William works in oil and pastel. He views figures, landscape, or still life as opportunities to explore the effects of light on form. Painting from life, he seeks to capture the emotion of a particular moment and place. Sargent, Zorn, Fechin, and Sorolla have been his influences.
In art schools and workshops, we learn (usually in this order) drawing, values, edges, and color temperature. If we’re lucky, we are given some exposure to composition or design principles…but it’s almost an afterthought. The truth is that composition is probably the most important element in a painting. A painting with wonderfully painted objects that are poorly placed will probably never sell, but a piece with killer design and mediocre rendering will still fly off the wall!
When I first went to art school at the University of Illinois, I had a design class but the textbook dealt with abstract concepts that weren’t pragmatic enough for me. Our paintings were supposed to have “unity and variety and balance”...without explaining how to achieve those. It took me YEARS to unearth what I believe are the foundational composition principles:
Placement of centers of interest
Designing using a dominant value
Designing using a dominant color
Where do you place your primary and secondary centers of interest (COI) on the picture plane? We’re told to avoid putting them in the exact center of the canvas. But where can you place them?
One (albeit a very simplistic) method is to divide the picture plane into thirds, like a tic-tac-toe board. The idea is that you can put a COI at any of the intersection points. However, if you’re not careful, this can lead to a painting that feels out of balance…like it’s tipping over to one side or the other.
A more interesting method is to use what Juliette Aristides calls “the armature of the rectangle”. If you connect the opposite corners of the rectangle, the centers of each side to each other, and center to corners you create a “cats cradle “ of lines and intersection points. The idea is that a center of interest can be placed at any of those intersection points (usually avoiding the exact center) or in an area bound by those lines. Hint: you don’t have to use them all.
Look at the famous painting, “Baking Bread," by Anders Zorn. You can see that the head of every figure touches one of the construction lines. The main figures’ heads are also bound by two or more of the lines. Although the painting looks very unposed it has a feeling of rightness to it.
We see the same sort of approach in “Hylas and the Nymphs” by J.W. Waterhouse. These artists used conscious construction methods to place the subjects in these paintings. Masterworks don't happen by accident!
Yesterday I had to talk one of my students “off the ledge”. She was feeling discouraged and depressed about her art. Most of us feel that way once in a while but some artists seem to live in that place.
The problem is that humans constantly talk to themselves (if you don’t believe me, monitor what you’re thinking right now). We have an endless stream of subject, verb, object going through our heads…and all too often it’s negative: “Idiot” “I started too late.” “I just can’t draw.” “I don’t have what it takes.” “I always mess up the values.” “I just can’t see color temperature.” “This sucks! Etc.” We say things to ourselves that we would NEVER say to someone else!
I don’t know if we’ve internalized overly critical parents, teachers or peers or if it’s a natural result of childhood. (We all start out small, uneducated and powerless.) But it’s no wonder that we often feel demoralized. Worse than that, the negative self-talk slows our progress. If we’re busy beating ourselves up we can’t ask the questions that might actually help.
If our paintings don’t look the way we’d like, it probably comes down to errors in shape (drawing), value, color, edges, or design. We should be asking ourselves “Is the shape right?” “How is it off?”
If we ask ourselves the right questions, the answers are usually apparent. It often helps to ask “paired” questions: “ is that stroke too light or too dark?” “Is the edge too sharp or too soft?” “Too warm, or too cool?” “Too saturated or too grayed” etc. NOW we’ve got something to work with!
Here are some other ideas:
Make a gratitude list – all the things about your art that you’re thankful for
Acknowledge your accomplishments i.e. what have you learned in the past six months?
Set two goals for the next six months and tape them to your bathroom mirror so you’ll see them every day. I bet you’ll accomplish them!
“Attack your weakness”. Find a skill you’d like to improve and work on it (see the blog on being a perpetual student.)
Don’t just compare yourself to Sargent or Zorn. Think about this: there are 7 billion people on Earth; half are just trying to survive. But of the 3.5 billion that are above the subsistence level at least 1% call themselves “artists”…that’s 35 million! The fact that you’re even reading this blog means that you’re probably in the upper half. So remind yourself “I’m already better than at least 17 million other artists… and I’m improving!”
The great illustrator, Norman Rockwell, once commented, “They’ll forgive anything …except heads and hands”…It’s absolutely true!
Viewers grant artists a lot of leeway on other body parts, but the proportion and gestures of the face and hands must be reasonably accurate or the work looks amateurish. In fact, some portrait artists like Boldini habitually lengthened the proportions of their painted figures…their clientele delighted in the elegant distortions!
Painting the head is tricky enough, even though it only has two masses:
The fused bones of the cranium and
The lower jaw.
The hand has 27 bones and a number of tendons and muscles easily seen beneath the skin. The hand is as expressive as the face! Early on, I had to make a decision: I could avoid painting hands or I could “attack my weakness”. I bought a copy of George Bridgman’s Book of a Hundred Hands ($9, Dover Press) and spent six months copying every illustration.
Here are a few tips:
Use straight lines rather than curves, you will be more accurate…and the work will look more powerful.
Think of the middle finger; the distance from the wrist to the knuckle is equal to the distance from knuckle to fingertip. (Beginning artists tend to make the fingers either too long or too stubby.
The fingers taper.
The back of the hand is arched from side to side. The palm is concave.
Your palm has two muscular mounds: the hypothenar eminence on the little finger side and the thenar eminence on the thumb side. If you don’t show those mounds, the hand will look salamander-like.
There is space between the fingers where they emerge from the palm (they don’t form a sharp V).
The fingers aren’t parallel; they radiate from a point on the wrist (otherwise they wouldn’t fit when you make a fist).
I just finished filming an instructional video on painting heads and hands. Liliedahl Video Productions should release it in late 2018 or early 2019.
The great thing about being an artist is that the journey never ends. But some artists seem to hit a plateau and stop improving.
There’s an old saying, “If you do what you always did, you get what you always got”. If we keep practicing the same errors, we remain stuck. We need a change of mindset…to view of ourselves as perpetual students. If most pieces are learning exercises rather than finished paintings we can experiment and continue to add new tools to our artistic toolkit. In a Zen sense we have no attachment. Musicians are very clear about separating practice from performance. They practice scales and arpeggios so that when they perform a solo they have the command of their instrument.
We need to identify what we need to work on. As my friend Dan Gerhartz says, “Attack your weakness”. It’s usually: drawing (shapes), value, color temperature relationships, or edges. For example, I was dissatisfied with the way I was rendering hands, so I bought The Book of a Hundred Hands by George Bridgeman and copied every illustration into my sketchbook. By the time I had finished I not only understood the anatomy but also was able to capture the more expressive gestures of the hand. Here’s a detail of one of my paintings.
Bryan Mark Taylor calls this “chunking”. That is, identify one particular skill and practice that “chunk” until it is mastered. If you’re working on value structure, don’t worry about drawing, design, color, and narrative. Believe it or not this is the fastest way to master of a new skill. Martial artists practice each block, strike, or kick in isolation, slowly at first and then with increasing speed. Finally they learn to chain them together into patterns or combinations (Katas). In a combat situation they don’t have to think of each movement, they rely on muscle memory.
Another good idea is to work in a series. That is, paint the same object or scene a number of times to try out different approaches. This works well if you ask yourself “what if “questions. “What if I painted it in a very low key? What if it was high key? What if it was all in shades of blue? What if I sprayed it with alcohol and let it run? What if I did it in 25 strokes?” Some of these experiments may be terrible, but some may send your work in a new and interesting direction.
A great idea is to copy masterworks. Sargent did; Zorn did. In fact virtually all the great artists have done this type of research. The goal is to figure out the master artists’ thought process. Why did they make the choices they did? We all want to be original, but the more we learn from other artists the more tools we have to express our own personality. Again, think of musicians. Eric Clapton copied Robert Johnson and B.B King and other blues greats to develop his own style. A great idea is to copy a masterwork in a different medium. Here’s a Fechin oil painting copied in pastel.
Finally, we need to work as much as possible from life. The camera lies to us…especially about value, color, and edges. Working from life and squinting at the subject to simplify value, and edge relationships will help us grow. (working from photos will hold us back.)
When we first start painting, we’re so concerned with “getting it right” that we paint as tightly as we can. The result is usually a disaster – hard, over-delineated, and brittle. As we grow, we want to become more “painterly”. But how?
In my studies I copied masterworks by Nikolai Fechin and other expressive, loose painters and came to the conclusion that a major key was the treatment of edges.
Master artist, Carolyn Anderson talks about leaving “passageways” for the viewer’s eye to travel throughout the painting. In other words don’t “wall off” each area with a hard, sharp edge. The problem is that each brush mark or pastel stroke automatically creates a sharp edge. So how, and what, and when do we soften them?
If we know what we want to see, there are many routes to get there!
The most important thing I learned was to squint at the subject. With my eyes wide open all edges seem pretty sharp. As I close my eyes the last edge that remains visually sharp is my sharpest edge. I compare all other edges to that sharpest edge and identify the hierarchy. In a deep squint some edges appear “firm” some are “soft” and a great many are completely lost. So now I have a roadmap.
How to actually soften them? There may be an infinite variety of ways; here are a few:
Use a loaded brush with un-thinned (no medium) paint. Hold it parallel to the canvas. Make a light stroke so the paint slides off the brush in chunks…creating a broken stroke.
Paint across the edge with a soft brush to break up the stroke.
Rub it with your finger or a palette knife to blend the two edges together.
Scratch across the edge with the back of a brush handle.
Blot it with a paper towel.
Run across areas with an ink brayer (a small rubber roller).
Drag a squeegee across the painting.
In this demo from one of my workshops, I use several of the techniques I just mentioned. See if you can figure out which ones I used in each area.
I have received a number of questions about painting “backgrounds” specifically for portraits. Too many students spend their time rendering the subject and then try to paint the background at the last moment. The result is often a disaster; the figure looks pasted on or there is a formless envelope around the head. The problem is that the background is an afterthought rather than an integral part of the painting.
Don’t forget, someone looking at the painting sees the whole…not just the subject. In reality, the background is vitally important because it defines the center of interest. My pastel mentor, Harley Brown, told me “always work the background at the same time as the subject. The key is to give some thought to what you’re doing and why. Here’s a great quote from Quang Ho: “If you make a decision, it’s always right!” Think about it!
I think of three elements and three approaches when I make decisions about the background:
Value – is the background darker (like a typical Rembrandt portrait), lighter (like a more contemporary graphic piece) or the same value (used by some artists to lose the edges on the light side of the face).
Hue – A background that is the complement of the dominant color of your subject (either grayed or high-Chroma) automatically defines the subject as the center of interest. Furthermore, if you place equal amounts of the discords (two steps on either side of the subject’s hue on the Munsell color wheel) near the subject you reinforce the effect.
Shape – Rather than have a flat tone around the portrait (boring) you can create secondary points of interest…the three approaches listed below.
A specific scene or environment. Sargent did this in almost every portrait. He used columns, chairs and vases as secondary points of interest to create a mood.
A suggested environment. Abstract shapes still place the subject somewhere other than empty space.
A vignette- although the picture plane is not completely filled, the shapes that are there fulfill a design purpose. (I was taught that it’s a good idea to have a vignette touch three sides of the picture plane. I often design the “background” to have a movement that opposes the thrust of the figure.)
Here are some examples of all three approaches. By the way, I cover this (plus a lot more) in my workshops and DVD on Design / Composition Secrets of the Masters.