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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Determining the Concept

David Leffel, in Linda Cateura's book Oil Painting Secrets from a Master, says "The idea for a picture comes before you begin to paint. It is the artist's way of seeing things."
When someone designs and builds a house or just purchases existing blueprints...before any of that...a decision has been made, an idea has been finalized as to the style of house desired. It might be Colonial, Ranch, Country, Contemporary or Victorian; whatever the choice, that decision is the concept. It is called that because everything that follows is a result of that choice.
For example, if the concept is Victorian (tall, narrow, decorative, multistory, bay windows, cone shaped turrets), but all the design and building choices are Ranch (low profile, single story, unadorned, wide overhanging eaves, L, U or box shaped configurations)...will the result be Victorian or Ranch? Obviously, it's Ranch. What happened? The concept was not adhered to.
Similarly, for us artists, if the decision is to depict a landscape shrouded in fog, but the painting actually produced contains intense color and high value contrast, the concept and finished piece have become incompatible.
Below is the reference photo for a painting I recently completed for the upcoming 30th Anniversary Show at the Greenhouse Gallery in San Antonio, TX, 3-24 February.
Now when one considers this photo, there are lots of possible concepts. Just consider the many ways in which the scene could be cropped. In addition to that, just about everything can be moved, removed, added to, or changed in some way. The basic information is still there. For example, the road and fences could be removed creating a vast pasture with cattle...and we haven't even begun to consider the many moods of nature that could make this a very exciting piece. Anyway, I hope you get the idea. Every painting needs to begin with a clear concept.
Reference photo for Texas Hill Country

So, even before the canvas is selected, a decision must be made as to what we want to communicate. In fact, that decision will determine what size and proportion of canvas is ultimately chosen.. Once the concept is established, don't deviate from it or the likely result will be a confusing, discordant painting...or one significantly different from the original concept/idea.
For the painting, Texas Hill Country, the big simple idea was to maintain the feeling of expanse, isolation, and sheer silence. I felt a sunset with its diminishing light would add great drama, and in light of the impending darkness, increase even more the sense of utter quiet, isolation, and even apprehension. The very faint sound of the distant vehicle brings the scene to life.
With all these things in mind, everything following: drawing, composition, values, color, even the quality of the edges, must be consistent with the chosen mood.
Beginning stage: Palette choice is white, ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, and lemon yellow. Canvas is toned with various mixtures of UB/AC. Block-in begins.

Mood is established. Block-in is sufficiently complete.

David Leffel, in the book mentioned above, believes that just as a writer's theme must precede plot and character and they in turn must express the novel's theme...composition gives substance to a painting's concept.
Leffel goes on to offer seven valuable benefits for first selecting a concept. Working with a concept will:
1 - Keep the technique under control because you're forced to work within the constraints of your concept
2 - Provide consistency throughout the canvas
3 - Help identify what to emphasize and what to downplay
4 - Help pull all elements of the painting together, thereby creating unity
5 - Help you know when the painting is completed
6 - Give you a sense of direction
7 - Give a sense of fulfillment when you have accomplished the given task
Texas Hill Country - 16"x 20" - Oil on canvas

Here are some helpful tips for determining a clear concept:
1 - Paint what you enjoy and understand. Painting is difficult enough, so begin with something   that stirs your soul.
2 - Think. Fine painting is more than an emotional outburst.
3 - What is it about the subject that deeply and instinctively appeals to you?
- Composition of the subject matter elements?
- Color relationships?
- Lighting?
- Overall mood/value relationships?
- Action, activity, movement?
- What emotion does the subject activate within you? (Fear, awe, joy, peacefulness, etc.)
4 - The more clearly and specifically we can determine the items listed above, the more clearly we will be in communicating our concept.
I have found through many years of teaching that young artists, when working from photos, have a very difficult time moving beyond the reference material. The photo dictates the concept, the composition, color and detail. The mind tends to disconnect and the hands go to work. 
Some of this is due to lack of ability but often it is because insufficient thought was given to establishing a concept.

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Defining the Concept

When painting outdoors in Portugal some years ago, I had just put the finishing touches to a painting when, to my delight and total surprise, I heard a lot of little hands clapping. There behind me stood a large group of children. They stood in total silence as they had watched the painting develop. I couldn't speak Portuguese. They couldn't speak English, but the painting was able to easily speak both languages. It made the connection between us and we thoroughly enjoyed the moment. 
We communicated through art. We connected because the concept of the painting was clear. They related to the scene, the mood, the color. It captured for them that which they experienced everyday and may even have taken for granted until someone came along and caused them to take a second look. There before us was the lighthouse, the rocks, cliff and ocean. The got it. But what if the drawing was poor, the subject unclear, the composition uncomfortable, the values confusing or the color inappropriate? Would my delighted audience have hung around?

Over the next two weeks, I will be sharing with you three of the paintings I created specifically for the upcoming 30th Anniversary Show, to be held next month at the Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art in San Antonio, TX. I hope these blogs do an adequate job of illustrating my points.

This week I hope to explain what I mean by having a clear concept before beginning a painting...and its importance. I like to teach my students that every painting begins with an idea. Why do we wish to do this painting and what is it we really want to get across? I keep bringing these questions up to my students because I need to keep bringing them up to myself.
Photography is a great tool for the artist but it can be, at the same time, our greatest hindrance. I have to continually remind myself to slow down, look, and THINK, before beginning a painting. It's relatively easy to copy a photo, much more difficult for us to "speak for ourselves" rather than let the photo speak for us. 
Below is an appealing stone house that I photographed in the Texas Hill Country. The scene has a lot to offer as is and my original plan was to create a painting of it, but as I contemplated the subject my thoughts ran to feelings of loneliness and isolation. There are a number of ways those feelings could be represented, but then the scene also gave me a profound sense of silence, of standoffish mystery. That's what I decided to exploit. However, I did not want the feeling to be threatening...just a little mysterious. 
Reference photo for Mystery of the Night

Color selection

First attempt: The mood is established but I lost the sense of standoffish mystery I  hoped to achieve.  I redrew the house by pushing it back and narrowing it, increasing the appearance of height and distance.

Mystery of the Night - 12"x 16" - Oil on canvas

Our job as artists is to get our point of view across to the viewer of our paintings in a way they can clearly understand. The children of Portugal did not need an interpreter, they understood. 
As artists then, we are communicators, and with that comes responsibility. Since we are the ones initiating the "conversation", we have the responsibility of making our communication clear. Just having a great concept is not enough's also important that we have a well developed vocabulary. Now, I don't know which is worse...having something profound to say without the vocabulary to express it, or having an extensive vocabulary with nothing worthwhile to say.
Certainly, neither is preferable. The ideal, of course, would be to have a fabulous vocabulary with profound things to express, and an audience that hangs on our every "word".
The quality and extent of our vocabulary is directly proportional to the mastery of our craft...(composition, drawing, values, color, etc.), and the use of the tools of that craft...(pencils, pens, brushes, paints, etc.). The more refined our vocabulary, the more clearly and beautifully presented will be that which we have to say.
Unfortunately, many of us artists have more to say than our artistic vocabulary allows. 
Let's say we all have a fairly decent artistic vocabulary, there's still this other important element of successful communication...What have we to say? The answer to that question will be the concept. It could be compared to an outline...and that's pretty important whether the communication be verbal or visual.

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Sunday, January 15, 2012

Art Journey America: Landscapes

FW Media's North Light Books has just released a new book, Art Journey America: Landscapes. I was one of 89 landscape painters invited to participate. Only in America was selected to be represented in this beautiful, nicely designed book.

"From the grandeur of mountains, red rock canyons, desert vistas and ocean shores to the quiet beauty of farmlands, forests and streams, Art Journey America: Landscapes is a shining celebration of the variety and vastness of it all...a love letter to America from the artists who call it home." 

In preparation for the book, each artist was asked to submit their answers to a series of questions. Following are my answers.

Background info:
Living and working in Wylie, TX:  My wife and I  moved to Texas from California in 1972.  We moved to Wylie in 1980. We first heard of the small Texas town NE of Dallas when it was only 4000 people. We had a dream of living in the country and building a house. We did both in 1980 and have been here ever since. When we first moved here, I was working as a freelance illustrator. I began my fine art career in 1982. Wylie’s population is now in excess of 54000.

Hobbies: a) Cycling: I used to race bicycles when I was younger…for about 13 years. Was part of the 1971 US cycling team that participated in the World Road Racing Championships in Leicester, England. Still enjoy riding the bike for exercise. b) Gardening/yard work: enjoy planting, mowing, digging in the dirt, watching things grow. Just about anything to do with the yard and garden, I enjoy.
Only in America  -  18"x 24"  -  Oil on canvas

1.  What is it about this particular subject that inspired you to paint it?
All the subjects I paint are motivated by personal experience. I paint things I know but also things that create positive emotions and memories within me. Several things appealed to me about this scene, the primary one being the house itself. I have always been attracted to structures and at one time actually considered becoming an architect. There’s nothing spectacular about the house but in the warm morning light and context of the neighborhood, it created a sense of stability and safety. A little extra push from me through the addition of the family car and children happily playing…and “Only in America” was born.

2.  Why is American landscape painting important today, in the 21st century?
Painting the American landscape of our day is valuable, for it is a visual record of our time. It also leaves a record of the style of painting fashionable at the time and tells future viewers something of what the artist and culture considered important. For viewers of today, a well crafted landscape painting can be a means of escape. It can transport the viewer to another time or place and help them recall and experience happy memories. It can show them things in a new way that they may have taken for granted, and it can transport them to places they have never been.

3.  In what locations do you paint?  Why?
Small towns, farms, open rural spaces of America are my favorite locations to paint. I have an emotional connection to these subjects because they generate happy memories and are all part of my formative years. They also represent, for me, all the positive aspects of family, community, security, trust, hope, productivity, independence and freedom.

4.  Do you prefer particular seasons or times of day?  Why?
I enjoy depicting every season at all times of the day. I especially enjoy those periods of transition…changing seasons and weather. I like it when nature most obviously expresses itself…early morning or late evening, or when it’s rainy, misty, hazy, foggy, stormy or snowing.

5.  How would you describe your style (realistic, abstract, minimal, impressionistic, etc.)?
My work is definitely realistic. Others have classified it as Naturalism. I like that designation, but in reality the work does not fit the true definition of the word. More accurately the style is realistic with a subtle dose of idealistic interpretation.

6.  Do any historical movements, periods or artists inspire your painting?
The period of art I am most attracted to would be just about anything from the mid-1800's through the early 1900's. The painters of Barbizon, France...particularly Corot, Millet, and Daubigny...continue to be inspirational.

7.  Is your painting inspired by spirituality, and if so, how is that seen in your art?
Creativity is first and foremost a gift of God. Being created in God's image makes every creative endeavor somewhat of a spiritual event. As a child of God, and one who believes He intimately loves individuals, I believe He leads and helps me with every painting decision from start to finish.

8.  How do you plan your compositions?
All painting compositions are determined by the concept. What one wants to say and what format and organization of the subject matter elements will best describe the concept is the issue. Rather than follow prescribed “rules” of composition, the final “floor plan” is determined by affirmatively answering two questions: a) Does it feel balanced? b) Does the composition effectively and clearly express all that I desire?
Within every composition, I look for diversity, diversity of value, shapes, edges, size, detail, and color…and yet all working together to form a beautiful, harmonious, cohesive whole.

9.  Do you paint en plein air?  What practical advice do you have for those who would like to try it? 
Yes, I do work in plein air. I view my plein air work as an opportunity to study and learn, all for the purpose of improving my studio work. My recommendation would be for plein air painters to keep it simple. Carry out into the field only what you need and organize it as compactly as possible. Limit the palette to just the primaries, plus white. Work on small, light weight supports…a size that can be completed in no more than two hours. Have a sturdy, wide stance easel…and look for shade.

10.  What medium(s) do you use, and what are your main technique(s) (e.g., layering, impasto, etc)?
I seldom use a medium but when I do, liquin is preferred. I use a number of block-in techniques but most consistently I begin with a raw umber monochromatic, fully developed block-in. Generally using a very limited palette of just the primaries, local color is developed while matching the already established values of the monochromatic. The painting is developed in layers with most details and impasto reserved for last.

11.  What’s your best advice to students on painting landscapes?
Certainly, if one desires to be a landscape painter, they must be a student of nature and all its subtle nuances. The best way to study nature/landscape is to paint in plein air. I don’t believe plein air painting is the be-all, end-all but it certainly is a necessary beginning, becoming a lifelong habit. Really, the subject is not that important, for the principles of good painting are not dependent on the subject. A clear concept, effective composition, accurate drawing (proportion and perspective), simple value structure, and supportive, harmonious color are all necessary ingredients for producing a noteworthy landscape…or cityscape, portrait, or still life. 

12.  What does landscape painting teach us about life and art?
Landscape painting, no matter how beautiful cannot begin to capture the true, amazing beauty, subtlety, and variety of this planet. Only a fool would say this just evolved without a wise designer, or that it came about by accident. At best, our efforts as landscape painters are a poor, superficial imitation, for unlike nature, they have no inherent life within them. The power of landscape painting rests in its ability to capture a moment in time, recall a memory, transport the viewer to another time and place, stir the imagination and evoke aesthetic emotions within us.
Landscape painting has little to say about art in general, for it is merely a subject for the artist’s personal expression. But ART as a subject is huge. The very ability to imagine, to create and communicate in this very individual and unique way is evidence of a personal Creator who has endowed each one of us with something of God’s likeness. With that comes a responsibility. With a heart of thankfulness, we should respect, appreciate, develop, and use the gift in a way that honors the One who gave it.
Typical of two-page spread representing each of the 89 artists in Art Journey America: Landscapes

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Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Greatest Monument in America

I guess one could say that I'm somewhat of a sentimentalist. I like monuments and memorials. I like some of them for their appearance, while others I like for what they represent. The best ones combine both..
What are these things anyway if not a record, a physical reminder of something important?
National Monument to the Forefathers

We artists, in a sense, are in the business of creating memorials...records of our impressions, experiences, memories and ideas. We help others to see things that they may have taken for granted, or to show them things they have never seen. By creating a visual record, we give the subject importance. We memorialize what we saw, what we remember, what we felt, and what we want others to remember or take notice of. Sometimes we take the ideas of others and transform them into a beautiful, clearly communicated physical reality. Other times the concept and its ultimate manifestation find their origins in the artist alone.
Faith (Detail)

A memorial is at its best when it is beautifully executed and expresses a great truth. The key word here being Truth. I think the National Monument to the Forefathers in Plymouth, MA is one such memorial. I went to Plymouth several years ago for the sole purpose of seeing this monument. It brought me to tears. It powerfully represents core beliefs of our nation's founders and is also beautifully executed.
Education, Liberty, Morality

As we enter this new year of 2012, I admit I am somewhat sentimental when it comes to thoughts of our nation. This amazing monument does not help dispel those sentiments. When one compares the core values of our nation at the time this monument was created with those of today, it makes me sad. To be honest, if this same memorial were proposed today the outcry raised against it would be so great and venomous, it would never see the light of day. What has changed? Why are memorials around the country, representing our Christian roots, being removed or defaced? Why are they hated so? Because they represent and remind us of things we want to forget, things we want completely erased from our true history.
Education (Detail)

The idea for this monument was first proposed in 1794 in memory of the Pilgrims. For many reasons the actual completion and dedication did not take place until 1889, but on that day-long celebration, William C.P. Breckinridge, Congressman from Kentucky, offered this impassioned prayer:

"In the name of God, Amen. In the name of the Fathers we dedicate this monument and ourselves. For ages it will stand the enduring witness to grave and resolute conduct; to privations and sacrifices; to thrift and frugality; to domestic love and unaffected piety; to rectitude in thought as well as in life; to earnest principles and true beliefs; to Christian fidelity and and now we rededicate ourselves to a more fervent love for man as man; to a braver allegiance to truth for truth's sake, and this 'in the name of God'; and Amen and Amen!"

Thanks to the brilliant work of artist Hammett Billings, architect, sculpture, painter, and illustrator, he gave form and substance to a belief, a truth which I believe America has carelessly abandoned. For those that care, this memorial convicts us daily of our forsaking of the truth.
Hammett Billings

Faith, the central figure is pointing upwards toward heaven while holding an open Bible and with one foot standing on Plymouth Rock. She is facing the harbor towards the east, the direction from which the Pilgrims came to America. It was faith that brought them to Plymouth Rock and faith in the God of the Bible that sustains us.The star on her forehead seems to indicate an intellectual faith...a faith reasoned from the Bible.

Seated on thrones, surrounding the base of the monument are four figures, established on the foundation of faith in God.
Liberty and Morality

Morality, is holding the Ten Commandments in one hand and the scroll of Revelation in the other. She is wearing a collar similar to the breastplate of the the High Priest in Old Testament times. The Pilgrims believed that the Commandments were God's standard for right and wrong, and that the New Testament directed their personal lives as well.
Law, has a very powerful looking facial expression with piercing eyes. One hand is extended and the other is holding the civil statutes and ordinances for a town or commonwealth. Beneath his throne are small statuettes of Justice and Mercy. All men are equal before the Law, and no one should be given special privileges because of birth or wealth. Law convicts of wrong, yet extends its hand of mercy.
Education, is the most youthful of all the seated statues. She is wearing a wreath on her head and pointing to truth in a book of knowledge. Below the figure on either side are statuettes of Wisdom and Youth, led by Experience. Children were expected to absolutely respect and obey their parents; as a result great wisdom was expected of them.
Liberty, is the strongest looking of all the statues. Wearing a helmet, breastplate and sandals, together with a sword resting on his knee, he is dressed in typical Roman armor. Broken chains tell the story that he is free. A slain lion over his back indicates that he has won a great victory. Maintaining liberty requires vigilance.

There is much more that can be said about this great monument. Let's learn from history and return to the truths this monument proclaims and its creators believed. Let's return to the God of our fathers and pray daily for our nation.

May today be all you need it to be. May the peace of God and the freshness of the Holy Spirit rest in your thoughts, rule your dreams, and conquer all your fears. May God manifest Himself  to you each day in special ways and may your joys be fulfilled and your prayers be answered. May faith rise to new heights as you experience peace, healing, health, happiness, prosperity, joy, and a true and undying love for God. Amen

I hope you will watch actor Kirk Cameron's excellent talk given at the monument site in 2010. He gets it... and says it much better than I.

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