Paint like you’re rich

Being stingy with art supplies will cost you more in the long run.

Terrie’s rig is handmade but very solid. There are many ways to solve the pochade box question, which is why I hesitate to recommend one. 

The discussion started with a student confessing that he didn’t mix enough different greens for his painting of a rill riffling through a forest. “I didn’t want to waste paint,” he said. “Paint is expensive.” Instead, he wasted paint and time.

“Paint like you’re rich,” his classmate told him.

Turns out that was advice from my student and friend Becky Bense.

French easels may be heavy, but at least they work.

I should have known. Becky regularly chides me for my use of cheap watercolor paper for demos. While the paint seems to flow off the brush fine, it dries as if I’d painted with a typewriter. My justification is that I’m trying to demonstrate a principle, not create art. Also, I have a lot of it lying around; it was on sale and I succumbed to the temptation. But I’ve never painted anything good on it and I never will.

If I were a student, I’d be terribly frustrated by the results. Perhaps enough so that I would believe I couldn’t paint and would stop trying. I certainly wouldn’t learn much.

Then there’s always the picnic-table option.

At my Sedona workshop, two students had pochade boxes from Meeden, a low-end art supply vendor. They fill a niche for the casual hobbyist, but their products are not robust enough for serious painting.

One of these boxes was fatally flawed; its mount was not strong enough to hold the box on the tripod. Had Ed Buonvecchio not lent the student his old field easel, she’d have been unable to paint at all. She’d flown in from Hawaii, rented a car, reserved a room, bought top-end paints and brushes—and was stymied by this weakest link.

I provide detailed supply lists for my classes, but don’t specify a brand of pochade box, as there are so many excellent ones out there. It never occurred to me that anyone would buy a Meeden box. No serious art supply stores sell their products.

Minnie Brown combined the French easel with the picnic table option at Sedona.

But if you search Amazon for ‘pochade box’, Meeden is the brand that comes up first. And the world of Google throws us another curve. Because I’d just looked at Meeden boxes on Amazon, when I searched for Easy L Pochade Box (a brand I recommend without reservation) I got a series of ads that led me straight back to Meeden. There’s convenience in online shopping, but a lot of hucksterism, too.

But back to the paint itself—it’s a false economy to not squeeze out a proper amount, to paint on bad substrates, or with lousy brushes. It always ends up costing more in time, materials, and lost opportunities. In fact, none of us are rich enough to be stingy with our art supplies.

Speaking of classes, I have a new session starting next week on Zoom. The key to being a good artist is working at it consistently. For busy people, that’s often the hardest part. We meet for three hours weekly to dissect and practice a key element of painting such as design, color, perspective, foliage, value masses, or brushwork. And as the above discussion indicates, a lot of learning goes on from student to student, too.

I’ve taught on Zoom since the start of COVID. A big reason these classes work so well is the support and encouragement my students give each other. You listen, adapt, critique and think through problems as a group, and we are all better for it.

ZOOM morning Session
We meet on Tuesdays from 10 AM to 1 PM EST, on the following dates:
April 12, 19, 26
May 3, 10, 17

ZOOM evening Session
We meet on Mondays from 6 to 9 PM EST, on the following dates:
April 11, 18, 25
May 2, 9, 16

The fee for either six-week session is $235.

All media are welcome. More information can be found here, or just email me.

Monday Morning Art School: drawing realistic clouds

 Clouds have volume and are subject to the rules of perspective.

Clouds over Whiteface Mountain, oil on canvasboard, available.

Clouds are not flat. The same perspective rules that apply to objects on the ground also apply to objects in the air. We are sometimes misled about that because clouds that appear to be almost overhead are, in fact, a long distance away.

I’ve alluded before to two-point perspective. I’ve never gotten too specific because it’s a great theoretical concept but a lousy way to draw. Today I’ll explain it.

A two-point perspective grid. You don’t need to draw all those rays, just the horizon line. The vertical lines indicate the edges of your paper.

Draw a horizontal line somewhere near the middle of your paper. This horizon line represents the height of your eyeballs. Put dots on the far left and far right ends of this line, at the edges of your paper. These are your vanishing points.

All objects in your drawing must be fitted to rays coming from those points. A cube is the simplest form of this. Start with a vertical line; that’s the front corner of your block. It can be anywhere on your picture. Bound it by extending ray lines back to the vanishing points. Make your first block transparent, just so you can see how the rays cross in the back. This is the fundamental building block of perspective drawing, and everything else derives from it. You can add architectural flourishes using the rules I gave for drawing windows and doors that fit.

A cube drawn with perspective rays. It’s that simple.

I’ve included a simple landscape perspective here, omitting some of the backside lines for the sake of clarity.

As a practical tool, two-point perspective breaks down quickly. In reality, those vanishing points are infinitely distant from you. But it’s hard to align a ruler to an infinitely-distant point, so we draw finite points at the edges of our paper. They throw the whole drawing into a fake exaggeration of perspective. That’s why I started with a grid where the vanishing points were off the paper. It doesn’t fix the problem, but it makes it less obvious.

All objects can be rendered from that basic cube.

(There is also three-point perspective, which gives us an ant’s view of things, and four-point perspective, which gives a fish-eye distortion reminiscent of mid-century comic book art. And there are even more complex perspective schemes. At that point, you’ve left painting and entered a fantastical world of technical drawing.)

Basic shapes of clouds using the same perspective grid.

Still, two-point perspective is useful for understanding clouds. Clouds follow the rules of perspective, being smaller, flatter and less distinct the farther they are from the viewer. The difference is that the vanishing point is at the bottom of the object, rather than the top as it is with terrestrial objects.

Cumulus clouds have flat bases and fluffy tops, and they tend to run in patterns across the sky. I’ve rendered them as slabs, using the same basic perspective rules as I would for a house. They may be far more fantastical in shape, but they obey this same basic rule of design.

You can see that basic perspective when looking at a photo of cumulus clouds.

A flight of cumulus clouds or a mackerel sky will be at a consistent altitude. That means their bottoms are on the same plane. However, there can be more than one cloud formation mucking around up there. That’s particularly true where there’s a big, scenic object like the ocean or a mountain in your vista. These have a way of interfering with the orderly patterns of clouds.

I don’t expect you to go outside and draw clouds using a perspective grid. This is for understanding the concept before you tackle the subject. Then you’ll be more likely to see clouds marching across the sky in volume, rather than as puffy white shapes pasted on the surface of your painting.

This post was originally published on March 8, 2021.

Growth and change

How does one find one’s purpose as an artist? Should we build that into how we think about our work?

Ravening Wolves, 24X30, oil on canvas, is as close as I get to didacticism these days.

“How have you grown as a painter in the last ten years?” a student asked me.

My drawing and brushwork aren’t much different, but my color choices have certainly changed, as has my ability to relax into abstraction. That doesn’t seem like much growth for a decade’s work.

In intangible ways, however, I’ve changed a lot—I’m far less anxious about the outcome, and less didactic in my subject matter. I’ll never focus on figure as I was doing a decade ago. Although I’m proud of the work I did about women’s issues, I’ll never paint that subject again. Which reminds me: this is the last weekend you’ll see Censored and Poetic at the Rye Arts Center; it ends Saturday night.

Main Street, Owl’s Head, 16X20, oil on archival gessoboard

Ten years ago, I was still wrestling with the legitimacy of my calling. Those of you who were raised thinking that art wasn’t a ‘real’ career understand that. Today, I barely remember the question. I’m an artist because it’s all I know how to do.

Which leads me to the second question I received this week: “How does one find purpose? How have artists done it over time? Should we build that into how we think about our work?

“I see people at figure sessions banging out the exact same thing over and over. I get the impression, from talking to them, that they have been doing that, or variations of that, for years on end. And they aren’t that good. Why do these people show up? Something to do?”

Spring Greens, 8×10, oil on canvasboard

I’m the last person to denigrate regular practice, and figure is one area where that is particularly important. If I had the time right now, I’d go to my local life drawing class myself. It’s good exercise and I like the people who attend.

But I have known people who never progress past that. They were taking classes 25 years ago and are still doing that today. Some are stuck because they have day jobs. Some aren’t that skilled but enjoy the process. Some are excellent painters, but uninterested in making it a career. Amateur status is nothing to be sneezed at.

I’ve also had students who’ve just gone through a major trauma—an unwanted divorce or job separation. They were floundering and it gave them an anchor. Creativity is cheaper than therapy and for many it serves as well. When they worked out their next step, they moved on from art.

Midnight at the Wood Lot, 12X16, oil on canvasboard

But there are always that few who want to make art their life’s work. For them, the question of artistic purpose is critical. It’s inextricably bound up in one’s life purpose. Your work ought to be an expression of your thoughts or feelings, or it’s meaningless.

When I was younger, I thought that my purpose was didactic. Today, I’d be hard-pressed to put my mission statement into words, but it has something to do with glorifying Creation and helping people feel connected to it. That’s tied to my faith, but I don’t feel a need to preach through my paintings.

That, too, may change as I get older. One’s mission and calling in life is fluid. The important thing is to have the tools at our disposal to answer whatever comes up. And that’s where all those weeks and years in art class come in.