29 May 2011

Sonoma Plein Air 2011

Keith Wicks. Winner of the Artists Choice Award.

I just came back from Sonoma, Ca. The Plein Air event was absolutely wonderful.  I was very lucky to be juried in.  I admittedly haven't been to that many events but the thing that struck me most is  that Sonoma Plein Air has a charitable dimension besides the survival of the event  or art organization itself.Not that the survival of the art organization is not lofty enough in itself.  Most of the proceeds from auctions and sales go directly to support art programs in local schools. Talented artist  Keith Wicks is the founder of Plein Air Sonoma and he has summoned a great amount of support among the community members for  this cause that brings great artistic talent to the Sonoma public, exposes artists to the beauty of this enclave and provides much needed funds for the schools.

"Josephine Lake" 10"x8"

 I will be the first one to admit that I was a bit nervous, being so far from my turf and a first-timer but the volunteers that worked for the event were very welcoming and like Keith Wicks said: "if you don't know where to paint, well, then you are blind. What are you doing here?". Sonoma is spectacular in an understated but magnificent way so subject matter is certainly not problem. From barns to vineyards to wine cellars, sheep, cows, old trucks, buildings, creeks, oaks and eucalyptus groves, subject matter is not an issue.

A highlight of the event is the Gala Dinner where paintings are auctioned in silent bids. 

A personal highlight. I made the acquaintance of Mr. John Lasseter., quite a wonderful guy  who gave an impassioned speech with not a hint of boilerplate about arts funding and education and donated time and even two lunches at PIXAR. 

My booth at the Saturday show before the rain made us all close the shop.

Among the highlights of the event, the QuickDraw at Sonoma Plaza, the Artist reception,the Friday night Gala Dinner and the Saturday all day sale. All of the events went smoothly, including  the Saturday sale where we had to contend with a heavy downpour that sent us all scrambling. 
Other highlights of course included the acquaintance and re-acquaintance with some phenomenal artists, some of the lunches and get-togethers, the community members that opened their homes and properties for us to trample, the food itself and the excitement that kept me up at night.

"Vadasz Barn" 16"x12"

Some notes for myself. Yes, this is California but t-shirts won't cut it. I am going to get me some long sleeved shirts and some sturdier shoes. Protection against the elements is essential painting outdoors. 


On Completion.

And a final thought. When is the painting done?  The  short answer is "never". The long answer is whenever you have said what you set out to say.

 I am in Sonoma , Ca participating in the Plein Air event. It is a new event for me so I was a bit nervous. I didn't know the area -which is ok- but there is a competitive aspect to it, a desire to prove the organizers that they juried you in for a reason , be it sales or quality, and there's the pressure of time.

 So that got me thinking, when is a painting done, or rather, when do we leave the painting alone.

"Mossy Monsters, jack London State Park" 12"x16" One of my more "finished" plein air pieces.

"Jack London Inn, Glen Ellen, CA" 8"x10" An intentionally less worked-over piece but may be more "done" than the oaks above. 

 Of course, everyone has a different idea and that's ok. Here are some thoughts:

Detailing. Nature is infinitely detailed. No painting will match nature or a photo in detail. Ever. So it can't be just about the detail. Especially if you are en plein air,  detail is a relative concept and interestingly enough comes mostly from the brush stroke itself , the edges and the washes, not how much work goes into every leaf. Striking a balance between detail and not-so-detail. This painting below is "Back Harbor Road" 12"x12" from Hawaiian artist Darrell Hill and it illustrates  the idea of sourcing the detail from the brushstroke. He is "done" with this piece.

Highly detailed, every hair and cranny paintings are a tradition and an aspiration from the dawn of oil painting and even before. Every painting needs to keep your interest somehow and create or recreate its reality. You have to be a virtuoso to pull detail  off on a smooth surface without a lot of painterly fireworks. Some very  excellent painters : Richard Dadd, Norman Rockwell, Andrew Wyeth,Peder Mørk Mønsted, Daniel Smith come to mind, have done wonderful detail work and managed to keep the painting fresh at almost microscopical levels without loosing sight of the fact  that they are painting.

Photorrealism. Painting from a photo is a valid mechanism. But again, if your painting ends up looking like a photo you haven't done your homework or you are going for virtuosity -which is highly valued in illustration. But I've often seen paintings with lens flares, blurry cars, people in awkward poses, color hue shifts  or  deep deep darks that betray their photographic origin rather than artistic decisions. A painting might start with a photo but it can't possibly end there. So a painting is not "done" if it looks and feels like the photo it came from.

Experimenting. What does experimenting have to do with completion?  Well, a favorite quote of many artists and mine too -you've heard this, you've said this, usually after a two hour nasty struggle with your canvas: "I was just experimenting." -Aha! I failed, so it must be an experiment. Noooot so quick buster, I am not getting away with it. Admit it Jose, you set out to do a masterpiece. You might have been even just practicing (practicing is when you are not experimenting, just like an athlete is not experimenting when he trains fro the marathon) but that thing you just called an experiment  is staring back at you  looking every bit the nasty mess it is. Well then. You are not "done". Done for the day may be but not done with the painting. Pull out the spatula and wipe it out. No, it won't look better tomorrow when the elves come fix it at night.

Experimenting  requires that you set out to  try something new to you, be it a new material, technique or even a new mental attitude. You open yourself to  the possibility of failure, sure, but you walk in with your eyes wide open  just in case  you discover something new as well.  Experimenting is as conscious as everything else.  Failure just happens and is as necessary as it is hard to handle but hey, in the field nobody hears you curse so tell that cow how you really feel.

22 May 2011

On subject matter

  This weekend I did two paintings. Both brought the issue of subject matter to the fore. One was in the San Gabriel River where I actually hiked for  about 45 minutes before settling for a nice spot...which might account for why I need to finish that piece in the studio. The second one was the birdbath painting  above, done during a demo at the San Gabriel Fine Art Association. The subject matter was "imposed", I mean that birdbath is exactly what was in front of me at the entrance of the gallery. I didn't bring pictures with me to paint from.

SCOUT: Sometimes it is worth walking or driving a bit. But searching for the perfect spot can ruin hours of perfectly good paintings. A good spot presents itself almost every time just walking around.

 SQUINT: I am of the opinion that a painting is almost anywhere if the light is right.  When looking for a "good" subject matter the first thing I do is squint an see where the most interesting plays of lights and shadow happen.
The fame of a place is irrelevant if the light is not right. A buyer might buy a painting  of a famous building or area "despite" the fact that it is uninteresting as a painting but that invariably makes the satisfaction suspect. People, dumpsters, cars, ignore what they are, just look for what makes a good composition.

SCOPE:  If an area is not all that interesting, I sometimes change "scope", I focus on smaller landscapes within the landscapes.  Instead of painting the whole street, paint a building. instead of the building, paint the bucket and the brooms in the porch.... The birdbath above is an example of that, I am painting a small section of the building even though I am sure the light behind the wall was a lot more interesting. Recently I found  some weeds in the freeway during my commute  that would make a great painting.

16 May 2011

Red gel

 I post this comment to Judy's question because I think I need to explain further.This is no endorsement of any product at all and I don't think this is an essential tool.

Red gel is a lo-tech solution, a simple sheet of red acetate. All it does is remove all the color information when you look through it so you can see more clearly the tonal values i.e. lighter lights, darker darks. It simplifies the scene to just big shapes so you don't loose track of the overall tonal range. A better choice yet is to use your digital camera and when viewing the picture turn the settings to black and white.  And if you are in the studio you can go all the way and use Photoshop/Paint package of choice to   1) load the picture b) desaturate it and c) posterize it to 3-7 shades of grey. I've seen this done by very good and famous  painters  and it will save you a myriad squints.
Publish Post

14 May 2011

On simplification

For a while now I've been thinking about "simplification". As a plein air painter, you have a limited time to get as scene. In theory you should be able to tackle anything but some painters will limit the scope of the scene to limit the confusion. If you were in a farmer's market for example, you could choose to paint the whole scene with crowds and all or just one stand or even one single orange. Simplification will be needed regardless of the scope. -and the orange is just as difficult a the whole market.

We can define simplification by what it is NOT. It is not carelessness or hurrying. As a matter of fact, to be fast and simple you will need to spend a lot more time preparing your attack  than throwing paint willy-nilly.
The first thing I always do is lay the horizon line, never in the middle, but thinking whether I want to emphasize the sky or the land below. It amazes me how many people ignore basic perspective.

I  lay down a precise and accurate  position "map", I pick some key points in the scene and measure and measure again. Is the span of the dark  arch a wide as the receding wall, is the distance between the tree to the right and the building  twice or three times that span. Amateur painters and some experienced ones often make their subject of interest a lot larger than it is or try to squeeze things in at the last minute when they should have taken the time to measure. This results is awkward paintings and wasted time.

Then, I figure out where are my darker darks and my lighter lights, my softer edges and my harder edges. I don't care what things actually are, I don't see leaves or bricks, all I see is soft edges and had edges. UNTIL you can speak out loud where this things are, don't even bother.

And then I lay down accurate averages of the colors I see, not the local colors but the actual colors.
Only the last hour is devoted to quickly and precisely fill in the gaps and details. All the guess work is gone or very limited. By the way, more and more I use my grid view-finder, my red acetate  gel and my color charts. No shame there, it is not cheating. And every time I use these devices, a better painting session is almost guaranteed.

So simplification, the process of reducing infinite detail to the main shapes is just that, KNOWING what the main shapes, colors and forms are so you can achieve freedom from details while you paint.

NOTE: A gridded view finder is a piece of plastic you hold up to find the best composition. Not the most sophisticated tool ever but some of them have a superimposed printed grid that allows to place the different elements according to a  grid you can draw in your canvas mimicking the one you see.