Friday, March 9, 2018

Painting rocks and pushing colors beyond the "real"

Horsethief Butte
Hiking around Horsethief Butte last fall with friends, I got a great photo that I hoped to make into a painting. These massive basalt formations are on the Washington side of the Columbia River just northeast of The Dalles, next to the Columbia Hills Historical State Park, which is also a worthy destination for the collection of Native American pictographs and petroglyphs there.

The interesting thing about these formations—and all the other exposed basalt bluffs and cliffs around them—is that from a distance, like across the lake from them, they look BLACK. But the closer you get to them the more colors you see in the stone and the lichens that grow on them—reds, browns, ochre, yellow, even green. Before I started painting I studied every photo I'd taken that day, then googled for images of basalt, and finally decided I wanted to show both how black they can look, and how colorful. That meant I had to invent my own colors, which is always more complicated, but also more fun.

I really wanted to paint the formations as accurately as possible, so I used my digital projector to draw in the outlines, and the first painting I did was to establish the angular vertical shapes of the stone in both buttes with a color value underpainting. After the initial blocking in I ended up adding multiple layers of thin washes, including violet, gray, burnt orange, brown, and black, lightening and darkening alternately until it finally looked good to me. By far, the most difficult part was getting the highlights on the left butte to look right. It took me three days to finally hit on just the right hue and value of grayed red-ochre.

The bottom line is that I kept trying different things, and if I liked it, I left it, and if I didn't, I painted something else over it. I particularly appreciate how easy this is to do in acrylics. You don't have to use medium, although you can, and I used to—now I just thin the colors with water. It's taken me a couple years to learn (and remember) what you'll get with all different dilutions of washes, from barely visible to barely transparent. I do give them at least a full day, preferably more, to cure before I put on the gel medium isolation coat and protective layer, and when I brush that on, I do it with a very soft brush and very carefully.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Discovery vs. Planning

House of Love
This one evolved quickly to something very different from what I started to paint. As Bob Burridge would say, it turned left quickly and kept going all the way to the end. I started with a random distribution of the large, short strokes, playing particularly with the violet and red-violet against a yellow-orange background. I covered the canvas the first day and was totally unsatisfied with what it looked like. The next morning I decided the problem was exactly that—it looked random, and stationary—with no direction or energy. I first worked on developing two dark areas, but it still didn't have any energy so I began repainting it, organizing the strokes into to groups and a movement pattern began to emerge.

Pattern begins to emerge
At that point I started liking where it was going, and realized it wanted to be vertical rather than horizontal. I kept working with that, adding more groups and finding a pleasing pattern with the different hues of violets and yellow-oranges. I'd give anything if I could figure out how to get the many shades of yellow orange to translate to computer images. I tweak the heck out of them in photoshop, but my camera doesn't capture them correctly (the top photo is pretty close, though.)

It was actually the twisted colors in the photos that led me to add the bits of green to balance the one-sided hot palette, though—a real serendipity because I would never have come up with that, and I really like the green with all the oranges now. It's closest to a violet-orange-green triad, but with a lot of intermediate colors.

The title came to me as soon as the pattern emerged, but I couldn't understand it till it was totally finished and I realized how symbolic it was for me personally, having to do with personal growth and the challenges of life.

My process ended up being largely one of discovery and invention, rather than executing to plan. As soon as I focused on letting it evolve, finding the things I liked and being OPEN to keep repainting until it began to talk to me, it became fun and kind of exhilarating to work on it. Scary, definitely challenging, but very rewarding in the end.

Monday, January 29, 2018

I cheated on the big version

Underwood Fire, 7:14am

I finally got to making a larger, more finished version of the Underwood Packing Plant fire last October. I enlarged it to 18"x24", which gave me a chance to do a lot more work on the smoke clouds,  and the foliage detail in the left foreground (which still barely shows in the photograph). But after struggling with the proportions of the barn in my last painting I really wanted to get them right from the beginning in this somewhat historical subject. I didn't want to have to draw a grid and then paint it out, so I got out my old Artograph opaque projector and used that to draw in the outline from the photograph. I feel like it saved me my usual hours of re-drawing and repainting when I'm 3/4ths done with the painting and suddenly figure out that the angles or shapes or sizes of the elements are off enough to make the painting look awkward.

The bigger a painting is, the harder it is for me to get all the proportions and placements correct in the initial drawing. I feel like all the extra time and paint it takes me to fix those errors is a waste—I'm not getting any better at drawing on large canvases. If I were, it might be worth continuing to try drawing the outlines the hard way. I give up. I want to spend all that time working on the painting part, getting the colors the way I want them.

In fact, with plans for more large gorge paintings in the works, I decided to buy a relatively inexpensive digital projector with a bright LED lamp that I can use during the day, unlike my old Artograph. A preliminary test showed me that I can use it fairly easily in my studio, and I'll share more details on it when I start using it later this winter.

In the meantime, I'm starting a big abstract.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

You can solve any problem if you stare at it for a week

Glenwood Barn
If there's any secret to success, it must be stubbornness.

I had a feeling when I started this one that the photo I started with had some problems I couldn't quite pinpoint, but the colors were nice, the light was good, the composition was pretty good, and I really wanted to paint this barn. I liked the fence and brush-filled wash in the foreground and thought it added an interesting counterpoint to the building.

When I had everything blocked in and the background colors and grass mostly complete, as I began to get the details of the barn nailed down, the foreground looked less and less compatible with the rest of the painting. I experimented tinting the foreground shadows with different colors from the rest of the paining—red, red-orange, blue—but nothing improved the problem. I painted it darker; I painted it lighter—neither helped. I did the same thing on the fence—highlighting it took too much attention from the barn, and darkening it made the whole foreground look like a dreary afterthought to the rest of it. I lightened it back up and left it all.

I stared at the painting for several days without getting any ideas. I thought about starting another one, but knew I'd never go back to this one if I left it. Finally, yesterday afternoon I got the idea to enlarge the lightest area of grass—what I'd copied from the photo—from a very narrow band across the center of the painting. I stretched the highlight down to cover most of the grass and pushed the darker grass into the foreground, and everything looked better.

This morning I wanted more change because the bottom foreground was still too strong, and pulling down the energy of the whole painting, so I stared at it again for a few hours and finally noticed a hint of pattern in the right side of the grass and knew I wanted to make that stronger. When I painted in the diagonal streaks of richer gold, the whole composition changed. The pattern created just enough of an 'X marks the spot' effect at the near corner of the barn, and it pulled the whole painting together. The foreground suddenly balanced the trees, and the barn itself took on as much importance as if I'd put a spotlight on it. I believe what it did was add a design element in the grass that somehow highlights the barn. Who knew?

None of that was in the photo. There wasn't as much grass, there were more shadow stripes, and the foreground was darker. It took me a whole week to figure all that out, but it feels so good to win one!

Monday, December 25, 2017

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Wishing you and yours all the best in this holiday season, and the best year ever in 2018!

Christmas 2017
Crown Point and Beacon Rock
Columbia River Gorge

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Paintings, a party, and friends

'A Bigger Gorge' is all installed! Had a great time celebrating with many friends. Word is that it's been very well received by the tenants, and the building owner did a fantastic job of hanging it—which took him four hours using near-zero-tolerance theft-proof brackets. Hopefully, it'll be there for a long time. You can see it in The Gotham Building in North Portland, at the Page Street entrance, 722 N. Page Street. Have a cuppa at the Little Gotham Coffee Shop, right there!

Thanks to all my friends for their support and encouragement that helped me get there, and of course to the Hilderbrands!


Friday, October 20, 2017

Why cell phone cameras are a good thing

Underwood Fire, 7:14AM
I was at my friends' house and went out early my last morning there to take some pictures of the city lights across the river, and I noticed sky light reflecting on the river so I turned to the east to shoot one of the pre-dawn sky, and this is what I saw. After I pounded on the window to get their attention I whipped out my phone and took 3 quick shots, two of which were blurred. Sitting in the living room, occupied with books and computers, none of us had noticed it.

The fire was about an hour and a half old at this point, and I was definitely anxious as we watched a new, big flare-up about every 3 minutes for far too long, as the packing plant fruit boxes and parts of the pear shed caught fire, one after another. We got on the radio and found that our guess from looking at maps was correct. I really felt helpless watching the destruction continue, wondering if it could possibly jump to the trees and head toward us. When I heard they had six engine companies on it and more were on the way, I relaxed a little. About an hour later, they had all the flames out, leaving a smoldering, smoking ruin.

Another blue and orange painting! (With a little teeny tiny bit of yellow.)