Friday, June 24, 2011

Reference Photos and Life Sketches

Even if you don't have a good digital SLR, it's possible to take your own reference photos and get usable ones. There are times when I think the low resolution photos I get with my phone are among the most useful.

I don't get lost in a lot of detail with them. I get the proportions and shape of the subject, get to compose the shot, can take many photos of it and store them easily. Then coming back to them, I don't get tempted into drawing it in hard-edged photorealism right to the edge of the painting.

The photo isn't a good painting in itself.

The photo is a reminder of some things that are easy to get wrong without a lot of practice. This photo is of some orange lilies my daughter picked on the day that we moved out of Kansas to leave for Arkansas. I had them in the car, took some photos of the house we left in Kansas and got some good shots of the flowers because I knew I wasn't going to be able to keep them alive that long to do a good painting of them.

I did get out my oil pastels from the satchel at my feet and do a quick color study of the lily in my sketchbook too.

The camera records some things very well, like details. Others it distorts horribly, like values and colors. So the best combination is to take some reference photos from as many different angles and lighting conditions as you can with what you have in hand - and then do some color studies and life sketches too.

Those don't have to be accurate. They don't have to be good drawings. You could draw just one petal of the lily in detail to get all its subtle color shifts and its structure right, or distort the shape and just get down the colors. It doesn't matter - your eye is much better at seeing color and value than any camera in existence.

Your color notes might even be swatches and a shading bar, not even a drawing. If you're sketching in a moving vehicle that might be a very good idea! Looking at something real though, you'll be able to judge values and colors much better.

That's part of learning to see.

The old saying that "to learn to draw you need to learn to see" is absolutely true. It's like learning to read. Your eyes will take in far more information than your mind can process, it gets filtered or you'd go insane. When you learn to see like an artist, you are in effect learning a new language.

Instead of looking at it and seeing "orange lily" tagging it with the words, an artist will see it as a series of interesting abstract shapes.

The shapes associated with the words Orange Lily might be a distorted, flattened icon of a lily in flat orange. The actual, unique living flower at exactly each angle it's turned in the sunlight of that Kansas day is something else - a moment in time that an artist can capture on paper or canvas with pigments. The more often you draw things from life and try to be true to what you see, the easier it is to see past the filter.

Especially if you draw the same type of subject over and over again.

All beginners make the same natural mistakes in learning how to draw. I think they must come in culturally. Some of them even get taught, like Stick Figures. Remember learning how to do Stick Figures and the square house with triangular pitched roof in kindergarten? You'd seen those icons already in kids' books and then in kindergarten the teacher expects you to be able to draw them - in that very common style, the one everyone knows. That's like learning to form letters.

The symbol is not the thing.

The artist creates a different type of symbol. When you draw from life, you're reinvanting the alphabet. Instead of the letter O starting "orange lily" or a six sided symmetrical flower shape with pointed petals, you choose the angle it's at its most unique and beautiful. Personal esthetic choices are there in every step of the process - that's why people talk about "the freedom of art."

It's not just that you can draw anything you want to. Of course you can. But in the process of drawing anything you want to, you're deciding moment to moment how to symbolize it for people who aren't holding it in their hands and smelling its scent, feeling the sticky bulb of the stamen and the texture of the petals.

You decide what's important, the flowers or the background. You turn it so that as a whole it's an interesting abstract shape, not symmetrical, not exactly like every other orange lily ever drawn. You can easily forget what it is and just think of it as an orange shape with various other orange and pale cream shapes jigsawed into it.

You can use dozens of tricks to create the illusion of a three dimensional object on a two dimensional piece of paper, many of which are themselves exaggerations, and you've invented a symbol that's like the Chinese character of someone's individual name. It's readable - very readable. No one needs to understand art to tell that you did an orange lily or to think that one's beautiful, because you staged it perfectly.

You set it up with the light falling on it in a way that the shadows define the form and make it look 3D. You set it up with the light at an angle to it so it looks warm and real. You shifted the colors in the shadows the way they shift in life and maybe exaggerated a little of the reflected color, so the light seems real and intense.

You also got the outlines accurate for that unusual unique shape because the phone camera shot captured those for you.

Think of your camera as a type of sketching tool. It has its limits and its benefits, it's very good at what it does. Like other forms of sketching it can become finished art in its own right - photography is an art. But for reference, it doesn't need to be a good photo that would win awards.

It needs to capture the weird little shapes of each petal on the orange lily accurately, so that your left brain doesn't flatten those out into perfect diamond shaped symmetry and destroy the 3D illusion, turn the portrait into a common icon.

So go ahead and take lots of reference photos. Read articles on photography to understand how your camera works. The great thing about digital cameras is that you can take so darn many photos and by trial and error, get the hundred bad photos per good image that professional photographers do.

Just always sketch from life too. That's the most powerful combination.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Planning a Painting

Planning a painting was completely foreign to me for decades.

For most of my life I just drew or painted. I have sketchbooks where I used only a dozen pages because every time I drew something, I noodled over it to create a finished drawing as close to realism as I could get. I learned to sketch after I learned to draw.

That may be common for many self taught artists. As a beginner, realism is impressive and accuracy is the most obvious visible thing to learn. Later on, I discovered that details are actually easy and it's composition and design that make the difference between a good drawing or painting and a "technically perfect but somehow lifeless" one. The "technically perfect" part usually means "Overdetailed and laid out badly."

You can't argue with exact proportions copied from a photo until you're advanced enough to understand what the distortions of photography are. There are some real ones. Photorealists copy them on purpose to create large paintings that look like photos but are created in more durable materials by flawless craftsmanship... and they essentially use a camera for a sketchbook to do it.

Above is my first planning drawing for a wombat painting I'm doing for my Australian friend Lauren, part of a swap package I'm sending her for some cool Australian art supplies she's already sent. I was testing the Derwent Onyx pencil so I went ahead and did a fairly detailed little drawing with a sketchier background.

Where that's useful for planning the final painting is that I got familiar with the animal's proportions and textures. I tried one of the two references I liked and decided to see how it'd look in pencil. It didn't take long because it wasn't very large. The final painting will be larger.

Next, I tried the other reference in a pen and wash sketch. The penwork washed too dark so I wasn't completely happy with it. I shouldn't have washed it. But that taught me something and I won't make that mistake again, texturing all over with little hair strokes to shadow the fur if I'm going to wash it. Less is more in pen and wash if I want accurate values.

The point of both of these sketches was to just get some practice with the animal's proportions and a feel for the anatomy. I was satisfied after the first one, but wanted to see if the second reference would be better. It wasn't, I like the first reference more and not just because of the blurry botch of the wash on this. I remember how it looked without washing and this one was a bit more static.

Then I did something counter-intuitive. I sketched from the first reference again, this time simplifying it so much that it's just some blobby shapes in Tombow dual tip brush pens. This is a value mass thumbnail. I was planning where the lights and darks would go in the final version.

Doing a simpler, looser sketch of something I'd already drawn well the first time around seemed silly. It's not though. It made me think about where the areas of medium, darker and lighter values can go in the final painting. When I'm working in color I can group my pastels or oil pastels into value categories - medium-light, medium value, medium-dark. At that point I can play with color and give added depth or emphasis where I want it.

The brightest colors show up most in the Medium value category except for yellows and blues or violets. Yellows are brightest in the light-medium range, violet and some blues are brightest in the medium-dark range. Lighter or darker values than the tone of the pure color will start to mute color - but that also lets me use unusual colors and get away with it. Pearly grays that are mixes of pink, green, violet and peach are a lot richer than plain old gray. Deep darks that shimmer with reds, violets, greens and blues are lively compared to flat black.

You don't have to stick to what you did in the planning sketches. As soon as I looked at this value planning thumbnail, I noticed that I had bright morning light with a very strong shadow under the animal. Yet the light background and foreground was cool - it made me think of a misty morning. To do that, I had to lighten and fade out that cast shadow almost completely, so I decided to try that in a color study and see how it worked.

Here's the color study for the painting, done in colored pencils on a Borden & Riley ATC pad, 2 1/2" x 3 1/2". I knew the color study would be pretty enough as a small drawing in its own right that I might as well put it into a plastic top loader and send Lauren the color study too. This isn't the finished painting.

It's a little test of the colors for the finished painting. One that I might change my mind on - I like some aspects of it and not others. I might disperse the mist and put something else behind the animal, go back to the bright sunny look in the reference now that I see how the "Mist" idea worked out.

By doing a lot of preliminary drawings for this painting, I've accomplished several things. One of the biggest is that I've got some ideas on the composition. Every time I try it, I'm refining the composition ideas. Another equally important element is that I've got much more experience with cats than wombats. So drawing the wombat four times in different ways has given me a better idea of how it's shaped, how it moves, how its fur lays on its body.

I might continue doing more preliminary drawings till I'm ready to design the final painting. Or I might plunge into it later today. Either way, I know doing all these early sketches will help. Each one is a small easy project that didn't have to be flawless to be useful. I'd much rather make those mistakes on a tiny ATC or a small area in a sketchbook than have to correct them on a full sized painting on good sanded pastel paper. It'll save me hours of reworking to get all this trial and error behind me before I get out the expensive stuff.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Acrylics can be painted over!

It may seem self evident to anyone who's tried acrylic painting. But if you're used to watercolors and start working in acrylics, the freedom to paint over passages that didn't work can seem heavenly. Above is the Burnt Sienna monochrome underpainting for my benefit raffle painting of Skip the Bobcat.

I knew I'd be able to paint over that quick impression of the values, it's mostly a guideline to the final painting.

On the next stage, I refined his eyes to nearly finished - his eyes themselves are finished, it's the fur around his eyes that needs more work. I followed my reference on his mouth and started getting in the black indentations for his whiskers, which form distinct lines on the white patches of his muzzle. This was greeted with great enthusiasm by donors at the event on Facebook: Skip Portrait Benefit Raffle for Big Cat Rescue, but as soon as I saw it in thumbnail I knew something was wrong with his mouth.

One commenter said that Skip looked sad. I thought it was because his mouth looked cartoonish while his eyes looked realist, also I wasn't satisfied with the fur textures I'd gotten with the flat brush I started with.

It took me a while thinking through how to fix this. After all, I'm used to doing portraits in one or two sessions, not mulling over them and going back to change things. That's been my technique all along. I felt stumped.

All that rumination for nearly a month did help me to see what was wrong with it. For one thing, I hadn't shaped his muzzle before I added those black lines. For another, the strong black line of his mouth did look cartoonish. So I went back in today mixing new colors with the same limited palette I started with. Here's the current progress on the painting.

I switched to a round brush that I'm more familiar with than trying to use a flat brush for details and fur textures. When in doubt, if something's going wrong, turn to techniques you're already familiar with. I like the way the new round-brush strokes look a lot softer and fluffier than the blocky flat-brush strokes and will be going over them again with other hues of brown and gray to make that texture consistent throughout his pelt.

I also played with the foreground, adding some variation of value and using short choppy strokes to build up what looks like a tumble of weeds in his outdoor enclosure between his paws. It's a little hard to see in the glare, but that also helped his arm look more natural.

Painting in acrylic can be done with as many layers as oils. One of the best things you can use to keep paints fresh from one session to the next is a stay wet type of palette with a sponge and sheet of palette paper inside. I'll be working on this again either this afternoon or tomorrow but my color mixes from this morning should all still be moist and easy to use.

Just some tips while exploring a new medium. In Acrylics, mistakes are not the end of the painting! Just keep going and work right over what didn't work - the opacity of the paint will give you plenty of tries.

I went back to detail the black lines on his muzzle more delicately and was much happier with that on my second go.

Then I posted the painting on Facebook and started to get ready to post on WetCanvas. I knew something was missing and only as I was posting did I realize that Skip had no whiskers. The poor cat would be banging his head on his den, his platform, his trees, bumping into things all over the place without his whiskers!

So my last session was one of the trickiest.

He's now finished... but I'll give myself at least another 24 hours to be sure before we actually get the raffle going.

Skip the Bobcat is 8" x 10", Winsor & Newton Artists' Acrylics on a 3/4" cradled Ampersand Gessobord. I chose the cradled gessobord so that the winner wouldn't need to frame the painting - any framing budget could be donated to Big Cat Rescue instead. The sides have a nice wood finish and it's ready to hang.

Here's the Link to the Event Page for the Skip Benefit Raffle. I talked to Lisa Polo, who's inviting our special guest to draw the winner's name on Sunday. Be sure to donate $10 or multiples of $10 at the event page before midnight, Friday, June 10 2011 to get a chance to win this painting!

All proceeds go directly to Big Cat Rescue, I'm not even handling the money. We just linked to their donations page from the event and it's set up to report donations to me and Lisa so we know whose names to put in the hat. My paying for shipping out of pocket is my own donation along with doing the painting.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Rob's Art Philosophy

I draw better than I used to and not as well as I will.

That attitude makes me happy. It also keeps my art constantly improving. I read books, take classes, critique and have my work critiqued on and love hanging out with other artists. There's always people much better than I am in any medium and others who are just starting that I can help.

I don't measure myself against any other artist. The better I get, the more obvious my own style is. It's like my handwriting - it changes only with great difficulty and that takes changing how I look at things, how I hold the pen or pencil, everything. The only valid measure I have for whether I'm progressing is how much I've improved.

I'm disabled. Nobody else is exactly like me, my age with all of my exact health conditions. I limp to a different drummer. Some things are easier for me than other people, especially those I practiced a lot because otherwise I'd be bored stiff. All sorts of everyday routine things are impossible.

Above is one of the best lessons I ever learned. It's a rather small picture, 3" x 5" of a hadrosaur, a duck bill dinosaur. My little seven year old granddaughter gave me the dinosaur toy a couple of weeks ago because we both like dinosaurs a lot. I saw a video at ArtistsNetworkTV by Margaret Evans on pen and wash, using a watersoluble pen and washing water over it. I bought the same pens because I liked them, you can read about them at Rob's Art Supply Reviews.

I'm getting back in the habit of daily art.

You might be thinking, "But I have a job, and a big house to clean up, and family, and friends, I have a whole life. This bloke just sits on his bum all day playing on the computer and draws something."

Well, that's true enough but a lot of the time I'm just goofing around, I'm too sick to do anything well. What I found was that even if I'm really crunched for time or so sick I can't see straight, I can manage to make myself draw for two to five minutes.

Pick something small, easy and familiar. Use a small sketchbook and a pen, pencil or drawing implement you're completely used to. Sketch that favorite thing very fast without stopping, erasing or changing anything except by going over it. If the line's wrong, leave it and add the right line next to it.

This is called gesture sketching, because you try to get the gesture rather than the details or the whole person, place, thing you're sketching. I did not stop and grid out that dinosaur toy and then stop to think about what markings a live one would have, plan and analyze everything. I just scribbled it in pen. It came out well because I've been doing this on and off for several years.

If I don't have the time or energy for anything else, I can do a two minute gesture sketch of my cat. That's about as long as he lays still when he's sound asleep before rolling over and changing his pose. He's as good as a timer. My first sketches of him didn't even look like a cat. More like a furry donut with some triangles stuck on it.

But I kept trying. Every time I looked at him, it got a little easier to get his proportions right or notice how his long fur gets tousled when he's asleep. Which way his hind legs bend - that's a biggie, they're not like human legs.

"Excuse me," you might say. "But that, up there, doesn't look anything like a cat. Looks a lot more like a bald dinosaur to me."

True enough. But understanding the anatomy of one animal helped me to understand others by comparison with my very familiar, very beloved cat. I sketch tigers and leopards easily. I know that Ari's knee is right up there high on his leg, his tummy hangs under it - just like the dinosaur's does. I know how to do smooth skin and furry skin and feathers, the dinosaur's living descendants are outside my window hopping around.

It helps to start with something that doesn't move. Just make sure it's a favorite thing and sketch with something that makes a good dark mark. Pens, grease pencils, soft B range graphite pencils, a black colored pencil or a dark color. Draw fast and stop when the timer goes off. Then if you feel like it, do another one.

Date them. Watch how fast your rendering skills improve. If you already draw well, the happiest surprise is finding out that you can actually draw that much better again than what you were doing. That little dino-drawing is what I wished I could do as a little boy staring at Frank Frazetta paperback covers and Charles R. Knight murals in museums. I feel pretty silly now that I didn't think of moving my toys around to set up a diorama and draw from that instead of trying to make it up in my head. But I learned, and I've had fun all the way every time I learn more.

Give it a try. Just don't go back and erase, keep doing it again. Mistakes can become serendipity when you get used to leaving them in.