Not the content of today’s blog post, but it certainly gets more attention than talking about painting. Or maybe we should discuss politics in America instead!
Wait: it *is* better to talk about painting!
I find myself in a bit of a painting slump right now. Coming back from painting and teaching on Cape Ann MA I have a lot of new references to paint. I took lots of pictures in Gloucester and surrounding areas. It’s just that I don’t feel inspired to paint them. Quaint boats in harbors. What normally sounds great just makes me yawn. Maybe it’s the heat, I don’t know..
How do you find new, inspiring subject matter? You have painted the same things over and over. You need something else! One of the biggest things in painting is the continued inspiration to keep it up. Being able to be inspired over the years.
Below are my thoughts on this topic. Feel free to pipe in what works for you. I would certainly want to hear it! Thanks.
Travel to a new place
Arguably, this one should always work, except it didn’t for me this time. A new place – new inspiration!
Paint something you’ve never painted before
This is harder than it sounds. If you’re like me, painting a still life might not be something that sounds so interesting but it is definitely worth a try.
Start sketching with pencil or charcoal
If you just draw, you get into the mood. I do this quite a bit in my sketch book. It usually works to get new ideas for painting. Even if it doesn’t work out, you’re still sketching and therefore honing your artistic skills!
Look through art books
Very good for inspiration! We all have books with high quality prints of artist’s work we like. Internet can work too but pictures are usually not high resolution and often distorted. Colors also look different on every screen.
Experiment within your medium
When painting in my studio, I always try to do something new. Well, almost always. It can be something really small like experimenting with new pigments, white paint, or some new technique. It can lead to new discoveries and bring freshness in your work Take risks you normally wouldn’t take, even if you ruin it…that’s how new styles are discovered!
When I don’t feel like painting in watercolor I paint oils. It’s usually so much easier and more relaxing, so a very nice change.
Go paint outside
That one almost always works for me. Meet with some friends and go paint. Even if you don’t feel like it, you have no choice. Once on location I usually get into it.
Pick a picture and just do it
That is another good tip. I just pick any reference and just start without thinking much. The motto is, better to paint than not to paint..
Visit a museum or a gallery exhibit.
Great for inspiration. Nothing like seeing new work or paintings of artists you admire in person. Makes you want to go home and paint!
Do something completely unrelated to art and painting
Taking yourself away from the whole thing form time to time is important. There is a whole world out there and if you’re like me you have other interests as well: hiking, playing a musical instrument, researching the next gun you’re gonna buy etc. (I do live in the wild west, it hasn’t changed)
Spend time in your head
You need to be alone for that one. It helps to zone out sometimes, clear your head
Listen to music!
Doesn’t have to be classical, can be anything
Work out your body
Another unrelated activity that can recharge the creative juices. A run or workout in the gym etc. can make us feel like new
Some artists do drugs or drink when they want to write songs or paint. I’ve never tried it and wouldn’t know what drugs to get, but it’s no secret that many experimented with LSD, Cocaine or even just Marijuana. Probably not a good tip!
Play with your dog, cat or your kids!
Less harmful than the drugs!
I am sure everyone goes through creative slumps every now and then. To get out of it will be a different process for every one of us. I will most likely just paint portraits for a while. Something I am not that known for but love doing. That will get me back into watercolor landscapes eventually.
On another note: my 2019 workshop dates are up on my site! Consider joining us!! http://www.frankeber.com/workshops/
If you ever find yourself inside the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, check out the paintings by Swedish/ American painter Gunnar Widforss. They are all over the lobby and some of them are huge. All watercolor and painted about 100 years ago. Some are better than others (just like with any painter) but they are all worth looking at. From what I heard, he was strictly painting outside which is remarkable given the sizes of some of his works. A truly dedicated artist!
Widforss painted the tunnel view (Yosemite) in his time. Nowadays you mostly see photographers there to capture the sunset. I also painted it many times in all kinds of weather/ daylight.
Anything can be good painting material, depending on the condition. Not many watercolorists tackle cascades and waterfalls as they are quite difficult to paint. In the right light, though, it can be a wonderful subject.
Before painting anything I always look for the following aspects:
Will the light work as a painting vs. as a photograph? This is not as simple as it seems. Often I am tricked into believing that a scene/photograph will make a great painting only to find out after painting it that it didn’t really work out the way I thought it would. Experience helps here.
Will the value pattern work? Just making sure I have everything from super light to super dark somewhere in the picture. There is nothing worse than a painting that’s all mid-tone.
Am I emotionally invested? If not, forget it! In other words, if I am not 100% sure I like the scene, if I am not really psyched, I won’t paint it. Done that many times and the resulting painting was always mediocre, at best.
Do I have a strong design and composition? Are there areas that seem unresolved? Is my focal point there?
This is also tough to judge, especially outside. When painting watercolor it is easier because there is drawing time first. While drawing it is often obvious what’s not so great and fairly easy to change before the paint goes on. In oils, I can always scrape off areas but that is definitely best avoided.
Lastly, I will think about my color palette for a particular painting. It is important to have good color harmony and think about the interaction of color in all the major shapes, i.e. foreground, middle ground and background.
Visiting and painting a scene at different times of the day is a very good idea. I have my favorite scenes that I just keep painting over and over. This scene in Yosemite valley is definitely one of them. I keep learning about how light changes color appearance and value patterns.
For instance, in a back lit scene like the horses in the morning there is less color range compared to the afternoon scene. Or is there? Yes, in the morning the colors are predominantly cooler in temperature, the warm colors are there too but they are less warm than later in the day. That is the major difference in the two scenes. The morning is more atmospheric, however, both scenes have the full range of value from lightest to darkest.
In fact, one might argue that the value range is even more drastic in the front lit scene. Notice the darks under the roof of the barn building.
Both paintings do have warm vs. cool colors. The dark shadow in the afternoon scene is cool in temperature overall, but upon closer examination you’ll find warm accents within it.
In terms of painting, the interplay between warms and cools make a painting work. In fact it might be one of the most crucial things to learn to do right besides control of value.
This blog post was originally published in my newsletter earlier in March. Edited for clarification.
Being invited to the inaugural 2018 Huize Watercolor Exhibition in Qujing, China, was a big honor for me. I did not expect it. There are plentiful outstanding painters in the watercolor world, and I was surprised (and flattered) to have been invited. Our Western contingent hailed from Australia, Brazil, Italy, Ukraine, Russia, the US, and Germany. The Eastern contingent arrived from Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, and over 50 Chinese nationals from all over the country. I met so many first-rate, virtuoso painters, it was intimidating and especially inspiring! After 20 hours’ total travel time (San Francisco to Chengdu to Kunming to Qujing) I fell dead asleep in bed. Let me tell you, the airport at Kunming is regarded as “medium-sized”, with just over 150 gates. This was my first hint that It’s Different In China (and it wasn’t the last). Everything is big. People are everywhere. It took time to get used to that!
As this was a plein air event, the group of artists were shuttled to various painting locations: traditional villages in the heart of a bustling town or in a sweeping valley (It’s Different In China), a river surrounded by mountains, a factory in the countryside. Painters were given a choice of locations, and my selections, as a first-timer in Asia, were based on curiosity. As with painting outdoors, the first step is finding a scene. By the time you’ve decided, an Asian artist has already finished their first wash. While you’re waiting on your first wash to dry, they’re on their second painting. Some of the Asian artists were fast!
Portrait of a Chinese Girl (2018)
The work I saw were impressive explorations of composition, perspective, and proportion. Interpretations of scenes ranged from graphic to naturalistic, wildly imagined to actual color. The variety was exemplary. Not to mention the artists themselves who, despite the language difference, were affable. Art transcends many barriers: visual and visceral, it extends a hand to everyone, reminding us we are all the same inside.
There were other things to do, of course. A first-night opening ceremony was followed by a group painting demo and an East-West seminar the following night. (Yours truly croaked out a few jetlagged words.) An outdoor picnic the third night preceded a bonfire and celebration. I participated in jurying a student show on the fourth night. On the fifth and final day there was a public paint-out (a long strip of paper was rolled out and sectioned on a long table, and artists were invited to paint a section), followed by a closing ceremony and a public exhibition. Because this was a government-sponsored event, the care and detail with which they coordinated the last day was breathtaking. The only time we (as in Westerners, really) do something on a similar scale is during the Olympics. Yes, I am exaggerating, but not by much. As my Australian friend and fellow painter Herman put it, “in our countries they only sponsor football players”. Sad but true, the Arts are always the first thing scratched in most budgets…
Factory Mining Town (2018)
Boulevard of Lanterns (2018)
On that last day, the Chinese held a public presentation at the Huize Hongse Culture Exhibition Hall. There were dance performances and gifts made by children in the local schools, professional singers, and celebrity MCs (It’s Different In China). There was a short demonstration of watercolor painting and calligraphy writing. Speeches were made by government officials, after that came a presentation of the results of the juried student competition. All the artists involved in the day’s earlier paint-out were invited onstage to stand behind their section of painting. Finally, everyone was invited into the Art Museum to view all the work submitted by the painters. Back at the hotel, one last dinner with multiple toasts from various officials and organizers concluded the event. Perhaps it was just coincidence that the Chinese Lantern Festival ended that Friday; at any rate, fireworks later that night were a very appropriate ending.
Three weeks later, I am still processing my thoughts on China. I’ve started posting images on Instagram (and Facebook), and I’ll continue through the end of the month. China was interesting on many levels, to put it mildly. Art is given attention that cannot be compared at a public (as opposed to privately-funded) level: travel and accommodations taken care of in advance; readily-available shuttles and cars to drive to painting locations; intriguing or eclectic painting locations; good, local meals; and engaging interpreters. The climate in southwest China is similar to California. It was very dry and sunny, not ideal for watercolor painting but not bad either. Thankfully it was not hot. I was able to take a break one day to walk along the streets, a brief respite from painting. Outdoor markets, the sound of children over the constant barrage of cars, stray dogs, people hanging laundry out to dry. Slices of life, a familiar refrain around the world.
Factory paint out!
That is not to say there aren’t problems in China. There needs to be better education about trash disposal and pollution in general, environmental problems to the scale of 1.3 billion people. Often the beautiful countryside is littered. People also smoke everywhere, inside and outside, like it used to be in the US 25 years ago. On our way home we flew into Shanghai, and true to all the rumors about air quality, the city was having a foggy day. Well, it wasn’t fog… But I digress. You’re here for the art, right?
Final thoughts: Personally, the best part was connecting with the people in the villages we visited. At one, an old man was so happy to have me painting outside his home, he invited me in for tea! A smile, an offer to watch my easel while I wandered looking for other painting spots, an impulsive gift of rosehip tea in a bag. The Chinese people are joyful and friendly, and despite not having much of anything, open their house to you. It was a humbling experience.
A gift of rosehip tea
Would I go to China again? In a heartbeat. Once you get past politics and policies you always meet wonderful people wherever you go in this world.
There is still a lot to paint in China.
My heartfelt gratitude goes to Mr. Li, Mr. Tu, and all the organizers of this inaugural 2018 Watercolor Exhibition in Qujing-Huize, Yunnan, China for extending the invitation to me. To the hotel staff, the Tea Lady, our drivers (!), and the various people who turned out each day to watch plein air painting, thank you. Last of all, thanks to Dande and David, whose English skills were honed during those 7 days. Xièxiè!
A VERY, VERY BRIEF TREATISE ON PAINTING IN CHINA: The watercolor tradition in Chinese painting goes back as far as 400 BC. We are all familiar with the traditional style of Chinese painting: calligraphy, court/royal vignettes, grandiose landscapes. Exposure to Western art and artists, from the late 19th century onwards, gradually influenced subject and technique. Today, invitations extended to international watercolorists maintain that creative exchange, and the benefits can be witnessed on both sides.
I am happy to announce my participation at the International watercolor plein air week in China, from 2/25/2018 – 3/3/2018. The event takes place in the Yunnan province – the tropical area in southwest of China and the itinerary will include an exhibition, demos, seminars, plein air painting and sightseeing.
I will post pictures after my trip. Here are two paintings that will be on exhibit in China
Notan is a Japanese word that means dark-light. The principle of Notan, however, means much more than that. It is the interaction between positive and negative space.
The ancient symbol of Yin and Yang is probably the most widely known Notan. The positive and negative areas make a whole through a unity of opposites.
The Notan’s practical applications are for the design in painting. Understanding Notan will enable us to create value masses, tension, movement, and symmetry in our work.
A tone of grey between two value extremes (i.e. black and white) changes their relations and opens up a new field for creative activity. Here we think of Notan as the values of one tone against the another.
The set of three values is the basis of drawings, mezzo tint, aquatint etc. From there it is an easy step to many values. It is an exercise of great value (pun intended) to draw or paint a landscape with three values: white, black and grey.
Understanding Notan can help identify the most interesting and dominant shapes. It will also help identify the correct values and therefore create a stronger painting.
Art sources to check out are Japanese Notan designs, the artists Franz Kline, Mark Rothko and Piet Mondrian, among others.
I also recommend doing value studies before painting as it is the same exercise in determining value masses and their interaction = Notan!
Other examples of strong Notan in representational art: “Arrangement in gray and black No. 1” (Whistler’s mother), by James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Rembrandt van Rijn’s “Self-portrait at an early age”.
Reading: Notan – the dark light principle of design by Dorr Bothwell and Marlys Mayfield
Here are some of the most liked paintings I did last year. At least according to Instagram. The whole social media circus is strange to me, because it is tempting to actually believe that these are also my ‘best paintings’. Often I post something and think ‘this is a real good painting’ and almost get no response. Other times I post something I think is mediocre and, voila, it’s a total hit! I have kind of given up analyzing the whole thing.
Happy New Year to everyone who is interested in my art and comes to my blog. Let’s focus on the real reasons we are creating! Remember why your are an artist in this fake world of ‘likes’. Remember the reason why you paint and look through all the bullshit! Put your phone down and take in the world with your senses.
Let’s all try to spread kindness, reach out to help others and make up for the lack of empathy and compassion in this world.
In my last blog post I have talked about how painting can be compared to music. Personal taste is ultimately the reason why an individual likes a painting or a song. Good art, bad art? Who’s to judge? What’s great to one person may be horrible to another. In music, there are people who love endless jazz solos and others would want to run screaming out of the room if they were exposed to it. There may be paintings that I like a lot and someone else hates them. Overall, I think that’s natural.
But there is some music and some art almost everyone can love, maybe Mozart? Paintings by Sorolla, or more contemporary, Dali? Ancient Notan art of the Japanese and Chinese. In other words, there is a consensus where most of us feel the same way about something. To take it further, most people would agree that Audrey Hepburn was a beautiful woman. So there is almost like a standard for what’s beautiful.
How would that apply to painting? I think, ultimately, it comes down to the personal style of any given artist. The artist’s personality that has its presence in their work. We can see it. Sometimes you look at some painting and you just know, that’s a Sargent or a Zorn! The masters have their own distinctive style. It is *their* own personal vision of beauty that we pick up on and it resonates within us.
Nature by itself is not art per se, it is what the artist expresses when they paint her that becomes art. A painting that has the mood of a landscape is more powerful than one where the artists tries to paint every leaf on a tree.
Art and music are also influenced by the aesthetics of a people and societies in general. Sense of beauty and taste also changes with time, although some art and music is ‘timeless’. Landscape painting is timeless, I think, because we as human beings come from nature. It is in our DNA. In music, the classics like Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin etc etc. are still liked and listened to today even though their music was written hundreds of years ago.
Both art forms (music and painting) have effects on our subconscious!
Words like sensuous and passionate, or emotional, stimulating, mood altering, uplifting, depressing… can be applied to both music and painting!
An example would be to make a painting too busy. It is equal to listening to
music where someone plays solo without stopping. It is tiresome and ultimately not a pleasant experience. It is like looking at a painting that is filled with too much information
or no color harmony.
Emotional attributes are equally felt in the use of color in art. A painting has the highest impact when it captures some poetic mood of nature, an impression of strength and power, or an emotion in a portrait. Color sets mood. Just think of the beautiful works of the masters Corot, Whistler or Thayer.
Warm colors, by nature, are exciting and stimulating but can also be irritating. Imagine being in
room where all the walls have been painted scarlet red!
Cool colors have quiet the opposite effect. They are restful in the emotional sense. There is
a reason why most people use soft greyish tones when painting walls in their houses.
Going back to music, any music piece is only consecutively played notes between pauses which, when played without emotion, are just that: notes, scales. The actual music is in the interpretation. It is nowhere to be found in the notation.
Exactly like in painting: without an emotional connection a painting is just pigment on paper or canvas. It is certainly not found in the color mix. That’s why there is the term ‘artist’ and another one for ‘painter’. When does a painter become an artist?
When a painting is ‘technical’ we may be impressed (or not), but when a painting grabs you by your emotions it becomes art. That’s the painting you keep coming back to, whereas the technical one has your attention for 30 seconds and then you loose interest!
Instead of my paintings, this time I have uploaded some of the masters.
A good quote by Millet:
‘Technique should always hide itself modestly behind the thing expressed’
This is a small oil painting of ‘Beholder’, a famous American race horse. She is retired now, but during her career she earned more than $6 Million.
The picture was taken at Santa Anita race track. She was warming up for her last race before retirement in 2016. Usually, I am not a big fan of horse racing but I am a big fan of horses! Over the years I visited Santa Anita race track multiple times to sketch, take the tour of the stables and just look at the magnificent horses. They are athletes and just amazing to look at.
Beholder had initially quite the reputation: she was known to be very temperamental and hard to control. That changed as she aged thanks to her trainer with whom she developed a bond and depth of communication that made all the difference.
Before races, her trainer would use ear plugs and a hood with ear coverings to help her calm down. She also didn’t like travel therefore she raced most of her career in home state of California.
When asked what it’s like to ride Beholder, her jockey Gary Stevens said: It’s like I’m driving a Mack truck with the speed of a Porsche and the brain of a rocket scientist.”
Definitely a horse that deserves to be painted!
As for process, I don’t do any sort of underpainting in oil. As I do with watercolor I do a pencil sketch and work ‘alla prima’, as far as I am able to. What that means is, I try to judge value and color, mix the appropriate paints and put it on. Done. No going back (if at all possible, doesn’t work all the time). While this may be a harder approach it is also more gratifying because the energy of the brush strokes is completely preserved. No fiddling, over blending etc. etc. Unlike in watercolor, the brush strokes in oil painting is everything… actually, it’s the same in watercolor..never mind!