Monday Morning Art School: ruthless pruning

Prom Shoes 2, oil on archival canvasboard, 6X8, $435.

Sorry about my absence last week, but it was a lovely vacation.

A major part of learning to paint is learning to see, and in the process, learning to draw. This means not getting caught up in the details, but seeing the big shapes and how they fit together. This is fundamental to painting.

This means we stop thinking of the object we’re looking at as something we can identify, and start to see it as a series of shapes, or more accurately, a light pattern. That’s difficult, and even experienced painters can be tripped up.

Two Peppers, oil on archival canvasboard, 6X8, $435.00

Oops! My bad.

A few years ago, my student Sheryl drew the lobster-boat Becca & Meagan, which is moored year-round at Rockport Harbor. It’s painted a signature red, and I have painted and drawn it many times. Sheryl measured and drew, and I patiently corrected her. This went on for most of the class, until Sheryl finally insisted that I sit down and take measurements with her.

Whoops! It wasn’t Becca & Meagan at all. Its owner had launched a new boat, Hemingway. She was painted the same red and moored at the same buoy, but with her own unique configuration. I was so used to seeing Becca & Meagan there that I had stopped really seeing at all. I was drawing what I ‘knew’, not what was there.

Back It Up, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

It’s not what you know, it’s what you can see.

If I set a teacup in front of you, you’ll be guided in part by what you know about teacups: they’re rounded, squat and hollow. That gives you some checks on your drawing, but it also allows you to make assumptions about measurements and values. That can lead you astray.

To draw it successfully, you must stop reading it as ‘teacup’ and start seeing an array of shapes, planes and values. For most of us, that takes time. My process is two-fold. First, I sketch to figure out what I’m looking at. That’s investigative. Then, I ruthlessly prune, forcing my drawing into a series of shapes and values.

All objects can be reduced to a certain, limited number of shapes. These build on each other to make a whole. When you see things as abstract shapes, you expand your possible subject matter. A plastic pencil case is not inherently much different in shape from a shed. A shed, in turn has the same forms as a house. If you start with a pencil case, you can ramp yourself up to Windsor Castle in no time.

Primary Shapes, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

Notan and all other value studies are, above all, about cutting the picture frame into shapes, what Arthur Wesley Dow called “space cutting.”

Dow wrote the definitive 20th century book on composition, which sets down fundamental principles still used today. He taught his students to restrict the infinite range of tonal values in the visible spectrum to specific values-perhaps black, white and one grey. He wanted students see all compositions as structures of light and dark shapes. The success or failure of a painting rests on whether those shapes are beautiful.

Students sometimes chafe at being asked to do still life, but it’s the best training to learn space cutting. Just as important, it’s easy to set up and execute quickly, so you can practice on paper in just a few spare moments.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here. That includes September aboard schooner American Eagle, mountain vistas in the Berkshires, and our ever-popular Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?

Why not a two-day workshop?

I like nothing more than sitting at Schoodic Point discussing watercolor with my old pal Becky, who has come back year after year for more of my malarkey.

A fellow teacher told me recently that she’s been asked to compress a four-week beginner course into two days. “I think it's a disservice,” she said. “That's a lot of information to compress into a much shorter time. So, either it's a very shallow dive or there's so much information compressed so tightly that half of it gets lost.”

I am asked about two-day workshops as well. They fit neatly into a weekend and the cost is lower, so they’re easier for arts organizations to sell. If they’re subject-based, like ‘painting sunsets,’ they can work because these workshops are inherently shallow. They’re also intended for artists who already know the mechanics of painting.

But two days are insufficient when it’s a question of really developing style, color fluency, composition and form. And if you understand these concepts, you don’t need a special workshop on sunsets or water; you have the tools to paint anything you want.

Students cavorting during a workshop in the Adirondacks.

What can go wrong? A lot.

Basic protocols for watercolor and oils run to about seven discrete steps, depending on how you break them down. Here are the steps for oil painting:

  1. Set up your palette with all colors out, organized in a useful manner.
  2. Do a value drawing.
  3. Crop your drawing and identify and strengthen big shapes and movements.
  4. Transfer the drawing to canvas with paint as a monochromatic grisaille.
  5. Underpaint big shapes making sure value, chroma and hue are correct.
  6. Divide big shapes and develop details.
  7. Add highlights, detail and impasto as desired.

Students in my watercolor workshop aboard schooner American Eagle.

Let’s just consider #2. It’s almost useless for me to just tell you to do a sketch—in fact, if I did that, you’d have to wonder why you didn’t just draw on the canvas instead. You need insight into what you’re looking for, what makes a good composition, and different ways to do that preparatory composition.

I can (and sometimes do) rattle off a lecture on these points, but that is the just the start of the process of discovery. Unfortunately, in a two-day workshop, that’s about all the time we’d have for the step many artists consider most crucial to the development of a good painting. You, the student, then go home and consult your notes. They become a slavish list of dos-and-don’ts, rather than a framework for a deeper understanding.

It's far better that I start with an exercise that allows you to build understanding of composition on your own. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between a book or video and interactive teaching. It’s why people take workshops in the first place.

That kind of teaching takes time.

Arthur Wesley Dow, the popularizer of Notan, had his students work for weeks on line before they eventually graduated to masses and then finally to greyscale and color. His students included Georgia O'KeeffeCharles SheelerCharles Burchfield, and other 20th century art luminaries, so he was definitely onto something.

Linda DeLorey, another old friend, painting in beautiful Pecos.

And now for something fun

Here’s a quiz for you to discover the kind of workshop that suits you best. There’s no obligation, of course; it’s all in fun.

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