Compositions


Some things can be taught … some things cannot.

Abstract Design from Traced Objects

Abstract Design from Traced Objects – Watercolor on Rives BFK Paper (6″ x 9″)

While preparing to teach the upcoming Watercolor Techniques Workshop in Santa Rosa, I decided to snap some photos of a painting in progress to illustrate several of the techniques I’ll be teaching.  Techniques are easy to teach. How to use tools is easy to teach.  The fundamentals of art are all easy to teach, presenting them in a variety of ways so that students who learn concepts differently will all grasp the basic idea.  It’s up to the students to practice what is learned in classes and workshops.

Tools and Techniques can be taught , but Translation is difficult if not impossible to teach.  How does one teach the translation of an unspoken language, the language of vision combined with unseen light waves and sound waves, rhythms of movement through a three-dimensional space?

Some paintings are rooted to tools and techniques, never stepping over the line into the realm of chance and possibilities where the “what if” thrives, where the population of  things gone wrong and unresolved paintings far outnumber the paintings that are a step above everything else, those that usually don’t follow the rules.  Something else has happened during the process of creation that make a painting as unique as every child, even identical twins whose genetics are the same.  Something has happened. Often, that something will happen in a spot or two of a painting.  It is a true gem when a painting as a whole declares its independence from the artist and can stand alone in a crowd without explanation.

The above painting began like this:

Early stage of painting

Early stage of painting

The composition gave me a hard time.  The pivot point is plunk in the middle of the painting.  I struggled for hours, layering, wiping out, scrubbing, splatting, wiping out, glazing ….. and more lifting of paint.  Two hours into it I stopped snapping photos of the methods I was using to try to resolve the painting.  Six hours in, it began to breath a life of its own.  I was in battle mode and didn’t notice for a while.  It fought …. and I fought back.  The painting finally won.  I allowed it to be completely different from what I thought it should be.  I was even a bit angry with it.

I went to bed disgruntled.

When I awoke this morning I was surprised that the painting expressed everything I had intended, patterns, textures, interweaving of shapes as they move through space, a glow of light against mysterious darks reaching far beyond the flat surface of the paper.

I can encourage my students to step across the line.  I can even push a few across, but I can’t teach any of them how to translate their heart beats and their breath.  Nor can I teach them what drives me to draw and paint each and every day of my life.  I could say it is the joy of drawing and painting.  It’s not just the joys, it is also that I grow stronger hrom each battle I fight, whether I have won or lost, it makes no difference.  For the hundreds of paintings I’ve sold and exhibited, I’ve thrown away ten times that number.  If I ever get to the point where I’m not discarding most of my paintings it will mean I’ve stopped taking risks and stopped searching for new ways to translate my world.  I don’t ever want to see the day that I don’t take the chance of creating an unsuccessful painting.

Image:  Watercolor and a touch of unsuccessfully sprayed ink using a mouth atomizer.

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I’m using a photo, converted to black and white to help me find a solution to a design problem in one of my current watercolor paintings.

“Oak Leaves and Earth Sphere”, 22″ x 30″ watercolor

The painting began with a pencil sketch of  oak leaves dancing in the wind just prior to last night’s storm.  When the rain came, I moved inside, mixed some colors and combined brushwork with tossing of paint to get things moving on the paper.  Eventually the sphere appeared.  Before I can determine the colors and values of the leaves ( most of which you can’t see in the photo ) I need to determine my basic value shapes, the shapes that will be seen from thirty feet away.  I like the strong diagonal line in the top half of the paper and I don’t want to lose any of my lights by simple throwing more paint and hoping it works.  I’ve printed six copies of the black and white photo on a sheet of paper.  I’ll use a pencil to try different value patterns and choose one to work from tomorrow.  It feels great to be working larger again.

“Oak Leaves and Earth Sphere” in progress

I’m also happy to be playing with orbs again.

I’ve downloaded a photoshop app that allows me to snap a photo of my painting and change it to black and white on my phone.  This is incredibly helpful while painting en plein air.  I can tell immediately when values aren’t working well.

I painted Bob’s wildflower meadow a week ago.  The clouds were driving me crazy.

Original version of plein air oil painting

Before I could make any changes I had to wait for the oil paint to dry.  The sky already had a nasty green tint to it.  My original plan was only to clean up the sky and correct the cloud issue.

First Four variations

My plan usually changes.  With each stroke, new resolutions had to be found.

Next three variations

After the last resolution I have decided to move on …… whew …… I learned more from working my way through all these variations than I would have if I had started over eight times.  With each change, some elements improved and some nice passages were lost.

Comparison of first and final version of the painting

As always, the most important lesson is that paintings will go more smoothly, with more opportunity to play with color if I resolve the light and dark shapes FIRST!

Final Version of the wildflower meadow, 10.5″ x 18″ oil

Playing with different formats from the same vantage point …

Looking upriver from a small beach across the river  from Whitehaven, MD
6″ x 12″ en plein air oil painting on canvas

There is the long, narrow, horizontal view…

Same vantage point, 5″ x 5″ en plein air oil painting

And then there is the square composition variation.  My focus was on mixing both cool and warm variations of the green marsh grasses and phragmites.

Paintings: Top painting – oil on canvas, en plein air landscape, terra rosa underpainting. Bottom painting – oil on gessoed birch panel, en plein air landscape, terra rosa underpainting.