Monday Morning Art School: thinking outside the box

The Logging Truck, 16X20, oil on canvas, $2029 includes shipping in continental US.

Bob the Builder was making humorous suggestions about how a surgeon might fix my husband’s spine. A little expanding foam, some nuts and bolts strategically deployed…

“Ah, thinking outside the box, are we?” Doug laughed.

“Nope, just being silly,” Bob answered. “Unless you can build the box, define the box and work inside the box you're not thinking outside the box. You're just being random.”

Albert Einstein challenged classic Newtonian physics by arguing that time and space are relative, but he did so after earning a doctorate in physics. Elon Musk is a business disruptor, but he holds degrees in physics and business (from the Wharton School). Warren Buffett acquired an incredible $121 billion with value investing but he’s another Wharton School (and Columbia Business School) graduate. And the list goes on and on.

The Late Bus, 8X6, oil on canvasboard, $435 framed.

There are two kinds of behavior that aren’t thinking outside the box. The first is excessive orthodoxy. In investment, medicine and—yes—painting, that’s a strategy that inevitably leads to failure. “No change is itself change,” my friend Lois Geiss was fond of telling me.

The second problem is more common among artists, and that’s confusing technique with hidebound conservatism. Those who’ve made the greatest intellectual leaps in painting, like Einstein, Musk, and Buffett, first learned the conventional way it’s done.

I’m not advocating for a college degree in art here—in fact, with prices as they are I think private art colleges are bad value for money. But I am advocating for learning traditional technique.

Dance of the Wood Nymphs, by Albert Pinkham Ryder. It was probably a lovely painting when he finished it, but his disregard of commonly-accepted protocol meant it was an archival disaster.

Creativity rests on technique

Once a friend was fretting about how she couldn’t find an uncomplicated muffin recipe. “But they’re all just lists of ingredients,” I said. “You always assemble them in the same order: sift the dry ingredients together, beat the wet ingredients together, and then fold the two mixtures into each other.”

I mentioned this to Jane Bartlett, who remarked that when she taught shibori she frequently told her students that nobody owns technique. This is a very apt observation for both baking and the fine arts. There is nothing one can patent about artistic technique, any more than one could patent the order of operations for baking.

Painting is so straightforward that departing from the accepted protocols is often foolish. For example, there’s excessive oiling-out or painting into wet glazes. The tonalist Albert Pinkham Ryder did something similar in the 19th century, and his works have almost all darkened or totally disintegrated.

One can learn a lot from books, but one can’t learn everything.  A decade ago, my goddaughter told me she was going to make an apple pie. Her parents ran a Chinese restaurant, so all of them are excellent cooks. However, pie wasn’t in their repertory. Imagine my surprise when this was what she came up with:

Elegantly layered, but it’s not an apple pie. Not everything can be learned from books.

Ten years later, Sandy’s helped me make many apple pies. She knows what one looks like and tastes like. It helps to have assembled an apple pie under someone else’s tutelage. The same is—of course—true of painting and drawing. Yes, one can learn a great deal about technique from books, videos, and visits to art galleries, but a good teacher really does help.

Monday Morning Art School: Painting the ocean

Breaking storm, 48X30, oil on canvas, $5,579 framed includes shipping in continental US

“How do you paint water?” is probably the most common question I’m asked. It reminds me of that old joke:

“Where does an elephant sleep?” 
“Anywhere he wants.”

Water is so immense, slippery, and mercurial, that it is impossible to nail it down into a schtick. And thank God for that.

Instead, the painter of water must rely on observation. Reflections are a distortion of the surrounding environment. That’s true whether you’re painting them on the ocean, or in a glass of water. These reflections are never going to be consistent but they will follow the laws of physics.

Camden Harbor, Midsummer, oil on canvas, 24X36 $3,985 framed includes shipping in continental US.

Imagine an ocean that is perfectly flat, and that you can walk on water. Looking at your feet, you can see straight down into the water. It’s not reflecting anything. Looking at a rubber ducky floating ten feet away, you’re looking at the surface at about a 26° angle. You’ll see a reflection of the ducky, the sky, and a glimpse of what’s under the surface. As you look farther away, the angle gets smaller and smaller, and all you see is the reflected sky.

Reflection involves two rays – an incoming (incident) ray and an outgoing (reflected) ray. Physics tells us that the angles are identical but on opposite sides of a tangent. This is why the reflection of a boat needs to be directly below the real object in your painting. You can add other colors into that area, but the reflection can’t be wider than the object it’s reflecting.

Water is transparent, but it has a shiny surface. Some rays of light make it through and bounce back at us from the sea floor. Reflections in glass work the same way. You can see through the glass in the surface that’s facing you, but the curving sides reflect light from around the room. Because glass is imperfect, these reflections will be distorted.

Drying Sails, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, $869 framed.

The ocean complicates matters by being bouncy. Even on the calmest day, the surface of water is never perfectly flat; it’s wavy or worse, just like a fun-house mirror. Waves are a series of irregular curves. How they reflect light depends on what plane you’re seeing at that nano-second. It seems like the easiest thing to do is to capture it in a photo and paint from that, but what we see in photos is sometimes very different from what we perceive in life.

Instead, sit a moment with and watch how patterns seem to repeat. They’re never exactly the same, since waves are a stochastic process (think random but repeating). But they’re close enough to discern general patterns.

Solid objects can also trip you up in their reflections. Consider the humble spoon. It’s concave. That distorts its reflections. There’s no point in trying to predict what you might see; it’s best to just look. Likewise, a mirror only reflects straight back at you if you’re in front of it.

Fogbank, oil on archival canvasboard, 14X18, $1594 framed includes shipping in continental US

There are times when the ocean makes no reflection at all. Only smooth surfaces reflect light coherently enough to make reflections. That’s why burlap has no reflections. Sometimes, when water is being wind-whipped, it doesn’t have reflections either. To paint such a sea, keep the contrast low. A grey, windy day, or a turbulent sea will have a surface too broken up to reflect anything but the most general light.

It’s always best to paint the reflections at the same time you’re doing the rest of the painting, rather than adding them as an afterthought. They’re a fundamental part of the design.

Some people say that reflections should be lower in chroma than their objects, but I don’t think that’s true. Often, the ocean seems to concentrate color. Sometimes, the water will be lightest at the horizon; other days there will be a deep band there. However, the farther away, the more its colors shift toward blue-violet.

My workshop schedule can be found here. That includes an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March, and the Berkshires in August. Why not register today?

Monday Morning Art School: the color of fall

Autumn farm, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed.

According to the USDA, “a warm wet spring, favorable summer weather, and warm sunny fall days with cool nights should produce the most brilliant autumn colors.” We’re well on our way, having had plenty of moisture (and therefore new growth), along with balmy temperatures.

In the northeast, we’ve been seeing the first intimations of autumn for a few weeks: staghorn sumac sporting red velvety fruit, soft maples turning along the edges of ponds, and goldenrod and asters in unmowed fields.

As I look out my window, I see that the young maple across the road is turning gold on its top. It’s the perfect ombre coloring job, and Mother Nature’s been doing it for eons.

Beauchamp Point, Autumn Leaves, 12X16, oil on archival canvasboard, $1449.

This is my favorite season for painting and for sailing. The days are warm, the nights are cool, and the colors are glorious. It’s no surprise that my October immersive workshop has only two seats left.

Green matrix. The blue and black circles are much smaller because they have a higher tinting strength than yellows.

My students are familiar with the exercises I give them to mix greens, because the green matrix helps them avoid the ‘wall of green’ that’s the death of so much landscape painting. I tell them to leave out the top left mixes (yellow ochre/black and Indian yellow/black) in midsummer because they’re only appropriate for autumn. Now’s the time to add those back in, because autumn is as much about bronzes as it is about reds and yellows.

There are three pigments involved in autumn color:

Carotenoids: They give us the yellow, orange, and brown colors in things like corn, carrots, and daffodils.

Anthocyanin: That’s the pigment in apples, grapes, blueberries, strawberries and plums. It’s pH sensitive, which is why it appears to be red in some places, blue in others, and even violet or black.

Chlorophyll: That’s our basic green pigment in leaves. It’s responsible for photosynthesis, so it’s a fundamental building block for life.

Chlorophyll and carotenoids are in leaves all through the growing season but anthocyanins are produced in autumn. As chlorophyll production slows down, the reds and golds and violets in leaves are unmasked.

It’s a slow roll out

None of this happens instantaneously. It starts about the second week in August and continues until just the beech and oak leaves are rattling in the wind in November.

I like high chroma as much as the next painter, but what sets the florid coloring of the maples off are the browns and russets of the beeches and oaks, the violets of dogwoods, and the yellows of birches. Furthermore, about half the trees in the Maine forest are conifers. They’re not the same green as they were in spring; they’ll get deeper and duller as they too slip into dormancy. Convincing autumn color requires all of these.

A little exercise for you

Remember the green matrix I mentioned above? It’s still the basis of autumn color. If you’ve made one up (or in watercolor, made up a mixing chart of the same), try modifying each green with tints of the following colors:

  • Quinacridone violet
  • Ultramarine blue
  • Raw sienna

(A tint is a pigment plus white. In watercolor, you’re not going to add white, of course, but just a dash of the modifying color.)

Jennifer Johnson’s green chart. Modify the green matrix above with the addition of tints as shown.

The chart above, made by Jennifer Johnson, shows how it’s done. And when you’re finished, you’ll have a solid blueprint to paint your way through every subtle shade Mother Nature throws at you this fall. Furthermore, you have another hint as to why I paint with premixed tints on my oil palette.

Another little exercise

Quin violet and cadmium orange, surprisingly enough, make red.

Try mixing cadmium orange and quinacridone violet. Have you ever seen a natural red that’s more vibrant than this? I doubt it. Red can easily be too strong in a landscape painting, so in most field work, I just mix it.

My workshop schedule can be found here. That includes an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March, and the Berkshires in August. Why not register today?

Monday Morning Art School: easels to avoid, and ones to love

Sadly, neither the Prius nor this easel are still with me. The easel snapped in a windstorm with one too many weights hanging from it. The Prius died of old age after 300,000 miles.

“I have been painting for two years now, primarily plein air and in acrylic,” a reader wrote. “While I’ve gotten by with a makeshift DIY easel, do you have any suggestion for a great beginner’s easel that can handle larger formats (up to 20×10)?”

I’ve written about how Google drove me toward inexpensive and fatally-flawed Meeden pochade boxes. Cheap boxes that don’t work are a false economy.

When you’re working very big, there’s no substitute for a Gloucester-style easel.

For years, I used Jerry’s knock-off of the Gloucester easel. Mine finally snapped in a high wind. The replacement was so warped that I can’t recommend it, unless you’re willing to do the work to remake the wooden parts. If you want this style easel, you need the Take-It Easel.

The Gloucester-style easel is invaluable for large work or windy days, but it’s too heavy for me to carry very far. Weight is the big reason so many artists use the Park-n-Paint approach to plein air. It’s easy, but it’s limiting.

Double-demoing with my Mabef easel to the left, my Easy-L box to the right.

Many people have been given a French box easel by loving friends or relatives. If you have one, by all means use it, but don’t voluntarily inflict one on yourself. They’re heavy and difficult to set up. Pochade boxes are lighter and nimbler.

Guerrilla Painter boxes are beautifully made, with rock-solid hardware and a heavy plywood shell, but they weigh a lot for their mixing area. I have a 12X16 Guerrilla box that is so tough I could drive over it with my truck without denting it. I never use it; it weighs too darn much.

For most fieldwork I use an Easy L box, which I have in two sizes. I’ve used them for several years, and the hardware is as tight as it was when they were new.

Terrie Perrine working in pastels on her Leder easel.

I also have the Leder easel, which at $159 (not including the tripod) is reasonably priced for a solid, stable, painting system. It can hold a canvas up to 24″ tall, which is large enough for most plein air work. You must buy your own tripod and paint box, but that has some advantages. You’re not hauling around a heavy wooden box, because you can pair it with a Masterson Sta-Wet palette box, which is far lighter . It’s also a great system for pastels, because it allows you to use your existing pastel box. In fact, you can flip between media quickly. (Ed reminds me that if you use the code Carol10, you’ll get a 10% discount.)

For watercolors, I love the Mabef M-27 field easel.  It can hold a very large board and the angle adjusts very quickly. It’s usable for oils and acrylics, but balancing a palette on its arms is sometimes an exercise in frustration. I’m on my second one; the first one died after decades of abuse.

I’m tough on my gear. This was an accident, I swear.

The New Wave u.go pochade is a simple, elegant design, although it’s really only suitable for smaller work. Its mixing area is very shallow; that’s a problem if you use lots of paint. However, the palette does lift out so you can freeze it, and it’s lightweight.

Strada makes the only aluminum pochade boxes that I know of. That’s a pity, because aluminum is less prone to moisture damage than wood. It doesn’t result in much weight savings, however.

En Plein Air Pro is well known for their watercolor system, which is lightweight and durable. Their newer oil-and-acrylic easel is equally nice.  It can take a canvas up to 22″ high. I have had one of their tripod trays for years.

The Meeden watercolor field easel is a lightweight easel at a very low price. The tripod has a narrower stance than a photo tripod, but it does fold down into a backpackable kit. I don’t think it would stand up to long-term regular use, but it’s sufficient for the occasional painter. The drawing board can hold a sheet up to 12″ high.

Rebecca Bowes won Best in Show in the 10X10 show at the Red Barn Gallery in Port Clyde. Although I’m a member of the gallery, I had nothing to do with the jurying.

Like many of my students, she’s loath to admit just how accomplished she is. Next time I tell one of you, “That’s really good,” I hope you recognize that I’m not just blowing hot air.

My workshop schedule can be found here. That includes an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March, and the Berkshires in August. Why not register today?

Monday Morning Art School: why grisaille?

Sometimes you just need to push paint around in a dream state. A grisaille is the perfect place to do that.

A grisaille is a monochromatic painting. In oil painting, it forms the first step of underpainting. In watercolor, it’s a separate reference to check values.

There are a few painters I know who skip the grisaille step entirely. (I’m not one of them.) The only ones who are successful at it are so experienced that they can integrate hue, value and chroma simultaneously. Even then, they’re still working dark to light and being careful not to misstep and put gobs of white or light paint where it doesn’t belong.

Eric Jacobsen is one of these outliers, and he graciously offered to demo his underpainting technique for my newest online class, The Essential Grisaille. (Appearances by his dog Sugar and his chickens were completely unscripted – but cute.)

As we filmed, I kept thinking, “Kids, don’t try this at home!” Eric isn’t skipping the grisaille step so much as integrating it with his initial color notes. That’s very difficult for all but the most experienced painters.

Early in the grisaille process for the Scottish portrait I wrote about on Friday.

Why grisaille?

The human mind sees value before hue or chroma. The arrangement of rods and cones makes us more sensitive to value shifts when scanning a vista. We also have a wide dynamic range. Both were awfully convenient for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and they influence how we see paintings.

In the brain, processing starts with low-level information like brightness and contrast. That’s processed more quickly and efficiently than higher-level color information, which requires additional signals from the eyes.

Sometimes my sketch for an oil painting will take the form of a watercolor grisaille.

In a nutshell, that means the viewer will see your value structure before he or she sees anything else. A painting that fails on its value structure will just fail, period. Arthur Wesley Dow, who wrote the definitive 20th century composition book, is the guy who gave us the notion of notan. He taught students to restrict the infinite range of tonal values to specific values. He wanted students to realize that all compositions are, underneath, a structure of light and dark shapes. That’s a critical insight that influences all modern painting.

A watercolor grisaille done as preparation for a watercolor painting.

What is grisaille?

Grisaille just means a monochromatic painting. I teach both oil and watercolor students to do this preparatory step. In watercolor, it’s a monochrome study on a separate page that guides the color choices for the finished painting. For oil painting it’s the underpainting step before we start adding color.

In oils, it’s done in a dark tone that relates to the overall color scheme of the planned painting-if the shadows are cool, the grisaille should be cool, and if the shadows are warm, the grisaille should be warm. That’s because the grisaille will be part of the finished painting, sometimes visible with no covering whatsoever.

The paint is thinned with odorless mineral spirits (OMS) and no white or light colors should be introduced. A brush and a rag are both used to get the full range of values.

Even for a QuickDraw, I do a grisaille. This is partly covered with color notes. The finished painting is here.

Simple, right?

Another watercolor grisaille. All examples are by me.

I’ve just spent about six weeks writing and filming The Essential Grisaille*, and thinking through all the ways it can go wrong. Julie Hunt, who is a very good student and painter, told me, “There were beginning things I fudged with little instruction that I remember.” She has now carefully worked through every step of The Essential Grisaille to really master the subject. I’m excited to see how her painting changes.

Julie has put her finger on the difficulty of all classes, online or in person. There’s so much to take in that nobody gets it all the first time they hear it. And we can fill in the gaps with inspired guesses or just wrong-headed mistakes. It all comes down to being ready to hear, grasshopper.

Which is why Seven Protocols for Successful Oil Painters is designed to be open-ended. You can go back and revisit them… as long as I pay my internet bill.😊

*I’m talking about both watercolor and oils in this post, but The Essential Grisaille is intended for oil painters.

My workshop schedule can be found here. That includes an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March, and the Berkshires in August. Why not register today?

Monday Morning Art School: ten great fog paintings

I thought about giving you some rules for painting fog, and then thought again: why not let the masters show you themselves? The hard part was winnowing it down to ten.

Waterloo Bridge. Effect of Fog, 1903, Claude Monet, courtesy Hermitage Museum. Part of a series of 41 paintings capturing London’s Waterloo Bridge engulfed in fog, showcasing Monet’s fascination with atmospheric effects.
Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket, 1875, James McNeill Whistler, courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts. This nocturne painting features a distant fireworks display against a foggy night sky, showcasing Whistler’s mastery of tone and atmosphere.
Fog, Voisins, 1874, Alfred Sisley, courtesy Musée d’Orsay. An Impressionist landscape painting portraying a misty morning in the French countryside. It’s a more intimate view than most fog paintings.
Fog Warning, 1885, Winslow Homer, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This realistic painting depicts a fisherman rowing his boat through foggy waters, evoking the very real danger of being caught out in the fog in the Gulf of Maine.
Charing Cross Bridge, Claude Monet, 1903, courtesy Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon. One of a series of 37 paintings of this bridge in various fog conditions. Are you sensing a theme here about Monet’s capacity for hard work?
Snowstorm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps, 1810-12, J.M.W. Turner, courtesy the Tate. While primarily focused on a snowstorm, this painting also captures the foggy atmosphere surrounding the mountains.
Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, c. 1817, Caspar David Friedrich, courtesy Hamburger Kunsthalle. I’ve mentioned this painting so many times I was almost reluctant to use it again, but it is a definitive fog painting. He did so many of them that his entire oeuvre is worth studying.
Grand Canyon (Mist in the Canyon), 1915, Thomas Moran, courtesy Palm Springs Art Museum. Moran’s work is Romantic in that he idealizes nature as a spiritual and moral force. On this relatively small canvas, he still succeeds in capturing the monumental scale of the Grand Canyon.
Stetind in Fog, Peder Balke, 1864, courtesy National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design. This Romantic painting sets the austere peak against the turbulent waters of Tysfjord.
Impression, Sunrise, 1872, Claude Monet, courtesy Musée Marmottan Monet. The masterpiece that gave rise to the Impressionist movement, portraying a foggy morning at Le Havre’s port with stunning use of light and color.

My workshop schedule can be found here. That includes an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March, and the Berkshires in August. Why not register today?

Monday Morning Art School: simplifying shapes in the landscape

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. Björn 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.

This post originally appeared in 2021, but the information bears repeating.

My workshop schedule can be found here. That includes an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March, and the Berkshires in August. Why not register today?

Monday Morning Art School: the color of light and shadow.

Spring Greens, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $652 framed, includes shipping in continental US.

The ‘golden hour’ is that period after dawn and before sunset when the light is warm and the shadows are long and blue. The farther north you go, the longer the golden hour lasts. in midsummer in Maine, we have very little of that ‘dead light’ that so bedevils painters in more southerly climes.

Sunlight is composed of a spectrum of colors, which we observe when it passes through a prism, as when raindrops create a rainbow. This dispersion reveals the visible (to humans) spectrum of light. Combined equally, these colors make white light. But sunlight is seldom pure white. It is generally some tint of color – often a warm yellow, depending on the time of day and the weather.

There are instances when natural light can appear quite cool; for example, on an overcast day or at sea, when the reflected blue water and sky can tint everything blue. At midday in midsummer, when the sun is at the highest point in the sky, the light can be so blindingly white that it looks cool.

When light shines on an object, that object absorbs certain wavelengths of light and reflects others. The warmer the ambient light, the warmer the light bouncing back at us from that object.

Walnut tree, stone wall, 8X16, oil on linenboard, $903 framed includes shipping in continental US.

What color are shadows?

Shadows do not have an inherent color of their own. When an object casts a shadow, it blocks some of the light from reaching the area behind it. The shadow will be a different hue than the lighted part, because the shadow is not illuminated directly by the light source. Its hue is influenced by the absence of the reflected light and by the colors of the surrounding environment.

As a matter of mental shorthand, we say that the shadows are the complement of the light source, but this is not exactly true. We think the complement of yellow light should be violet, but that’s in subtractive color (the same system of color that gives us paints and inks). The primary subtractive colors are red, blue, and yellow, and their complements are green, orange, and violet.

However, light creates additive color, with different primaries and complements. The primary colors are red, green and blue, and their complements are cyan, magenta, and yellow.

Autumn farm, evening blues, oil on canvasboard, $1449 framed includes shipping in continental US.

That means the complement of our yellow light is blue, and the complement of peachy light would be more on the greenish-blue side. However, there’s another aspect of light at play. Just as distant objects can appear blue-violet because of the scattering of blue light, shadows can sometimes look blue-violet due to the scattering of shorter wavelengths of light.

Three photos of the golden hour, courtesy of Jennifer Johnson

Your eye-brain connection sees things interpretively. You may see the same blue shadows in the three photographs at top, but I’ve sampled them and they’re not the same at all. In fact, they’re not even blue, but rather three variations of a soft blueish-grey. Your mind perceives the lack of warmth in the shadows as coolness. In this case it’s better to trust your mind than the hard ‘facts’ of camera and laptop.

Generally, we warm up the shadows in figure to stop the model from looking cadavaresque. The Servant, oil on linen, 36X40, $4042.50 includes shipping in continental US.

You’ll outsmart your audience if you just remember that if the light is warm, the shadows will be cool, and vice-versa. Landscape painting tends to have warm light and cool shadows, while figure and portrait painting tend to use cool light and warm shadows. (There are of course many examples disproving this general rule.)

The exception to this is filtered light. Its shadows and lighter passages will be variations of the same color temperature. This is how we instinctively know that something we’re seeing is under an awning, for example.

Study the Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla to understand the color of light. He was the master of warm and cool passages.

My workshop schedule can be found here. That includes an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March, and the Berkshires in August. Why not register today?

Monday Morning Art School: neat lines in watercolor

Sampler on Arches natural cold-pressed paper: a straight-edge was used for the straight lines, and the curves were drawn freehand. An ultramarine blue wash was laid over the mask, and a glaze of cadmium yellow was added after the mask was removed. Where it is still pink, the masking fluid is still in place. (All photos courtesy Michael Prairie.)

I have an aversion to frisket, or masking fluid, for watercolor. I’m unable to apply it elegantly. It wrecks brushes, leaves lumpy marks, and in general always seems like more trouble than it’s worth. Instead, I wet my paper carefully around the items to block out and then apply the paint using capillary action to direct it. That has its problems as well, so when Michael Prairie shared this method of applying frisket using an old-fashioned ruling pen, I was gobsmacked. (Mike’s an engineer, so it’s no surprise that he found a solution to this technical problem.) Without further ado, I’ll let Mike explain it:

Masking fluid mixed with a dab of quinacridone magenta

I had my father’s old ruling pen (he was a machinist and did some mechanical drawings). It was beat up a bit, so I tuned it up. Here are a couple useful links that I found, one of which really helped me tune the tip:

 How to use a ruling pen

 Steel ruling pens 

I can tint the fluid with a bit of watercolor pigment, and it hasn’t stained the paper. Some fluid is available in blue, but this lets you use different colors if you want.

The ruling pen works well with the watercolor paint itself. It is a great way to paint long lines of uniform thickness.

Ruling pen dipped in masking fluid, and the outside of the tines wiped dry.

Dipping the tip in thick masking fluid and wiping the excess off outside of the channel works well, but with thinner watercolor paint it tends to wick out of the channel. For that, I found I can load the pen with a loaded watercolor brush by scraping it across the edge higher in the channel. I also got an eye dropper to load the pen, and that works well.

For using a straightedge to draw lines, the edge should be lifted above the paper so the fluid or paint does not wick under the edge. Some straightedges are designed with a notch (or a rabbet in woodworking parlance) for “inking,” but a couple layers of masking tape set back from the edge will do the trick.

Ruling pen filled with juicy ultramarine blue with an eyedropper (to keep the outside of the pen dry).

The ruling pen can be used freehand as well. With the tips tuned so they are sharp and parallel, the line will follow the direction of the two edges on the tip. If the pen is held without rotating the handle, the line will be straight, but if the handle is rotated while drawing, it can be steered to make smooth curves.

Some people use nibs (from fountain pens). I haven’t tried that, except for a crude nib I made with a plastic drinking straw. It worked okay for scrubby applications of masking fluid.

I ruined an old paintbrush by not dipping it in Dawn dishwashing soap first-and I don’t know what the soap will do to the paint if residue is left behind.

I also tried some silicone brushes and found that they were good for dropping small semi-controlled blobs of masking fluid and moving it around into desired shapes, but they don’t come close to what I can do with a ruling pen for straight lines.

Sampler on Strathmore Bristol smooth sketchbook paper, i.e., hot-pressed.

You can get a ruling pen at Dick Blick, or a cheaper one at Amazon, but not all drafting tools are created equal. I didn’t want a cheap knock off, so I went to ebay where I found a used Staedtler Mars one for eleven bucks including the shipping. That means I will find my old one shortly, right?

My workshop schedule can be found here. That includes an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March, and the Berkshires in August. Why not register today?

Monday Morning Art School: watercolor brushes

Clary Hill Blueberry Barrens, watercolor full sheet, $3985 framed.

Watercolor brushes are softer than oil-painting brushes. The most expensive are sable brushes. Natural bristles combine strength with suppleness and hold more paint than synthetics. However, there are some fine synthetic brushes out there. Several of my go-to brushes are Princeton Neptunes.

Unlike oil-painting brushes, watercolor brushes should last a lifetime, so buy the best you can afford. The only absolute rule is to never leave them standing in water. Set them down flat between brushstrokes and rinse them thoroughly when you’re done. Unless you’ve done something ghastly, they need no soap or detergent and very little agitation to clean.

The more vertical the brush, the more flow.

In general, watercolor brushes drop more pigment the more vertically they’re held. You can use this to move from a filled area to a broken one in one brush stroke. In all the following examples except for the mop, I’ve held the brush both ways. A good rule is to carry the vertical brush slowly and in a controlled manner; pull a horizontal brush more rapidly to get the least amount of paint contact with the paper.

A flat gives you a good even wash. Used on its side, it can give you a controlled line.

The brush I used for the photo montage above is a 2″ flat synthetic mottler or spalter brush. I like this shape for both oils and watercolor. It’s a relatively inexpensive brush that gives a beautiful wash. It’s useful for covering large areas quickly, but with precise edges.

Made with the synthetic spalter brush, above.

Flats and brights give you nice flat washes, but can be used to make expressive lines as well. Brights have more control and carry less paint, just as they do in oil painting. Turn them on their sides to make a controlled line. Twisting the brush while painting gives an infinite variety of shapes. So too does varying the ratio of paint and water.

And that would be the bright. More punch, less pigment.

Because of the way watercolor bleeds, its brushes can be used in ways not possible in any other medium–a long blend of different pigments, or by painting a shape in clear water and then dropping pigment into it.

You can’t do either of these things in any other medium.

I don’t normally carry riggers with me in either watercolor or oils. (They’re meant to paint perfect lines, and my world-view doesn’t include many perfect lines.) Most of my line work is done with rounds. They do not give as much control on long lines, but they are very expressive.

Round brushes are just more lyrical than flats.

Squirrel mops are the most uniform wash brush you can use. It’s virtually impossible to make them skip, so use them where a lovely flat wash is a goal.

But a good mop can also point, hold vast amounts of paint and sweep across the paper in style.

A mop brush makes a perfect wash, but it does so much more as well.

Natural sea sponges are multi-purpose painting brushes. Use them to apply or remove paint. They can be as subtle or bold as you wish.

One of my favorite tools, a natural sponge.

Of course, for plein air painting, a little goes a long way. If I could carry only one watercolor travel brush, it would be the Escoda Reserva Kolinsky-Tajmyr Pocket Brush. It’s compact, comes in a protective tube, and makes an outstanding range of marks. A close second, at a lower price point, are the Da Vinci Cosmotop Spin Travel Brushes. A hat tip to Heather Evans Davis for introducing me to them.

Paint lifted (left) and applied (right) with a sponge.

Your brushwork contributes immeasurably to the quality of your painting. Don’t dab or be diffident; plan your strategy and then execute it with boldness. To do this, of course, you must practice. Take lots of practice shots on scrap paper; they’ll never go to waste.

My workshop schedule can be found here. That includes an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March, and the Berkshires in August. Why not register today?