Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Revisiting a Plein Aire Painting

The plein air experience is wonderful and invigorating in so many ways, but while each painting is a learning experience, the results are not always inspiring.  I have a studio full of really bad, boring plein air paintings.  Most are simply set aside and forgotten, some are removed from the stretchers and discarded but in a few cases, I'll put one back on the easel to see if I can 'save' it.  I've had occasional success with this "repainting", usually by introducing some new, clean colors, pushing the background back a little more and sharpening detail.  Recently I pulled a painting done at Bodega Bay last year during a trip with Howard Rees and artist friends.  The picture was pretty dull and my inclination was to try my usual repairs.  I wanted to put in some clearer, cleaner lights on the pathway and for some reason I decided to lay in the color with my palette knife.  I've done this on a few other paintings, but to a pretty limited extent.  As I began, I was pleased with the strong clean color and I found myself moving to other areas of the painting.  I decided to emphasize the rough craggy nature of the rock on the left and the knife strokes did that well, while at the same time introducing some streaks of color that added interest and broke up the monotony.  In the trees, I found the knife to be perfect in creating some 'accidents' of light and color that added a lot of interest and energy particularly in the trucks.  Finally the knife work in the foreground created texture and interesting color splashes.  Overall, I felt that the original painting had been transformed from a dull and ordinary oil into something that almost sparkles.  I want to try palette knife painting again soon.  I love the clean colors and sharp edges that are possible.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Books on painting that changed everything for me.

Figure Painting in Watercolor (and Portrait Painting in Watercolor), Charles Reid.  Portrait Painting in Watercolor
I still have both these books.  I wrote my name on the inside covers, but didn't put a date.  My guess is that it was late 1976 when I bought them.  Up to that point, I had never painted nor watched another artist paint.  I had grown up reading the wonderful Walter Foster series of art books on drawing and sketching and all my amateurish efforts where in some form of drawing media.  Charles Reid changed that for me.  His first book, Figure Painting in Watercolor, showed me not only the world of watercolor, but gave me the basics of painting.  I followed his step by step instructions and began my first lessons of art with a brush.  Although after a year or two of watercolor painting, including acceptance in one juried show and a one man show at the Mansion Inn, I set my brushes aside for the next 30 years, I never forgot Reid's love of color and bold expression. 

Portraits From Life in 29 Steps, Howard Sanden.
Portraits from Life in 29 Steps

In 2002, I decided to pick up my brushes once again, and in that year, I found this book.  The first time I paged through the book, I was struck immediately by Sanden's obvious abilities as a portrait painter, but even more, I was enchanted with the bold crispness of his alla prima paintings and demonstrations. I so envy the confidence, technical skill, and freedom that such paintings radiate. (And that boldness was a reminder of Reid's work as well.)  I was also struck at once by the seeming contradictions through out the book. Could someone who looks like a doctor, paints in a tie and lab coat in a pristine, lavishly furnished studio really produce such dramatically rendered work? And then there are the 29 steps mentioned in the title. Twenty nine? Not thirty? Not twenty? And finally, the author's "Pro Mix" paint system seemed a little like a paint-by-number approach. But very soon, I discovered it was something else entirely. 

Mr. Sanden has made me understand the importance of discipline in what I do as an artist. His insistence in following a routine (the 29 steps) and using predicable, tested color combinations (his pro mix system) are part of this lesson. Through out the book, he hammers on the concept, "...marshal all your concentration, alertness, and energy so that every stroke of the brush becomes part of the finished statement....concentrate all you effort upon getting it right the first time..." It took awhile and a number of readings before I begin to truely understand, but now my portraits are dramatically improved because of this approach.

As I paint...and especially as I fail ....I think of Mr. Sanden's emphasis on discipline in the painting process and I know why I missed the mark.  It is a constant struggle -the urge to dabble and fuss is powerful - but I constantly remind myself of his direct and controlled process and my paintings are better and better.

This is a recent portrait, done from a photograph.  It's oil on linen mounted on 16 x 12 hardboard.  My experience with this painting reminded me once again of Sanden's book.  I did just about everything wrong from the start, and then spent an inordinate amount of time trying to "fix" things and find a likeness.  I simply forgot his admonition to "concentrate all your effort to get it right the first time."   I think I need to get the book out and re-read it once again.