Saturday, November 19, 2011

Color Play 2 - Big Wheels!

Some of the author's pastels.

The Big Wheel is a good exercise for artists who have some floor space. You'll need a big piece of gray matboard or brown corrugated cardboard (the free version), a string, marker and push pin for a compass and of course, all the pastels or paint tubes that you want to organize. I would have set it up and taken a photo, but Life Happens and at the moment I've got no floor space to arrange a version of it. The photo above isn't all my pastels either.

However, when I make the time to clean all 275 of the pastels in my Dakota Traveller, I'll definitely consider doing this and snapping a photo for reference! Here's a photo of my biggest pastels box. I have them in color order so it isn't quite as urgent, but the Big Wheel would probably help me refine that.

Last week I posted a color wheel of my 24 Color Conte crayons, my most portable hard pastels. That was a useful project to show me how the colors mixed, see which areas the palette is strong in and which areas I’d be happy to get more colors. Yellow Ochre isn’t in the 24 color set, only an earth orange.

With paints, pastels or colored pencils, sometimes you’ll have colors that match if you mix more than one brand. In paints especially, whether acrylics, watercolors, oils, alkyds or gouache, you will find some colors that are exactly the same hue. A good example is the Cadmiums. Very often manufacturers have both the actual Cadmium pigments and less expensive hues that match the Cadmium colors precisely. Sometimes people even buy both.

I do, because Cadmium Red Light Hue, even if it’s an exact match, isn’t as opaque or aggressive as real Cadmium Red Light. Different pigments may have completely different mixing properties. The same amount of Cadmium Red Light and its Hue in a mixture with Ultramarine will be much redder with the original Cadmium. If they’re allowed to mingle on the page in watercolor, Cadmium is going to move farther into the blue area than the blue will into the Cadmium area.

Some watercolors granulate. Particles will settle out within an area as it dries, creating an interesting pattern. Others will dry completely smooth and clear. Which effect I want depends on the painting.

So the best way to handle this with paint is to get together all the tubes you have, cut some slips of paper or canvas paper about an inch wide and a few inches long. Use a hole punch to put a hole in the middle about 1/4” from one end.

Paint swatches on these slips. If it’s watercolor or acrylic, you can thin the paint out with water to make a gradated wash from a pale tint to the full mass tone - the darkest color right from the tube. If it’s opaque like gouache, tint the color up with white to the lightest tint you can mix.

With oils, acrylics or alkyds you can use canva-paper to make the swatch slips. This will also give you another useful bit of information to write on the back - how many days it takes that swatch to dry. Different pigments in oil paints dry at different speeds. Once you know this, it’s easier to estimate how long it’ll take for your painting to dry if you want to varnish it or paint wet over dry.

Once you have all the swatch strips created and dried, lay out a big circle on a white mat board or poster board. Mark it with twelve divisions and several inner circles. Lay out your swatches on the Big Wheel and arrange them by hue.

Because they’re separate little slips, if you think a blue is purplish but discover there’s a more purplish one and it should’ve been closer to spectrum blue, you can just move it. Often it’s easier to judge exactly where a color goes on the wheel without seeing what else is on the wheel. If you don’t have an exact spectrum color, such as a perfectly balanced emerald green that’s neither blue cast nor yellow cast, don’t worry about it. A touch of blue or yellow will push it toward the center and it’s useful for you to know that you don’t have a high intensity mid green.

Shades and mixtures can be put on swatch cards too the same way and laid out with your pure colors from the tube. Write down on the backs of the slips what brand, the color name and if known, the pigment number. There’s a number on tubes of paint like PB29 - that’s Ultramarine Blue. It stands for Pigment Blue 29, a specific synthetic ultramarine.

With hundreds of pigments that vary in transparency, opacity, granulation and lightfastness, choosing paint can be bewildering. It can also be exciting. Once you’re familiar with a pigment in one medium, you’ll find it easier to handle in another. Ultramarine is a big staple for me. I noticed that’s always the first watercolor tube that I use up, so I buy larger tubes of it just like I get bigger tubes of white in oils or acrylics.

Playing with my colors educates me on how to use them. It also gives me ideas for paintings. I’ll look at a cobalt blue and think of a jay’s iridescent feathers in spring sunlight. A strong greenish blue like Pthalo Blue might make me remember the sky in New Orleans, so much deeper and greener than a northern sky.

For dry mediums like colored pencils or pastels, you can use the Big Wheel to organize them before you even make the swatches. Then just copy the Big Wheel smaller into a large sketchbook page, pick up each pencil and mark it in its place with the color number of the product as a label. At the bottom, list the information like brand, color name and so on.

For mediums that smudge like pastels, pastel pencils, Pan Pastels, even soft colored pencils, you may want to laminate your swatches. Just buy a sheet of clear laminating film where you usually get your art supplies and cover the entire swatch after labeling. This makes the ring a permanent record. When you wear down a colored pencil to its last stub, or use the last paint in the tube, toss the tube and decide you need to replace it, you can check the swatch to discover what you need to replace.

Inevitably, I sometimes sharpen colored pencils from the wrong end. I’m left with a short stub and sometimes don’t even know what brand it was. Frustrating, but a good organized swatch system can help with that.

Separate swatches on a ring are also good for being able to add the new colors when you try a new pigment. When you start getting into experimenting with pigments, the number of tubes can grow until they’re unmanageable. Yet each of them is useful and some substitute easily for each other. Still others have such distinct effects that I choose the one that fits the painting.

I’ve noticed that the more choices I have at a time, the more likely I am to paint with a limited palette. It just isn’t the same one every time. It’s what exactly fits that painting.

When I had a dozen or two colored pencils, I often tried my best not to have to mix colors. Once I had a big set, I’d freely mix and often use tertiary colors in my mixtures. Lavender with a green glaze has a very rich effect but if I’m mixing just to get the lavender, I’m not as likely to get subtle.

Even iridescent or metallic colors have their own place on the color wheel. If it’s an interference color, lay it out by the color listed by the manufacturer. Interference colors flash back and forth between complements, so interference magenta is going to shift to green and interference green will flash magenta. You do have to make a decision on those, but they can still be organized on the color wheel. Metallic and interference colors often show up best on black surfaces.

If it’s a watersoluble stick, crayon or pastel, I make swatches shading by pressure to nearly white, then I wash back from the light end to the dark to show the color both wet and dry. Sometimes they can be dramatically different. Derwent’s Graphitint pencils are much more intense when washed than when dry. Both effects are useful - the dry colors are subtle and shimmer with graphite, the washed colors brighter but still muted with an eerie tone.

Now here’s some things to remember about color in all its possible forms, from automotive paint to soft pastels, watercolors, oils and food coloring. Oh yes, you’re an artist, food coloring counts. Tinted edibles may be an ephemeral art form but they’re fun to play with color on too. Why not do a giant sugar cookie, mix icing to various hues and intensities and paint a copy of a master painting on it? That could awe someone as a birthday present. Be sure to get pictures before it’s eaten.

Color has several properties.

HUE is what color it is on the color wheel. Red, red-orange, blue-green, violet, yellow, those colors. If you lay out all of your paints or sticks around the wheel, you can identify the Hue of any of them in relation to the others. Even sets of gray pastel sticks sometimes have all six spectrum colors in very muted form!

VALUE is not how much you paid for it. Value is how light or dark it is. Usually value gets described on a ten swatch scale, with black and white as the extremes. It’s a useful exercise to mix black and white paint to create eight evenly spaced grays and make your own value scale. It’s also nearly impossible. If you want to try it, purchase a cheap value scale card from any art supply company. Daniel Smith sometimes sends them out as a freebie with watercolor orders.

CHROMA or INTENSITY is how saturated the color is. Blue-gray has a low chroma. Bright spectrum blue has a high chroma. Blue gray isn’t very intense. Bright spectrum blue is intense. To see differences in chroma, lay out the colors on a gray piece of paper and see which one comes closest to the gray.

Muted colors with low chroma recede and are restful. They tell the viewer that object is farther away or less important or both. Brilliant intense high chroma colors pull forward. They attract attention and tell the viewer that object’s closer and more important.

You might want to use a gray mat board for your Big Wheel, so that sticks and swatches show how intense they are and what value they are next to as pure a neutral as you can get. It’s also why some palette paper is gray rather than white - it’s easier to judge value and chroma against a medium neutral background.

TEMPERATURE is the fourth quality of color. You got a simple version of this in kindergarten or first grade unless your school thought the arts were frivolous and it wasn’t taught.

Cool colors - blue, green, violet - recede and are restful to the eye. Warm colors - red, orange and yellow - are more attractive, draw the viewer’s attention and bring subjects forward in the painting. That’s simple enough.

But what if you’re doing a painting that’s got a red barn way in the distance and bright green grass in the foreground? Then you have to use some color tricks including temperature to push the barn back and the grass forward.

Split Primaries are a way to do that. Choose two yellows, two blues and two reds. You can even use split primaries and secondaries. The yellows are lemon yellow (closer to green) and a warm orange cast yellow like Cadmium Yellow Medium or Dark. The reds are an orange red like Scarlet Lake or Cadmium Red Light along with a purple cast red like Permanent Rose or Alizarin Crimson. The blues are a greenish blue like Pthalo or Prussian Blue and a purplish blue like Ultramarine.

When you mix a secondary color, choose the primaries that come closest to that mix. Orangy red and orangy yellow together make a very bright orange. Purplish red and purplish blue make a bright purple. This is the answer to the kindergarten problem in my last post - get the right pigments for your mixture.

But sometimes you want the green to be an olive green or the purple to be a grayish dusty purple. That’s when to use the “wrong” pigments, choosing a greenish yellow and purplish red will give a more muted, earthy orange. Orange-red and greenish blue will make a gray that’s somewhat purplish but more lively than a gray that’s just black mixed with white.

Other terms about color and pigments follow.

MASSTONE relates to paint and pigments. Masstone is the pure pigment without anything else mixed with it, like black to darken it to a shade or white to make a tint, or water to thin it. Masstones have different values. Prussian Blue and Pthalo Blue have almost exactly the same Hue, but the masstone of Prussian Blue is darker, closer to black.

OPAQUE or TRANSPARENT colors. Many paints are transparent. Opacity can range between completely opaque, semi-opaque, semi-transparent and completely transparent. Colored glass or clear plastic candy wrappers are completely transparent. Pastel sticks are opaque.

With paint, one way to test transparency is to use a permanent marker to make a black line down the middle of your swatch card. How much the contrast of the black line against the white card shows will give you an instant view of how transparent that paint is. If you’re lightening with white, transparent colors become more opaque the more they’re lightened. The swatch card will show you how light you have to make it in order to cover another color on the painting.

Gouache is completely opaque, more opaque than opaque watercolor pigments. It’s mixed with some white pigment and other opaquing fillers to give complete coverage. This is useful for its own properties and it comes closest to using pastels of any wet medium.

When you’ve charted and organized your art supplies, it’s much easier to decide what to use for a given project. The next step is to just play with them. Experiment on different surfaces. Do small studies to see how they handle and layer. If you record your observations in a sketchbook or bound art journal, it can become a permanent valuable reference for anything you want to do in that medium.

I hope with this article that whatever your favorite art supplies are, you’ll have fun finding out what they do, what the properties of each color is and how they mix. Methods of mixing colors are something for another article. Have fun, play with your stuff and get inspired by color!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Why do I paint?

Pastel sketch on light blue Canson paper, Autumn Leaves by Robert A. Sloan

Because I didn't want to work hard, just play all day and have a good time.

Seriously, this is not a bad way to avoid working for a living. You get to do what you want, when you want. You get an artistic license to be as weird as you want and people just think that's a sign of creative genius. I'm a 56 year old man who fusses over kittens and cats. I purr at my friends in conversation. Who else but an artist or a novelist can get away with that?

I had a nightmare of a childhood with many undiagnosed physical disabilities. The normal things children did were all impossible or so difficult they precluded each other. I could get my homework done OR I could do my chores, never both. I had to get up at ouch in the morning, walk farther than my body could manage, endure gym, go to classes that ranged between extremely dull because I already understood everything before I walked in, or impossible because I was slow in that subject.

I limp to a different drummer.

Everything in my life before I was legal age was scheduled and mandated by other people who didn't understand either my limits or my abilities. If I wasn't so far behind I didn't make it to the starting gate, I was so far ahead that I fell asleep out of boredom and exhaustion.

The one exception was art class. Back in the day, art teachers mostly believed in "Do what you want to" and "Be yourself." I'd come in a roiling mass of dark rage and my art teacher would let me sit down, play with colors and do anything I wanted for an hour.

New art supplies and mediums were a constant joy. In actual classes I got to try things like making linoleum prints, stamping with carved potatoes, painting with acrylics, watercolor, drawing with charcoal - I loved charcoal, an early sign that pastel was one of my best mediums.

Whatever I did, they raved over it as wonderful. Art teachers were not prejudiced against the exceptional child. They didn't tell me "Stay back with the rest of the class" if I read ahead or through outside reading discovered something cool. If I wanted to copy Hieronymous Bosch, an art teacher wouldn't say "That's too morbid and bizarre."

They'd just encourage me and if I got it right, they'd rave over it.

When I painted a demon, they didn't tell me I was going to hell for even thinking about one. They though it was great, it was so full of emotion.

My dad taught me scientific illustration with careful stippled pen drawings of fossils and life drawings of my pet white rat that let me draw other rodents easily. He had a Tom Lehrer album on which the great comedian joked "If you can draw well, you'll never flunk biology."

He was absolutely 100% right. Drawing well carried me through every life science class. I turned in the best diagrams and sketches, college level when other kids were doing wobbly stuff.

Why did I get so good so darn fast? Because whenever I had art lessons or time left alone to play with art supplies, I dug into it and practiced with the learning curve and single minded intensity of a bored child. Regular teachers sometimes stepped on me. I remember a grade school teacher who gave me a hard time for trying to draw people with volume and shading when I was supposed to do stick people and flat houses with curlicue smoke from the chimneys.

The thing is, her opinion didn't carry the weight of an actual Art Institute class for young painters. She was obviously a grade school teacher. Lower on the educational totem pole than a specialist. The specialist, who taught adults and college kids too, raved over my Black Painting in acrylics.

I had invented impasto and reserved white when I decided I wanted to do a black cat climbing out of a coal scuttle at midnight. I just used most of a tube of stiff black acrylic paint and sculpted the cat around two green-yellow eyes with slit pupils, sculpted the coal with a palette knife, all the highlights were reflections on the shiny paint.

He used my black painting as an example and credited me for inventing it. Even though I'd reinvented something that was used for centuries, he made me feel like a genius for thinking of it myself rather than reading it somewhere.

I can do whatever I want in art and other people will like it.

My first commission was a scientific paper illustration for my dad. I drew a fossil in pen and ink and a life reconstruction of the little animal, a type of rodent "Something like a gerbil or kangaroo rat" that was close enough to a white rat that I got it right. Dad critiqued the pencils till I got them right and I spent hours carefully stippling and inking with many examples in science books. It was actually published. I got paid with a genuine Rapidograph technical pen, which I wish I still had.

Back then, Rapidographs looked like high end fountain pens with fat cigar-shaped black bodies, a discreet color tip showing the nib size and of course piston fill inside so you used them with bottled ink. Someday when I'm rich I'll hunt down a vintage one just to replace the long lost trophy of my first sale.

He was family though. I didn't realize "people like me and let me do whatever I want" could replace actual work until I was in my twenties. I did some art to sell at a science fiction con, by my current skills it was awful. That didn't matter. I went in and someone in the registration line bought a dragon sketch for a dollar to put on a button.

I sold everything I brought. I realized art could be turned into real money without having to work hard for it. A corollary was that expensive art supplies paid for themselves. Toys that pay for themselves! I loved my big 72 color set of Prismacolors and the first thing I did after the con was to buy replacements for all the blue and green ones I used up doing the 9" x 12" shark painting that sold.

I lived on the cheap and bummed around. I fell in love and moved to San Francisco, where art was a steady side income between random low pay jobs when I was tired of being broke. I moved to Chicago to get a better job, turned into a workaholic, wasted the entire decade of the 1980s working hard as a typesetter, drawing on weekends and breaks. I sold art at conventions on weekends.

After moving to New Orleans, I got another job that paid a third of what I got in Chicago but had lousier working conditions. I didn't regret it when I got fired on a technicality a month later. I got mad. I decided I should give it a shot living just on art, so I brought my portfolio down to the French Quarter and showed it door to door at shops and galleries.

A commission for a large pencil drawing for a poster got my rent paid and 50 of the posters to resell at market price. I wish I still had one, the last few got damaged in a flood a decade ago. I did the convention art to live on for a year, then when that market dipped I did pastel portraits on the street with a $29 "B" license for the happiest years of my adult life.

Unfortunately some bad decisions like moving farther away from my setup areas and not saving up for the summer slack season meant I ran my health into the ground and couldn't continue that.

Now I've moved to San Francisco and gotten help for my disabilities. I live on SSI and I've got a business doing art and writing about art on websites and also writing science fiction and fantasy. I've just paid my $166.08 Street Artist Program license fee.

The best occupation I ever had, the easiest source of fast cash in a pinch is back in reach again. I lived on it when I wasn't permitted to use the best high traffic spots on a "B" license in a city that had only seasonal tourism. San Francisco's tourism is year round. I've got transportation. I've got help with the things I can't do. Another local artist is buddying up with me because I know the business and he doesn't mind helping me carry stuff or set up - the things that held me back weren't the painting part.

So I'm hoping to be self employed again soon. It may take a while to get out of the poverty income range, but I lived better under the poverty line when I did art and didn't work than I ever did when I was working class and had three times the money. Believe it or not, I had more spending money as a $4,000 a year artist.

So I'm back to my life as experience taught me it should have been. I could fold it up, retire and not have to work for a living at all. I could just live on my SSI and take it easy for the rest of my days. But I'd get bored and there's no substitute for that magical moment of watching someone watch me paint and their jaw drops. Street art is a performance art too, it's like being a magician. There's this paper and these colorful little things and bit by bit, they see someone real or some place real come looking out of the paper better than life, forever caught in a moment of splendor.

I'm a better painter now by far, largely through hanging out at WetCanvas.

I'm looking at all the professionals I know here and thinking - maybe I don't need to stay under the poverty level. Maybe I can build a business that'll make me middle class without a Job as such or having to wear a tie. It would be cool to have more money, to eat better, eat out if I'm out painting, have other luxuries.

The thing is, the lion's share of those luxuries will go into the studio. That's where my spending money goes when I have it.

So I paint to avoid having to work and get money for nothing.

I know that's just a feeling. I have skills honed over years and use them well. I use the best materials and craft my works as well as my German grandpa ever did a weld. I'm working hard. It doesn't feel like working hard when I write or paint though, because I'm that into it.

The more people in this world who quit working hard in favor of doing what they love so much it doesn't feel like work, the happier all of us will be.

Next week - Color Play II: The Big Wheel. I continued from yesterday's Color Play article and wrote another one with an interesting project.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Color Play

In pastels or any dry medium, the more colors you have, the easier it is to create the best effects. My ideal palette has all the primaries and secondaries in warm and cool versions with at least two tints and one shade of each, plus some muted colors, grays and earth browns also with tints and shades. Of course I don't always have my ideal palette at hand, especially if I want to sketch outdoors.

Above is a color wheel with every stick in my 24 Color Conte set laid out on medium brown Aquabee Bogus Recycled Rough Paper. White, gray and black form a bull's eye at the center. Yellow at the top, red at the left and blue to the right is a common primary triad layout.

If you didn't get this in grade school, the color wheel is the first thing most people learn about color. Primary colors are red, yellow and blue. They can't be created by mixing other colors. Secondary colors are orange, green and violet, which can be mixed by various proportions of spectrum primaries. Inevitably using children's art supplies, the red and blue produce a murky gray.

"It's the pigments" is what my kindergarten teacher told me as I scowled at that muck. "The red and the blue pigment aren't pure, they have a little yellow in them, so it turns gray." I was mad that the manufacturers had not included good spectrum primaries in the tempera line. Today's kid paints usually do, so I must not have been the only disgruntled kindergartener.

But the color wheel is much more useful than you'd think. Everything has a hue. A gray can be a blue-gray leaning toward green or toward violet, a brown might be closest to red, orange or yellow. Mix complementary colors (exact opposites on the color wheel) and you mute them. They become brownish or grayish but may still retain their identity. The color of my laptop case is actually a metallic deep dark orange.

When you make color wheels with any new art supplies, you begin to find out exactly what those mixtures can do and what you can do with them. You can also use color to create or control emphasis in any part of a painting later on when you've thoroughly experimented with your supplies - including a short palette of a dry medium. It's one thing doing color harmonies with 132 Prismacolors or more - recently they pushed that up to 150 and I know I need those other 18 pencils. It's much harder when you only have 24 sticks and really want three tints and a shade of every spectrum hue including tertiaries like red-violet or yellow-green and a good range of muted colors with their tints and shades.

I mixed my primaries by overlaying them. Red and the spectrum blue mixed evenly. Yellow and Red or Yellow and Blue took double doses of yellow, one under and one over, to get a secondary hue between the primaries. That's the kind of thing I test out with a new dry medium when I create these charts and color wheels. I blended with my sticks but you can do optical mixing by crosshatching or dotting, or finger smudge to get a smooth blend. It's your color wheel, do it your way.

I also wanted to place every stick that isn't a pure spectrum hue where it belongs on the circle. I put tints going inward by just going over the colors with the white stick, since a small set of color Conte doesn't have light yellow, light pink, light blue or even a couple of versions. It takes practice mixing the hue and value you want, although these hard pastels are particularly good mixers.

Then I put the secondary hues next to their mixed versions and tinted those up too going toward the outside. Very useful information if I'm sketching on the spot. I'd rather find out in a diagram like this that I need to use very little violet and a lot of white to get lavender, or that the purple stick is more red-purple than pure purple.

One thing that can be very useful is to look at the colors you have and see what combinations suggest themselves. My Conte set naturally includes Sanguine, a dark orangy red, and an earth orange that's more muted than the orange stick. The blue is very bright, but using white to lighten it and shades the sky also mutes it a little. If I want to sketch autumn foliage, I'll get a richer effect using the sanguine, earth orange and peach stick than I would using the bright orange stick. The complementary background would possibly make a bright orange tree too garish.

Here's how it looks in combination:

But if I want to make a more muted color look bright, using a fully saturated complement or near-complement behind it will do so. The dark blue-violet stick is a good match for the peach stick as a complement, using it as if it's a yellow. This could work with a yellow ochre tint too. I used the muted orange stick to shade it rather than the bright orange. You can see how it pops out against that background!

Below is an autumn tree sketch done with the Sanguine, Earth Orange and Peach colors against a spectrum blue sky shaded up with white. I used Olive green on the hill, but decided to jazz that up with a little of the muted orange so that it'd have more variegation. That made it stand out better against the sky and look more lively.

Test out color ideas like that in a small way. This is another good sketchbook exercise, something to do if you don't have much time for your daily art but want to keep the habit. Working only a couple of inches tall keeps you from overdetailing and shows the effects of color just as well as a large painting.

What does the brown paper do in all this color play? It makes the warm colors brighter by reinforcing them. It also brightens the cool colors I used. Look closely at the above examples, the blues, greens and violets in particular. Brown flecks from the paper create the same shimmering intensity for those cool colors that the cool colors do for the muted-warms subjects.

It's okay in pasteling to let some of the paper color come through, or in sketching. Either of the two drawings is comparable to the kind of color study I might do out in the field if I saw a flower I liked or a tree against the sky.

A mid-value paper lets me see how light my light colors are easily and how dark my darks are. With some subjects I might just sketch in the shadows and highlights, letting the paper form the middle tones. Gray is more neutral but it'll work the same way. Brown gives more warmth though, and for landscape sketching it does more to help complement all those greens and blues of sky, foliage and water.

So when you're warming up to do a serious painting or when you get new supplies, consider charting them in a color wheel as well as a row of swatches. Mix any hues you use often and place anything not exactly in the spectrum brights around the outside nearest to its color family. Constantly redoing color wheels will help you handle the muted colors better. They too can form a good spectrum.

You can also use muted colors as a primary triad to see what happens. This exercise on white paper is a color wheel done with a muted primary triad from the same box of Conte crayons. Sanguine for red, the light orange/peach color for yellow and gray for blue. I used a little black and white in it too, mostly to darken the gray. It's the equivalent of something like the Zorn palette in painting, using warm colors with black substituting for blue.

It works well for two reasons. One, black pigments including those mixed with white to form gray sticks often have a blue cast in themselves. This is as true in paint as it is in pastel sticks, they're all done with the same artist pigments or inexpensive hue pigments.

The second reason is that a true neutral color, like gray, will take on the look of a complementary color to a color placed next to it. Put a red dot on a gray card and the card will look gray-green. Or here, where I placed an orange-reddish autumn tree sketch against a gray sky, it looks like a blue sky albeit not a bright blue sky. The gray mixed with the peach stick and a little black in the darker areas turns greenish because the blue cast of the black mixes with the yellow in the peach stick.

That light color looked much pinker on the brown paper by itself. On white it looked more like a warm yellow. So what values and hues are around any color will affect how it looks. The more you play with this, the more effectively you can handle it in a painting. Wouldn't an autumn forest against a stormy gray sky make a powerful scene?

So experiment with your mediums. Art journals are great for this, along with other sketchbooks. The more you play with your art supplies, the more masterfully you'll handle color in a serious painting. This is also something you can do when you're not feeling inspired, or if you feel discouraged about the quality of your painting.

Just doing color wheels and mixing diagrams starts to remind you how fun it is. You may get an idea from a subject by the exact mixture you created or by trying out a weird triad like substituting the secondaries for primaries. Green, violet and orange as your three mixing colors will produce an interesting but coherent color harmony - why not test them out in your art journal?


Monday, November 7, 2011

Water Brush and Brush Pen Sketching

The little painting above is my homework for "Essentials of Painting Trees" by Johannes Vloothuis, current in a series of fine art courses presented by WetCanvas Live! You can join the course late and still get the benefit of the classes by viewing the streaming video on a password-locked page for paid students. Previous courses are available for download from North Light Books.

I've been taking Johannes Vloothuis classes ever since he did his first Free Trial test of the GoToMeeting webinar software in December 2010. The master literally used his free trial to the max, for thirty days an increasing number of students spent four to six hours every day watching and participating in his lectures on all aspects of landscape painting. He redid the course and presented it again from December to April. All the downloads are available at North Light Books.

Now he's started doing classes on specific topics in depth. We had Buildings and Mountains, now it's Trees, next time I think it'll be Water. Because he had short "Trees" segments in his two general courses and I took notes, I have hundreds of little brush pen sketches of evergreen or deciduous trees in my notes. Some were copies of examples Johannes sketched on the screen with the webinar program. Others were my brush pen sketches as examples of what he was talking about.

So when he assigned "Group five evergreens together in a single mass, don't use color, just do them as a shape," I played with it. I got out my Winsor & Newton Field Box, where I've substituted Paynes Grey for Ivory Black and a Niji Waterbrush.

The brush is a nylon watercolor round, about size 6 or 7, with a water receptacle in the handle. Fill it at the sink or if you're out in the field, from your water bottle. Tap the little black regulator cap back into the receptacle and screw the brush tip back on. You can now paint with watercolors without keeping a water cup handy.

This is handier than anything else for quick watercolor sketching in your art journal when you're out. There's no need to juggle anything but the watercolor pans or palette and what you're painting on. You can even handle both while standing up, it helps if your pocket pan set has a thumb ring on it to hook a finger through.

So I did a couple of versions of the homework assignment, striving for graceful abstract shapes and a melodic line at the base of the mass. Then on this third painting in a 3" x 5" wirebound all-media sketchbook, I did something different.

I laid the water brush down at a steep angle, maybe only about ten or fifteen degrees up from the surface of the paper while I painted the tree silhouettes. I swished the tip in the pan to pick up color and didn't try to bring the color all the way up the hairs. So the tip had the strongest color and the base of the brush head was just clear water.

I got a dramatic result by accident on my first go - a soft gradation of color at the bottom of the grouping that looked like ground hugging fog below a hillside. I quickly added more details and areas to the top of the trees with the tip but I kept the brush at an angle as I progressed across the page. I worked fast, not letting the paint dry till I was done.

You can see some of the places where value varies from my additions to the trees. But the base came out with that smooth, gorgeous gradation.

So try this at home with a water brush. Tip the brush with color and then lay it down at an angle. Establish a hard-edged form above and a soft-edged gradated wash at the bottom. It's not that hard when you get the knack.

You can also use this from side to side on rounded objects. Just tip the brush with color and lay the brush nearly flat to the side, then move along the contours of the shape. While it's still wet, you can charge other colors into the wash.

Water brushes were developed in Japan. The first one I ever encountered was from Sakura, included in the 12 color Sakura Koi Pocket Box watercolor set. The pocket brush version is very short but will last through one to three post card sized paintings without refilling depending on how much water you use. Later on they put a full length water brush in the 24 color Sakura Koi Pocket Box, which has a lid designed to hold a postcard sized sheet or block.

I tried other brands. My favorites are Niji and Derwent. You can also use the same "tipping" technique with watercolor pencils and a water brush. Just run the tip of the brush over the tip of the pencil and then apply at an angle to the paper. The color will shade out beautifully to bare paper in a perfect soft edge.

Back when I got my first Sakura Koi 12 color Pocket Box, I was also exploring Japanese sumi-e painting - ink sticks ground with water on a suzuri stone, painting with natural hair Chinese or Japanese traditional brushes. Many of those are rounds that come to a good point. The tipping technique showed up in two instruction books I got from my local library as a sumi-e technique.

You might consider getting a library book on Sumi-E - Yolanda Mayhall's "The Sumi-E Book" is an excellent source if your library has it. Any technique in sumi-e can be duplicated with watercolor and a round brush, the mediums work well together. The biggest difference is that sumi-e ink does not rewet after being painted.

What I found was that using a water brush to practice the sumi-e strokes gave me instant results. It was so easy that I kept on doing sumi-e inspired sketches like the pines above as almost watercolor doodles. I thought I was just playing with it, goofing around. After all, it wasn't the classical medium with the correct brushes and stone and ink sticks.

What practicing in watercolor with a water brush did was to bring some of the principles of Sumi-E into my other art. I internalized some of the conciseness, some of the compositional ideas, most of all the understanding that I could convey a lot with only one calligraphic stroke.

I don't mean calligraphy as in Western calligraphy, like German black letter, Old English or Irish Half-Uncial. I do that too and it's fun. When I say "Calligraphic stroke," I mean the types of strokes used in Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, kanji and Chinese ideograms. Expressive brush strokes where the pressure and direction change constantly.

I also took out a book on Japanese kanji and practiced some letter forms in my journal at that time with the water brush.

I highly recommend this practice. Get to the library, get some books, get a water brush and start doodling in watercolor. Lately I've been hearing critique from master artists about my pastels or pen drawings that I have an Asian feeling to them, or I have conciseness. This even affected my pastel painting!

What works with a brush in wet mediums can sometimes work with a stick or a pencil in dry mediums. The idea of getting across more information in each stroke, of painting as if it was poetry rather than the novelist approach of describing every detail will affect all of your art.

So practice it the easy way. Water brushes were invented in a country where brush lettering is the calligraphy. Like brush pens, they were designed for quick fancy writing as much as for painting pictures. So give it a go!

Doodling with brush pens like the Pitt Artist Pens or Tombow dual tip brush pens is another way to practice calligraphic strokes. Tombow sets now include a colorless blender that's essentially a water brush with a foam point instead of a hairs point. You can blend out soft edges after the fact with the Tombow pens if you use the colorless blender pen. I haven't tried it by dipping it in paint, though I should since I've got four of the ten-color sets and thus four colorless blenders. I can afford to wreck one or stain it by using it in a watercolor pan.

Brush sketching isn't the same thing physically as pen sketching. You'll develop a different "hand" and set of motor skills with the water brush doodling and brush pens. I specifically recommend the brush pens because they make painting fast and easy. With zero setup, you can try to paint-sketch something in two to five minutes instead of having to go find your watercolors, get out water bottle, set up something to hold your stuff and then get started painting. By that time your dog or cat has moved, or the sun changed.

You might not even have it with you when you go to the supermarket. But if you put a small art journal or multimedia pad in your pocket along with any pocket set of half pans and a water brush, you'll always be prepared to capture a sunset, an interesting tree branch, a gesture of a teenager sitting on the curb.

Try to depict your subject as fast as possible in as few strokes as possible. With short practices on impulse scattered throughout the day, your painting will improve as fast as your drawing skills do with fast pen or pencil sketching.

Have a go! It doesn't matter if a few doodles come out badly - what matters are the ones that come out striking, far better than you expected. Date everything you do so that you can see your progress. Within weeks you'll find your paintings in all mediums start to improve from this practice.