Friday, June 29, 2012

Neighborhood Stroll 1, pastel, 9 x 12
Neighborhood Stroll 2, pastel, 9 x 12
These are my demos from this week's pastel classes. The top one is from Wednesday's class, and the bottom from Thursday's.

When I started doing this series for my classes--and for my own improvement on this subject matter--with the house structures, I knew that I DIDN'T want to end up with paintings that looked like "house portraits." In other words, I didn't want to copy every detail of a structure to make it look exactly like the structure I'm painting. I just wanted to include structures within my landscape, and still focus on creating an interpretation of the landscape using my artistic "bag of tricks" (i.e., color, contrast, lost & found edges, composition, etc.).

Several weeks ago I completed a commission for a small company that wanted me to do a painting of their office building. In that situation, since they were paying for a painting of THEIR building, I had to make sure it looked just like their building.

However, if I'm painting a landscape with a random structure in it, I'm free to adapt the structure to make a good painting, rather than putting my energy into making it look exactly like THAT structure. I do try to be sure that my perspective (lines and angles of the structure) appears accurate, but besides that, I can adjust size/width/height (within reason), color, and take out/add in elements such as shutters, decorative items, etc.

You'll notice that my two demos look a bit different, even though they're from the same reference photo. My goal for both was to make a good painting, not copy the houses exactly as they appear in the photo. In the second one, I wanted to try a slightly different color palette, which is one small reason why they look different. Both were completed mostly during my demo time in the class (in the first hour or so), with some finishing up and fine tuning after class. So my goal was to quickly capture the lighting, create interesting edges and shapes, and decide what to leave in and take out. You can see at a glance that the foreground house is wider in the second one than in the first. No, I didn't intentionally make one wider. It's just that matching the exact proportions wasn't my top priority. I just wanted to make a good painting. I suppose that if I took more time, I could have gotten the proportions more correct. But I don't think that necessarily would have made a better painting, and with my time constraint, it would have taken my attention away for those other elements that are more crucial to making a good painting.

reference photo

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Simplify, simplify, simplify!

Rum River Glow, oil, 11 x 14
This is a piece that I set aside several months ago but still thought it might have some merrit. So this week I took it back out and had some ideas on improvements. I kept looking back at a some little studies I did of this scene both in oil and pastel.  And it was clear that I had to simplify it!  Above is what I just completed today.  Most of the changes I made were in the background trees...connecting shapes, eliminating some details, and softening edges.

Study for Rum River Glow, oil, 5 x 7
I did this little study right after I taught a pastel class many months ago, during which we practiced minimal stroke exercises. After the class, I used that same approach to paint this little oil study, which took about 15 - 20 minutes (much faster than usual for me!).  I spent a lot more time on the painting above, but attempted to simplify it by connecting large shapes of similar values and eliminating unnecesary details as I did in the study.

Monday, June 25, 2012

October Workshop Scheduled

I'm happy to announce that I'll be teaching a pastel workshop for the Pastel Society of South Carolina October 5th & 6th, 2012 in Greenville, SC.  Cost is $145 for PSSC members; $165 for nonmembers. Details are on the "Classes/Workshops" page of my website: Contact Susanne Vernon at to register.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Fickle Pickle 2, pastel 9 x 12
Since I often do the same demo for both my Wed. and Thurs. pastel classes, I do a lot of paintings twice. It keeps both my classes consistent and on track to learn the same thing week to week (a good thing, since I allow students to attend either day each week) and it's great practice for me!

This is my second demo of the same subject matter, but this time I captured the work in progress...

Although I usually put down my initial sketch with a Nupastel stick, with structures needing a little more control with placement and angles, I often use a sharp pencil. I sketch very lightly, including only the largest shapes and a few smaller shapes that I want to be sure to place carefully where I want them.

Using the broad side of a dark Nupastel, I place in dark and medium values, connecting wherever possible similar values to create larger shapes. Since I'm working on a light value surface (Uart), I leave the paper showing where I need light values. Keeping edges soft at this stage allows me to more easily move them slightly one direction or another if I need to later on. I try to get my line directions (angles, verticals, horizontals) placed correctly but am not concerned about neat, tidy lines, which often sets up the painting to have a "stiff" look. I also bump up the darkest darks with a very dark soft pastel.

Using alcohol and a bristle brush, I spread things around, creating some more subtle values and softening some edges. This liquid wash also sets this layer so that the additional layers will lay overtop more cleanly, rather than over a "dusty" layer of pastel.

The values of my initial underpainting are pretty dark, so I try not to cover them up too much in the areas that need to keep those deep dark values. Up to this point, I try to keep all of my values as accurate as possible, so in selecting colors, I need only match them to the values that are already established. Once I get the initial color palette selected, I try hard not to introduce too many other colors, but to harmonize the color by using many of the same colors in other areas of the painting where the values will match.

As I add details to each section, I try to keep edges as soft and "unfussed with" for as long as possible. Toward the end I can always sharpen an edge or straighten a line a bit more if needed. I focus more on matching values, color harmony and color temperature.

The finished result. Yes, it's a difficult decision to decide when it's done. A good rule of thumb is to stop before you think you're done. Often, that's when it IS done.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Fickle Pickle, pastel, 9 x 12
Continuing with our Buildings & Structures series in my weekly pastel classes, we moved "in town" to do some street scenes, where the subject matter gets much busier.

I used a monochromatic underpainting to get things started, and connected as many shapes of similar values as possible. Squinting is key with busy subject matter. My goal in the underpainting stage is to have the underpainting look like my photo appears when I squint real hard at the photo. With this painting especially, I found that attempting perfectly drawn lines is a waste of time. I find that it's usually best to leave your first stroke of pastel alone, and avoid the temptation to continually fine tune each stroke with a more perfect one. It's a better use of your time to make sure you have the correct value than to get perfectly drawn strokes.

This scene is another location along Canton Street in Historic Roswell, GA. The Fickle Pickle is a quaint little restaurant that serves scrumptious sandwiches and salads. I've eaten lunch there a few times with some artist friends after a morning of painting, so I thought it would be fitting to paint it!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Side Street Shed, oil, 8 x 8
I recently gathered some reference photos for the Buildings & Structures series I'm currently teaching in my Wed. and Thurs. pastel classes. But I decided to use one of those photos for this quick little oil study today, after struggling with a couple of other failed paintings earlier in the day.

Funny how you can work hours on an unsuccessful painting, but then be pleased with another that took only  a fraction of the time. I try not to let that bother me too much, since I hear from so many other artists that this is a common frustration. I think for me, it often has to do with my initial "vision" for the painting, or how I plan to interpret the scene into artwork, whether it be plein air, a still life, or from a photo. Sometimes when I don't have that initial vision, the painting just sort of flounders and I end up just turning myself into a camera and copying the subject matter.

The reference photo for "Side Street Shed" and the others I'll be using for my classes in the coming weeks are from Historic Roswell, GA along Canton Street.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

End of Day Calm, pastel, 9 x 12
In my weekly pastel classes we're starting a new series on buildings and structures. Many landscape artists (myself included) often avoid putting structures in our landscape paintings because of the added challenges of straight lines and perspective. I've found that, even if I can get my perspective correct and my lines somewhat straight, my paintings tend to stiffen up when I include buildings.

As I've studied the paintings of artists who paint this subject matter quite well, I've noticed that those elusive "lost and found" edges are key. If you sharply define every line and edge, this is what will give your painting that unwanted stiff look. It's just more information than the painting needs.

I think that the method you use to begin the painting can help you loosen things up while still keeping the line work accurate. I began my demo, End of Day Calm, by drawing in only the largest shapes and then blocking in large areas of values with two dark purple pastels (one darker than the other), which I wet down with an alcohol wash, creating a monochromatic underpainting. In the underpainting stage, I looked for opportunities to connect large shapes of similar values, to create even larger shapes. For example, I initially blocked in the background trees, blue buildings and roof of the center blue building as one connected dark value shape. This simplifies the composition from the start. I then pulled out lighter and darker sections, keeping all edges soft at this point. Then, as I started to "construct" the buildings on top of these loosely defined sections, I could pick and choose which edges I wanted to more sharply define. 

One way to "lose"  or soften an edge of a structure is to place it against a similar value (such as the roof of the barn against the sky...notice it contrasts slightly more on the right, but becomes more lost toward the left). Another way is to lighten the value or intensity of  a highlighted edge only in certain places...not along the entire length (such as the whitish trim on each side of the barn and on the highlighted trim along the roof line of the blue buildings). I also kept lots of soft edges in the foreground grass and background trees. This way, when I added the small, crisp details of the fencing and other misc. farmyard equipment, it would contrast nicely with these soft edges.

We'll do at least two more weeks of buildings and structures in my classes, so stay tuned for more on this subject!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Ten Years in Business, pastel, 11 x 14
I was asked to paint this office building for a small company in my local town of Roswell, GA. The employees want to give a special gift to the owners to celebrate their ten years in business. When I was told where the building was located, I was first hopeful that it might be one of the many charming old buildings that line the quaint streets of historic downtown Roswell. However, I must confess that I was disappointed to find out that it was a newer building. Basically a rectangular block of bricks with columns. A nice clean, handsome building, but not the charm I was looking forward to painting.

I've discovered over the years that boring subject matter can often make good paintings. It forces me to dip into my artistic bag of tricks to create artwork rather than merely copy my subject matter. By "bag of tricks" I mean things like manipulating hard/soft edges, becoming more interpretive with color, increasing the depth with color temperature, creating a more striking composition, simplifying the shapes to form a more abstract painting, etc. These are just a few of the "tricks."

With this painting, I tried to focus on exaggerating the difference between the hard and soft edges. I also got a little interpretive with the color. Regarding edges, I carefully chose where I would sharpen edges and define detail, and where I would soften edges and simplify things or, in some areas, completely ignore detail. With the brick siding of the building, I wanted to define only just enough for it to read as brick, but without actually rendering bricks.

I started this piece (done on La Carte paper) on location and finished it in the studio. Just delivered it today.

Coincidentally, when I recently asked some of my students what type of subject matter they'd like to tackle next, "buildings" was requested. Sooooo, I guess I'll be painting more buildings!