Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Minimal Stroke Exercise...It's Back!

Tunnel Through the Trees, pastel, 8x6

In today's world, we live in a society in which we don't like being told we have a limit. We love phrases like "unlimited minutes" and "unlimited miles." But of course, sometimes too much of a good thing can be bad. And even the newest pastel artists quickly find out that too much pastel pigment on a surface is usually a VERY bad thing.

I like to revisit this exercise with my students every so often. It's a great one to do with both beginner and experienced students. Not only do I always get positive feedback from students about how helpful it is to them, but I find it to be a great exercise for me personally. For me, doing these exercises reinforces the importance of economizing every mark that I make on a painting. Each extraneous, unnecessary stroke on a painting weakens the impact of the work.

The above painting is a completed piece that was begun as a 100-stroke demo. Below is how it appeared after 100 strokes (okay, it may have been around 105)...

The completed version was with a total of about 5 more minutes on top of the 100-stroke exercise.

It was suggested to me to occasionally feature some of my student's work on my blog. Below is today's effort on this exercise done by Judy Tiller, who's been studying with me for a couple of years now. I thought Judy did an excellent job choosing a good combination of colors and accurate values, and capturing the basic elements of the landscape scene with good economy of strokes!

Judy Tiller's minimal stroke painting

Below is the reference photo that my students and I worked from today...

If you'd like more information on this exercise, you can click the following links to previous blog posts on this topic:
Minimal Stroke January 2013
Minimal Stroke April 2012
Minimal Stroke January 2012

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Still Life: Assembly Required

Sunflower Trio, pastel, 8x10

Although I'm primarily a landscape painter, I enjoy painting still life, too. A few of my pastel students sometimes accompany me on weekly plein air outings, but most of my students prefer working from photos. So every once in awhile I hold a still life class in order to get everyone out from behind the photos and work from life.

But there are challenges with doing this in a class setting. If you're limited to the space available in the studio, everyone in the class will need to huddle around one still life setup. And no one person (except the instructor who set it up) has control over the placement and lighting of the still life objects. Basically, you get what you get from where your easel is set up. That's the case in my studio where I hold classes. In other art centers where I've taught, I've had the use of larger studios and the ability to provide each student with their own space to set up their own still life objects, but they still needed to share lighting.

I personally feel that it wasn't until I started composing my own still life set ups that I really could do this type of work to my satisfaction. Maybe it's the control freak in me, but there's nothing like having total control over the objects selected, surface, background, arrangement, and the all important LIGHTING.

So for this week's class, I held a "demo only" class and went over what to consider when getting a still life set up...encouraging my students to put these ideas to work at home, where they can take advantage of that "total control" thing.

Before we got to the topic of lighting, we discussed still life composition and decisions that need to be made up front which will affect the composition. One such decision is at what level in relation to the viewer's eye to place the arrangement (overhead view? eye level?). As a landscape artist, an equivalent decision I usually make up front before painting a landscape is regarding a high horizon vs. a low horizon. Shadows and reflections (and composing these elements) as an integral part of the composition were also discussed.

I tend to approach still life in a similar manner to plein air painting. I use a viewfinder to help me determine where to crop. I also make use of the camera on my phone to snap a quick shot and quickly review various ways to crop. For plein air painting, I use both of these tools. With using the camera snap shots, I can quickly flip through the various compositions and see which ones work better than others.

On to lighting...I've noticed that many accomplished still life artists tend to arrange their subject matter within a controlled lighting environment; either some type of enclosure or area in their studio in which they can block out or direct controlled lighting.

Below is my very crude attempt at creating a still life environment. If I were to begin specializing more in still life, I have to say that I'd certainly want to improve upon this. But the objective here was to more carefully control and direct the light source and enhance/darken the shadow areas. Without an enclosed area, the area in which the objects are placed receive too much light from various areas of the room. Another option is to darken the entire room, but in my studio during the day, too much light comes in through the windows. After I got going with my demo, I wished I extended the dark cloth on all three sides in order to darken the shadow areas some more. Like any other genre, it takes practice in order to master the subtleties of setting up a still life. The best still life artists are able to create a sense of drama with the ability to get focused lighting exactly where they want it. And many still life artists take as much (or more) time composing their arrangement as they do painting it.

But for the purposes of today's class, the goal was to simply inspire my students with a few ideas to work from life at home. Hopefully they'll all do their homework!

A preliminary block-in for Sunflower Trio.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Workshop Wrap-up - The Art Loft, Dahlonega, GA

Shady Refuge, oil, 8x10

I just spent a fantastic two days with a wonderful group of artists in Dahlonega, GA teaching my "Composition Boot Camp" workshop at the Art Loft. Anita Elder, who owns and runs the Art Loft, does an incredible job taking care of students and instructors, making sure it's an excellent experience for everyone! The workshop was open to oil painters and pastel artists, so I demonstrated in both media.

Directly above and below are my demos from the workshop. They were both started as "block-in" demos working from thumbnails (see below), completed later after the demonstration time.

Resting Place, pastel, 6x12

Thumbnails were a big deal in this class. Students had to first develop several thumbnail sketches for each painting according to a list of composition guidelines that I suggested, and then take a small painting only to the point of blocking in the composition, working from one of their thumbnail sketches. By the end of the workshop, students ended up with lots of sketches and several starts to small paintings in which they carefully planned every shape within the composition. (No details allowed!)

The students in the class and I all agreed that the next time I teach this workshop, I should use a timer for the thumbnails and the painting block-ins. This would better encourage focusing only on the big shapes and prevent the tendency to want to labor over details.

Below are examples of my thumbnail sketches, and the block-ins that I demonstrated from one of the thumbnails for each.

My next couple of workshops on the calendar are pastel workshops. One in Charlotte, NC for the Piedmont Pastel Society, Nov. 4-7 (this one is full with a waiting list), and then in Littleton, CO at Terry Ludwig Pastels, Jan. 24-26, 2014 (a few spots still left in this one). You can see the full schedule on my website at