Posts Tagged ‘landscape’

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BREAKING IN MY MEXICO STUDIO

December 15, 2014

I was still in the process of setting up my Mexico studio in December 2014. I hadn’t yet completed a painting there—at least not one I was happy enough with to keep.

Part of that was because I didn’t yet have some of what I needed, most of all a decent disposable palette, which is my longtime preference (I was making do with a wall mirror). But it was also because I was in a new place, a new situation, and my confidence wasn’t what it needed to be. Painting, in case you didn’t know, requires a lot of confidence! Painting doesn’t just snap into shape with a lackadaisical approach. You have to be bold and assertive with the paint. I wasn’t quite there yet.

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This is one of my favorite landscape photographs from my Dominican Republic trip a couple of years ago, and I chose this as the source image for my next painting.

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Here's the photograph above after some Photoshop tweaking to make it easier for me to paint from.

That was demonstrated with my first try at a Dominican Republic landscape in early December. I did everything I usually do to get a painting off and running. I chose a landscape photo I liked a lot (one of the images I shot on the beach at Las Terrenas), tweaked it in Photoshop to get the look I like and to help me with the colors, then I drew it onto the canvas with pencil. I kept the pencil underdrawing fairly faithful to the photograph but didn’t bother with much detail, just general placement of the large masses. Then I added a wash and started mixing colors.

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In-progress shots of my first try at the painting. I could have finished it and it would've been passable, but I was not feeling it. If I'm not feeling it, painting becomes a tedious, unhappy experience. And who wants to look at the product of that kind of process?

Then I dove in and started adding color. This is always a crucial phase, where the magic is either there or it isn’t. This time, as I saw fairly early, it wasn’t.

I won’t lie, I was discouraged. This was the 5th or 6th painting I’d done in my Mexico studio and I still hadn’t found my feet. I sat down and looked at the lacklustre landscape I’d just put several hours into, and asked myself what was missing. Almost as soon as I bothered to formulate the question, I knew the answer.

BALLS.

Or, to use a more delicate word, courage. Or yet another word I like: BOLDNESS.

I had been playing it safe. Why, I asked myself yet again, is it so difficult to remember that playing it safe NEVER WORKS?? Ah, the perversity of the human mind. It keeps convincing us that we should do what’s easy and comfortable and not dangerous. Then we find our lives have grown boring and we wonder why.

This also goes back to my comment in the first paragraph above. Painting (at least what I consider GOOD painting) requires boldness and assertiveness. It’s like a rebellious wild beast that requires you to prove over and over again that you’ve got what it takes to master it.

I really liked this image and I wasn’t ready to give up. I decided to get out my big whip and try again to tame this lion.

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First in-progress shot of my second try. This one has more energy right from the beginning.

I began again, and this time I spent a bit more time working on the underdrawing. Rather than just trying for accuracy I paid attention to the vectors. By that I mean the lines of movement, or force, that draw the eye across and through the image. This additional attention to the actual structure made a big difference. This time the underdrawing had some life and energy of its own, and while not enough to guarantee success, at least it was a better stage setting for its possibility. I drew over it with a black acrylic pen and liked the base drawing even more.

Then it was time to start painting. I knew I had to jump off the cliff this time; no playing it safe. I prepared for the big jump as I often do, by looking at the paintings of other artists who inspire me, paintings with bold, exciting brushwork and the willingness to give up humdrum accuracy and clearcut edges for energy, life, excitement. These are paintings where I can clearly feel the courageous jump that has been taken by the painter.

Looking at these paintings and letting them soak into me for a few minutes gave me the courage I needed. I loaded up the paintbrush with some blue for the sky, aimed at the canvas, then closed my eyes!—and let ‘er rip! That first stroke obscured part of my careful underdrawing, which would seem disastrous at first, but no, it was exactly what was needed. The underdrawing was a mere suggestion, and not meant to be followed too closely. What was more important was the energy of the stroke. I repeated the same sequence, and then did it again, sometimes leaving my eyes open, but more often closing them so that I was less in control and the paint was having its way with the canvas. (See my blog entry from June 10, 2014, Painting Blind.)

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Halfway through...things are happening fast this time.

I was keeping the paint very wet, too, so that it would drip and run. This is an important component for me these days; it’s a visual reminder that the painting is about the paint itself more than the image. It’s also another way to ‘break up’ the image, which I find much more visually exciting than mere accuracy.

By this time I was sailing! I had had the balls to dominate the painting right from the first stroke, and it was paying off. For the rest of the painting it was just a matter of staying in that space….which is not an easy thing either. As the painting gets more and more exciting, there’s a very strong tendency to want to keep from screwing it up. That’s when you have to renew your determination to dominate the painting, even if it means destroying it over and over again.

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A closeup of what magic can be produced when you close your eyes and throw caution to the winds.

I managed to do that: mess the painting up over and over again until it was perfect. Yes, I know how crazy that sounds, (and nothing is ever perfect except maybe a painting that doesn’t want anything more done to it) but that’s exactly what happened, and what always happens with my best paintings.

Finished CU2

Another closeup of the kind of brushwork I can only get to by closing my eyes and giving up all hope that the painting will be any good.

I called the finished work “Republica Dominicana” and besides being a terrific piece of work I’m very happy with, it also served as the true christening of my Mexican studio. Turns out I couldn’t properly break in my new studio until I broke through my own walls.

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The finished painting: Republica Dominicana.

Findingtheedge

February 8, 2012

• DOING THE WORK
• FAILING WITHOUT FALLING
• WHEN WRONG IS ALL RIGHT
• DON’T FINISH IT, LET IT LIVE
• FINDING THE EDGE—AND NOT GOING OVER



DOING THE WORK


Here’s an excerpt from an e-mail I sent to a good friend a few days ago:

hey john

saw your message on FB. glad you like the new one. in my opinion, it’s okay, but i missed what i was aiming for. the battle is still to keep myself from over-finishing! the painting was actually better at an earlier stage, but i just had to keep going. i am getting better, though. i’ve been painting like a madman for the past several weeks, sometimes several a day, but most of them get gessoed over, to become the blank canvas for my next attempt. some of my canvases have 3 or 4 or more layers on them by now. not a bad thing at all. just a  period of intense study and i am growing at a mad rate! dreamed for years of getting to this point with my painting, where i was actually doing the bold, exciting things i always pictured, and it’s finally happening. i just never consciously realized the degree of focus and amount of time that would be required to get to this intensity. now, of course, it seems obvious, now that i’m in it. consciously i dislike being in nebraska in winter, but from a broader perspective i’m able to see that i had to isolate myself to this degree to get to this level of absorption in my work.

As I suggest in the above, I’ve been painting pretty much every day for the past several weeks. I’ve been working as an artist and painting professionally for over 30 years, but I’ve never gotten to this level before. I look back and realize that I THOUGHT I was a serious painter, but I really wasn’t. I hadn’t gotten close to the level of intensity and commitment I’m experiencing right now.

I always knew it was all about going into the studio and DOING THE WORK. But I guess I never realized how much work it requires. Or to be more specific, how much concentrated work. Stopping and starting a lot doesn’t accomplish nearly as much as being able to focus for long periods, like months, at a time. I’ve finally put myself into a position where I’m willing and able to do that.

One way I know I’m really committed (other than the amount of time I’m spending in the studio) is how many paintings I’m gessoing over. (For you non-painters, gesso is the white stuff we put on a canvas to prepare it for painting.) Lately I try to approach every painting as an exercise, as an experiment where I try something out to see what happens. If it turns out well enough to keep, great! If not, great—and time for the next exercise.

But I still have lapses. Like the big “statement” painting I wanted to do of Manuel.



FAILING WITHOUT FALLING


I was feeling kind of confident at this stage—this is a few weeks ago—and I decided what I was going to do was a big “statement” painting. I wanted to do something that would pop off a gallery wall, that would WOW people.

This is not a bad goal in itself, by the way. But when it’s the ONLY goal, you’re in trouble.

Anyway.

I chose a photograph of Manuel to work from, and cut myself a BIG piece of canvas, and got out my sponges.

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The photograph of Manuel I chose to work from.

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Progress at the end of the first day.

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At the end of the third day.

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Oops.

Everything went really well—for a while. I was using sponges, I was loving the size of the painting and the freedom it gave me to move, and I was accomplishing interesting things both with “brushwork” and use of color. And I was excited about the energy and presence in the face. But—I went too far. Of the 4 images you see above, the next-to-last one is where I SHOULD have stopped. It was going so well, I just had to “finish” the face. The result looks like bad plastic surgery. The life and authenticity in the face went away and it got “pretty” and lost its oomph. So after several days of work, I had to gesso over this one.

But that was fine. I wasn’t even that upset. All I had to do was let go of my expectations that this would be the big WOW painting that would blow people away. And I was able to do that, because I realized that was a bogus goal anyway. Plus I knew how much I’d learned in the 3 or 4 days I spent on the painting.

(Big change from the days when a ‘failed’ painting would depress me for days!)

What happened next, though, was not a painting. I decided to do some rough sketches, not out of creative fervor but because I took a look at my bank account!


WHEN WRONG IS ALL RIGHT

Rough sketches are an important source of income for me. Small, affordable sketches are a lot more accessible to most collectors than big expensive paintings, so my sketches sell pretty fast. When money starts looking like it might be an issue, one of the first things I do is sit down and do some rough sketches. This makes it sound like I do it just for the money, but the fact is, it’s great exercise, and no matter what prompts me to sit down and do it, once I begin, I lose myself in the drawing, and sometimes amazing things happen.

If you’ve been a follower of this blog for awhile, you’re aware of a recurring theme: my quest for MORE BOLDNESS! MORE COURAGE! LOOSER, MORE ENERGETIC BRUSHWORK!

Which wouldn’t be a recurring theme at all if it weren’t so damn hard to accomplish!

It’s hard because of FEAR. Fear that the artwork won’t turn out well, whether it’s a blank canvas staring you in the face with its threat of failure, or a painting that’s well on its way and you’re suddenly afraid to take a chance of ruining it by being too daring.

So as I sat down and sharpened my pencils and began to sketch, I had a revelation. I thought, what if I did it wrong from the start? What if I FAILED before I even began? Then there would be nothing to fear!

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Here are a couple of the first drawings I did by 'doing it wrong.'

So I began drawing a nude, but instead of trying to do it right, I just started making random marks all over the paper. Once I had quite a few of these WRONG marks, I started making some that were maybe not so wrong, marks that were sort of heading in the direction of the image I was working from. Then I started making marks that were very close to the source image, but I kept making wrong marks, too, at random, just to remind me that there was nothing precious here, nothing to fear ruining.

This had an amazing effect. I felt free! I started enjoying the act of drawing so much I found myself wondering why I’d never let myself have this much fun before. Sure, drawing had been fun sometimes, but mostly it was work. All of a sudden it wasn’t work anymore! I’d always known that letting myself “do it wrong” was a key to creative freedom, but I’d never before found such an effective way to trick my mind into letting me do that.

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Here are 2 of my favorite drawings of all I've done in the past couple of years--and they happened by letting myself do it wrong.

This unleashed a whole series of exciting new drawings, drawings that were filled with energy, movement and life—and gave me some insight as to what I needed to do in my painting to get to that place I was aiming for.

Over the next few days, trying to apply this new insight I’d gotten from drawing to my paintings, I had some ups and downs…

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This one I liked well enough to keep.

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This one I didn't.

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Interesting, but not interesting enough.

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Promising, but not promising enough.

My turning point happened with a landscape.


DON’T FINISH IT, LET IT LIVE

I chose a photograph I’d taken recently in Santo Domingo, a sunset shot of the waterfront.

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This one started out well. I liked the pencil drawing because it had a lot of energy. Then I began painting. After an hour or so, I stood back and…

Santodomingo inprog firstone

OMG. It sucks.

OMG. It totally sucked. How did that happen?

It took a bit for me to realize that, while I had begun with the intention of ‘doing it wrong to set myself free’, I hadn’t done that at all! My old habits had kicked in so strongly I hadn’t even realized what I was doing until I stood back and saw what a boring painting I’d created.

Santodomingo inprog no2

I took another piece of canvas and totally started over.

As soon as I realized what had happened, I tore the painting down and tacked up another piece of canvas, and began again.

With total concentration and a very strong intention, I focused on doing it wrong, on painting and enjoying moving the paint around, on playing, with absolutely no worries about whether the painting ‘worked’ or not. It was working just because I was enjoying myself!

You can guess what happened. An interesting, lively painting happened!

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Santo Domingo 1

And when I stood back from that painting, and realized it was good, it was fun, it was alive…I almost snatched defeat from the jaws of victory! I almost went back in and ‘finished’ it.

Which would have been a HUGE mistake.

Along with the quest for boldness comes this companion challenge: learning when to stop. Part of it is the fear that others will call your work ‘unfinished’, and the rest is just enjoying the painting so much that you forget to watch for that magic moment when everything is in perfect, breathtaking balance. Not a perfectly even, stable, symmetrical kind of balance. No, the kind of balance where everything is poised to fall to earth but somehow is holding together. A balance that takes your breath away because you feel like you’ve been allowed to enter that timeless moment, that instant before everything collapses. That’s what I want in my paintings.

I began to approach it with this painting. I got even closer with the next one…



FINDING THE EDGE—AND NOT GOING OVER


I wanted to take the dangerous balance idea even further. I chose a photograph of Eduardo as the taking-off point.

Eduardo source

Not sure why, but Eduardo is my go-to model when I want to try something edgy. He's like a blank canvas for my creative urges…not exactly my muse, but close.

I stayed very awake through this painting. I kept my awareness always on the whole painting, not on making it look like the photograph, but on that precarious balance I was aiming for…because I knew if I took my eye off the tightrope for even a second, there was a chance I’d fall to earth.

Eduardo 2up

And it worked.

I painted and painted…but I also left a lot of it alone. And when I heard myself say, I love it but it’s not finished—

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Ipanema Towers 12

—I stopped!

Latestfromstudio posterizedgraphic


Click here to access all entries in Douglas Simonson’s “On the Road” Series

September 10, 2012

I’ve been looking at a lot of art online. That’s how I find inspiration and new challenges. When I was younger, like back in the 1980s, I used to haunt the art section of the main library in downtown Honolulu. There I discovered the art of amazing painters like John Singer Sargent, Valentin Serov, Joaquin Sorolla, and so many more. Unfortunately there were many artists I never knew about because of course a library can only buy so many books on one subject—plus there are always thousands of wonderful artists one never hears of simply because they never had a “big enough” career to get published.

I’m thrilled to be living in a time when all that has changed. The Internet contains the equivalent of several MILLION Honolulu libraries…and it’s all available to me anytime I want. Any artist who really wants to show her work to the world can do so with a few hours of work and very little expense. So anytime I feel the need for inspiration, I can do an online search. Sure, there are lots of not-so-great artists to sort through, but with a little patience there are always gems to uncover.

Lately I’ve been looking for artists who paint with verve and fire and flashing brushwork (or perhaps palette-knife work), and some of the gems I’ve uncovered are David Shevlino, Tibor Nagy and Carol Marine. Some I’ve rediscovered through finding more and newer work by them include Maggie Siner and Ashley Wood. And these are just a few.

4up inspiringartists

By looking at these artists’ work, and sometimes at YouTube videos of the artists actually painting which they’ve been kind enough to share with us, I get ideas about ways I can open up my work and make it more lively and exciting. Something I had considered but hadn’t really understood the huge significance of, is the nature of the PHYSICAL ACT of painting.

I was watching a YouTube video of one of those artists who performs on a stage (Garibaldi, I think it was) with a huge canvas and thrills the audience with his big, flashy moves and the way he splashes the paint onto the surface and gradually we see a recognizable face appear. I don’t necessarily want to perform on a stage like that, but I was impressed by the showmanship. And I realized something: it wasn’t just about showmanship. Those BIG MOVEMENTS create a certain kind of brushstroke and a certain kind of energy in the resulting art. Those dancelike moves don’t just entertain the audience, they infuse the work with excitement!

So I resolved to use more of my body while painting. Instead of just moving my wrist and hand to paint, I would use my whole arm, my shoulder, my whole body! I went looking for subject matter.

I found a photograph of Mike T. I liked. The lighting and Mike’s muscularity seemed like good raw material for the approach I wanted to try.

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Here's the untweaked source image of Mike T. I decided to work from.

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I zoomed in on the figure, got rid of the background, then tweaked everything so I could see areas of color and light and dark more easily.

Since I was going to try something new here, I thought it would be a good idea to do a rough sketch first to work out color mixes etc.

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Here's the study I did before beginning the actual painting. Click on the image to see this work in the Rough Sketches Gallery on my website.

Once I’d done the rough sketch, I felt ready to tackle the ‘real thing.’ Below is the beginning.

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I went into this painting with a different intention than usual. In line with the observations I mentioned above, I made it my purpose to use my whole body to paint, and I decided that meant I should be careful and thoughtful BEFORE rather than DURING the act of painting.

Let me clarify that. What I decided to do was stop and consider where I wanted to place my next stroke. Once I had decided, I would fly into motion, painting with no thought, just action. Intention and consideration was one thing: the actual ACT of putting paint on canvas was separate.

I found that this worked well! I was able to paint each stroke with a lot of energy and abandon, because I wasn’t trying to think and paint at the same time. Compare the rough sketch with the beginning of the actual painting above and you’ll see there’s a different feel to the brushstrokes.

Billabong inprog2

Above is the next phase of the painting. Here it’s mostly done except for the face. The face is probably the most challenging place in the painting for the approach I was attempting here, because with the face it’s harder to maintain objectivity. Because it’s always the focal point and therefore carries more weight and is more significant, it’s harder to abandon yourself. So I found that I was trying to THINK AND PAINT at the same time, rather than separating thought and action as I ‘d been able to do with the rest of the painting. I was getting too careful. That’s why you see the face has been scrubbed away in the image above. I had to completely wipe out my first attempt and get away from the painting for a day or so before trying again.

Below is the finished work.

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The finished work: Billabong Shorts. Click on the image to see this work on my website.

When I went back to the painting the next day, I was able to keep myself focused enough to avoid making the face too ‘precious’ and being too careful. I’m really pleased with what I learned on this painting. Next: Getting even looser and more dynamic with my painting.


Click here to access all entries in Douglas Simonson’s “On the Road” Series