The difficulties of getting started!
Over many years of teaching classes, I've often had people say to me,"How do you decide what you want to paint" or "How do you find beautiful subjects"? Sometimes people have told me that they have gone out looking but then can't make up their minds.
I understand their problem perfectly because for many years, I was asking myself the same questions as I burned petrol touring around looking for the perfect subject! I eventually learned that seeing a perfect subject is VERY rare, like looking for UFO's really (if there is such a thing).
However, if you're looking for good lighting or exciting colour or shadows or shapes that make a really interesting design, then there are subjects everywhere. Perhaps something dramatic, a sky like the one above or huge churning rollers at the coast. It all depends on the way you are looking at things. It can be any subject of course but it does need to be something you really want to do.
If you refer back to a my December blog (sorry Ive been so long getting on to this one!), you will read that after 42 years of painting, I still confront the same issue occasionally.
I suspect it also has a good deal to do with how often you are painting. I find that the more I paint, the more I see subjects all around me.
For example, I saw these amazing clouds over Queenstown just recently. I didn't have time to paint and it was too late for outdoor work anyway, but they were awe inspiring and definitely worth a photo. Very exciting!
I do paint from photos very occasionally. I remember when I was on the West Coast and at the end of the day saw amazing lighting at the top of Arthurs Pass. I took some photos as it was far too late to paint. Even though I was at the beginning of a South Island trip to do three weeks of painting around Queenstown, I couldn't wait to get home and paint that lighting that I had photographed.
That's the key.... excitement, awe, loving the colour, marvelling at the texture, seeing a beautiful design, enjoying the brushwork, having the confidence to put your mark on the work – your style....all those things that move us – stir us up.
Incidentally, that Arthurs Pass painting turned out well.
I guess all those qualities we would term enthusiasm - and you can't beat enthusiasm for adding persistence, strength to overcome the difficulties, and out of that, progress and skill.
Now... having proof-read this several times to correct my frequent typing errors, I'm convinced that I need to get out there and do some work.
Onward and upward!!
After some months of planning, friends had just arrived from the USA and another friend from the other end of New Zealand. We intended doing some plein air work somewhere around Glenorchy and I had been looking forward to it.
I had also been skiting about the great weather we had been having so, as you can guess, the weather packed up with several flat grey days, one after another!
Not to be discouraged, we headed for an old ramshackle building that
we knew had some good angles.
I don't really understand why but while Scott and Richard chose their subjects, set up their easels, and got into painting, I roamed around the building trying to get excited enough to paint!
Finally, in desperation, I decided to pick on one bunch of flowers on a rhododendron tree that was growing against the building. By using that small part of our surroundings, I was able to concentrate on the one thing that I found stimulating – its beautíful colour.
Sure, I still had to consider the usual things that make a good painting – the design, where was I going to place my focal point, the use of lights and darks, the intensity of the colours, etc., but at least I was getting excited!!
I know that many people think that flower paintings are 'old hat', just another cliche! It's a worry too that a large flower study may be slow to sell - and I'm supposed to be earning an income from my work!
On the other hand, I believe that we painters should be expressing how we feel - something from the heart. After that small study, I now love the colour of those flowers. And for that matter, I've always enjoyed painting that old earthenware pot my wife gave me. So......forgetting about the practicalities, I decided to paint something I haven't done for years - a vase of flowers - perhaps the beginnings of a series.
What am I trying to say in this blog?
( 1 ) For me, it is so important that I am enthusiastic about my subject. I often find myself washing off partway through a picture if I start without some enthusiasm. Let's face it, it's hard to paint well if you don't feel like it!
( 2 ) When I've found a subject I like, I paint with the possibilities of a theme in mind because it helps me to progress to my next painting. The ideas begin to flow more easily.
( 3 ) I suspect that smaller studies around a theme are a good idea for many painters that struggle to get started (and I know from my painting classes that many do ). Even little colour roughs can do the job. Much less daunting than some huge panorama that's been 'on hold'.
I just hope my renewed enthusiasm is showing!
"RAIN....rocks, surf, and sand on the West Coast"
I have always had a love of New Zealand's South Island and especially the West Coast. With beautiful beaches, rocky outcrops, pounding surf, and beautiful native bush down to the shoreline, it's a painter's delight.
Mind you, you can't always say the same about its weather!
With four painter friends, I spent ten days up there just recently. The first two were glorious – perfect painting weather. The rest .... rain and mist, but with occasional glimpses of hope on the horizon.It was a good time of fellowship but disappointing from a painting point of view.
So.....despite there being no wet weather bonus pay, we decided to get out there and do some work anyway.
I think one of the essential qualities of a painter is persistence – born out of passion – almost to the point of stupidity!
It's like any activity that demands a high degree of skill –you can't afford to rest on your laurels. If you want to do well, you need to push through the hard times. As if there weren't enough of those times! Just the usual difficulties with tone, design and colour,etc, are usually enough, but then we needed to contend with the conditions as well.
As you can see from the top photo, you can produce a painting on a wet day but it's not easy. The lighting is dull so that everything is flat and lifeless. It becomes difficult to find nice colour in the subject. The wet brushes become floppy and the oil paints become an emulsion on the palette – hard to mix and difficult to apply to the canvas. (You can't actually see in the photo but the painting was completely wet with drops of water running off the bottom. Fortunately, it doesn't penetrate the oils and they dry perfectly normally.)
I was disappointed with my effort but decided to keep it anyway. At the time, I just wanted to get out of the rain!
However, nicely comfortable back at home, I've had a fresh look at the painting and can see definite hope. I like the rock formation and the sea certainly feels stormy - it carries the flavour of the day. Perhaps one or two seagulls on the beach to create a point of interest and I might have a successful painting for my efforts.
There was light at the end of the tunnel ...... I'm feeling better already!!
"Rugged coastline near the Fox River, West Coast."
We've all had that feeling occasionally that a painting has missed the mark but it can be hard to determine why.
I mentioned in one of my blog pages just recently, that it was a good idea to put a painting away and have a fresh look at it after perhaps a month or so. These two photos of a recent painting are a good example.
The 1st version (top) went off to a gallery where it hung for some months but I was not sure that I was completely happy with it. Unfortunately, the gallery closed down and the painting came home. On seeing it with a fresh eye, I realized why I had been uncertain about it. The lower photo is the new version – resized and repainted completely! People who saw the original version said they thought it was great, very striking, etc. However, having seen it afresh, I was convinced that it either had to be changed or destroyed.
There were several reasons that I was unhappy. I felt that the colours I had used were drab – there was a lack of sunshine. I also realised that I had created a number of focal points – the large piece of tree trunk slightly right of centre, the second piece of driftwood in the sand slightly left of centre, the splash of the wave, the rock tower above the splash - just far enough away from the main rock structure to feel separated and therefore distracting to the eye. Even the distant hill was a problem – too hard edged to fall into the background. And the sky felt lifeless! I also realised on seeing it again, that it was simply too big.
I don't like working over a dry painting but this one was large, (2.4 m long), and had taken a good deal of time and materials so I decided to give it a second chance.
With 600 mm. lopped off one end, re-shaped and rearranged elements, much better colour, and greater variation in the sky and foreground, its now one of my favourites. And all it took was a few hours! I've decided that on a painting this big, some preliminary design work on paper and perhaps a small colour rough are almost essential.
Sigh....... it seems theres always more to be learned!
Most people have heard of 'writers block'. I believe that artists can experience the same thing – a sudden inability to see good subjects, perhaps a lack of flow in a paintings brushwork, the
realisation that your work has dropped below your usual standard.
There can be so many reasons of course. A loss of the 'muse', some sort of altered mental state, my first time out of New Zealand and being away from everything familiar, the general upheaval of travel, even jet lag could be a handy excuse!
(I'm not really sure what the 'muse' is when I think about it!)
Of all the times to pick on, I experienced this artist's block while Richard Robinson, a painter friend and I were in the USA just recently to go to a Plein Air Convention and to do some painting with other friends in California.
First - the convention - a great time of learning, meeting people,(about 800 of them) and seeing top line painters demonstrate.
We plein air painters prefer nice calm conditions but the weather was not always kind to us – quite cold and windy for a time when we first arrived. However,on the last day, we went to paint around the cafes and boat moorings of Monterey. At last the wind dropped and we had sunny, mild conditions. A great group to paint with too as most of the people at the convention gathered in one place. Mind you, I struggled with this painting of the boat harbour at the bottom of this blog for some time, but at last, I was happy with the outcome.
With the convention over, we went up to Yosemite national park. What a fantastic place!
I felt particularly inspired by the beautiful colour of the water and the pearly white granite rocks around the river flowing out of Yosemite. I felt the urge to paint big. (This is a common experience for me.) BIG mistake!! I struggled with the painting all day and although I've put it at the head of this blog, I feel that it still needs finishing. I like it so far though!
It's frustrating when things go this way. It's so much better to travel home with a painting that you are pleased with and that you feel is finished. However, despite not painting well, I don't want to sound as if it was all doom and gloom. We had a great time. We saw and stayed in great places, I had good company, they even helped with my painting gear at one stage when I was struggling, and I found that Americans are so very helpful and friendly. (They can't make really good coffee though!)
Will I go to the convention again next year? I'll have to work on it as two 13 1/2 hour flights in a cramped seat feels a bit daunting just yet!
"Low tide near Pukerua Bay, Kapiti coastline."
I've been teaching in the last few weeks and was asked on the last day of the course if I would demonstrate – preferably water and reflections in the subject to be painted.
In two weeks time, I will be travelling to the annual convention for plein air painters that is being held in Monterey, California this year. (10th to 14 April if you live near enough to consider going.)
I've been asked if I will do a demonstration painting at the convention but it will be a very short demonstration of only three quarters of an hour.
So… as I started this painting I wondered if I could do it in roughly an hour, as a warmup for my demonstration at the convention.
I decided that a painting from memory of a rock pool that I had done many years ago would be suitable. Many people, I've discovered, really struggle with rocks. And, as I said, they wanted water and reflection, so it would be ideal. It is also a relatively simple subject so it should fit into my time limit.
I really like the outcome of this exercise. Because of the time pressure, the painting is very loose – broad brush strokes with very little bother about details. It's the very way I want to paint all of the time but don't always succeed. It's so easy, as I've said in earlier blogs, to get caught in the web of careful edges and fine detail. It's almost like sketching but in a semi – controlled manner. Good fun!!
I had also been stressing in these lessons, that you barely need small brushes when painting in an impressionist style but, so often, people can't believe it! This painting demonstrated that perfectly. I'm just hoping I can pull it all together in the same way when I demonstrate at Monterey. By the way – it did fit it into one hour
If you're interested in plein air painting, or just painting generally for that matter, the convention should be well worth going to. I'm certainly looking forward to it!
Please introduce yourself to me if you come along.
" Early Farmers -The Brocket's Homestead on Western Lake Road "
As an artist, there's something special about old buildings. The style of the building, the weather, rust, moss and lichen all casting their own effect and contributing to the subject. This one was particularly good with the stand of dark macrocarpa trees forming a beautiful background for the old house.
Mind you, that's not to say that I would like to live in one! I enjoy our modern low maintenance homes with efficient insulation and double glazing too much!!
When I said bringing up the past, I was referring not only to the age of the house but also to the fact that I painted this picture in 1985.
I came across a slide of the painting just recently and thought "Wow, did I paint that!?" I really liked the colour – it spoke of dry Wairarapa summers and the sense of isolation the house portrayed. Much as the farmers felt I would imagine, as, at the time, they would have been miles from town.
So often, seeing an old painting can be a very discouraging experience. Putting a painting away for a time, and then seeing it with a fresh eye, is one way of judging the quality of your work. Bad design, weak tones, dirty colour, poor drawing – these things can be so obvious in seeing your work after it's been out of sight for a time. (1985 to 2013 might be a bit extreme though!)
In this case I had completely forgotten it!
There is a silver lining though – it shows that you have grown in your skills and understanding since you did that painting.
But this one of an old colonial wreck looked ok – not too embarrassing at all!
While we were living in the area, I painted this building on the spot several times from various angles and distances. This was a bit different though. It was a studio painting done from a pencil sketch with acrylics on canvas – very much a watercolour approach. I've always liked the way transparent watercolours can give beautiful glowing colours and the acrylics used as thin washes, have the same effect. The texture of the canvas looks good too.
There is another plus to all this. Although I prefer working outdoors, this is a great way to spend the day if it's just too hot or cold to paint outside!
"A Quiet Grey Day at Merryfield Farm, Arrowtown." ( 430 x 1140 mm )
Apparently, back in the 1930s and 40s, it was considered desirable to paint on cloudy days when the light was flat and tonal changes were at a minimum.
I dont know about you, but I much prefer painting on sunny days when the light is nice and clear with bright highlights and strong shadows. I find that I am far more excited about painting when there is that glint of the sun on water, the contrast of the lights and darks on the faces of a rocky ridge, brightly lit trunks and branches against the dark bush behind, the full blaze of colour on a sun bathed field of flowers - all 'mouth watering' for me. They bring on the urge to paint!
I therefore found it quite difficult recently, when a friend and I were going painting and the day began to turn grey. Especially as he was coming out for some painting tuition and it was his last day before he was to head home from Queenstown.
So .... as we travelled towards Arrowtown, we decided to head for what I hoped might be a suitable subject.
I've discovered that there are some subjects that for me, tend to be less interesting on a flat day. Panoramic subjects - mountains for example. There are others however, that work perfectly well when the lighting is poor. Coastal paintings get more exciting as the weather gets worse! Derelict old buildings are good to paint almost any time. Especially this particular old building as it has the mountains and dark trees behind to give some tonal contrast and a placid lagoon for a 'feel good' factor in front. ( Most people seem to enjoy calm reflective water! ) So...it's a great subject in almost any weather!
You will have noticed that I've used a stretched format for this painting. I wanted to show the building nestled into its surroundings rather than as a 'portrait' of the building itself. I felt to only show the base of the mountains behind as it allowed me more space for the very expressive lagoon rather than worry about the flat grey sky.
Talking of water, I've had many people ask me how to paint reflections. They avoid it because it's "too hard." I would agree if I was trying to produce a mirror image - but I'm not! I don't wish to for three reasons.
1. It's too trite for me - multitudes of tourists take photos of reflections every day.
2. I don't want to create an image in my painting that competes with my focal point......and
it might look as if I'm trying to rival those photographers!
3. The loosely shaped, soft edged reflections I do are quite easy to achieve, and yet still
say that the water is calm and reflective without trying to be the centre of attention.
( I'm tempted to do a dvd on the subject as so many people seem to have problems
I've realized in the last year or so, that when I paint with people and teach them at the same time,
it naturally takes me longer to complete my painting. However, despite time out to guide them, I'm ending the day feeling more relaxed.... and with a painting that is better designed and more finished than in the past. I suspect that because it's taken all day, it's given me plenty of time to consider what I'm doing, as I talk to them about what they need to be thinking about!
All very nice when it's a great spot like this one!
"Wild water at Baring Head, South Wellington Coast line."
We had been staying with friends in a cottage on the Baring Head coastline for several days. Although the weather had been reasonable with plenty of sunshine, it had been extremely windy and so the idea of painting on the beach was out of the question.
However, on the 4th day, the wind finally dropped and Peter, (my painting companion) and I, carried our equipment down to the beach where there were several groups of rugged rocks that looked like possible subjects.
Of course, the sea was very rough after all the wind, and so although it was now relatively calm, the sea was still a churning mess – exactly as I prefer to paint it. There's'something very special about rough water, the power of the waves, the beautiful colour of the water, and the gleam of white surf. In the right situation with a sandy beach, there is also that beautiful reflection area as the sea recedes between waves.
And then of course, there's the rocks themselves. In low evening light, the colour, and the contrast between the highlights and the shadows is simply mouthwatering!
There's something very stimulating about painting in the outdoors. I painted in the studio for the first 10 years of my painting life. I worked from sketches I did on the spot, as, at the time, I could not afford the cost of photographs! When I look back, I believe it was a better way for me to work as I was not tempted to rely on photographs as 'crutches'. It is so easy I believe, to become ensnared by photographs – to become a copier rather than a creative painter. Don't get me wrong though. I also believe that there are many great painters that work creatively from photographs.
"Creatively" is the keyword! With the advantages of digital cameras now, I also work very occasionally from a photograph. But I certainly prefer to work outdoors nevertheless.
Putting all that aside, that evening on the beach was incredibly stimulating. (I hope the painting demonstrates what I'm writing about).The urgency of the lowering evening light, the tide moving in, and the energy of the scene itself was enough to get the juices going! We worked feverishly and finished just on dusk.
There is a huge sense of satisfaction arriving home with a finished painting in the back of the car. Especially of course, if you feel that it is a good one! Mind you, there's also the depression of a wash off before the painting was even finished. Or worse, you finished it - but it's still no good!
That can happen too often, but the "highs" make it worth it.
I'm very grateful to the painter friend who persuaded me to try going plein air!
Until recently, my impression of some of the blogs I'd read had been a bit negative. People sharing their daily lives (occasionally with interesting bits ) seemed rather self indulgent to me. I could be quite wrong, but that was how I felt.
However, I've now had time to think about it and also been reading Robert Genn's great 'blog thoughts'- (it's well worth googling his website : www.painterskeys.com).
As a result, I've added this page to my website. I had intended doing short teaching videos to put on"You Tube" but, on reflection, decided that having a blog would be easier to keep up with.
Having enjoyed working with art clubs, tertiary summer schools, and small groups over many years, it occurred to me that a blog page, especially if it related to a recent painting, would add interest to my website, and more particularly, painters might find it useful. A good idea! And it might not feel too indulgent!!
So.......this time I want to talk about a painting I did last week on the Dart river bed near Paradise.
This is an amazing place where the Humboldt mountains and Cosmos Peaks tower above a wide riverbed. I felt inspired by the beautiful day and the view so I started with great gusto!
I've always wanted to work in a bold, decisive way where the fluidity of the strokes showed assurance and confidence but I realised half way through the painting that I was labouring -it looked fussy and the tones and colour lacked strength. It looked anything but bold! I have had to tell so many groups that the success of a painting depends on good design, tone, colour, brushwork, etc. Detail and neat edges (careful painting) come further down the list. And here I was producing poor colour, tone, and brushwork.
Almost in despair, I was about to scrape the paint off but stood back to study it for a moment. I remembered Robert Genn's advice - "Talk to the painting and let it talk to you!" Basically, it spoke to me about my lack of courage!
With day light running short and little to lose anyway, I slashed on some much stronger colour and tones in the dark areas and the mid tones under the snowline. The shadowed snow then needed more colour to be 'ín step.' Some blue areas thrown into the sky broke up a rather flat grey. All that took about 10 minutes! Because I was being rough - 'devil may care'- almost at the point of washing off, edges were now much looser, the paint now had areas of 'broken colour' and the tones had much more strength. Overall, the painting was coming to life! It was just a matter of adding snow high lights and the tussock and sand in the foreground and it was finished! The whole repaint had taken perhaps 30 minutes but it had gone from a 'write off' to a favourite!
So much more colour and strength - and even fluidity!
It's strange. Like so many fellow artists I've met, my natural 'default' painting style is much more cautious than I want to be. I need to remember to knock down the walls of the default box and step into the freedom outside. When I do, it feels great!
I hope I've learnt the lesson this time!