Monday, September 3, 2012

Art du jour, Part 1

When I was in art school one of my instructors told me, "Art is like a game of golf, the fewer strokes the better." What he was trying to tell me was that art is about clear and succinct visual communication.

Later he told us that, if we really wanted to get better at rendering the world about us, we should free ourselves of our technical "crutches" -- that is, force ourselves to see more carefully and make marks more accurately.

Scalloped Sea Shell, oils on 4"x4" canvas

The first "crutch" to go was our erasers. And, sure enough, after acknowledging the unhappy results of a few (well, probably more than "a few") bad observations and erroneous renderings we did actually begin drawing faster and more accurately.

Hard Candies & Paper Bag, oils on 4"x5" canvas

 The second "crutch" we shed was our pencils -- going straight from our observation to indelible ink. And, again, there was an initial period of disappointment and frustration as we came to grips with the inaccuracy of our efforts. But we quickly learned to slow down; use all our senses; observe specific details, patterns and relationships; and, only when the true nature of our subject had become clear to us, to convey its essence. Art had become rather zen-like, we had become the novice monks -- and we were thrilled at how clear the nature of the world around us had become. Even when we weren't drawing or painting we were looking -- at the way the morning light fell upon an object, at the reflections and refractions to be discovered within a dew drop, at the colors within a shadow.

 Glass Miniature, oils on 4"x4" canvas

 And then came alla prima painting -- painting each canvas or panel in a single sitting, and painting a new work every day. For this exercise a singular subject will suffice, and a small canvas or panel will do. (The object is to develop a clear eye and accurate hand, not necessarily to cover large surface areas in brief periods of time.) 

Glass Jar, oils on 4"x4" canvas

When doing one of these little projects I generally choose a subject that has a hard reflective and/or transparent surface (for me, personally, bright colors are a nice plus). I create a simple environment (a large sheet of middle-toned paper, bent so as to provide both the "base plain" and backdrop will do nicely -- although I also have a fondness for shiny mahogany surfaces too). And a strong light source to one side for nice contrasty highlights and shadows (natural light when I can get it, but often artificial during the winter months) rounds out the "setup".

Sleeping Scholar Chop, oils on 4"x5" canvas

 One of my favorite supports for these exercises are 4"x4" and 4"x5" canvas panels (which I purchase in bulk from Dick Blick) as I can easily hold one in one hand while applying paint with the other.

Glass Marble, oils on 4"x4" canvas

 My personal work process involves a preliminary compositional underdrawing in pencil, followed by wet-in-wet application of oil paints -- generally working from the darks (which, in oils are usually the faster drying pigments) to the lights (which, because of their higher oil retention, are normally slower drying). As a general rule, I only use as much paint medium as is required to obtain a buttery paint consistency. And I tend to prefer using bristle brushes to sable since the former tend to impart (again, for me) a very pleasing impasto brushstroke.

Onion and Jar, w/c on 4"x6" HP paper

 I routinely alternate oils on canvas with watercolor on scraps of precut Hot Press watercolor paper (a medium/support combination that I never leave home without and which I find great fun to work with).

Larry Boy, oils on 4"x5" canvas

I'm constantly on the lookout for new subjects for my little exercises (and am not averse to "raiding" my kids' toy collection). Larry Boy was something they found abandoned on a park playground and rescued from toy oblivion and the ravages of nature. (Our family have been big fans of Phil Vischer and Mike Nawrocki for years.) 

Hopefully, the video below will also give you some insight into my workflow -- although I usually work without a soundtrack. (If you would prefer to see the individual stages as stills, you can click here to visit a special page at my website.)


Post Script, Please keep in mind that this article describes techniques that have proven useful for me. If it also proves useful for you, great! If you choose to modify my example in any way to make it more useful to you, even better still! Remember, you have an Artistic License. Feel free to exercise it in whatever way works best for you. And, if you need any art supplies to exercise that license, be sure to drop by Art Supplies & Provisions Online. (Visitors are always welcome.)