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how to Jump-start your creative battery.

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We have all hit days when the well seems to be dry, and the dry rut we feel we are in just got deeper.  How do you get the fire back?  How do you open the dam and let the creative waters flow again?  Dwelling on the paucity of ideas and lamenting your lack of talent (whatever that is) is not the answer.

Some artist wanna-be’s just say, “I’m not in the mood today, the muses have not touched me this morning. I have to wait for the creative moment, for the inspiration to hit me.” All of my cattle-raising friends around here know exactly what that is. They shovel it daily.  Don’t fall into that pit. ( It stinks)

The way out of those creative doldrums involves action. You have to stir things up. The creative juices have probably just settled to the bottom. Here are a few things that you can do (especially in watercolor) to stir things up, and all of them involve change.

*Force yourself to see things differently.Turn a piece upside down and work on it while squinting. This eliminates details, and puts the whole thing out of context. This is a change that permits a different kind of seeing.

*Learn from others. Attend workshops from different instructors, as each has something unique to impart. We are all eclectic- a little from here and a little from there- and we end up putting it together in our own unique way. Inspiration can come from other artists, books, illustrations in magazines or lichen patterns in rocks. Be open.

*Court casualness. Approach a painting with a devil-may-care attitude. Have faith that as the need arises, the inspiration will come. And that is a grand key. The inspiration most often comes when we are not courting it. If we try to become inspired we won’t be.

*Court the accidental. What appears to be accidental is actually the random order of Nature taking over. Here are a few things that can bring this into play in watercolor; especially during the initial washes.

1,  Spatter clear water on the paper, then spatter thinned versions of different colors-especially opposite colors like pale orange and pale blue, pale purple and yellows, pale sienna and pale blue. As the spattered color hits the spatters of water the mixtures will be more random and thus mirror Nature.

2. Spatter thinned gesso on the paper (thickness like whipping cream). Allow it to dry for about five minutes. Blot the excess gesso from the surface by patting lightly with an absorbent paper towel. Keep turning the towel so that you don’t re-apply the lifted gesso. Dry completely, then apply light washes of varied colors, alternating between warm and cool colors. This will provide a unique ground for the painting.

3. Use the torn edge of mat board to apply gesso to the surface prior to painting. Apply it with stamping motion or scraping. The idea is to create a random surface that alters the absorbent quality of the surface in unusual ways. This will provide a ground that will give a somewhat textural quality to the initial washes.

* Take note of the rhythm of your brush strokes. Now consciously change the rhythm. Make them jerky, or fluid, or syncopated. Keep your focus primarily on the new rhythm, and only secondarily on the subject. The outcome may surprise you.

* Do a small painting holding the brush only by the tip of the handle. Don’t allow yourself to choke up on the brush. You are going for a home run, not a but to first base.

* Try re-designing using overlapped continuous contour drawing. In the example below I drew a pair of glasses in an unbroken, continuous contour line. Then overlapping this I drew a mug that held a number of pencils. Over this I divided the format with a couple of horizontal lines.

BC 1

This gives me a linear pattern that breaks up the format interestingly in a naturally random manner. Next I used a Chinese ink block and a watercolor brush to add grays and blacks. This is similar to the random scribbles we all did as children (and in my case still do while talking on the phone or listening to speeches or attending meetings I can’t manage to avoid.)

BC 2

There are hundreds of ways to introduce change and randomness into your work. Explore and have fun.

 

Using randomness in watercolor painting.

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Following are a number of techniques artists have employed in watercolor painting with success.  All have one thing in common.

1. Place tissue paper over the paper and paint large random patterns, then lift the tissue and do a painting on the muted passages left by the tissue. Even colored tissue can be used.

2. Paint plastic wrap and then before it has a chance to dry,dab the painted plastic on the painting. Interesting textures will result.

3. Wet the entire surface and pour liquid color on, tilting the board to allow it to run in different directions.

4. Spatter paint into wet passages.

5. Spatter paint onto a dry surface, then spatter water on top of that.

6. Spray wet edges of a passage with water and allow the paint to disperse into adjoining spaces.

7. Transfer paint from your palette to the painting with wadded up newspaper.

8. Collage papers over passages and use opaque paints to re-define shapes.

There are numerous other technical “tricks” that can and have been employed. Any of them can be over-used and descend into trite cliches when they are used for their own sake, as a substitute for creative thinking, risk taking and problem solving.

What these techniques all have in common is the random order they bring to the painting. Nature has a way of repeating motifs and patterns while at the same time avoiding redundancy. Motifs are always repeated with infinite variations. Our methodical tendencies usually propel us toward mechanical replication, a wall paper approach. Every fence post is the same length, equally spaced, and the same value. Every limb is a mechanical reproduction of the last one. When I catch myself doing this I refer to it as the Larry, Curly, Moe syndrome. Anything that disrupts this Assembly line activity and introduces spontaneity and the accidental is good.

Because these techniques introduce the accidental into the process of painting, they more closely replicate the randomness found in nature. If they are used as a means to usher into your painting the vibrancy of randomness and suggestive accidentals, they are very useful. They can cause you to see the painting in a new way, even force you to adopt a different strategy. New images may assert themselves into the painting. You might see new possibilities. You might even discover that you like the accidental passage as it landed with no re-touching. That is what happened in this painting, titled, “After The Storm”. I liked the spatter that suggested a road without me painting one.

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In this case I loaded a brush with a lot of water and a cool neutral purple, and tapped it on my finger above the area on the lower right. Then I rinsed my brush and repeated the tapping with water only to randomly disperse some of the spatter. This I followed with some spatter using a yellow. Some of the texture on the building was accomplished by spattering water on the dry painting, then rubbing it briskly with a paper towel.

The Art of Mark Making

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I am afraid that too often we treat paintings and drawings as end products only, with little thought about the actual process. I would like to suggest a somewhat different approach. Think of drawing and painting as a love affair with the marks the material makes. Each tool, whether it be an oil painting bristle brush, a watercolor brush, a pencil, stick of charcoal, conté crayon or stick dipped in ink, makes  distinct types of marks.

Lines themselves, aside from what they may describe possess unique characteristics. They can  appear charged with energy and pent up tension, or languid and restful. A study of the kinds of lines found in drawings by Hokusai or Rico LeBrun will confirm this.

My first art experience was that of watching a line magically appear at the tip of a pencil as I pulled it along. I was enthralled with it. Everywhere I pulled the pencil that magic line followed, like a snail leaving its silver trail along the walkway. My mother came by, took me off the wall and gave me some paper. I have been in love with that line ever since. Pulling a brush across rough watercolor paper produces different lines or marks depending on how I hold it – vertically, at an angle, or dragged sideways. The pencil when rotated in the fingers while pulling a line produces wonderfully varied lines. I love them all-the thick bold marks to the delicate, even brittle lines of a finely sharpened tip.

I believe that falling in love with the unique marks of each tool is an essential part of serious art. I am talking about the serious art that is at its core, playful. A serious relationship is one with fun involved, and we should consider our relationship with the mark-making tools of art  a serious relationship.

I am posting a couple of examples of my involvement with the particular marks possible using two kinds of watercolor brush, the round pointed and the flat..

This first one is a little study done with brush and ink thinned with water. Instead of dealing with the trees in the usual way – doing an outline and filling in between the lines- I lay the brush down sideways and dragged it. I consciously strove for haphazard, random patterns that I could add other darker lines to. Oh, the fun I had doing this playful piece! I still love it. Every line was an act of love. The trees are suggested more than defined. I was both the artist making the marks and the observer watching it happen.

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Aspen Tangle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ephraim Barn b

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part of the joy of doing this watercolor was the marks made by twisting and turning the flat brush as I moved across the foreground. In order to duplicate the randomness of nature, I had to do this with my focus on dancing with the brush in such a way that I allowed the brush to make random marks, but in the direction I wanted them to go. If we always hold the brush the same way, it will make the same kind of stroke over and over in a boring, repetitive manner.

I encourage you to explore each tool for its variety of possible marks, from light to dark, thick to thin, flowing to ragged. Have fun while you seriously discover the range of possibilities.

The Subject and the painting.

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During the last Summer of my formal art training I registered for a full Summer semester (12 credit hours) of watercolor. Nothing else, just watercolor. The faculty member I would be working under said that only one other student had taken that on and he had never completed it.I am just pig-headed enough that I did it in spite of the warning, turning in seven paintings each week for  12 weeks.  They weren’t all zingers, that is certain, but the immersion forced me to find subjects everywhere. I began by traveling as far as 25 miles to find good subject matter. I would have gone farther, but I couldn’t afford the gas. By the end I was finding plenty of subjects around town and within my own neighborhood.

The self-imposed discipline made me stop looking for beautiful subjects, and instead I began looking for interesting arrangements of light and dark shapes, patterns that moved my eye around, contrasts of line and shape and visually interesting corners of my daily experience. Some of these were what might be called beautiful, like some flowers in my neighbor’s yard, but most were not. They were little overlooked places I had passed by a hundred times. Now I saw them differently.

The play of sunlight across the corner of a couple of old wooden steps can make as beautiful a painting as a portrait of the latest hollywood starlet. Make that a more beautiful painting than the latter. It is not the subject that makes a good painting. As an example, Jesus Christ as a subject has featured in some of the most sublime works of art as well as in some of the most hideous.

Frederick Franck in his book The Zen of Seeing said, “Drawing is the discipline by which I constantly rediscover the world. I have learned that what I have not drawn, I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing, I realize how extraordinary it is, sheer miracle.” That is one of the best reasons for drawing I have ever heard. Drawing is the discipline that helps us see the divine in the ordinary. I often find myself drawing and painting things that I would not want in my yard, or even next door. After all, I don’t want the value of my property to decline. However, I am glad that some properties are left to slowly make their way  to dissolution, because as they fall under the forces of Nature, the rather boring repetitions that man created become more passionate and playful rhythms. I am including here a photo of a street which would be a nightmare for a real estate agent to try to unload.

It would take a fortune to fix up these houses.

I was taken by the visual complexity and the business of the shapes and lines here. I began exploring it with a pen, and fell into the process of watching the drawing grow. Below is the final result of the pen’s dance over these forms. I enhanced the drawing with watercolor washes. The artistic value of the drawing is by no means tied to the property value of the houses. A passion for the process, and the practice of drawing constantly are the most important ingredients.

The pen starts a line that moves around an through a subject like an explorer, always at the point of discovery.

Have a Merry Christmas, and a fulfilling New Year. And ask Santa for some drawing materials.

Best regards

Carl

If you have had experiences that corroborate my point here, please share them.

 

Painting Foregrounds

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During the recent “Summer Snow” watercolor workshop, someone , or more accurately, several people expressed frustration with foregrounds. This is not uncommon. It rears its head at nearly every workshop. The biggest problem is that beginning artists (and many more seasoned ones) pose the question to themselves, “WHAT should I put in the foreground?” When they say “what’ they mean some nameable item – a fence, bushes, buckets, birds, etc. And therein lies the problem.  They should be thinking in terms of value patterns, directional lines, linked shapes that bring the viewer in instead of items.

Here are a few suggestions to overcome this problem. Think of the foreground as a kind of visual taxi service (without a talkative driver) that quietly picks the viewers up at the bottom and delivers them, in a less than direct route, to the main area of interest.  I say bottom, because for the most part we all seem to approach a painting from the bottom. Perhaps this is because we enter the world in front of us at the space in front of our feet and proceed upward toward the distance (at our eye level).  Since the painting offers us a glimpse into that world we enter it the same way.

Try turning the painting upside down and painting a sky using earth colors instead of blue. When I paint a sky I think of it as a movement that leads toward the center of interest. It does its job by making something else more important. So, if you paint a pattern of darker earth colors that sweep toward the center of interest like skies often do, you can turn it right side up after it dries and add a few detail, or in some cases leave it as is. I am including an example of this approach for your perusal.

A Sky painted with earthy colors in a downward sweeping pattern.

 Now turn it right side up and it appears different. The orientation can make a huge difference.

 

Now add the subject and Presto! Instant foreground.

 

If you are painting on site, look around you for shapes that would point toward the center of interest- a leaning fence post, a pattern of grasses or weeds,  or a fallen log for example. But choose them not for what they are, but for what they do or could do for your subject. Putting something in the foreground because it is there but simply draws attention to itself is a big mistake. It’s like hiring an actor for a play because he showed up for auditions and had no job. If he doesn’t help the production, don’t include him in your play. Remember, you are the director and everything out there is wanting a part in your play. Only hire the ones that are able to add to the production.   I am including a painting I did as a demo at a recent paint out. I dropped out a lot of fence, an entire building, and moved the leaning fence a little closer to the main area. In this case the movement of the fence really helped to bring the viewer in.

The fence and the waves of grass lead to the main subject.

Daily Art Practice

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My wife teaches private piano. One of her strictly adhered-to rules is daily practice. For the little kids it may be half an hour each day. And she gives them exactly what they are to practice.

In art, this same structured regimen is just as important. The difference is that we don’t have a lesson each week for which we need to be prepared. No notebook stares up at us each day from the coffee table with notes on what we should be practicing today. And if a week goes by without any drawing or painting, then we don’t have to face an upset teacher.

If we are going to accomplish the same in art, we have to be the student and the teacher/taskmaster. We have to be the boss and the employee. And we can’t be a boss who expects us to show up once in a while and get paid. So what should we be doing? How do we hold our own feet to the fire. How do we demand of ourselves the adherence to a daily practice schedule. Try focusing on a point in a river and you will get an idea of how time will slip past without us realizing it. It is a fact that everyone finds time to do the things they really want to. There are very busy captains of industry, salesmen, lawyers and doctors who manage to fit in several rounds of golf every week. It may mean that on Tuesday morning or Saturday morning they get up at 5:00 and get the golf in by 10:00. But they do it.  Why? Because they really want to-enough to sacrifice some sleep for it.

We should want to draw better,  paint better, be better at our art enough to sacrifice some corner of our schedule for it. The important thing is that it be daily, and that it be a fixed thing on our agenda. The problem I see so often is that the art making is on a “when I have some time” basis. And when does that suddenly happen? “Oh, I have some time right now, I’ll go draw.”  The likelihood of that happening is about as good as Christmas coming in July.

Since we don’t have a teacher handing out practice sheets for us each week, we are going to have to do that ourselves. But just in case you find that difficult, here is an assignment you can try, after you establish the exact time you will practice each day.

Before you retire select something for the next day’s drawing session. This can be anything from a leaf you picked up in the yard, a shoe, an egg beater, an open book, or your camera.. Don’t spend a lot of time selecting. Often the best subject is something you would never have thought of as a subject for drawing. At your self-imposed drawing time spend 15 minutes drawing your selection. What you will discover is that you probably never really saw it before. Something happens when you start to draw a thing. It takes on a new importance. Just the fact that you are spending precious time getting to know it better does something to it. You may want to share this project with a few like-minded  art friends. If you all share your results it can increase the determination to complete it.

Have a wonderful time discovering the world right around you. Here is an example.

Old shoe

 

 

Useful tools

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One of the most often asked questions by workshop attendees is “What brush are you using?”

While art is created in the head, it is helpful to have tools that will match the vision. So here is a list of some of the tools I have found very useful.

BRUSHES: I am not going to list all my brushes, of which I have about twenty. Most of those are in my brush caddy so that I will look like a real artist. I have tried many brushes searching for the qualities I require. Here are the ones I use all the time.

Langnickel no. 3085 “Combo” – 1-inch, 1 1/2-inch and 2 -inch.  These are a combination of real hair and synthetic. The hairs are longer than those found in most wash brushes of similar width. Plus there are a lot more hairs because the ferrule is about twice as thick as many wash brushes.Because of this it hold a lot of water. It has the snap of sable and returns to a thin straight edge every time. I love this one. I use it for about 75% of the painting. They are not found in most art catalogues. Go to: www.hofcraaft.com. Then from their menu on the left select “fine art painting supplies” On that page scroll down to “Miscellaneous fine art supplies” and in that list click on “brushes”. Scroll down just a bit and you will see “Royal Langnickel” and their logo. Click on that and then scroll down just a bit until you see a paddle handle wash brush with the name “Langnickel Signwriter”  above it “. Click that and you have found the brush. This is the best flat brush I have ever used.

My other brushes and paints I get from Daniel Smith. (call 1-800-224-4065 and ask for a catalogue.)

Daniel Smith series 23. 3/4 inch flat,  no. 6 round, no. 8 round, and no. 12 round.  These come to the finest point I have found on any brush-even a sable. However because of the cost I don’t have heartburn when the point wears out and I have to retire it. Another good round brush of which I have a few is the Loew-Cornell series 7020 brush. I do not use a rigger because I want to be able to vary the width of the stroke.

For paints I use Daniel Smith almost exclusively. The pigments are very finely ground, the tinting strength exceptional/ There are other top brands of watercolor paint, but I have tried them all and found none to surpass Daniel Smith. Here are the ones I use:

Quinacridone Gold, Quinacridone Sienna, Quinacridone Burnt Orange, Quinacridone Red, Quinacridone Pink, Quinacridone Rose, New Gamboge, Transparent Pyrol Orange (I have fallen in love with this one), Pyrol Orange (more opaque), Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Carbazole Violet, Phthalo Blue, Manganese Blue Hue, Ultramarine Blue, and Sap Green. My one color  that I get from another source is horizon Blue by Holbein. It’s opaque and beautiful.

Other than that I use a 2-inch square of foam sponge – the kind you use to make accent pillows. I get a square foot of it at a craft store and cut it up. It’s great for lifting a small shape or line of white.

And for paaper I use almost exclusively 140 lb rough Arches. I sometimes use 300 lb rough. I also go through a lot of Viva paper towels.

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Seeing is Believing

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As in many of my paintings you will notice little spots of color. While this may seem like an artistic gimmick, it is actually based on observation. I noticed that as I walk along, little facets of rock, or glass, or leaves wor things I don’t even recognize catch and reflect the light in sudden little flashes. I began noticing this and wondered how I could include this phenomenon in my paintings.

So, instead of painting shapes a solid color or even mingling different colors I could leave little bits of light throughout the shape. Then I began adding color to some of these. I like the life it brings to the whole. They don’t seem unnatural, just lively. We experience this in our everyday lives, we just don’t take notice of it. Let’s open our eyes more. I wonder what else I have been missing.

Painting a strong color foundation

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Begin with a foundation of color.

Every watercolor needs a good foundation.

Every good house is built on a good foundation. It is not a good idea to trim the budget much in that area. Likewise in a painting.

In this little watercolor the foundation is in the color washes especially visible on the two walls. Before painting anything in the window, I laid down a foundation wash that began with warm colors on the left and ended with cool colors on the right. I painted right over the window frames, knowing that when I left the light spacers between the panes the initial wash would be light enough.

A good foundation will make a lot of later details unnecessary. For example; on the large wall I only have to suggest the siding with a few lines, kind viewers will supply the rest.

Painting and walking on the edge.

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I don’t remember hearing any discussion of the quality of edges in any painting class I ever took on my way to a degree in art. Perhaps I was just too ignorant to recognize the importance of it and simple didn’t listen.

When we translate that 3-dimensional world into flat shapes on a canvas or paper, there is no “in front or behind, there is only adjacent. One shape shares an edge with another shape on the surface. If we are only involved with the items we are painting we won’t see these edges. In face, we will want to clarify all of the edges. If we really look at the edges we will discover that most of them are not too clear. Only a few are sharp and focussed. Some are lost entirely.

oil painting on canvas.

In this painting of a lady walking down a street with her shopping bag, I was very taken by the edges. Almost all of them were soft focus. The door jam wasn’t sharp at all. If I had clarified it, it would have cut the painting apart. I particularly liked the lost edge on the front of the bag.

The curb could likewise have been alien if I had sharpened the edge. I deliberately made it even less defined.

Control of the edges is much easier in oil paint. Watercolors  give us a generous 30 seconds or so to adjust the edges. Wetness of the paper, amount of paint in the brush, and the amount of water in the brush all have to be calculated to achieve the degree of softness desired.