Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Attempting the Rhododendron Garden

The Rhododendron Garden in East Moreland, southeast Portland, is one of my favorite gardens to visit and photograph. There are hundreds of rhodies and azaleas that bloom from mid-winter through early summer, and the fall color is equally spectacular. And in between the color shows it's still a beautiful, mostly tranquil space with an abundance of quiet paths, rippling streams and ponds, sporting several flocks of ducks and geese, some wild and some escaped captives.

I've even painted en plein air there, and might again, as there are lots of places you can park an easel and a chair without attracting too much attention. But this painting is from a photo I took in May 2007. The rhodies were in mid-bloom and it was a perfect spring day.

It's the most ambitious foliage painting I've attempted. I'm happy with the way the path turned out, and I'm surprised at the sense of depth in it. Now that I've finished it, I'd kind of like to paint the same scene again and see if it comes out any different. I'd like to try making a looser version, and see what happens.

However, I'm not ready to make good on that because I already have another panel on the easel, getting its preliminary drawing done! So more rhodie paintings will have to wait.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Experimental, without the mental

It's really hard not to think when you're painting. It's also hard not to worry, especially if there's a deadline or a specific goal or client or a shrinking budget or basically, *ANYTHING* to worry about. No one suffers like worriers, because we get so incredibly professional about it.

I've spent a lot of effort for several years to lose as many worries as I could, and I have to say, I enjoy my life a lot more than I used to. Practicing meditation made the biggest difference, and finding out that thinking, and therefore worrying, can be shut off. You do have to learn how, and you do have to work at it, but it can be done.

Painting abstracts turned out to be a major training ground for me, for learning to not think. Robert Burridge is a great teacher for not thinking. It turned out that my creativity did not depend at all on thinking, any more than it depends on brushes. The thought process is just another tool you can pick up and use, or put down and go forward without. It turned out that "things come to me" as soon as I start working. I can stand over a piece of paper waiting for an idea for hours, or I can start moving. As soon as I reach for a color, the right color "comes to me". As soon as I start cutting or shaping a mask, the right shape "comes to me". Without thinking. I don't have to think "There's yellow and red and blue, and green and purple and orange...", I just grab for one or two or three, and there they are.

Some ink, some wet paper and masks, and pretty soon I have a background, like this:

So now I've got a recognizable shape on a background, what next? I know, I'll worry about it for a while. Hmm, pretty nice colors, how many different ways can I ruin this? What if it doesn't turn out any good? Can I turn it into mud? It's a multi-colored horse—who's going to be interested in this? What was I thinking? What is this hang-up on horses? Why did he turn out green? Who ever thinks of green horses? Was there ever a My Little Pony who's green? I doubt it.

Okay, let's be bold. Let's try something I haven't tried before. I'll import the photo into Photoshop and play with it. I like to scribble, I'll just scribble on it. I can do that without thinking, and I might even stop worrying. For a little while, at least.

Oooooo, look what happens when I throw some red & yellow lines on there, ooooo I like that. Suddenly he doesn't look like a My Little Pony any more, he looks like a dream or a phantom, or something electric. I like scribbling. Let me try it with the other background I made:

becomes this:

Ahhhh, that felt good, those pinks and reds and blues and greens. Lots of energy going on there, lots of play. Energies in the people, activity and life. Thoughts and feelings, pulses and emotions. Visual imaginings, not anything I ever saw, but something I could feel, something inside me. Did I think it up? Nope. Did I do it anyway? Yep.

And so the little old painter translated her computer scribbles into pastel drawing on the ink backgrounds, matted them and took them to the gallery (without taking photos of them, duh), and went back to her studio where she worried happily ever after. THE END.

Breaking a composition into shapes (with help from Carolyn Lewis)

If a painting has been inspired by a scene or photograph or visual memory, most of the work is likely to be focused on arranging the shapes and colors to mimic the vision you began with. Like this one, for instance:

Early last winter I was driving toward town one evening when I looked to the west and saw an unusually brilliant sunset. For the most part where I live there are almost no places to pull off the road, and much too much traffic to stop in the middle of it, but I was fortunate to be right close to a small dirt area on the edge of a Christmas tree farm, so I was able to park my car, walk a few yards and take photos of the beautiful evening light. I had to change very little from the photo to the painting. Looking at this now, the two small tree clumps on the left look too dark. Oh well, always something to fix.

I enjoy trying to make good landscapes from photos I take. It gives me a chance to work on my color mixing and brush skills. Copying from reality has a built-in feedback mechanism—if the painting looks like (or better than) the photo, then you did a good job, and if it doesn't, then you get to see where you need work. If the painting works as a whole, then you made a good composition as well, either in the photo or when you translated it into the painting. If you're lucky, you get a lovely record of a scene that means something to you, and a way to share something you love with others.

At my stage, this kind of work is mostly about building skills. I am sooooo learning the basics right now, but this painting felt like a major advancement for me because of the way I approached it. I recently borrowed a painting dvd from the local library called "Painting Mood and Atmosphere in Oils" by Carolyn Lewis. In it, she took a plein air sketch and a reference photo and created a studio painting from them of a sunset beach scene. I am still trying to develop a consistent and efficient approach to painting, and the guidelines she gave made a lot of sense to me. I really liked the way she worked and the colors she chose. I decided to take my sunset photo and use her steps to turn it into a painting. For me the biggest change was to mark off the large shapes and masses in the sketch, and start by blocking each one in with a single color, on a peach-tinted canvas. When you've completed that important step, then you know whether your composition is going to work or not. Only then did she go through one section at a time, working in the secondary hues and rough shaping. The last step was to apply the fine details and to correct any problems in one section at a time. Even though her demo was in oils and she was working constantly into wet paint, her basic approach worked just as well for me in acrylics.

I kept replaying her dvd over the three days it took me to finish the painting. I still didn't feel like I'd seen it enough times, so I ended up ordering a copy from Amazon. I look forward to seeing it again. They also have her companion book by the same title, and it's on special right now. The book goes over the same principles with many more example landscapes, but I really recommend the dvd. Maybe your library will have it.