Picnic Island - 6"x8" oil on canvas
You may never have heard the term "Oxford comma", but you've likely seen it many times. It's the second comma in the phrase "red, white, and blue". Also called the serial comma, whether to use it is a matter of personal preference. Google can fill you in on the pros and cons. Recently overhearing a conversation about the comma, I started thinking about similarly controversial topics in painting, of which I'm sure there are many!
Before Sunrise - 7"x5" oil on linen panel
The topic I came up with for today is whether to include black paint on your palette, or to mix your blacks from other colors. Once again, this is a matter of personal preference. Those on the pro side include the Tonalists, who use black to limit chroma, even in their skies. I used that approach in the example above years ago in a class taught by Deborah Paris.
Little Whaleboat Island - 5"x10" oil on canvas board
Black is also commonly used with various yellows to make greens. The painting at the top of this email and the one above this paragraph were painted using black and cadmium yellow medium to create the greens. It works really well.
Of course there is more than one black paint on the market. The most common are Mars black, Lamp black, and Ivory black. Mars black is made from iron oxide, Lamp and Ivory black are made from carbon. The later are somewhat transparent and slow drying, the former is opaque. For more information look here. I've read comments online as to which of these blacks is more warm or cool, but it sounds like the variations between the manufacturers may swamp this distinction. The bottom line is you'll have to try them for yourself.
The Sternman - 16"x20" oil on canvas panel
No black paint was used in this painting.
On the con side, black paint is said to dull or kill whatever it's mixed with. Mixing your black and dark colors alleviates this problem. Some popular combinations are burnt sienna or burnt umber with ultramarine blue and alizarin crimson with viridian. If you're willing to mix three colors, there are many possibilities. Personally I like transparency in my darkest darks, so burnt sienna and ultramarine blue work well, and can be mixed to a strong black. And I use ultramarine blue and cadmium red medium with differing small amounts of cadmium yellow medium when I want to steer the mix towards dark purple (minimal cad yellow), dark red, dark blue, dark green, or dark brown.
Satsuma With Leaf - 6"x8" oil on canvas panel
What’s hanging on your kitchen walls? We’ve got three paintings in our kitchen at the moment. One is a still life of strawberries, one a cognac bottle with glasses and the other a floral. All of them are painted by my friends, some of whom were my teachers.
Dinnah - 10"x10" oil on canvas panel
Does kitchen art have to be food themed? Not necessarily. But fruit and vegetables, as well as dishes and dishcloths, are common items used in still life paintings. I enjoy painting still life in the winter, because I can paint from life without going outside. Painting from life is my favorite way to paint. There’s nothing like transferring what you see directly to paint!
Peppers - 6"x8" oil on treated card
Still life is also a great way to improve one’s painting. I spent some years painting still life subjects several mornings a week. That’s when I really learned how to paint. I used to set up a still life on top of a cooler sitting on the bed in our guest room. Then I set up my plein air box on a tripod next to it, and did my best to complete a painting before I went to work.
Three Satsumas - oil on canvas panel, 6"x12"
I know, I’m a morning person, but there are many artists who’ve done the same thing, painting at night. It’s creating a painting from start to finish, in an hour or two, over and over, that imprints the process on the mind and creates muscle memory.
Breakfast of Melons, Early Strawberries - each painting is 5"x5" gouache on paper, painted in 2009
And, I'm not knocking refrigerator art. We have lots of that too, pictures of good times with our friends, our son and the grand dogs, and wonderful paintings made by young artists we love. The refrigerator is an excellent bulletin board!
You CAN Get There From Here
My Dream of Summer - 20"x24" oil on canvas
There’s a saying in Maine “You can’t get there from here”. It’s a response people give when asked for directions to a location that’s hard to get to.
I know sometimes our painting process feels just like that, Have you ever thought “I don’t think I can get there from here”? I know I have. But it’s NOT TRUE. You can get there. And it doesn’t matter where you start from.
Most of us have learned to paint by a hodgepodge of approaches: some trial and error, some classes and workshops, some online demos by painters whose work we admire, and more trial and error. For some of us, this approach has left some gaps in our knowledge.
Pears in Blue - 6"x6" oil on canvas board
Let's start with this question:
Is it possible that you've missed some of the basics?
There are two basics that will continue to frustrate you if you don’t address them: drawing and values. And just because someone told you weren’t good at drawing doesn’t mean it’s true! There are lots of ways to learn to become comfortable with drawing, and that’s what’s most important. Once you’re comfortable, and you put in a few minutes of practice each day, your drawing will improve quickly.
I’ve got a free class called Confident Drawing for Artists on my website. Feel free to check it out HERE. Use the Register link (top right in blue) rather than the Log in link. Once you register, I’ll quickly approve the registration, and you’ll have access.
Cozy Harbor Inlet - 11"x14" oil on canvas panel - plein air
The other basic is an understanding of how to use value in your painting. Value is simply the light or darkness of each shape in the painting. You can see values in a photo if you use your phone to change it to black and white. It’s the pattern of shapes with different values that creates the composition of a photo or a painting, not the line drawing by itself. Yes, that’s what I’m saying, the combination of the line drawing and the value shapes is the composition. Once you start looking at your work that way, it will be a lot easier to create a compelling painting.
I’ve got a free resource on my website for values as well. It’s a simple PDF that will show you how to see the values, an exercise to drive that home, and a tool to help you as it becomes second nature. Feel free to check it out. Here’s a link.
We All Need a Go To Subject
Apple - first painted with a knife, second with a brush
Do you have a go to subject? I’ll bet you do. If you’re a musician, there’s probably a piece you go to when you aren’t playing well and need to get back into it. If you love to cook, you’ve likely got a go to recipe or two, comfort food for your brain and stomach. If you’re a jogger or bike rider, there must be a trail or road that attracts you when you’re not feeling on top of your game. Whatever you like to do for pleasure, I’ll bet you’ve got a go to subject, one that’s familiar and comforting.
As for me, I've got go to painting subjects. I turn to them when things aren’t going well or I haven’t painted for a while. Apples are a favorite. They’re so cheerful and even more so on a green background. When I need to practice, I grab a few apples. And then I eat them after the painting is done.
Lobster boat sketches first, Diligence - 6"x6" oil on canvas board, second
You won’t be surprised to hear that boats are also a go to subject for me, especially for drawing practice. I love to sit on the dock or on our boat, and watch the other boats swing around on their moorings. Though moving, they give me the same view every 30 seconds or so. I have to be fast with my pen or wait until the next swing.
Sunflowers - painted with gouache first, and oils second
Another go to subject for me is sunflowers, especially those with leaves. I love their chunky shapes and bright colors. They come with different colored centers, from green to ochre to brown. I like to get them in the light with shadows on their faces, or in a bunch in a vase. There aren’t many things more cheerful than a sunflower. They are just right when I need cheering up.
What Does Down East Really Mean?
Clinker Built - 6"x8" oil on canvas panel
Each summer we take our boat down east from Yarmouth, ME, for a 10-12 day voyage. We visit harbors that we love and try to find someplace new to visit each year. Often we meet up with friends on their boats. It’s an idyllic time if the weather cooperates, and somewhat of an adventure if not.
Clinker Built, the painting above, was a tender to a lovely sailboat that we saw in the harbor at Isle au Haut, at the bottom Merchants Row, south of Deer Isle. I’ve drawn and painted this boat lots of times, she’s such a classic.
Ruby - 5"x7" oil on gessobord
We split our time between harbors with villages, restaurants, and shops, and out of the way anchorages with only birds as companions. And of course, we see lots of other boats, both working vessels and pleasure craft. I love to draw and paint both types, and they were my chosen subjects for the holiday paintings for my galleries this year. These are at the Drawing Room in New Bedford.
Ruby is moored in the little harbor that houses Billings Marine, near Stonington on Deer Isle. I don’t know the boat’s name, it was too far away from our mooring, but I loved the color, which gave me a name for the painting.
Sailing Dinghies - 8"x10" oil on canvas panel
Just outside the inner harbor at Christmas Cove, we often see a sailing class. The kids bop around in their Optimist prams, a very popular boat for teaching children. I had to put together a few photos to create this painting, making sure to get the sizes right to make some farther away than the others.
And back at our neighborhood dock someone had left the nice dinghy in the painting below tied up at the float. I was able to get a few good photos before they rowed it away.
Dinghy Color - 6"x6" oil on canvas panel
But what about the whole down east thing? We say we’re sailing down east when we go up the coast of Maine because the coast goes in an easterly direction. The wind is generally from the southwest, so we sail down wind. Thus it’s called heading down east. And down east Maine to me is the area starting at Penobscot bay, and beyond towards Canada.
AFTER - Thomas Point - 6"x6" oil on canvas panel - 2010
There is no better way to get better at something than to practice. We’ve all learned how to ride a bike and drive a car, and we learned by practicing, falling down, and probably getting our first traffic ticket.
But there’s more to it than just practice. How I practiced made a huge difference in becoming a better painter. The three principles described below were key. I think you can find analogies to them for anything you want to learn, such as cooking, or playing an instrument. You can see the change in my work through the paintings I’ve used to illustrate this post. There is about a year difference between the Before and After paintings, and during that time I used the techniques described here.
AFTER - Farm Pond Pines - 6"x 6" oil on canvas - 2010
First, you'll have the most effective learning experience if repetition of the whole process is part of your approach. For painting, it's best to paint several small paintings from start to finish each week, spending a short time on each one. Spending many hours on one painting doesn't build the muscle memory that the previous approach gives you, and you'll never become comfortable with the parts of the process that are hard for you. If you have stacks of partly completed paintings sitting around, it's likely because you're getting stuck, and you know what I mean! The same can be said for that piano piece that I can play the first page of so beautifully, and when I get to the last page, I’m slogging my way through it with lots of mistakes.
BEFORE - Afternoon Shadows - 6"x6" gouache on paper - 2009
Second, it’s easier to capture the form in space when working from life rather than from photos. Going from three dimensions to two works best when you do that with your own eyes, rather than relying on your camera, because the lenses in your eyes are so much better. I’m not sure what the analogy is here for playing an instrument, unless it’s playing a real piano rather than an app. Perhaps for baking, it’s doing that from scratch rather than from a mix.
BEFORE - Gilsland Trees - 6"x6" oil on canvas panel - 2009
And finally, it helps in your exercises to paint a subject that's of interest, but isn't something that's really important to you, or that you've promised to paint for someone. Adding that stress subtracts from the learning experience. This is why, when I’m doing exercises, I divide my canvas into four parts. When I do that, it's no longer a frame-able picture, it's purely an exercise, and a weight comes off my shoulders. I know this works for cooking. There’s nothing more stressful than making something for the first time for a dinner party!
Foxy Lady - 8"x10" oil on canvas panel
It’s fun to create small works for my galleries’ holiday shows. These little gems are popular this time of year because they make great gifts. As you can see, I had boats on my mind when I was putting together this group.
If you subscribe to multiple artists and gallery emails, you know there are paintings of many subjects available in many styles. It's almost overwhelming. So how do you, as a the gift giver, decide which painting is suitable for your recipient? That’s such a good question!
The Martha Gayle - 6"x6" oil on canvas panel
In order to make a good choice, you should know the person pretty well, or have good knowledge of the inside of their house or office. Because the most important thing is that the painting have meaning for that person. You can figure that out based on their interests and hobbies, how they spend their time, and what they support, be that a sports team or a charity.
Blue Boat with Gulls - 5"x7" oil on gessoboard
Hobbies are a good way to help figure out what subject matter would suit your giftee. We boaters are easy to please, we like paintings of boats. Golfers love golf course vistas, sports fans will be pleased with an action filled play, and, ... you get the idea.
Mac and Lucy - 6"x8" oil on canvas panel
Location is also a good guide. Nature lovers like landscapes of the areas they enjoy visiting, whether it’s a vista from a nearby hiking trail, or a mountain top view they were rewarded with after a tough climb. It’s best to stick to areas where your recipient lives, or that they have loved on their travels. And choosing the work of a local artist from the area is almost always a winner. They know the area and their work is most likely to evoke that sense of place that is important in a landscape.
Marsh From the Bridge - 8"x10" oil on canvas panel
I’ve recently delivered my "On the Water" small paintings to both galleries that represent me. Those shown in this email are available at Yarmouth Frame and Gallery in Yarmouth, ME. Next time, I'll show my new paintings available at The Drawing Room in New Bedford.
Goosefare Brook - 6"x12" oil on canvas panel - Old Orchard Beach, ME
You know how much I love to paint boats. But when I’m in the mood for nature, marshes are my go to subject. There’s something about the addition of the marsh grass to a scene with shoreline, water, and reflections, that makes for more composition choices. Fall is an especially good time of year, because the grass is at it’s tallest, but still green.
Edisto Marsh Sky - 5"x7" oil on gessobord - Edisto Island, SC
How ever you like to enjoy the landscape; whether you want to paint it, hang it on the wall, or photograph it, I can’t recommend a subject more than the marsh, especially if you live in a region where they’re plentiful. And it doesn’t have to be a salt marsh, fresh water marshes along streams and creeks are also beautiful.
Mini #13 - 3.5"x3.5" oil on treated paper - Westport, MA
My favorite marshes span from South Carolina to Maine. Actually, I can find one pretty much in any coastal region. What I look for is marsh grass, water, and some trees to give reflections. A bonus is a tide, which adds mud to the equation. And if the day brings a few clouds, even better. There are lots of compositional elements to play with.
Mini #3 - 3.5"x3.5" oil on treated paper - Freeport, ME
Here are a few tips for finding your favorite marsh. If you’re on the coast, using the map on your phone, look for places where roads cross streams or rivers near the shore. Look for nature walking trails that do the same. Then go on a scouting trip. I can spend a lot of time doing this… And take a photo of the map when you find a good spot so you don’t loose your research!
Rachel Carson Marsh Early Spring - 6"x12" oil treated paper - Kennebunk, ME
If you’re inland, walking trails that run alongside or cross streams are a good bet. Westford, MA, where we used to live, has a book showing all the trails, and I found a number of beautiful marshes while checking them out. And what a treat it was to come around a corner and see swans in the water!
What is it about a subject or scene that makes an artist paint it over and over? You’ve seen me paint the boats I love at different angles, and with different color schemes. I think I’ve painted Jeremy’s skiff 10 times.
But I also paint the same landscape scenes more than once. You may be wondering why. First, of course, I have to like the scene. Usually it will contain some water, because reflections appeal to me, like in the scene above. The painting on the left was painted in early afternoon, and the one on the right in late afternoon. For that one, I stood a bit to the right to see more trees, and the shadows were longer. I enjoyed the challenge of drawing the trees and being able to adjust the colors for the time of day.
Being able to conveniently get to a place to paint is also appealing. And when I find one close by, I go there more than once. The painting above on the left was done in early spring, when the marsh grass was still dead, and I was happy to have a warm day to enjoy painting outside and practice painting with a knife. Later in the summer, the painting on the right gave me a chance to let the greens take over, and really push the color. The underpainting on that one is actually orange and purple!
Sometimes, a plein air painting inspires me to recreate it in a larger format in the studio. The painting above on the left was mostly done out of doors, and is 8”x10”. The studio painting on the right is 20”x24”, more than four times the size. What attracts me to this scene over and over again is both the little red fish shack and the stacked houses, it’s a drawing challenge that I can’t resist.
Another thing that intrigues me is painting the same scene in a different medium. For the second painting, the composition has already been worked out, and I can focus on how to bring the scene to life in a different medium. On the left, is a quick, loose oil painting from a photo. On the right I worked in pastel, with the photo and the oil painting as a reference. It was lots of fun!
There is no better way to get better at something than to practice. When people tell me I’m talented, I want them to realize that talent is merely the passion for doing something that lasts long enough to actually get good at it! We’ve all learned how to ride a bike and drive a car, and we learned by practicing.
But practice doesn’t have to be boring, and it doesn’t have to take a lot of time. In fact 10 minutes can make a big difference if done regularly. And in learning to paint, it’s much more effective to paint several small paintings from start to finish than it is to spend that time to paint just one painting.
And so we come to the 10 minute painting exercise, which Carol Marine introduced me to in 2009. Carol loves to paint apples, and I do too. But I’ve used this exercise on lots of subjects and in lots of mediums. It’s my go-to approach when I don’t know how to paint a new subject.
Let’s go through the exercise using apples as an example. For this article I used apples in oils and in pastels, mandarin oranges in oils, and an apple surprise at the end. Most likely it will take you longer than 10 minutes the first time you try this, it was that way for me, and that’s OK. You can either finish each one as fast as possible, or stop after 10 minutes on each one. I guarantee after you do four, you will be a lot faster. Remember to scrape your palette between each 10 minute painting. If you don’t, the paintings will get more and more muddy as you go along.
Here are the steps;
1) Set up your apple (or other subject) on a piece of colored paper, or a surface with no pattern. The more colorful you make this, the more fun it will be! Shine a light on your subject to give you a nice shadow.
2) Prepare your tools: lay out your paint colors, lay out your brushes, get your paper towels ready.
3) Divide your canvas or paper into 4 equal parts by drawing a line down the center and across the center. This immediately means you aren’t painting something to hang on the wall, you’re doing an exercise. Try it, you’ll find that this approach frees you up to just do it, and to experiment.
3a) You may draw your apple before you start the timer when you are trying this out for the first time.
4) Start your timer.
5) Paint your apple (draw it first if you haven’t already done so).
6) Stop when your timer goes off.
7) Congratulate yourself! The goal was to finish quickly, and you did it!
Now scrape your palette and do it again. You don’t have to do it again on the same day, though if you have the time, it will be easier to remember what you wanted to do differently.
You can even do this exercise on a tablet with one of the painting applications. The prep and cleanup will be lots easier! Apples above painted in ArtRage.
Check out the previous blogpost for a video demonstrating how to draw and paint an apple.
Bobbi - Painter. Sketcher. Teacher. Boat and Dog Lover.