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?

Monday Morning Art School: swinging on anchor

Cadet, 9X12, oil on canvasboard. Private collection.

“I noticed a boat just off the pier where I was sitting,” pastor Tommy Faulk told us. “As I sat there and watched, I realized there were parts of the boat I hadn’t noticed in my first look. The boat was drifting around the point where it was anchored, making every side visible.”

Tommy was making a point about our limited human perspective, but it’s something that everyone who draws boats has noticed. When I asked him if I could quote him, he laughed and told me that it came from a drawing exercise he did on a wilderness trip with Mountain Gateway.

It’s a great idea in figure drawing to get up and move on a regular basis. Willow charcoal, ~18X24.

That didn’t really surprise me. There are several art school variations of this exercise. My favorite was one I did with the late Nicki Orbach at the Art Students League. Our goal was to ‘see’ right through the figure to imagine what it looked like from the other side. For example, if you were facing the figure’s front, you’d try to interpolate what the back would look like, drawing on your knowledge of anatomy. If you were mindful of the shape of the trapezius from the back, you weren’t likely to ignore their influence on the front of the neck.

More typically, art students might draw the model from every position in a circle, moving around the room in ten-minute increments. Or, they might draw figures dancing to music. These are all exercises designed to help the student think of the human form as three-dimensional, rather than as a two-dimensional cutout.

You don’t need to be in a figure class to do these exercises-you can them with still life or objects in the landscape. They will expand both your imagination and your sense of three-dimensional space and form.

1. My coffee cup from memory; 2. one-minute observational drawing of my coffee cup; 3. another one-minute observational drawing of my coffee cup; 4. My coffee cup from memory after the observational drawings.

They’ll also improve your attention to detail and your visual memory. Here’s a simple exercise: imagine any object you handle regularly. Without looking at it, draw it from memory. Plop it in front of you and draw it from two different angles, each time for just one minute. Set it aside and draw it from memory again.

Your second memory-drawing will be far more accurate than your first one. And that memory lasts. How long? The more you exercise your visual memory, the better, longer and more specific your recall will be. The more you draw a specific object, the easier it is to draw it accurately from memory.

I can draw all this whacked out stuff in church because I’ve spent years drawing from life. It’s developed my visual memory.

Perceived vs. real form

What you imagine the form to be before you ever start drawing is its perceived form. That’s never exactly what it looks like. When you start to examine the object through exhaustive drawing from all sides, you come closer and closer to understanding its true form.

Human perception is subjective. Camera perception isn’t subjective, but it is distorted by technical limitations. Within reason, though, your camera can be a useful guide in checking how accurately you draw. Compare a photo of the subject to your drawing, side by side. Just be aware that your camera can be as much of a liar as you are. Especially with cell-phone photography, there will be fish-eye and wide-angle distortion and exaggerated contrast. You’re best off photographing the object from a moderate distance to eliminate the worst lens distortion.

Drawing from photos

Note that I say nothing about drawing from photographs. There are times it’s necessary, but a photo has already been compressed to two dimensions. You will learn little or nothing about three-dimensional form from copying it. Drawing from photos is a crutch, and you’ll feel so much freer when you stop doing 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: What sells?

Hall’s Market, 16×20 oil on linen, Bj√∂rn Runquist

I have a tome somewhere that ‘proves’ that blue landscapes are the buying public’s favorite. Apparently, they weren’t the only social scientists who addressed the question. “Some Russian consortium declared after ‘much study’ that a 12×16 with a water view, a dog and something red will outsell all others,” Bj√∂rn Runquist told me. “How’s that for precision?”

Natalia Andreeva read the exact opposite thing. “When I was a student and read way more books, one of them said that people do not like blue paintings; green or red are the colors to go with. Most importantly the work should carry a positive cheerful message. Any grim or highly-edgy subject is good for being noticed but not for selling.”

In Light, 14X18, oil on linen, Natalia Andreeva

I asked ChatGPT, which told me that neutrals and earth tones are popular. That’s so last year. So, I moved on and asked a group of professional artists what, in their experience, sells. I’ve edited their responses for length.

Day’s End in a New Season, 24×36, oil on canvas, Colin Page

Colin Page: Some galleries tell me rules for what subjects they think don’t sell: snow scenes, boats out of the water, paintings with too much yellow. I suppose landscapes/seascapes have the broadest appeal, but I don’t find it matters for sales potential if the painting is good enough.

Churchy, 6X6, oil on canvas, Bobbi Heath

Bobbi Heath: It must have meaning for them. Thus, the popularity of pet portraits. Since I mostly sell landscapes, and usually the sun shines in my paintings, I buy the hypothesis about blue. But maybe it’s really about sky and water. My most popular paintings are of boats. But boats are close to my heart, so perhaps I paint them with more feeling.

Sage, 12X16, multimedia, Ryan Kohler

Ryan Kohler: I have subjects to paint that are in my wheelhouse, almost like bread-and-butter images: boots, boats, NYC, landscape, architecture, and critters. But then there are my ‘fun’ categories too that don’t really sell well (or at all) but I still love doing.

On top of trying to navigate those murky waters, I also have the added non-benefit of switching mediums regularly. I’ve sold plenty of paintings throughout all phases. I don’t think that many folks walk into a gallery looking for an acrylic painting, or a watercolor, or a linocut print. I think they head into a gallery looking for work that speaks to them. It’s probably more about wonder and excitement than boring stuff like media and price.

New Developments, 12X9, oil on cradled birch, Casey Cheuvront

Casey Cheuvront: Out here in AZ, paintings of cactus will outsell sailboats. A painting of an iconic Prescott bar will sell in Prescott. Paintings of the yuppie barrio buildings will sell in Tucson. My friend Jan, who lives in northern CA, sells mostly seascapes.

In the past year I have sold landscapes, animal and still life, many plein air pieces, several studio works, a number of small paintings, and large paintings. Most of these were oil paintings, some were watercolor/ink. They’ve been various size ratios.

I find myself constantly surprised by what sells and what doesn’t. But good work sells, eventually. Of course, price has something to do with it. Another painter once told me “The perfect price is the intersection of what your collectors are willing to pay and what you are willing to take to let it go.”

Adjusting the Lines, 12X16, oil on panel, Poppy Balser

Poppy Balser: Looking through my paintings that have sold over the last year, they’ve been mostly boats, beach scenes, harbour scenes and a few landscapes.  But that is also what I paint the most of, because these are the subjects I most enjoy painting.

In Camden, boats sell well. In the gallery in our main agricultural region (the Annapolis valley in Nova Scotia) landscapes, farming scenes, and Bay of Fundy coastal scenes do well. In Florida beach scenes do well.

Often the ones that sell quickly and directly are often the ones I have best managed to tell a bit of a story about. And a lot of mine that sell are predominantly blue, because, well, ocean.

Natalia Andreeva: People buy what speaks to them. They may see something in your work that you did not even intend, so painting what speaks to me makes more sense than chasing mirages. There is no point to guessing; just keep working and keep looking for new venues (easier to say then do, but it’s the right way to do it).

The Storm #1, 2X8, oil on multimedia board, Mary Byrom

Mary Byrom: My big rule of thumb is I sell everything I show that is $600 and under. I sell all the small paintings that I show. All of them are landscapes, seascapes, or townscapes. Any and all landscape subjects. Oil, gouache, acrylic and watercolor.  Plein air, memory, imagination, all types.

I sell some large paintings directly to collectors. I used to sell them in one gallery that closed due to health problems. I have not found another relationship like that gallery.  I was in 13 galleries. I cut back steadily to two galleries and my studio.

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: narrative, subject and meaning

The Blind Leading the Blind, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568, 33.8 x 60.6 in., courtesy Museo di Capodimonte

Narrative painting is more difficult than painting a simple still-life-one needs to be able to tell a story with one’s brush.

What is a narrative painting?

Stories have a beginning, middle, or end, but a painting is by design a portrait of a moment in time. That requires sleight of hand. We either must tell a story with which everyone is familiar, as in Leonardo  da Vinci’s The Last Supper, or one in which the story can be reasoned out, like Ford Madox Brown‘s The Last of England.

The genre paintings of Pieter Brueghel the Elder illustrate moral truths. These aren’t portraits, although they might have used known models. The figures are meant to be generic. This kind of painting reached its peak with social realism in the 19th century, with paintings like Ilya Repin‘s Barge Haulers on the Volga.

Barge Haulers on the Volga, Ilya Repin, 1870, 51.7 x 110.6 inches, courtesy the Russian Museum

Narrative is an elastic category. I think everything Caspar David Friedrich ever painted could be classified as narrative. Others might see just Romantic landscapes.

When Gustave Courbet painted everyday scenes on large canvases, the scale itself was part of the story. He was saying that the common man was of equal importance to the elite, setting the traditional hierarchy of genres on its head.

However, some implied action is necessary. I wouldn’t classify my own Wreck of the SS Ethie as a narrative painting, even though it depicts the result of an historic storm. On the other hand, I’d say my Breaking Storm is. It’s taking you out of danger and into the light.

Human figures are not necessary in narrative painting. A cell phone abandoned next to a half-eaten meal might tell a story. Likewise, landscape tells stories. Melting snow, for example, has the before-and-after elements of story.

The Last of England, Ford Madox Brown, 1852/1855, 750×825 mm, courtesy Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

How does narrative differ from subject?

A figurative painting must have a subject but can have no narrative at all. In fact, most paintings fall into this category, even when the subject has deep meaning, as in Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres‘s incredible Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne. The subject can be a person, place, or object, with or without symbolic significance, historical context, or cultural references.

There’s nothing wrong with paintings without these deep layers. Although √Čdouard Manet is famous for meaning- and narrative-drenched large canvases of social and political importance, some of his finest works are the tiny still lives he did from his sick bed at the end of his life.

Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1806, 101.9 x 63.7 inches, courtesy Mus√©e de l’Arm√©e

How does symbolism fit in?

Symbols and visual metaphors convey meaning. Some of them are almost universal, such as blue restroom signs. But much symbolism is culturally-specific, like those ‘language of flowers’ messages of the 19th century. Still, a thoughtful artist can think up symbols that transcend time and place. These may not be blindingly obvious, but if they arise in the context of mapping out your painting, they’re bound to have more staying power. Ultimately, symbols should express emotion, thought and intention.

The meaning of meaning

The meaning in a painting is a close dance between the artist’s intention and the viewer’s perception. Essentially, it’s what boils down in the stew of narrative, subject and symbolism. Meaning is contextual; how we read Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne today is far different from when Ingres painted him at the height of his power.

Above all, each viewer brings their own experiences, perspectives, and emotions to a painting. In addition to Ingres’ technical mastery, I see the deep frivolity of wrapping a deeply-flawed man in the symbols of Christ’s earthly reign. Others, from a different background, will see different things.

Meaning is not always straightforward or easily decipherable, nor should it be. Great art leaves room for interpretation and invite viewers to engage with their work in a personal and subjective manner. The beauty of art lies in its ability to provoke thought and emotion and spark meaningful conversations, allowing each of us to find our own messages within.

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 number one problem with your painting

Seafoam, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping in continental US

On Monday, I posted Let’s Paint Some Duds! After about the hundredth person told me they have no trouble whatsoever painting duds, I realized my hook was lousy. It tapped into fear of failure instead of challenging people to be more questing and adventuresome.

I’ve had many emerging artists tell me that half or more of their paintings are duds. That’s shocking; it’s way too high a failure rate, especially when it comes in the learning phase. For that matter, there are other painters who fail just as often but don’t even realize it. (And far be it from me to wreck their happy illusions.)

Duds are a particular problem in plein air painting, so much so that my pal Brad Marshall coined a term for the process of making them: flailing around.

Cypresses and Sunlight, 11X14, Carol L. Douglas, $1087 includes shipping in continental US

Why so many?

I also get frequent emails and texts that read, “I’m stuck! What’s going wrong here?” That’s why I periodically teach an online critique class; you’ll advance more quickly when you can answer that question for yourself.

But the answer almost always comes down to bad composition. Either the darks are not organized, or the focal points are not clear, or there’s not a clear and compelling armature. Figuring that out in advance, with a value drawing or notan, saves tons of time and effort.

Composition organizes the design elements of a painting. It provides structure and balance, guides the viewer’s eye, and determines where a painting falls on the all-important scale of harmony-to-tension. Composition controls the visual appeal of a painting, but it also controls its emotional power.

Stone Wall, Salt Marshes, 14×18, $1594 framed includes shipping in continental US

A weak composition is still a composition.

The same student who kvetches about flailing and failing often resists the idea of studying formal composition. “I want to be spontaneous and natural,” he will say. Well, composition, like puberty, is going to happen whether you take a hand in guiding it or not.

Weak compositions impede the very message that the supposedly-spontaneous artist wants to convey. Conversely, strong compositions guide viewers through the content. By strategically placing focal points, controlling movement, and using visual cues, you influence not just what your viewers see, but what they think and feel. And isn’t that the point of communication?

Then there’s the question of balance and emphasis. Just as the cannonades in Tchaikovsky‘s 1812 Overture are carefully placed to emphasize the point of Russia’s victory over the French, your focal points must fall in sweet spots. They must be reinforced with contrast and line. When it works flawlessly, we see a painting that is beautiful individual, and stylish-without overburdening our minds too much about how it happened.

Ketch and Schooner, 8X10 in a solid silver leaf frame, includes shipping in the continental US

How do I learn to be a better composer?

I’ve written extensively on this blog on the subject of composition, which of course you can access for free. Above all, there’s my cardinal rule of painting: don’t be boring. I can’t restate that often enough.

If you really want to give up flailing and failing, I invite you to also take my online course, The Correct Composition, which I just released on Friday. Give yourself a lot of time to do the exercises and take the quizzes; you’ll get far more out of it than you will by just skimming the videos.

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: five fast things you can do to improve your painting

Spring Greens, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, $522 unframed includes shipping in continental US.

Ditch the convenience greens

Sap green is a convenience mix, made of Indian (dairylide) yellow and phthalo or Prussian blue. Hookers Green is even more complex, using nickel azo yellow, indanthrone blue, and quinacridone magenta to get that deep, dull solid green tone.

Premixed colors suck the life out of your paintings, because they make dull mixtures. Instead, learn to use paired primaries. In particular, learn to mix greens. That’s the only way to avoid boredom in the ‘wall of green’ that the northeast is about to enter.

I explain this more fully in my online video class, The Perfect Palette.

Spring Allee, 14X18, oil on canvas, $1594 framed includes shipping within continental US

Clean your brushes

Oil painting is more forgiving of dirty brushes than watercolor, but they both need clean brushes, both within the process and after.

In watercolor, that means rinsing them in cool water until it runs clean, and then wiping down the excess water and setting them lovingly aside to dry. Unless you’ve dropped them in cow muck, soap is never necessary. But you should have enough water at hand to regularly clean your brushes during the painting process. Change it as soon as it gets dirty.

In oil painting, it’s best to rag-clean your brushes during the painting process. If you must rinse in mineral spirits, carefully towel the brush dry before you start painting again, or you’ll end up with soupy paint.

When you’re done, you need to get the paint out of bristles and ferrule. If your brushes have splayed, the most common culprit is paint dried deep within the ferrules. It’s impossible to get that out, so it’s best to get them clean right after use.

I have a video on how to clean oil brushes here.

Apple Blossom Time, 9×12, oil on canvasboard, $696 unframed includes shipping in continental US

Set out fresh paint

I store my oil painting palette in the freezer between painting sessions. The paint is good for several weeks, but as soon as it develops a film or becomes stodgy, it’s history. Oil paint is carefully formulated at the proper consistency and pigment load. You cannot refresh half-dried paint by adding mineral spirits or medium to it.

“I hate waste,” you say, and so do I. But the most precious thing I have is time. I won’t waste it on a painting that’s destined to fail.

Organize your palette

Watercolorists keep your paints in the same pans because you’re wetting and reusing the same paints over and over. You’re smart to arrange them in rainbow order. You do not need 50 different paints. A paired primary palette, plus a few more for fun, will get you to any point in the color spectrum.

Oil painters can plop their paint down anywhere, but it’s a terrible idea. Lay them out in a rainbow order and then stick with that. (That’s a good reason to not scrape your palette perfectly clean between uses; the trace colors will be your guide.)

I encourage my oil-painting students to paint with tints, because it’s a fast way to lay down bright midtones. But even without this, an organized palette that you understand is a fast route to success.

Owl’s Head fish shacks, 11X14, framed, $1087 includes shipping in continental US

Do a value drawing

If you tend to make more duds than successes, you need to slow down and do value drawings first. Don’t proceed to painting until you have a sketch you really like. The value drawing lays out the overall composition and the focal points before you ever get to paint. That fifteen minutes at the beginning is not just a tremendous time-saver, it saves you from setting off on a fundamentally-flawed path.

If you are unfamiliar with the concept, or don’t know how to do it, I recommend my online class, The Value Drawing.

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: Subject vs. focal point

The People’s Census at Bethlehem, 1566, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, courtesy Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

The number one question you must ask about your painting is: is it boring? If your painting is boring, nobody is going to engage with it.

One way to do keep things interesting is to manipulate where you put the subject of your painting. You don’t need to plop the subject in the center of your canvas and the subject does not necessarily have to be the focal point.

Consider Pieter Brueghel the Elder‘s masterpiece, The Census of Bethlehem, above. It’s unlikely that Brueghel consulted a text about composition, because those things didn’t exist back in the 16th century. He came up with this visual trick on his own and used it over and over.

The Procession to Calvary, 1564, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, courtesy Kunsthistorisches Museum. This is a veritable “Where’s Waldo” of a painting.

The subject is not in the middle of the canvas. Nor is it the focal point. In fact, the subject will only be clear to you if you know the Bible story about Mary and Joseph traveling to be counted in Bethlehem. Because of the overall energy of the canvas, you’re engaged enough to hunt for them, and to realize that Mary and Joseph are at the very bottom of the canvas, heading towards the census-taker at the bottom left.

That’s different from the focal points, which are within the swirl of activity that made up the daily life of a medieval village.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, c. 1558, either Pieter Brueghel the Elder or a close copy thereafter, courtesy Royal Museums of Fine Arts

Brueghel often made the subjects of his painting seem like almost an afterthought to the big scene. Another great example of this is Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, about which William Carlos Williams wrote:

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings’ wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning.

In that short poem, Williams says everything about Brueghel’s compositional technique.

The Peasant Wedding, 1566-69, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, courtesy Kunsthistorisches Museum. Brueghel also painted many genre paintings, meant to illustrate a known story or moral argument.

So, what’s the difference?

The focal point is a visual engagement, whereas the subject is what the painting is about. The subject of a painting can be a story or fable, as were Brueghel’s paintings. It can be an object or person. Or, in the case of abstraction, it can be nothing at all.

Focal points are something quite different. They are the points that your eye rests on at it moves through a painting.

What draws the human eye to a specific passage in a painting?

  • Contrast in value, hue and chroma, with value being the biggest driver of the three. If you have a dark shape next to a light shape, the eye tends to look at that place.
  • Detail. Assuming the whole painting is not overloaded with detail, if there’s a lot of detail in a passage, that is where the eye will go first.
  • Line. Lines within the composition act like arrows, drawing your eye to the focal points.

Is there just one focal point in the painting?

I sure hope not, because your job as the composer is to get the human eye to dance its way through the composition, to engage the viewer for as long as you can keep them interested. The longer they spend looking at your picture, the more involved they become with 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: what’s the point of a three-hour painting?

Early Spring on Beech Hill, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas, 12X16, $1449 framed includes shipping in continental US.

Near the wonderful, loose Andrew Wyeth watercolors at the Farnsworth Art Museum is a small room dedicated to his painting practice. You are surrounded by his careful investigation of details, compositional sketches, and studies. “When I was painting Christina’s World I would sit there by the hours working on the grass, and I began to feel I was really out in the field. I got lost in the texture of the thing. I remember going down into the field and grabbing up a section of earth and setting it on the base of my easel. It wasn’t a painting I was working on. I was actually working on the ground itself,” he said.

Edward Hopper, who mined similar veins of alienation as Wyeth, was known for meticulously storyboarding his major paintings. He drew thousands of preparatory sketches. A comparison of one of his final sketches for Nighthawks with the final painting shows just how important his drawings were in cutting things down to the bone. He used drawing to shake off the burden of representational reality.

Failed attempt #1 at Chauncey Ryder trees. I’ll go back up the hill and try this again if it ever dries out. Dialing back the chroma will help.

Modern plein air painting

On the flip side, there’s contemporary plein air painting, dashed off in alla prima technique in a matter of a few hours. I love plein air painting myself, but a recent conversation with a student had me wondering about its lasting value. She is frustrated with her local painting group, which never works more than two or three hours. “What’s the point of rushing like that?” she asked me.

There are hundreds of plein air events in the United States every year, each of which has around thirty juried artists, each of whom in turn produces 5-10 works per event. That means the art market is flooded with tens of thousands of paintings from these events alone. Not all of them are good. I’ve produced more than my share of duds.

These events create a commodity that’s affordable to a middle-class audience. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; it’s what drove the Dutch Golden Age of Painting, which gave us Vermeer, Frans Hals and Rembrandt.

Failed attempt #2 at Chauncey Ryder trees. Boring composition and I made a messed up stew of the buds on the branches.

But it’s equally true that mass movements give us our share of dreck. The paintings done at plein air events are often safe (read ‘boring’) and dashed off without a lot of thought. That’s because plein air events are a production grind.

Loose brushwork has become the norm of plein air painting. But there’s no law that says that plein air must be quick, or that loose brushwork is the apotheosis of outdoor painting. These are just tropes of our times. Leaning into them too heavily just makes you a copier of other people’s ideas.

This start I like. Luckily, it’s steps from my house, so I can revisit it the next time there’s a break in the rain.

Go outside and take your time

This spring in the northeast is miserably cold and wet. I’ve painted outdoors just twice. Out of the three things I did, the one I like is the least-finished (above). In the other two, I was tinkering, trying to feather trees like Chauncey Ryder. Everything else in my paintings suffered. I don’t care; I’ll wipe out the boards and try again.

I have my eye on another stand of trees, small spruces. I want to see if I can mimic the soft brushwork of Anders Zorn in them, since to me he’s the only person who ever painted baby evergreens convincingly.

“You’re going to confuse yourself with all this mimicry!” Eric Jacobsen chided me. Well, no, because I don’t really want to paint like Ryder or Zorn. I want to figure out how they did this specific soft-focus thing on trees. I could never do this if I was still rushing around churning out three-hour paintings at events. The cost of failure is too great.

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: activate your paints

Clary Hill Blueberry Barrens, watercolor full sheet, $3985 framed includes shipping in continental US.

I give new students a protocol sheet. On one side it lists the steps for a good oil painting, on the other side, the steps for a good watercolor. (Acrylic painters can follow the oil painters’ lead.) Then I tell them they no longer need me, and laugh.

Last year, I realized that there was a step missing on the watercolor side, a step that seemed so basic that I had failed to include it. It was to wet the paints on the palette before starting painting. I expected that everyone knew that. Silly me, because it’s critical for clean, bright color.

The deck of the schooner American Eagle, from which I teach watercolor twice a year. 8X5.5 sketch.

Watercolor can be purchased in pans or tubes. If the latter (which I far prefer), it’s generally squeezed into a palette and allowed to dry. (There are a few painters out there who squeeze out new watercolors every time they work; that’s an expensive and unnecessary practice.) In either case, the paint needs to be activated. That means wetting it down to approximate its consistency out of the tube.

The easiest way to do this is with a small spray bottle; you can also use a syringe or drop (clean) water from a brush. It should be done 10-15 minutes before you start painting, and might need to be redone as you work, depending on environmental conditions.

Before activating your paints, make sure they’re clean. Any color that’s migrated into another pan is best removed when the underlying color is dry. You can do this very easily with a damp brush. And if you didn’t clean your mixing wells earlier, this is a good time to do it.

Penobscot Bay sunset, from the deck of the same schooner. 8X5.5 sketch.

How wet should your paints be? Wetter than you might imagine. You need to lay a solid film of water over the top of the paints and let it soak down into the pigments. That takes more than a few seconds. If you go several days between painting sessions, expect it to take at least fifteen minutes.

Most of my watercolors are dashed off between oil paintings, but they still need activated paint. 8X5.5 sketch.

The proof is in the pudding

My old pal, watercolorist Stu Chait paints deep, intense hues in his abstract paintings. He gets them by working with suspensions of paint in little square cups. Bruce McMillan, master of clean color, paints on a big butcher’s tray with paint cups around the center.

The best way to achieve a prissy, old-lady look in watercolor is to start with dry paints. Even a wet brush can’t pick up enough pigment to give saturated color. To compensate, the artist starts to glaze colors, over and over. Eventually he has something so delicate, so refined, so dull, that it looks like it was done by a minor British noble’s maiden aunt.

Watercolor is shockingly durable. I have a palette given to me by a retired artist. It contains the paints she used back in art school in the 1970s. They awaken with a sheer misting of water. This is one reason for the perpetual love affair of painters with watercolors-they’re patient. You can slip them in a backpack and ignore them for months between uses.

Rocks along the Pecos River. How I miss teaching in New Mexico!

One more thing

There are a few slots open in my critique class, starting tonight.

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: avoid muddy colors

Early spring in Maine, oil on canvasboard, by Carol L. Douglas

Does your oil paint look bright on the palette, but turn muddy or grey on the canvas? Do you have trouble keeping colors clean? You’re using too much solvent and/or medium. It’s an easy problem to fix, once you’ve learned the correct technique.

Why fat-over-lean?

Fat-over-lean prevents sinking color and cracking paint emulsion. The first is that dullish grey film that develops over paint that’s overthinned with solvent. Cracking paint doesn’t usually appear until after the artist is dead but is a major issue in some masterpieces.

Some manufacturers of alkyd mediums argue that the fat-over-lean rule no longer applies. Take this with a grain of salt. It takes time for problems to appear in paintings, time that’s measured in decades, not years.

Perfect layering demonstrated by Laura Felina at my recent workshop in Sedona.

Simple concept, tricky application

By ‘fat’ we mean the medium-either commercially-mixed mediums or drying oils like linseed, poppy or walnut. The paint itself contains medium as a binder, usually in the form of linseed oil. By ‘lean’ we mean a solvent, usually odorless mineral spirits (OMS).

OMS evaporates, so its dry-time is dependent on temperature and humidity. Drying oils don’t evaporate, they oxidize. That means they stay there, bonding with oxygen, creating a new chemical structure on the surface of the paint. This combination can be extremely durable.

In plein air, this process is usually cut back to two or three steps: an underpainting cut with OMS, a layer that’s pure paint, and then possibly a detail layer cut with medium on the top. However, in more complex paintings with more layers, the shift from lean to fat can be more gradual.

This is a properly-dry start to a painting.

The underpainting

The underpainting or grisaille should be thinned sparingly, and only with solvent (OMS). Keep it dry enough that it’s not shiny. How can you tell? Stick a finger in your paint. If you can slide the paint around, it’s too sloppy. If your finger looks like you were just fingerprinted, it’s too sloppy. You should be able to see just a bare hint of color on your fingertip.

If you put too much solvent in the bottom layer, you’ll get muddy, mushy color as you try to build. No, you don’t need to wait for it to dry. Take a paper towel and lay it carefully on the surface of your painting. Use your hand to apply pressure. You’re blotting-not wiping-the excess moisture away. It should be almost dry to the touch before you proceed.

It’s best to avoid blotting. Learn to use only fractional amounts of solvent, just enough to allow the paint to move without dragging. Use a rag to lift paint from light passages, instead of using excess solvent to thin these passages.

If it’s shiny, there’s too much solvent in the bottom layer. The subsequent layers will be soft and muddy.

The middle layer (which is also sometimes the last layer)

This next layer should be as close to pure paint as possible. If your paint is too stodgy to move freely, check to be sure that you aren’t using clotted, hardening paint. Or, your brushes may be too soft for alla prima painting, which works best with hog bristles. If you must thin your paint, a drop of oil is all that’s appropriate in this layer.

The top layers may need no medium at all. Many painters don’t use it. Blueberry barrents, by me, early spring.

Top layer or detailing

Here you can use medium or linseed oil. But if you use more than a dollop the size of a mechanical pencil’s eraser in an 8X10 painting, you’re overdoing it. Using too much medium will result in soft, lost lines and mediocre brushwork.

Medium is helpful for laying detail down over wet paint, but don’t develop an overreliance on it. Many artists use none at all.

There’s room in my upcoming critique class. It’s a great way to bring your painting to the next level. Open to intermediate painters in all media.

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?