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Painting as Prayer

If we understand prayer as an active response, at least in its most broadest aspect then the process of painting can be certainly be considered a type of prayer.  Painting is after all, a response to influences – both internally and spiritually and external representing form.  Painting as prayer is something that has become part of my experience though I never thought of it in this way before.  As one gets older the act of prayer often  becomes more predominant, so I suppose it is natural that I now seem to be in a type of prayer when I paint.  It is a reaching out, a very natural response, a hunger to see and experience an awakening.  

As I paint I find myself applying paint as a way of expressing a vague prayer, not really knowing the full intent of the inward expression.  Certain colors are chosen, certain designs are created as a response…not quite intuitive but not pre-designed either.  We all carry burdens of the heart.   Does the artist feel these more?  I really could not say.  There is the sense that each expression, each painting, each episode, each passage in the painting carries within it an undefinable cry of the heart.

This process, painting as prayer is not a pre-conceived idea or effort.  I was not even aware that I was doing this until recently.  It seems to be like the Catholic prayer beads, those that we hold in our hands and turn hand over hand, with a specific prayer at each large, wooden bead.  Each stroke of the paint, each blending of tone becomes it seems like an effort to offer up a prayer for those I know, for those I love and for those in distress such as those fleeing across the meditteranean from Syria.  There is much to pray about.  The artist I think has a certain responsibility to be sensitive and then to respond.  How can we call ourselves artists if we cannot respond to what stirs our hearts.

We see this in many of Rembrandt’s paintings, in Van Gogh’s, in El Greco’s work and in the genius of Michelangelo.  They remind us of eternal principals at work in spite of our shortcomings.  As they paint they draw close to the heart cry of humanity, the inevitability of death but also the deep desire to embrace life, this moment, while we are able.  The desire to capture by painting the life that flows before us is an act, an act of sincere prayer and ultimately should be,  if it is to have real force…real power.  In sincerity is power and we discover intuitively those works of art which lack true awareness and real sincerity.  Even in his commercial work done of high paying merchants we see Rembrandt seeking to discover that which is true in the light of the eyes of his sitters.  He is praying as he paints, to understand more, to understand more clearly.

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painting without a brush

For myself and I expect for many other artists painting without a brush or imagining a painting is often the first step in developing a new work.   Artists typically have the ability to visualize a work prior to actual painting.   This is not done casually such as in random day-dreaming but is an actual process itself.  It might be considered a type of visual meditation when a painting is worked out mentally, in brief and abbreviated pictures.  It is rare to imagine an entire piece .DSC03308

This requires some alone time which we might call imagination.  For me it is helpful to be in the studio and seeing the blank canvas or panel.  This is however not necessary.  One could be at the beach, or sitting under a shade tree or having lunch and even driving.  It is helpful of course to block out other thoughts which come in as distractions.  This is perhaps why I find Tolle’s insights especially helpful.  It is necessary to focus ones’ thoughts on the painting at hand and to keep working it out mentally.  I might have a cerulean blue coming down top to bottom in a ragged pattern, then days later imagine that same pattern in pale burnt sienna.   Figures, shapes can be placed about mentally.  There is a certain mental construct that can occur not unlike an architect who is trying to mentally design a facade.  There are many things that can be worked out before a pencil or brush is applied.   Distinct benefits can come from this exercise, but clearly the most obvious is less wasting of time and going about a painting with more clarity and definition.

As an abstract painting it is always necessary to allow a painting to maturate quite on its own, and it will always do so if we allow it.   We might call this the second process, where the first is the original, mental and visualized painting which was partially established before any pigment was applied.  Sometimes I only begin with a slight emphasis, a certain shape and sometimes with only a sense or feeling.  Even with effort, with dedicated time for meditation it is common to hold only a very partial image.  But though slight and ellusive this represents the important first kernel of a painting, and as such should be monitored.  I try to keep a sketch book handy to capture these fleeting images as they serve as reminders of that visual experience.

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Painting in watercolor

Painting in watercolor has several important advantages to painting in oils and even acrylics.   Painting in watercolors can be done in a relatively small space and there is no danger of small children getting in to thinners and messy oil paints.  Water pigments can usually be washed out.  When finished, the various tools, brushes, pallette and pigments can be stored away.  There are excellent cases that can be purchased.  Also, paper of course is much cheaper to buy so out of pocket costs are considerably less.  Then, when completed it is much easier to store the completed work than trying to store up canvas or panels.  For years I kept mine in a heavy cardboard folio under the bed.

The study and practice of watercolor painting is an excellent endeavor for the novice and the serious painter.  By becoming proficient in developing backgrounds,  working with contrasts, blending colors are all requirements for future mature work in say, oils or acrylics.  Surprisingly using water as a thinner has characteristics similar to thinning oils with solvents.   Many of the masters used watercolors for preliminary studies and some, like Turner tried to have their oil paintings mimic the atmospheric effects that water color is so adapted to.

It is relatively easy to get started in watercolor.  I will often very lightly sketch my subject before painting.  I actually like the look of seeing the pencil lines under the washed pigment.  Watercolors are most typically painted from the lightest tones to the more dark, opaque tones.  Techniques such as this however can be learned at school or through advertised classes.   If you are fortunate to create a watercolor that you feel is successful then you will want to properly mat and frame the piece.   You will be surprised to find how expensive it is to have this done professionally.  There is no savings in framing watercolors over framing an oil painting.  Choose those you wish to frame wisely.

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Painting watercolors slowly

There is no better two-dimensional medium for showing the wonderful effects of sunlight, than watercolor.    We have only to look at Singer Sargent’s playful watercolors painted out of doors to realize how delightful bright sunlight can be.  Oils do not render the spontaneous capricious character of sunlight nearly as well as watercolor.

So then, why have we been told that watercolors need to be painted fast?  New students chafe at having no time!  The water is drying as we speak, on the paper!  Well, it simply is not necessary to paint watercolors with any degree of forced activity.  Only the highly sophisticated and may I say snobbish,  stress out over overlapping watermarks as if some sin has been woefully committed.  To escape this boorish attitude to the fine art of watercolor begin to see your work existing in quadrants, in distinct areas and work in that one area before moving to the next.  To enhance the play of pigment, pre-wet that particular area only and add the painted design or affect gradually, thoughtfully as the wetness slowly absorbs in to the paper.  Even after the wetness is absorbed I come back often with opaque details that still blend and fuse with the more shaded hues behind.

Broad washes, yes.  Large heavy paper, yes.  But for now buy cheaper paper, cut it in half and begin to work in sections.  Little by little you will see patterns emerging related to this one, first section.  It is in this way that the painting develops.  Sections though painted by themselves are integrated in to adjoining spaces.  The saturated paper often leads to some fascinating effects that blend all of supposed independent sections together in one unified whole.  And if a certain cohesiveness is lost, by looking you will see many very excellent passages.  In time and following multiple experiments, that balanced cohesive watercolor full of light and brightness will mysteriously emerge.  I have been painting watercolors on and off for forty-five years.   After producing five or six I will hit on something that strikes me as fresh, bright and cohesive.  It is not over-worked.  The various areas are entirely unified with all other sections.  The effect is a harmonious statement which is  succinct and accurate and authentic.  The idea that painting watercolors must be done in great, broad sweeps is ridiculous.  I have a wonderful edition of architectural watercolors, in color and one quickly realizes that slow, careful workmanship will lead to a beautiful effect- buildings bathed carefully and wonderfully in evening sunlight.  This is not my style but proves the point.pain

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Fifty shades of Grey

As the story goes when John Singer Sargeant was painting outdoors in Paris with Manet he asked his friend for black to which Manet replied, “I have none, I never paint with black”.  Singer then replied, “ah well, then I cannot paint.”  True or not, it speaks to how we perceive shadow and shaded items.  There probably are fifty shades of grey and not attained just by gradations of white and black but infinite variations that may include, for example French Ultramarine, Hookers Green Deep and Cadmium red mixed of course with Raw Umber.  It is my guess that Sargeant could have done well enough with Raw umber.DSC03317

When one studies Rembrandt’s portraits we rarely see true black in the dark shadows of the face (the side opposite the source of light) but very deep shades of violet.  He seemed to retain black itself for the rich, velvet black sateen that men often wore in those days as capes and such.  Indeed, by using French Ultramarine which inherently has a violet cast, Raw Umber and Cadmium red deep, one can mix tones deep enough to emulate black.  These three pigments in fact lend a certain luminosity to shadows that black cannot match.

In landscapes where foliage in shadows becomes very deep and dark, adding in Hooker’s Green deep to the Raw Umber and to the Ultramarine Blue/Cadmium mix seems to bend the shadows tone nicely towards the other, lighter greens in the landscape.  Veridian I find is just too brilliant to use in shadow.  There is a new tube grey out now called Torrit Grey which I bought as a whim and I like how they have bent it towards a dark, green grey.  Adding white gives it a pleasant transition hue – a quicker way to achieve a grey/green tone.  This is by the way distinctly different than Payne’s grey which leans markedly towards dark blue.  When we think of Van Gogh’s work we think of very bright, rich pigments but his famous painting the Potato Eaters was somber in tone, extensively using deep shadows for effect and of a predominate green cast with gradations towards blue greys.  His winter landscapes I think are his best work where he carefully picked his way through subtle shades of greys within the snowy fields and shadows of trees, walls and figures along the road.

Of course every painter will eventually discover that various shades of grey carefully mixed and rendered adds an important ‘base’ to a painting – even one titled White Line by Kandinsky.  The stark bent, white line gains importance vibrating in front of the beautiful green, umber and blue greys that border the painting.  Some painters even prefer to paint the entire canvas grey before beginning.  This deep tone provides an entirely new reference than stark white when first starting a new painting.

michael wilson

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How to establish the correct TONE and HUE in a painting

Most artists, myself included are rarely able to establish the correct tone of a painting right from the beginning.  How to establish the correct tone and hue in a painting is of course vital to the effect of the piece.

Tone and hue in a painting is different than contrast.  It has to do with color saturation, how much white is added, how much umber or black, but also describes the actual color or hue for any given area of a painting.  Because a painting builds incrementally in relation to all the adjacent hues, creating the right tone and hue is nearly impossible from the beginning, unless you are Michelangelo reincarnated.  For narrative paintings that have background, figures, objects and foregrounds I try to apply the first paint application with careful and delicate brushstrokes so that it lays in flat and even.  As the painting develops and you can better understand what hue and tone is correct, you will not be hampered with halfhazard and distracting brushstrokes.

In oil painting all base coats are dry enough in a few days to go back and adjust them.  Usually in my case, they are typically deepened.  You will find as one area is deepened (less white added to the pigment), then adjacent tones will also require the same relative treatment.  In this way, little by little the painting develops into a unified whole where all colors are suffused with a pleasing balance, one to the other .

The point to stress is not struggle getting started by not getting the right tone of the painting.  Put down what you think it might be in your imagination.  Make your best mix and paint.  Remember that later tone changes are easy enough, just paint over the existing.  Sometimes a very pleasing effect is created when overlay tones are applied almost as a wash allowing the original tone under the wash to come through.  This kind of painting requires patience and time.  The result however will certainly pay off creating the tonal effect you were after.DSC03309

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Re-working Your Oil Painting

There are some die-hard art critics, and artists who consider it taboo when it comes to re-working your oil painting.  Somehow they think it renders the painting impure, as if it compromises the initial inspiration.  Personally I think this is absurd.DSC03313

Re-working your oil painting is a vital, important step in the completion of your painting, even an abstract painting.  I like how Gerhard Richter will take a painting into a completely different room to view and analyze the new painting, and to see what further needs to be done.  I understand that in severe cases he will abandon the painting because it just did not achieve what he had hoped.  But we are not in that stratosphere, are we.

I have found that even an abstract painting will have within it a certain emphasis, impulse, rythmn or cadence.  By looking at these and understanding them, studying them, these often become even more apparent than when first conceived.  Initially the entire painting is being rendered and it is impossible to fully create critical emphasis.  Going back however two or three weeks later and setting it on the easel to study, the forms and cadence tend to come forward.  It is these that we want to enhance and reinforce.  This needs to be done carefully of course so that any new addition is in concert with the initial thrust of the painting.  I tend to look towards the areas that need greater contrast.  Perhaps a tone or color is too weak.  Sometimes a line is not distinct enough.  Very often I realize that a painting was in reality only 85% complete.  By carefully augmenting the painting and discovering more fully the intent of the piece through study, the painting becomes more fully complete.  This is a satisfying process and one that I strongly endorse, especially with oil paintings.

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Still Lifes for Beginners

Still lifes for Beginners may seem like an innocuous title for an article but the practice can yield comprehensive results.  It is also an excellent way to chart your progress from year to year.  Try to do five or six every year.  They don’t have to be large paintings  and use just common items around the house or fresh fruit, or vegetables or flowers are always a fun challenge.DSC02725

What will you learn by painting Still Lifes?  You will learn several distinct and important aspects of painting in oils.  First you will discover what is good and not so good composition.  As you progress you will find better ways to place objects in space.  You will discover that there is a certain energy between objects and placing them side by side, forward or back is an important part, even a critical part of painting.  You will find it helps to have large and small objects in the painting – this will add interest and you will learn about ‘scale’…that is, relative scale and how large to make things appear on your canvas.  A look at Cezanne’s Still Lifes will be revealing in that regard.

The other important aspect of Still Lifes that will help you as a painter is the subject of shading.  Irrespective of color, the dynamics of shading is vitally important to the success of a painting.  Make sure you establish a distinct light source.  If you cannot come up with a natural light source then by all means create your own with an incandescent bulb off to the side.  By learning to paint from dark to light and then from light to dark is greatly facilitated by the relative innertness of the Still Life.  Personally when I look back at my early paintings I rarely included enough contrast…that is, my darks were not dark enough and my lights were too insipid.

If painting a number of Still Lifes helps you improve your ability to compose a successful painting and helps you to be skillful in establishing shade then you are definitely making strides as an artist.  Take a look at Fantin La Tour who produced a very large amount of Still LIfes in his career, because after all it is not always possible to have a suitable live model on hand.

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Establishing ‘scale’ in your painting

As a developing artist, sooner or later you will need to be establishing scale in your painting, or so the critics might suggest.     In terms of art history, the discovery and use of perspective was ground-breaking for artists and those who enjoyed looking at art.  With the advent of perspective the element of proportion and scale became very important.  Figures in the distance were made smaller to heighten the sense of perspective and so artists developed elaborate ways to determine the correct scale (relative dimension) in their painting.  All through the rennaisance artists enhanced their skills, most notably by the young Rafael.  Artists such as Titian, Vermeer and Rubens all stayed bound to the exactitude of perspective and correct scale.CouchDSC02543

The next break through came with the Impressionists who, little by little began to break down the rules of perspective and especially scale.  Van Gogh’s Starry Night seems to thrust the heavens right before our eyes. The stunning painting by Manet, the Dead Toreador seems to abandon or at least greatly bend our understanding of scale. By the time we reach Cezzane, Matisse and then Picasso it is clear that those elements which were considered so vital and important have been eroded.  New, more invigorating elements have become paramount.  Then with Chagall and certainly with Kandinsky, perspective and scale have been entirely abandoned.  Their use would add nothing to the message and would in fact be a detriment.

Understanding this progression is important for the artist today.  How tied do you wish to be to proper scale ?  Perhaps for you, it seems more powerful if everything shares the same plane, or…weave between themselves.  If for example you are developing your art along the lines of abstract painting, your judgements will be required to determine exactly what elements are to be emphasized.  It will mostly likely have nothing to do with scale.  Balance, rythmn, contrast and the dynamic of line and form – probably, but not relative scale.  There is of course a certain freedom here but conversely a requisite demand for a deeper awareness of how your painting is creating its message.  When rules are abandoned a whole new concert is created which can be very dynamic.  I immediately think of Pollack’s work.  His better works are completely void of perspective.  There is no scale but his work vibrates with a remarkable energy and force.  In his case, trying to incorporate perspective and scale would have been a useless endeavor.

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Strengths and weaknesses in your art

Strength and weaknesses in your art….

As we have talked about before, children accept their work wonderfully.  They are easily delighted seeing the various swaths of color and wild lines.  It is all good fun.  Art and life are not separated but are together a complete experience for a child.

But we grow up and we mature as artists.  Some of us go to art school to determine our paths and solidify our ‘style’, while others hammer away at their skills with little training.  In either case, as adults we eventually must come to realize that there are some things we do so much better than other things.  You inevitably DSC02559come face to face with the strengths and weaknesses in your art.   One might instinctively understand the nuances of color but feels quite handicapped in drawing accurately.  Another draws very well but feels lost when mixing colors.  We discover that there is a limit to what we can truly master, like the tradesman who is an excellent plumber but correctly realizes that he is only an average carpenter so he sticks with plumbing.

There becomes the question of one’s strengths and weaknesses.  The choice to stress and improve on ones strengths instead of bolstering up the apparent weaknesses becomes ineluctable.  Some feel that is the wrong approach to painting.  We have a choice to make of either trying to eradicate the glaring weakness or the more radical approach which Braque took of ignoring them altogether.  He is quoted as saying that ‘progress in art does not consist in expanding one’s limitations but in knowing them better…or I don’t do as I want , I do as I’m able.

If for example, we finally admit to our inability to drawing the figure correctly we turn to landscape or abstraction.  If after many attempts at color contrast and harmony we realize our utter limitation, we turn to back to black and white where perhaps our great strength might lie in printmaking.  Escher comes to mind.   In any case our efforts at creating beauty should be one of joy, or at least a certain enjoyment.  It is pointless to keep striving at what does not come naturally when, probably there are a host of mediums and techniques that is perfectly suited to our ability, talent and proclivity.  I remember the famous quote, ‘ if all we have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.’  I know of one artist friend whose oil paintings seem overworked, muddy and contrived whereas his watercolors are alive with expression and a delight to view.  Rembrandt discovered early on that he had an immense talent for oil portraits, though in comparison his full figures seem considerably less compelling.  A more heightened awareness of our limitations…a certain acceptance will do much to advance our artistic expression.