your pushpins to wrap and fasten the paper around all four edges. The stretching sequence goes:
  1. Wrap and pin the paper at the top center of each length (the side that would sit flush inside a picture frame). Start with the top bar. Place a pushpin in the paper and bottom bar, then the left side, and finally the right.
  2. Return to the top bar and place a pushpin half an inch to the right of the first pushpin. Then place a pushpin half an inch to the left of the first pushpin. Proceed to the bottom bar and do this until you have three pushpins on all four sides.
  3. Return to the top bar and pin again until you have five pushpins half-an-inch apart on all four sides.
  4. Continue until you reach the corners.
  • When attaching the watercolor paper to the frame it is best to gently tug the paper taut while pinning. If the paper is not taut, you may end up with a warped surface to paint on.
  • After you have attached the paper, allow about three hours for it to dry. Or, you can use a portable hair dryer to speed things up. Just don’t scorch your paper in the process. Keep the frame lying flat in a horizontal position—resist the urge to lift the frame and chance knocking it out of alignment (even if you glued it earlier) and warping the paper.
  • Once the paper is dry, you’re ready to paint. Use gentle touches when applying your paint so as not to tear your paper.

Give it a try, happy painting, and let me know what you think.

Being a Painter

I was twelve years old when I saw my first real paintings. I didn’t see them at a museum or an art gallery—I didn’t know those things existed until I was seventeen. I was naïve to art until my parents bought a house and I was exploring the attic. There, past boxes of old books and dusty knick-knacks and behind a rack of clothing, I found large painted canvases in gilded gold frames leaning against a far wall. I saw portraits as tall as me, and landscapes wider than the breadth of my arms. As I studied and felt their painted surfaces, I was awestruck. These weren’t like the decorative vegetable pictures that would soon hang in my mother’s kitchen; these were alive with paint and brushstrokes and the smell of linseed oil and turpentine. When my parents explained to me that someone—an actual person—had painted them, I knew I wanted to be a painter.

I took art classes in high school and fumbled with learning all the mysteries of painting. I lived in Small Town, USA, where good paints and brushes were never a priority in any of our schools. But the dream of painting canvases never died.

Going to college was out of the question until I heard about the GI Bill. So I pulled a six-year stint in the Navy and was fortunate to visit some Italian, French and Spanish art museums. Once again, seeing manmade beauty and magic on canvases mesmerized me and burned brighter the wish to be a painter.

I painted watercolors in sketchbooks until the Navy released me in 1982. By then I was married, so I chose my academic training at a local college. Most of my art teachers there were leftover abstract painters from the 1960’s and ’70’s who stressed personal expression in art—not reality. In other words, don’t paint what you see, but how you feel. I became unhappy with these classes because I didn’t see how this approach could teach me how to paint the realism of landscapes and wildlife—two of my favorite subjects. I wanted to copy nature exactly as I saw it in the photographs I took.  But, as one instructor told me bluntly, “Painting is not photography. Forget about technical tricks and learn to see and express the world around you that is genuine and exciting to you.”

It took a year for his advice to sink in. I saw every painting as a new adventure—a struggle of course—to be expressive as well as showing realism. I learned how to marry abstract expressionism with photo-realism to produce paintings with elements of both, and to use color and design to express mood, all the while keeping the paint looking fresh and dramatic.

But I would be lying if I said every painting was a success. Even now, twenty-some years later, I paint failures … clunkers, as we called them in art classes. “No one ever masters the art of painting,” a teacher told me. “Every day we discover something new that shakes us from our mindset and reminds us that we’ll always be students.”

I am still a student. I have many years of painting behind me, but I still learn new things. It’s the fun of the chase that keeps me going—still learning my craft.

I never fuss over my work like I used to. If a painting is not working, I scrap it for a new one. I see too many artists with their noses against their paintings fussing over their work. If it isn’t working, scrap it. If you’re a fussy artist, learn to step away from the art and stop judging critically with your nose against the work. Stand back and judge your art by the progress you’re making at the moment and keep gauging your progress as you continue with your studies. Yes, I said studies. Never stop being a student. And please don’t try to paint pictures that look the same as your contemporaries. Where’s the originality in that? Be inventive—be creative!

Stay committed to keep learning the craft no matter how hard the struggle. Every artist has gone to the grave still learning his or her craft. We strive for aesthetic progress and perfection—that is human nature, and we will destroy pieces of work if we believe them inferior. In all our paintings, we find mistakes. Mistakes are human nature, too, so don’t be the artist who destroys everything he or she paints. Accept your limitations for the moment, frame your better paintings full of mistakes, and send them off to juried shows. Someone will love your artwork in spite of all its flaws.

Those paintings I found in that attic when I was twelve years old speak as strongly to me now as they did in 1969. I got hooked on painting that began a wonderful ride through the exciting world of being an artist. It’s a ride I refuse to get off of—there’s so much more to be discovered.

Keep on painting and making art.

Comparing Fiction and Art

Writing fiction, whether it’s a short story or a novel, is very much like painting a picture. Once I have an idea of what I want (usually after doing several sketches), I stand/sit before my easel/word processor and begin painting/writing quickly while the idea is fresh in my mind. A line is drawn and a sentence is created. A color is placed and a paragraph is written. A series of tonal marks are made and paragraphs become pages, and pages become chapters. Quickly, the skeleton of that earlier idea is on canvas in a preliminary, underpainting stage I call “scribble art” and in a first draft on paper I call “the naked man begging to be clothed.”

Both art and fiction strive for one thing: Realism. Realism clothes both with maturity. The lack of it results in whether our paintings or books look or feel true to life. To get there, the artist and writer must never hide their emotions from their audience. If they never shed a tear or burst out laughing while painting or writing a mood, neither will their audience.

Various design principles weave through the fabric of art and stories. Utilizing these principles is stage two and the battle of every artist and writer because this is where he or she must decide whether to follow or disregard any of them. When I do disregard the principles, there is usually some compensating merit achieved by the violation. In other words, I don’t break the rules until I know the rules. Beginners are best off to abide by the principles.

I find that the design elements of art and writing are related. In both, we have to know how important roles are before we can conclude the project we’re working on. This is where I ask, “Where does each element in my picture/story stand in relation to each other?” In art and in writing, I do the work by always thinking of Shape, Texture, Space and Form. My subjects need to look a certain way and exist a certain way in relation to others. As I create them and the world they live in, I keep in mind how important Unity, Harmony, and Balance are, as well as Hierarchy and Dominance, and Similarities and Contrasts within the environment. All this construction leads the viewer’s eyes when looking at art, and leads the reader’s curiosity through the story. Therefore, I always ask, “Where do I want this scene to go?”

Earlier, I mentioned realism as the major function of art and fiction. Fiction is all about tension, conflict and resolution for the main character. The forces of man, nature, religion, politics, and society push and pull at him or her, and they struggle with these forces to find their place in the story. The same is true in art. The important elements of art show themselves like the important character conflicts in a story, with each major element weaved into a unified tapestry. Plus, if you can convey the symbolism and metaphor in your art and fiction, it can further help with unifying the design elements across your canvas and book.

I mentioned also that I don’t break the rules of design until I know them. This is when I become creative and inventive with my work. As with my paintings, I try to show in my stories the early and middle stages of their creation. I leave some of the “naked man” and “stage two” writing visible. (You can see this in the apple orchard painting below.) Showing these different levels of finish or completion prevents a slick, mechanical looking product and enriches the work (both art and story) with multiple levels of interpretation. Isn’t it wonderful to look at a painting again or reread a book and find something new?

A Brief Pause in an Apple Orchard
Apple Orchard, Oil Painting

If you’re an artist and/or writer who struggles with your work, remember to learn all you can about the rules of design. But know that following all the principles of design can result in that slick and mechanical looking work I mentioned. If your art and/or stories end up like that, the contemporary American painter Helen Van Wyk (1930 – 1994) said to “make it, break it, and make it again.” In other words, if it looks or feels wrong to you, do it over. Just don’t overdo it. Let the painting with all its blemishes (not carelessness) speak for itself. Let the story with all its scars (not poor grammar and spelling) speak for itself. If you were honest and true to yourself, your art, and your audience during the entire process, someone will see your honesty and truthfulness and find them beautiful. Anything else will be a lie.

Painting Alla Prima, Part 2 of 2

Many years ago, I taught wildlife and landscape painting classes. This is a lesson plan from those classes.

Understanding and controlling values should be one of your first goals as a painter. When I began painting landscapes from life, I realized that the objects in my finished paintings lacked convincing form. When I understood how light reveals form and began looking at the world with this in mind, my work began to improve. So will yours when you learn to see light and understand what it does to show an object’s form.

Recognize value in color. An object’s form is made of valued tones of color. It’s imperative while painting to be able to see a color in your subject and translate its value into paint.

Think about the picture and its center of interest. Think in terms of composition first. Plan where the center of interest will be located and how you will emphasize that area. Make your center of interest stand out with color and value contrasts and an interesting shape.

Inside, Looking Out
Inside, Looking Out, Oil Painting

When painting a center of interest, keep your eyes on that area of landscape (or model or still life) and nowhere else. Use your peripheral vision for the rest of the subject, but keep your eyes on the focal point as you finish the rest of the painting. This will help you make the rest of your painting harmonious with the focal point.

What can you cut? Are you saying too much and cluttering the picture space with too many details? Is there anything extraneous that you can remove from the picture? Can you cut detracting background by moving in closer or by cropping the subject with a viewfinder?

The overall design. When composing your painting, do not think “up and down” or “side to side.”  Rather, consider the depth you can create within the “cube” I’ve talked about in class—that three dimensional rectangular space that will be your painting. Then work with the overlapping forms within your vision’s periphery as part of the overall design.

A Brief Pause in an Apple Orchard
Apple Orchard, Oil Painting

Put it on and leave it alone. This rule is often mentioned to oil painters, but I’m suggesting it to painters using acrylics, too. Fussing with passages of acrylic paint can be more damaging than reworking the slower-drying oil paints.

When putting in the lights mix up thick, opaque color and put it down with simple strokes. The amount of paint on the brush and proper brush pressure is vital when applying your paint. Putting thick paint down boldly forces you to make definite decisions. Believe your first impression. Paint quickly; if you look too long, your perception may change. Be decisive. A boldly applied stroke looks right because the artist made a decision and stuck with it. Putting down a stroke and then restating it once or twice pushes the paint into the underlayer, making the color muddy. If the underpainting is too thick, scrape it off. You can lay paint over a thick area by painting the next layer even thicker.

Oil on canvas board
Oil on canvas board

Criticize your work from afar. Step away a good distance from the canvas and decide whether some shapes and edges need more emphasis. Judge artfully from a distance, not critically with your nose against the canvas. From Leonardo da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting we learn that from a distance “…the work appears smaller, and more of it is taken in at a glance, and [any] lack of harmony or proportion in the various parts … is more readily seen.” Remember to emphasize major areas—do not stray far from your painting’s focal point.  Add detail, or sharp edges at the end of the process.

Sketches in the Sun
Sketches in the Sun, Oil Painting, circa 2002

Impressionist Claude Monet described painting alla prima as this: “When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have in front of you, a tree, a field. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene.”