Monday, November 22, 2010

Warm vs. Cool

After having just given a talk on understanding color and how to use it, I've decided to post a few of the concepts here on the blog. Especially since I haven't been as diligent about posting as I would like. I'll talk generally at first, and in later posts I'll cover some more specific ideas about color. I'm assuming that you know the basics of a color wheel, and will move on beyond that so as not to get lost in the quagmire of abstract color theory, but use it for more practical purposes.

One of the most important concepts of color is understanding and using color temperature schemes. When picking an overall color for your painting think about what mood you want to evoke, as this will make the choosing of colors easier.

Cool colors are commonly viewed as calmer and more relaxing as well as being cold. Warm colors are usually associated with energy and movement and heat. Above is an extreme example of that idea in nature. One can feel the coldness of the iceberg above, but also the quiet, peaceful solitude, barely a bird around. With the lava, the tension builds quickly. The heat is strong and the energy is fast moving. We can hear the crackle and pop of the fire. These qualities can be used in paintings as well.

Above is a painting by John Singer Sargent in grayscale. By taking the color away from the image, little emotion is felt, it is simply a woman seated at a dinner table. While it's a nice painting, and the composition is strong and the drawing is accurate, we are uncertain what to feel about this woman, or what she is feeling. But add a cool color scheme and we immediately get a sense of emotion and mood.

With a cool palette, the feeling of calm and quiet is evoked. The woman is sitting comfortable in the atmosphere. Maybe she's just had a wonderful dinner with her husband and dear friends and is relaxing before she gets ready to turn in for the night. Sounds like a nice story for the painting. But, make it a warm color scheme and it is a very different mood.

Now there seems to be a disquiet to the scene; an underlying tension. And we can make up a story behind this feeling, too. (Note: the warm scheme is the one Sargent used.)

Here's an illustration by Saul Tepper called The Make-up Time. I've transformed it into grayscale, cool colors (his palette), and warm colors. You can click on it to see it larger. In the cool colored version, you can sense that the fight is over, and now is the time for the couple to work it out. And you believe they will. However, with the warm colored version, it says anger and passion. The clenched fists of the boy have a very different meaning and you are uncertain just how bad this may turn out. You can see how quickly it goes from "The Make-up Time" to "The Break-up TIme" — a very different feeling by simply changing the overall hue of the piece.

Color evokes mood better than any other tool in our toolbox. And we as artists must make it our duty to understand how to use it so we can better communicate these emotions to others.

Friday, August 20, 2010

8 Keys to Creating a Focal Area

It's called by many names — center of interest, focal area, center of focus, focal point to name a few. The words are interchangeable but the idea is vital to composition. An area in the painting that you, the artist, has deemed to be the most important within the painting and that the eye wants to return to again and again. The decision of what you want to be your focal area is as personal as the subject matter. It can be a group of trees, a boat, a barn, or a streetlight. There are no limits to what you decide to make your focal area. So whatever you decide, there are several ways to make sure it remains the center of interest in a painting. Here are 8 ways to create a focal area.

1 • Placement on Canvas — The focal area is placed so the eye is naturally led to it. (You can see the blogpost I did a while back on designing with grids for a further understanding
2 • Highest Contrast — The highest contrast of value in the painting are side by side.
3 • Highest Level of Detail — The place where the most detail in the painting is found.
4 • Most Intense Color — The purest and most intense color is used.

5 • Hardest/Sharpest Edge — The hardest or sharpest edge in the painting.
(This is most commonly used along with a high contrast of value.)
6 • Alien Shape — A shape that is not used anywhere else in the painting.
7 • Alien Color — A color not used anywhere else in the painting.
8 • Building/Face Factor — We are naturally drawn to the face of a person. It’s why we see the man in the moon, when the reality is just craters. Man-made structures can work much the same way. Within the landscape they will immediately draw the eye to it, this is partly due to the alien shape factor.

It is often best to use more than one of these. Too many, though, and you must be careful to not create a bullseye effect, where the eye doesn’t leave the focal area and wander around the rest of the painting. Look at the painting above and see if you can see the keys i used to delineate the center of interest.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Struggles of Painting Outdoors

Painting en plein air has its trials and tribulations. While the perfect 72 degree weather day is great, it is far too rare to consider it the norm. Here's a list of some of the things we all deal with when painting outdoors, and some I've personally had to overcome -- or just go back home and forget it all.

Bugs. Especially at sunset. When you're trying to capture that perfect fading light and have to stop to smack your neck or ankles every 5 seconds. Ugh.

Extreme cold weather. Gums up paint and makes it nearly unworkable. Sometimes I'll try to struggle through it, and sometimes I'll just go back to the warmth of the car and work from there.

Rain. The worst for watercolor, but doesn't work so well with oils, either. And forget about the paper in your sketchpad.

Wind. Once, while painting on a brick road, the wind blew my easel over, shattering the glass palette. To add insult to injury, I had just finished putting out all my paint on it and had stepped back to take a look at the scene when it blew over. Another time in Iowa, a huge gust suddenly came up and took my easel several feet away from me, breaking it beyond repair. No more painting on those days.

Onlookers. Usually I can tolerate them and find them friendly and considerate, but every so often one will come up and want to just chit chat with no regard to my time, as I watch the changing light go by.

Something blocking the way. It's happened to me with cars, but the most frustrating one was when I was painting an en plein air commission of
a boat for a woman's husband. She wanted to take it that day for his birthday. Not a problem. A little hot and not the best time of day (noon, no shadows), but all in all it was going well. Then another boat anchors right in front the one I was painting, blocking the view. With some help from the woman describing what was on her husband's boat I finished it, but it wasn't easy.

I slipped and fell down a hill once. Luckily my easel was fine and I walked back up the hill with a good laugh at myself.

Forgotten materials. Once I forgot my brushes. Another time I forgot white paint. And paper towels, too. I often forget the camera. Once I spilled my mineral spirits by accident and had nothing to cleanse my brushes with. Just try not to get a muddy painting that way.

Forgotten painting. I was packing up after painting one afternoon. Everything was great until I got home where I realized I had put the painting on top of the van when I was loading everything up and left it there when I drove away. I went back to look for it, but it was nowhere to be found. Bummer, as I was really pleased with that piece, too.

I've dropped my paintings by accident. In the grass. On the pavement. Once in a mud puddle.

Standing on cement all day under Michigan Avenue bridge in Chicago. My feet were killing me by the end of the day and the reflection from the Chicago River was blinding my sense of color and value. It was for a workshop I was taking and I learned so much it was worth the pain.

I sketch on the train all the time. When trying to get a line just so, it's almost inevitable that the train will bump right at that moment. Drives me nuts!

When the subject moves. Again, on the train. Someones sleeping and I'm just starting to sketch, then their stop will come and they'll get up and leave.

These are some of the things I've had to deal with. Let me know what you've been through.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Ever Changing Landscape

I'm participating in a small group show featuring works of art by myself and George Hermelink, as well as Jeannene Anderson, Julie Kasniunis, Lynn Lyon, Julia Holmaas and Dana Dabagia.

Opening Reception: Friday, June 4th, 5-9 pm
Southern Shore Arts Gallery
722 Franklin Street, Michigan City, IN

I'll have 10 pieces in the show. Opening reception is on Friday, June 4th, 5-9pm. The show will be up until June 27th. Come on out and join us for some great art from some wonderful artists. And of course, there will be cheese, bread, wine etc. at the reception. Hope to see you there.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Glimpse in the National Gallery of Art

I was on vacation last week in DC and got the opportunity to spend a little time in the National Gallery of Art. Due to time constraints and having only about an hour there, I stayed in the corner of the American Wing mostly. I was on a search to see the Thomas Moran paintings, and unfortunately found out that they were not on exhibit at is time.

I wish I had more time to spend in the museum to linger in front of pieces and see the work of Europeans and others I had to bypass. Still, I was able to see some incredible pieces, including Whistler, Sargent, Homer, Eakins, Turner, Cole, Inness, Gifford, Heade and more. The Whittredge really blew me away. The sense of light in it was gorgeous. A painting that a photo does not do justice. And one of the big things I noticed, too was how they displayed the work. The Whistler is very large and could be seen down the hallway through an arched doorway, which made it a centerpiece worthy of its beauty. The walls in different rooms were different colors and the paintings used in the areas were accented by the color usage on the walls (as a whole). It really got me thinking about how to display work for it's greatest effect.

I wanted to share some of the pieces that really caught my eye. Some you may have seen before and some you may not have. I highly suggest if you are in the DC area to see the art museums. There are several and just seeing one is worth the trip. And make sure to allocate more time than I had, for there is much to see.

1. James McNeil Whistler — The White Girl (Symphony in White, No.1)

2. Alfred Thompson Bircher — A Quiet Day near Manchester

3. John Frederick Kensett — Beach at Beverly

4. Jean HonorĂ© Fragonard — Young Girl Reading

5. John Singer Sargent — Repose

6. Worthington Whittredge — Second Beach, Newport

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

A Life's Work

To really get to know and understand an artist through his work you should look at his complete inventory and take a look at his life as an artist. Two of my favorite painters, George Inness and Thomas Moran, have websites with a fair amount of their paintings. The Inness site is a collection of his work, with only a brief amount of information on the man himself. While the Moran site is more of an historical perspective of his work and the artist over the years of his life. While the Moran site has several paintings and nearly all of his more famous ones, it in no way is a thorough representation of his oeuvre. Both are excellent sites to visit for differing reasons. I'm just happy we get to share in these artists' work, and wish more sites like these were up and running. Could you imagine a Sargent site or a Corot? Or an N.C. Wyeth one? Or even some lesser known artists like Hugh Bolton Jones or Bruce Crane or George Hitchcock? Not to mention a Monet site with all of his haystacks. How spectacular that would be.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Composing the Landscape Class

I will be conducting a 6-week course that focuses on understanding and painting the principles of the landscape. Each week a different aspect will be covered, from creating a center of focus, to massing and value patterning, to understanding how color effects the composition. Examples from master artists (living and dead) will be used to help the student further understand the principles, as well as demonstrations given. Mostly, though, I believe we learn from doing, so hands-on in-class assignments and individual attention to the students will be stressed. To sign up, or for more information, contact me at 219-241-1392 or by email at

Composing the Landscape: A Course in the Principles of Landscape Painting
Saturdays from 1:00 pm to 3:30 pm
April 3 – May 15th (Note: there will be no class on April 17, as I will be out of town.)
Southern Shore Arts Gallery, Backroom
722 Franklin Street
Michigan City, IN 46360-3506