Friday, July 25, 2014

Summer 2014 Watercolor Class the Basics

Perspective: Vanishing Point and Atmospheric

It you want to be a better painter learning and understanding perspective and composition is a must. It doesn’t matter if you are an impressionistic painter or a realist, knowing how to suggest a third dimension to your painting will bring them to a new level. It doesn’t matter what medium you are using or even if you are using color, perspective is as important in close-up still life as it is in a landscape.

There are 2 kinds of perspective: The visual perspective we are most familiar with that involves a horizon and a vanishing point, and then there is atmospheric perspective which usually isn’t covered in basic art classes but it is just as important as learning about the vanishing point, maybe more so if you want to do mostly landscapes. Atmospheric perspective involves what is going on in the atmosphere between the foreground and the distant background. Even on a very clear day there will be dust particles and water vapor in the air and any more you will have pollutants as well, all these things in the air scatter and absorb the light that has bounced off objects in the distance until only the blue/purple end of the light spectrum is left, more of that in a minute, first I’ll go over visual perspective.

From basic art classes, even in grade school, you learn about the horizon line and the vanishing point but most of the time you don’t learn how to determine the horizon line in the first place and it is an important factor when you are planning your drawing or painting. There will be many things to burn into your brain for easy access and this is one of them. The horizon line is straight out from the viewer’s eyelevel. For instance, if you are standing on the top of a hill overlooking the ocean and take a photo of the scene keeping the camera level with the eye, the level of the water will be along the lower part of your photo. Now, doing the same thing but you are standing near the waterline of the ocean and you took a photo looking straight out, the image will be of probably the breakers and if there is the edge of the distant ocean, it will be near the top of the photo. In either scenario, if there are objects which will have perspected lines, their vanishing point will be somewhere along the eye level horizon line NOT what looks like the obvious choice of the water level. Remember, your eyes will lie to you especially when it comes to perspective.

A common problem I see – and I have been guilty of this as well – is as humans we like to have things all neatly spaced and lined up, this is great when it comes to a sock drawer or putting the dishes away but in art, not so much. This next statement should go on the mental quick list: As things go into the distance, they become smaller, closer together, less detailed and less intense in color. We will deal with the color aspect when we get to the atmospheric part of perspective but they all go together.

If you have ever been on a very straight road or stood on a railroad track you have experienced both kinds of perspective in a dramatic way. If there were phone poles, the got smaller and closer together as they went off into the distance until they “vanished” somewhere along the horizon, the train tracks did the same thing and the tracks “converged” (came to a point) off in the distance, the ties, got smaller and closer together until you couldn’t tell one from the other. This is visual perspective and it is everywhere. It is how we know how far something it from us, the problem, once again, is all in our head when we try to paint or draw perspective.

This photo I took of the trees up in PV is a good example of what I am talking about. All of the trees in the photo are probably roughly the same size if you walked up to each tree in the image, maybe 30’ – 40’ tall and a couple feet around more or less and your brain knows this. You have all seen trees before, it is stored in your memory the problem comes when you try to draw or paint them, more often than not, I will see students struggling because all their elements are the same size or they are putting way too much detail or color into distant objects because they are listening to their brain tell them “It’s a 40’ tree!” In this photo, you can see that the closest tree goes off the page (yes, I did plan that), the next trees you can see the base on up to the top of the photo where they go out of the image. As you go back into the image, the trees get smaller, they get closer together, there is less detail and they are less intense in color. All these things give depth to the image.
In my first figure I drew my horizon line and my first line and drew the perspective lines, then I put dots at the top ½” apart and drew the lines getting smaller going to the horizon line. If this were a fence line or telephone poles in a painting, it would look very odd because they are evenly spaced. It is a trick of the eye, but the taller lines look closer together and the smaller lines look further apart but they are all evenly space apart. Conversely, in the next figure, by applying that things get closer together as they go into the distance, lines of similar height look smaller in the front and taller in the back because our brains are applying the rules of perspective whether we are aware of it or not. The third figure is how using the rules of perspective can create the illusion of distance on a 2 dimensional surface.
You need to be aware of this and look for it in your everyday surroundings, the more you see the better you will understand and the better your paintings will become. Now we will go on to atmospheric perspective which works in conjunction with the visual perspective to create depth in your painting.

As I said above, there is a lot of particles in our air and it does affect how we see things in real life. Some days there are so many particles like smog or fog that distant things are barely visible if at all as artists, we need to figure this element into our work to create depth. The atmosphere is the “…less detail and less intense in color (softer and grayer)” aspect of the rule of perspective. As light comes through the atmosphere it is scattered and absorbed by these particles until only the blue end of the spectrum is left, it is why the sky is blue and since the sky is usually the furthest thing in our painting we will start there.

If you look at a clear blue sky starting at the horizon and pan up, you will see that near the ground the sky can be almost any color from a milky white to pinks, light blues, browns depending on how clear the day is, time of day and what is in the air. As you look up the sky will get bluer until it becomes a rich, deep blue in color. The reason for this is most of the air and what’s in it exist in a very thin layer around the earth when you are looking at the sky near the horizon you are looking through the thickest part of the atmosphere which could be several miles of thick atmosphere, when you look up you are only looking through what is directly above you and the air thins out within a few thousand feet which creates the blue sky above you but the darker color comes from the dark of space behind that thin layer. Sorry about the science but knowledge is power especially for the artist.

You can do this with shades of gray to practice however, if you are using color, I started out wetting my paper with just water then I mixed mostly blue with a touch of both sienna and purple – a very tiny touch of purple, it goes along way. The sky, being the furthest thing in a painting will be lighter than earth bound things like mountains and trees, so that is our first distant plane which is why I start with my darkest colors at the top and use water to blend my colors down the sky area. You should get a graded sky starting darker at the top and fading to a light blue at the bottom. This makes a very simple sky.

Our next distant plane would be any mountains in a landscape. If they are very distant, they will be about one value darker than the sky (remember the values we did in our previous class?). You can mix this color on your palette in the same area you just mixed the blue for the sky, again, you will be using the same 3 colors – the blue, the sienna a tiny amount of purple and water to lighten. You want the color to be just a value or so darker than the sky, it will be a soft blue gray. If you work into slightly damp paper you can create a soft edge for your distant mountains, you don’t want a hard edge. And keep in mind what you are trying to paint they are distant mountains not a bunch of humps or “m’s”. The next layer will be much the same as the first but the color will be darker so you will add more blue, sienna and purple (please watch the purple, it is very strong) and less or no water to paint the next layer of mountains. It is fine if they overlap because that is what they do in nature.

After a couple of layers of these “purple mountains” you can start to gradually addcolor. Depending on your landscape you can add some green like distant trees or more sienna if it is desert, the key thing here will be your values. Don’t jump too far up the value scale, this is still distance. Do as many layers as you want to do, each time adding more value, color and finally suggested detail. When you are done you should see depth in your painting.

This same idea works for water and flat land as well. Rather than me doing a blow by blow descriptive of each of these two studies (one is an acrylic the other a watercolor) I would rather you look at them and figure out on your own how to accomplish the same thing for yourself using the guidelines above. I won’t always be there to guide you so you need to learn to not just “look” at a scene but to actually “SEE” the scene whether it is a photograph, real life or even another painting, you need to figure out how to accomplish something similar when you are painting. This even works for close up still life, maybe not as dramatic, but if you can keep the things in the back softer and grayer and the things in the foreground more detailed and colorful, you can create great depth in a still life like it is popping off the canvas or paper.

I stress again that what I am covering in the time we have is just the tip of the ice burg, it is up to you to practice what we cover and if you want more information it is out there usually with just a click of a mouse or a visit to the library. Have fun and I will see you next time for composition.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Summer 2014 Watercolor Class

Watercolor Class – Color Mixing 101

As humans we are a curious species and we like to analyze everything and that includes the whys and wherefores of art. The Ancient Greeks set up committees to better understand why we like some things better than other even when the quality was equal and came up with what they called “The Golden Mean” we call it the Rule of Thirds today but that was just the beginning into how to create the perfect art masterpiece. We still do it today and there are volumes and volumes written on every aspect of art and while some of it might be helpful to the everyday artist sometimes there is just too much information and proves to be more confusing than helpful, Color mixing and Color Theory are no excepting to the rule. I don’t want you to discourage you from learning more on the subject but sometimes having a basic understanding of the subject is helpful when you want to learn more because it will make more sense to you. This is going to be a VERY basic introduction to color mixing but it should be helpful to you in your efforts to create your own masterpiece.

There are 3 Primary colors and their 3 Complimentary Or Secondary colors, these colors and their combinations should be burned into your brains if you are going to paint in color. The PRIMARY COLORS are: RED, YELLOW and BLUE. What that means is there is no way to mix any other colors together to get any of the three primary colors, you must have a source of red, yellow or blue to get these colors. SECONDARY colors on the other hand, are the combination of two primary colors. The 3 Complimentary colors are: ORANGE, GREEN and PURPLE.

You can buy a color wheel at the art store or better yet, make your own so you can learn about the primary and complimentary colors. You can make a circle on your paper or a canvas and then in the 12, 4 and 8 positions put a patch of your primary color (R,Y,B). Midway between the red and the yellow, apply a patch of orange. Midway between the yellow and the blue apply a patch of green and midway between the red and the blue apply a patch of purple. While it is good practice to mix these complimentary colors for your wheel, if you have premixed tube colors, that is okay too, the goal here is to create your color wheel.

Now look at your wheel and memorize these colors and what is directly across from it on the color wheel. The colors directly across from each other on the color wheel are COMPLIMENTARY COLORS. If you have these colors together in a painting they will complement each other giving a pleasant visual balance to the painting. For instance, if you are painting something with a lot of red in it adding green will enhance your painting more than adding say orange.

Most beginning artists do not have a problem when it comes to mixing mud, the problem comes from how NOT to mix mud or how to control the amount of mud you mix. The way you get mud is when ALL 3 PRIMARY COLORS ARE PRESENT. Mixing a primary and its complement together will get you some form of brown or gray. For instance, if you take the primary color blue and you mix it with orange (yellow with red) you will get a steel gray color if it is more to the blue side and a rich brown color if it is more to the orange side. Yellow and purple (blue with red) makes a great sand color. Red and green (blue with yellow) make rich browns and grays. There are some artists who only use the 3 primary colors with white (oils, acrylics or other opaque medium) and maybe black and that is it for their palette and they can mix any color they need but it takes years of practice to get the subtle differences in color and most of us aren’t that patient so getting pre-mixed colors saves us some time but we still need to understand the reasons behind what we are doing on the palette or our canvas.

By-the-way, all of this applies no matter what medium you are using. It doesn’t matter if it is acrylic, oil, watercolor, pastel, colored inks, anytime you are using color, these guidelines apply. If you ever want to try pastels, you really need to know more or less what you are going to get because you mix the color on your paper by putting 2 or more colors down then blending them with your finger or a blending tool.

Now why, you might ask, do I need to know what makes gray or mud? The answer is so you know how to correct or adjust you colors.

Most modern colors that you buy premixed at the store are usually too intense in color to use straight out of the tube and you need to know how to “tone them down”, greens can be particularly challenging out of the tube and need to be quieted to look more natural. For example, knowing that by adding some form of red to your green, be it red, orange, burnt sienna (which is in the orange family) or purple for shadow greens, will go a long way to improving your overall painting. This goes for all your colors.

Before I close this, I want to touch on a trend in the manufactured paint of ever expanding palette of colors, you now have many choices for a similar color. Blues, for instance, may say red hue or green hue or variation. All this means is instead of being a true blue color it has more red or yellow (respectively) and this will affect the color depending on what other color you have mixed into it. Bottom line is “Do you like the color?” if the answer is yes, then you may have to do some testing just to see how it mixes with your other colors or maybe you have to save it for special circumstances when you don’t have to mix it too much to use it. Art is all about you, if you like it, that is what matters sometimes it can take years of experimenting with color to find the combinations of color that work best for you needs, just never be afraid to try something new or to test your new color because they are all different even between the different manufacturers.

No pictures for this blog because your results will be different from mine and that is okay, we will be working on perspective and atmospheric perspective next class so practice those grays!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Acrylic example
Simply put, value is the light and the dark in you painting and all the shades of gray in between. Value and Composition are the two most important aspects of a painting especially when you are trying to create realistic and/or dramatic paintings. This holds true no matter what form of 2 dimensional art you do and whether you are working in color or black and white, painting, drawing or even photography, if you can get dark darks and light highlights with at least 5 shades of gray in your art, you will see how much more exciting your finished piece will be then if you only have middle tones. It isn’t as easy as that sounds and some of us really have to work at getting the darks in our art.

One of the main reasons we have trouble getting to very dark darks is because our eyes lie to us. When we are learning to draw or paint, for some reason we are afraid of the paper or canvas and many times when I go around looking at students’ work I will hear that they know that something is wrong but they keep fixing things that are okay and ignoring the elephant in the room which is usually they need to get some darker darks. This is why I had us create a value scale.

The first thing we needed to do is learn how to make a dark, almost black color. The reason I don’t use black is because it can kill other colors when you add black but by using a very dark color that we mix, if we use it with other colors the colors will still be lively though grayed in value.

Please burn these three colors into your head because they make my go to, universal dark color: Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Sienna and Dioxizine Purple. More of the blue than the sienna with just a touch of the purple make a deep rich, dark, gray color. A variation of this combination is to substitute Burnt Umber for the Burnt Sienna but in the same combination. If you want to see what the true color is take a little bit and add a touch of water to it, you want a neutral gray color (optimal) or a cool gray color (to the blue side). If the color looks too brown, add more blue and a tiny amount of purple and test it again. It is worth the time to get your mix right before you start so you don’t have to stop and start over again, you will also want to mix a enough paint so you don’t have to keep remixing, we used this dark color for the entire class.

You can use a strip of paper to make your value scale. You will need enough room for at least 10 squares using the white of the paper as your white. If you need to, mark them off, I just used the width of my brush for each square.

Take the black color that you mixed and add lots of water to it, you want a very light gray, remember to skip a space for the paper white then paint THE ENTIRE REST OF THE STRIP
Use a similar value to the above for the entire strip.
with the light gray color, that is step one. Watercolor is transparent, which means that when you put one color on top of another, the color underneath will influence the color you just put down. The white of the paper is making the color you just put down look gray because it is so thin, pay attention to what happens each time you put down a new strip of color. Let the paper dry completely before skipping a section next to the white paper, WITH THE SAME LIGHT GRAY, PAINT THE REMAING STRIP WITH THE SAME VALUE. Let this dry completely (use a hairdryer if you are impatient), skip a new segment and paint the same value down what is left of the strip. Do this until you get to the last segment, if you have to get a very dark value, you may have to mix the colors again to get a dark, just don’t add a lot of water. We use water to change the value of watercolors, we don’t use white. You should be able to see a distinct difference between the values when the strip has dried going from black on one end to white on the other, you can punch holes in each segment if you want when it is dried.
Many artists will do a value study of a project before they start a major project, even plein air painters will try to capture the values of a scene so they can see where the light and shadows were when they started their painting because light changes when you are outside. A value study can be a quick painting sketch with little detail, or a pencil or charcoal drawing just to get the “feel” of the scene you want to paint, while it is not an absolute necessity, it is good practice and habit if you want to improve your painting.

With that in mind the rest of the class was devoted to doing quick studies of things around you using only the dark color you mixed and white to change the value.

We will be going over basic color mixing in our next class so be sure to have all your colors with you next time. See you in class.

Friday, July 4, 2014


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