Sunday, January 10, 2010

Freeing it Up: How I’m learning to paint differently

I have been provoked into trying some radical departures from my usual style of painting, which as you, my friends, know, is generally deliberate, tight, and detailed. This is all very well, but I do often yearn to achieve a lighter touch. So when Bill and Gerry set up the ‘Flickr’ group ‘Fast and Fabulous’ and invited me to join, I was hooked. If I had to force myself to complete a painting in half an hour there would be no question of employing habitual techniques.

So today I broke out of the mould and did it. Perhaps once or twice in my life I have painted something in less than three hours, (the odd Christmas card, for instance) but this effort, ‘The Niagara River at Brown’s Point’, was painted in 28 minutes. Wow, you sure have to keep the brush moving fast!

I learned a lot from this new approach, the first thing being that you really should choose a simple subject. It helped that I had decided on a snowy landscape. Snow allows you to omit a vast number of brushstrokes. The next thing is, that it is good to internalize your vision to the point where you know exactly what you want to put on the paper; there’s little time now for reference to other sources for inspiration or detail. Better that it is already fixed in the mind. A couple of weeks ago I was driving down the Niagara Parkway, a very familiar route, and as I passed Brown’s Point the striking view through the trees imprinted itself on my mind: a broken sky of pure cerulean, seen through a tracery of sepia branches; the river cobalt green, glimpsed through tall hardwood trunks, mostly maple; a scattering of underbrush amidst the clean, fresh snow. It’s not convenient to stop at that point on the Parkway, and being the driver I could allow myself only a brief glimpse. A week later though, I came this way again, prepared to clarify and reinforce my impression of the scene. With only another two or three seconds to take in the scene, I am trying to train my powers of observation; this is fun in itself, seeing how much you can remember from only a brief instant of study; like Kim’s game.

From this mental picture I was able to plan my ‘order of work’. I had thought of first reserving out some treetrunk highlights, perhaps with vertical slashes with a candle-end, but dismissed this as unnecessarily fussy. So first I must lay in the sky and some violet shadows in the snow, wet-in-wet After the paper dried I would paint in the far bank of the river in a colour close to W&N ‘Neutral Tint’. Then I must broad-brush the treetrunks in sepia and add branches and twigs, next adding the bright flashes of the river, then finally some underbrush in Burnt Sienna. Figuring this out did take some thought.

The matter of colour selection took additional planning that I don’t usually pay much attention to ahead of starting on the picture. Again, simplicity had to be the keynote – little time can be devoted to mixing subtle shades of colour. I decided I needed only five shades - Cerulean Blue, Windsor Violet, Neutral Tint (with slight admixture of Ivory Black), Cobalt Green and Burnt Sienna.

Again departing from my usual technique, I made no preliminary pencil sketch; I just made two tick marks at the side of the page to register where I wanted the horizon and the river to be. As I entered upon the painting I got my next lesson: mix the paint strongly enough to achieve the required tone in one stroke. No time to build up the picture with careful layers. Ouch. I’ll do better next time; promise. The next obvious matter to be addressed is brush technique. Normally, I build my shapes up carefully with fairly small brushes. No time for that now. Broad-brush is essential, at least in many areas. Which brings one quickly to the realization that wielding a broad brush properly has to be learned: achieving the desired shape of brushmark with correctly delineated edges has to be accomplished in one swipe. Oh dear; I have to work on that seriously. Then there’s a question of detail; at the very least, it must be suggested, else the scene appear bland and empty of interest. I learned in this little trial to get some small delicacy in the underbrush by first putting on a little patch of colour with a No.6 round. then quickly feathering out the top of the shape by dragging a dry fan brush through it. I’ve hardly ever used this brush before.

I feel great satisfaction as I contemplate this process. The actual result matters little compared to the pleasure of learning so much in such a short time. Discovering too, that I can in fact produce a worthwhile sketch in very limited time opens vistas of possibility. No longer daunted by thinking I must set aside half a day if I am to paint at all, I begin instead to enjoy the happy thought that maybe I can find thirty minutes each day, like ‘Linfrye’, and might look forward to improving my skills with more frequent practice.

All of which brings me to some final thoughts, which are of gratitude for the inspiration and encouragement I get from my artist friends on ‘Flickr’. Were I on this journey by myself it would be lonely and often disheartening. Having in addition outsiders, (and not only friends), approve of work about which I myself entertain serious doubts gives a balanced perspective. Seeing, if only dimly, through others eyes is interesting.

So much, to come out of so little. Wunderbar!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

PERPLEXING PERSPECTIVE ~ or, Some Challenges Encountered in the Painting of an Interior Scene.

I decided to paint a picture of the Keeping Room in our house. I think this type of subject is an important one in art, yet it does not seem to receive much attention these days. Pictures of interiors memorialize important places and times in our lives. They show how we live and inform our descendants of this in an interesting way. This was powerfully brought home to me when last year I read a magazine article entitled “The Art of Intimacy”, written by Timothy Brittain-Catlin and published in ‘The World of Interiors’, October 2008 edition. The story reviewed an exhibition* of watercolours of Victorian era interiors and was profusely illustrated with fascinating reproductions which, when studied, tell us a great deal about a certain kind of lifestyle in those days. This article directly inspired me to attempt my first serious interior scene in watercolour – ‘View from the Parlour’, which you may see on my ‘Flickr’ site. Having achieved some success with that, this winter I began another view of our home interior.
I enjoy working in this genre for many reasons. As a (usually) slow painter it is helpful to have an unchanging scene which may be revisited as often as necessary, where the light may be examined at many different times each day, and where the comforts of home are close at hand. Another thing: we think that we have an intimate knowledge of all our possessions, but I discover that, speaking for myself, having to carefully study each element of a scene during the painting process gives an even deeper understanding and appreciation of each little treasure.

I set to work on my new project by making a couple of fast pencil sketches and ran into difficulty right away: I couldn’t get everything I wanted into the frame. From the west and south corners of the room I had to omit an essential key element - the fireplace; from the north and east corners the couch could not be included. This a basic problem when composing a ‘roomscape’. Just try to take a photo of any room and you will see what I mean. That is why real estate agents always have to use a very wide-angle lens. But then one quickly runs into distortions of perspective. Which is why I decided to write this blog.
The fact that I have not had the benefit of any education in art is a source of some regret to me. When I look at the works of others I can only envy their confident handling of composition and perspective. I am often frustrated by feeling that I have to reinvent so many wheels. Certainly, you may say that I can educate myself and learn from a wealth of available material, but I would sooner use the time I have to paint rather than study. So I struggle on. I soon came to the conclusion that I would have to somehow ‘unroll’ the room and play pretty fast and loose with the rules of perspective to get what I wanted; so in my mind I opened the room up as one would do by cutting down one side of a box (see Fig.1). I recognized an immediate drawback in this approach: the eye found insufficient differentiation at the centre corner of the design between the two ‘middle’ walls. It looked too flat. All four vertical wall corners actually needed more emphasis. The only way to achieve this was by adding curvature. All the walls could be regularly curved, (as in Figs. 2 and 4), but my mind was offended by the visual effect. There had to be distortion, but it must be hidden as far as possible. Which thought led me initially to ‘pinch’ the corners as shown in Fig.3 and in my rough sketch ‘An Illustration of Chosen Perspective’. This approach, by keeping the main part of each wall plane ‘flat’ or ‘straight’, would allow the elements of furniture all to be drawn in straight lines with more or less normal two-point perspective. The scheme did however produce a high horizon line. I wanted the horizon line to be at seated eye-level, about 48 inches above the floor, not only because this would make the scene easy to sketch from life, but also because it naturally best pleased the mind’s eye. I found a logical solution in Figure 5, which although it appears somewhat weird in preliminary layout, actually works quite well in the finished picture. My analysis is that it works because the areas of very large perspective distortion are irrelevant (as in the ceiling), or disguised (as in the foreground carpet), whilst the areas of minor distortion are hidden (the lower corners of each wall). Exceptions are found in the severe ‘bend’ in the carpet in front of the TV, and in the way the floor slopes down rather obviously from all points towards the viewer. I actually settled on this final composition and painted my watercolour prior to undertaking the in depth analysis of ‘why’ that I outline above. I had become curious to carefully explore various options, and borrowed a book on perspective from the local library as well. From this I learned several basic concepts about different perspective conventions that I had never been aware of: e.g. ‘circular’, ‘three-point’, ‘axonometric’ perspective, and so on. I drew the happy conclusion from this, that I was glad of my previous ignorance, in that it had allowed me to find a novel solution to my visual challenge outside of the conventional constraints that would have hedged my thinking had I been possessed of more formal knowledge. Ignorance, in this case was indeed bliss, or at least serendipity.

I hope you enjoy my work, and that it may interest you into exploring the wonderful world of interiors seen through the eyes of artists.

Here are two good places to look, that might fire your interest:

A group on ‘Flickr’ that I started recently called ‘Roomscapes ~ Paintings of Interiors’:

The Thaw Collection at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum:

* The exhibition referred to was entitled ‘House Proud: 19th-century Watercolour Interiors from the Thaw Collection’, and was mounted by the owners of this collection – Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, N.Y., N.Y.