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Monday, July 26, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: simplifying values

Thinking about the landscape as a series of planes will help you create depth in your painting. 

Ice Bound Locks, John F. Carlson, courtesy Vose Galleries

When Eric Jacobsen told us that he was teaching the theory of angles and consequent values in his recent workshop, I was baffled by the big words. “What’s that when it’s at home?” I asked him. Ken DeWaard was equally confused, responding in a torrent of emojis.

“C’mon, guys, it’s John F. Carlson 101!” Eric exclaimed. Bjรถrn Runquist immediately checked, and announced that there was nothing about any angles on page 101. (Actually, it’s in chapter 3; I checked.)

It’s no wonder that Eric’s no longer returning our calls.

Sylvan Labyrinth, John F. Carlson, courtesy of Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

All kidding aside, Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting is a classic. His theory, although it has a high-flown title, is actually quite intelligible to even the meanest intellects (and you know who you are, guys).

“Every good picture is fundamentally an arrangement of three or four large masses,” Carlson began. That’s as good an organizing principle as any in art. Value is what makes form visible, so we should see, translate, simplify and organize form into value masses.

Carlson wrote that any landscape would contain four groups of values bouncing off three major planes:

  • The horizontal ground plane;
  • The angle plane represented by mountain slopes or rooftops;
  • The upright plane, which is perpendicular to the ground plane, such as trees.

In the middle of the day—our most common circumstance for painting—the value structure would be as follows:

  • The sky is our light source. It should be the highest value in our painting.
  • The ground plane gets the most light bouncing off it, so it should be the next-lightest plane.
  • The angle planes such as rooftops or mountain slopes, are the next lightest planes.
  • The upright objects in our painting, such as trees, walls or people, should be the darkest value element.

Snow Lyric, John F. Carlson, courtesy of The Athenaeum


That doesn't mean that the shapes are crudely simplified, as a glance at Carlson's own paintings confirms. The shapes can be beautiful, elegant, complex, and lyrical without too much value overlap.

Thinking about the landscape as a series of planes will help you create depth in your painting. However, it can be tricky to see the landscape as a series of planes rather than objects. It can be helpful to keep each value group completely separate, with no overlap of values, but, in reality, there will always be overlap.

Your assignment is to find a photo among your own snapshots and reduce it to a series of four values. Then paint it.

As you try to integrate this idea into your painting, exaggerate the separation of planes.

Of course, there are many circumstances where this doesn’t hold true—where the sky is leaden and darker than a snow plane, or when the fading evening light is hitting the vertical plane rather than the ground. But understanding it will help you paint the exceptions in a more arresting way.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Process, not product

Embracing process is deeper training than simply learning a new way to paint. It’s a new way to see, and it’s the basis of all really good art.

Belfast Harbor, oil on canvasboard, 14X18, $1594.

The hardest part of painting class is the first day, or first few days. Sometimes the students who have the most difficulty are those who are already good at painting or drawing.

Often, they are terrified about painting in front of others. They feel as if they’ll be judged and found lacking. They have a deeply buried nut of pride in being “pretty good at art,” and they’re afraid to expose that to reality. I recognize this because I was once that student myself. When someone resists me, I am patient because I remember all the backchat I gave my teachers back in the day.

These students don’t realize they’ve already taken the most difficult step, which is signing up for classes. It’s an admission that they know something is lacking in their technique. They may also be remembering making art with teenage peers, who can be the most judgmental of all critics. Adults are not cruel like that; they’re genuinely excited for each other’s successes.

Fishing shacks at Owl's Head, 11X14, $1087

We’re never good judges of our own work as we’re doing it. The disconnect between what we’ve envisioned and what actually happened is too pronounced. The painting of Belfast harbor, above, is a great example. I was so focused on what it lacked that I never noticed that the color, structure and paint handling were excellent. It had to sit for months on a rack in my studio before I realized it was finished, and it’s now one of my favorite paintings.

That’s where a teacher can be helpful, and why positive criticism is so useful. But time itself is a great healer. It allows you to stop seeing the painting from inside your own head.

Often adult students have been trained to look for results. That’s an unfortunate byproduct of our commercial culture. It makes it difficult to sit back and enjoy learning the process.

Balletic sway, 9X12, $696 unframed.

I once had a delightful student named Ann, who was a good beginning painter. She would start strong, and when it looked like she had a winner on her hands, she’d announce to the class, “I’m painting this for [  ].” That was an instant jinx. She changed the way she saw her work. It became something tangible, a product to be given as a gift. She started seeing it through the potential recipient’s eyes, and that meant she only saw its shortcomings. That flood of negativity paralyzed her. Ann’s warm generosity was, in fact, getting in the way of her painting.

This, by the way, is the difficulty of commissions. The artist starts from the transaction, rather than the germ of an idea. In a world of extremely slick, photoshopped experiences, the physical reality of paint is always going to look clunky and awkward. That’s part of its charm.

My greatest challenge as a teacher is to get people to let go of what they think they know and to relax into the process of exploration. I give them a protocol, and that’s important, but it’s hardly the only thing. Embracing process means divorcing yourself from the results, no longer worrying about whether today’s painting is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, just that it’s been painted and you’ve gotten one step closer to your inner vision. That’s deeper training than simply learning a new way to paint. It’s a new way to see, and it’s the basis of all really good art.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Broken economy

COVID didn’t cause the supply-chain problems we’re experiencing—it exposed them. Hopefully, we’ll solve them before another, bigger disruptor comes our way.

Main Street, Owls Head, oil on gessoboard, 16X20, $1623 unframed.

Early this month my laptop suffered a catastrophic failure. This is not the fault of Dell; I’d poured molten wax and water into it during a Zoom class in the winter. It had been wonky ever since. In fact, it had limped nobly on for longer than could be reasonably expected.

I called my programmer daughter for advice because my programmer husband is sick to death of fixing my stuff. Through the miracle of modern electronics, we had two calls going for a while.

“He’ll say, ‘she needs one built like a tank,’” I told her, just as I heard him yell, “She needs one built like a tank!” To be fair, that hasn’t actually worked. I once bought a hardened-case, ‘rugged’ specialty laptop. It didn’t last any longer than any other laptop.

Bracken Fern, oil on canvasboard, 9X12, $869 framed.

My daughter has had a Lenovo ThinkPad for four years. It’s doing fine, so we settled on the configuration I needed and placed an order. As you can imagine, one of the critical requirements is that I could actually get the darn thing.

And, of course, I can’t. Every day, its delivery date is pushed back another two days. There is a global semiconductor shortage. Of course, we’re blaming it on COVID, when the real issue is a supply-chain problem that COVID exposed.

Nighttime at Clam Cove, oil on canvasboard, $869 framed.

My workshops are experiencing a related problem. Students report that they can’t get rental cars in their destinations. Yesterday, visitors to my gallery told me that they couldn’t find a rental car in Portland; they had to fly into Boston instead. Rental-car companies sold much of their fleets in the pandemic. Now there’s a shortage of rental cars just as Americans are jonesing to get on the road. The car-rental companies can’t buy replacements because of the aforementioned semiconductor shortage. It’s estimated that this will cut worldwide auto production by more than a million vehicles in 2021.

So, we understand: we must wait patiently for anything that has a chip in it.

Last month the bottom of our garage door crumbled off. It’s far past repair; it’s a heavy, wonky, old thing from the 1940s. I ordered replacement doors from Home Depot because I find them reliable, and you can’t even get a contractor to return your calls in today’s market. Yesterday, I got a notice from their home office—the door will be here in mid-November.

Apple Tree Swing, oil on canvasboard, 16X20, $1623 unframed

That’s been the case with every major purchase we’ve tried to make this year. There’s no inventory, and even things made within the US have a six-month lead time. If these supply-chain disruptions are impacting my business, they’re impacting every business in America.

Of course, COVID didn’t cause the supply-chain problems we’re experiencing—it exposed them. Hopefully, we’ll solve them before another, bigger disruptor comes our way.

So far, we haven’t experienced supply-chain problems in paint or canvases (although there are no manufacturers of pigments within the United States). Therein lies an opportunity.

People generally look at paintings in terms of their own enjoyment, but fine art is also an investment. The art market is fickle, and there are no guarantees of profitability, but with a little critical thinking, you can fill your home with beauty that can appreciate over time.

Monday, July 19, 2021

Monday Morning Art School: basic color harmonies

Understanding basic color harmonies will help you integrate color in your painting.


Split the color wheel in half like this and you have your cool tones on one side, warm ones on the left.

Color is comprised of three elements: hue, value and saturation. We see value first, but our emotional response is largely dictated by hue.

There are some common color schemes, or chords, found in nature and by extension, in art.

The idea isn’t to be slavishly attached to these schemes, but to use them to perceive and point up color relationships in nature. What combinations are in 'good taste' and the reactions a color elicits are largely cultural responses. Nobody but me goes nuts about mauve today, but 170 years ago, it was all the rage.

With all color schemes, one hue should dominate.

Complementary
Complementary color scheme

These are colors that lie opposite each other on the color wheel. The most famous example is Christmas’ red and green.

This is a vibrant, high-contrast scheme. It’s the basic schematic for the color of light, where shadows are always the complement of the light color. If the light is a warm gold, for example, its shadows will be cool blues.

Analogous
Analogous colors

Analogous color schemes use colors that lie next to each other on the color wheel. Using analogous colors can make what might be a garish scene (a sunset, for example) more serene.

Equilateral Triad
Equilateral colors

This uses colors that are evenly spaced on the color wheel. The most well-known example is the primary combination of red-blue-yellow.

Triadic color harmonies can be quite vibrant, even without high-saturation colors.  

Harmonic triads
A harmonic triad counting clockwise from the green

This variation counts 3-4-5 in either direction on the color wheel. Start with a key color, and count from there. This is a sophisticated variation on the equilateral triad.

Split-Complementary
Split complementary omitting the complement of blue

This is the color scheme I go to intuitively. It’s a variation of complementary colors. It substitutes for the complement or includes the complement's adjacent hues. It’s as visually compelling as a complementary color scheme, but allows for much more variation in the accent colors.
Split complementary including the complement of green

Double complements
A symmetrical (square) double-complement color scheme
An asymmetrical (rectangle) double-complement color scheme.

The rectangle or tetradic color scheme uses four colors arranged into two complementary pairs. The colors can be in a rectangle or in a square.

Friday, July 16, 2021

A game of chance

Fog has color, movement, and attitude, and is a great tool to understand atmospheric perspective.

Fog Bank, 14X18, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas, $1275 unframed. 

I appreciate the care with which the National Weather Service makes hour-by-hour graphical forecasts. They’re the plein air painter’s best friend, since they predict not only the chance of rain, but the sky cover and the wind. However, they’re often wrong for areas near deep water. Mother Nature is impulsive and unpredictable where warm air first encounters the cold sea. Yesterday I drove to Warren, which is 12 miles to the southwest of me. I traveled through a band of dense fog, a band of brilliant blue, and ended up under a dour, dull sky.

That makes planning my plein air class a game of chance. My primary goal is to teach fundamental skills, but along with that I want my students to master every possible light situation. Yesterday’s nominal subject was value-matching and patterning. However, with a fog as rich and deep as the one we encountered at Owls Head, it seemed a pity to not concentrate on the atmospherics.

Early Spring, Beech Hill, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed.

Few things are more beautiful than fog—or more annoying to the painter who insists on golden sunlight in every painting. Fog has color, movement, and attitude. It’s a great tool to understand atmospheric perspective—and to teach patience with the passing scene. It moves in and out, obliterating a major compositional point here, and adding one there.

The more I teach, the more I realize how much I have to learn about teaching. My student, Jennifer Johnson is in a transitional phase where nothing she paints looks good to her. That’s painful, but it’s a sign she’s about to make a giant leap forward—if she allows it. The fainthearted painter will retreat back into the shell of the familiar. The courageous will allow herself to experience the “I hate everything I’m painting” phase and wrench forward into new discovery. Jennifer is, of course, one of the courageous.

Jennifer Johnson is working her way through her period of dissatisfaction by returning to first principles. That means starting with thumbnails and gridding them onto her canvas.

If you play a musical instrument, you’ve had the experience of mastering a piece part-by-part. You get the left hand down fine. Then you try to add the right hand, and what you’d learned in the left hand falls apart. But if you persist, your brain will integrate the two tasks. Adding new ideas to painting works the same way.

To ride through this, Jennifer has sensibly returned to first principles. One of these is thumbnails and value sketches, which are then transferred to the canvas in the form of a grisaille. Her example, above, from last week’s class, is far better than any I’ve ever made.

What I realized from watching her is how frequently students can do each step well, but not integrate them as a whole. That’s something I need to focus on more. The sense of being needed put a spring in my step. It seemed like only fifteen minutes had passed and the three-hour class was done. Rats.

Frank Costantino with Ann Clowe, Nancy Lloyd and Lisa Siegrist.

Yesterday’s students had the opportunity to watch a real watercolor master at work. My buddy Frank Costantino is in town, and they looked over his shoulder as he painted the lobster boat Daphne Lee. If he can stand more fog, we’ll go out again today.