Yvonne Branchflower's Art Blog

The Problem with Plein Air Painting is...


Last summer a friend and I scheduled a painting day in Portland’s park blocks.  We chose a great location with red bistro umbrellas in the middle-ground and plenty of diners and strollers.  The park was in deep shade, light was somewhat greenish as it filtered through thick leaves, and the red umbrellas were mostly in shade.  Heavily tinted bistro windows appeared stark black.  I painted what I saw and was predictably disappointed in the dark result.  This is the problem I have with plein air painting:  Local color does not always match mood, and mood is the driving force in my paintings.

 

When Portland Art Museum Rental/Sales Gallery invited a baker’s dozen of its artists to a paint-out in the same park, I approached it in a wholly different way.  I preselected a site, photographed it, did multiple pencil sketches, and studied the values.  The monument of Teddy Roosevelt, which I wanted to feature, was lost in background foliage of the same value.  Altering the surrounding foliage to a cheerful light value created the center of interest I wanted.  The artist in my painting was actually facing me, but turning her toward the monument created a link between her and the monument.  Had I painted her the way I saw her, she would have been the subject of the painting, and Roosevelt, superfluous competition.

 

I wanted to portray a cheerful, busy day in the park.  And while that was exactly what the day provided, it was not what local color and real values provided.

 

Such high-key oil sketches as these are abnormal for me:  I am a landscape painter enamored with shadows and low-contrast.  Entirely out of my comfort zone with urban/people painting, I find it necessary to dig deep into the principals that govern my meditative landscape paintings:  Composition, color, value—and most of all, mood—pushing one reality to create another.

Comment on or Share this Article →

Oil Painting Demo--my approach to painting


Spring Storm

Click on the DEMO tab to learn how I paint in this step-by-step illustrated demo of Spring Storm.  In this start-to-finish demo I will tell you what materials I am using and what I am thinking about at each stage of the painting.  Brushwork, color theory, botany--it's all covered.

Comment on or Share this Article →

Make it Easy


My first foray into plein air painting involved a Jullian French easel.  Once it is set up, a French easel makes painting a true pleasure.  However, it is heavy, and it does not protect wet oil paintings.  When pochade boxes first began making waves, I bought one.  It made plein air painting much easier.

An 8x10” pochade box holds quite a bit of stuff.  A homemade adapter for smaller panels increases its versatility.  It is light-weight, compact, and best of all—it fully protects 2-4 wet oil paintings, depending on the thickness of the panels.  My box is a prototype made by California artist John Budicin (the box is a work of art!)  Guerrilla makes very well-rated pochade boxes, with the 8x10” running around $100 at www.aswexpress.com

ArtComber, a canvas cart, further contributed to making plein air painting easy.  It is capacious enough to hold everything I need when painting out—including a hefty tripod for the pochade box.  Water container, lunch, extra jacket, 12x16” palette keeper—it all goes in.  If that is not enough to recommend it, it comes with a fold-down chair which can also serve as a low table.  The ArtComber handles smooth to moderate terrain, such as uneven dirt paths and packed sand.  It would probably bog down in loose beach sand, and you would not want to drag it up the face of a bluff, but in my normal painting environs it works perfectly.  ArtCombers are about $60 at www.aswexpress.com

I don’t buy many art gadgets.  But these two items have really made plein air painting more accessible for me. 

Comment on or Share this Article →

Alla Prima Workshop


Yvonne at Fire and Earth Studio, photo by Thomas Kitts

Let me start by saying there was no fluff in Thomas Jefferson Kitts workshop.  Painting alla prima, we completed five studies in three days.   Kitts challenged us to detect the subtleties of value, hue and chroma.  He introduced several of the students to “notan”, a concept of value-massing, and gave us a lesson on the Gamblin color system, a variation on Munsell's system.

We painted still lifes from sumptuous arrangements of fresh fruit and flowers.  The play of light and shadow through the arrangements gave us opportunities to apply what we learned about value-massing.  On the last day, Kitts did a demo painting, then we painted from a model, separating values and color temperature on pale skin.

Kitts, a Portland Oregon artist, ocassionally consults with Gamblin Artist's Oil Colors .  Each student got a goodie bag of Gambin products, including an informative DVD on color mixing theory.  Following the workshop, I spent a morning reading Gamblin's website--well worth the time.  After I photograph my workshop paintings, I'll give more detail about what we covered in class.

One tip:  I usually wear smooth-soled SAS shoes.  But by the end of the first day, my feet were tired and freezing (this is February in Portland on a concrete floor.)  For the rest of the workshop I wore wool sox and hiking shoes with heavy tread.  The big spaces in the tread seem to keep shoes from absorbing cold from the floor, while the wool sox provided cushion, warmth, and kept my feet drier.  Warm feet at winter workshops are happy feet.

If you are looking for a painting workshop in Portland, Oregon, I heartily recommend Kitts.  Plan on working hard, learning a lot, and taking breaks and lunch on the fly--and finishing invigorated. See his paintings and find his workshops at www.thomaskitts.com

Comment on or Share this Article →

18 Tips for a Great PR Photo


What makes a compelling self-marketing portrait for your website and brochure?  Do you want a face shot? Do you like the “artist in action” look? Or, would you like a blend of both? Plan on taking 50-100 photos (thank goodness for digital cameras!). It will take that many images to find a few that work really well, unless you are photogenic, which I am not.

1. Begin by collecting marketing photos of other artists—photos that interest you. Cut them out of old art magazines, artist brochures, art workshop ads, print them from artist websites, or scan them from book fly jackets. Stick them in a notebook and make notes of what you like about the photo. After a few of these you will begin to notice consistencies in your choices. (For example, I don’t like lower legs and feet in the picture and discovered cropping is not the only way of getting rid of them!) I also discovered that French easels with huge canvases are more dramatic than pochade boxes with small panels. If you are a plein air painter try both if you have the materials.

2. Have a patient spouse or friend do the photography, or have a “photo jam” with a couple other artists.  Try to get the camera in the hands of someone who has a sense of style and observation, and review with them what you want and don't want.  Show your photographer the pictures you have collected of other artists.

3. Relax, but don’t slouch. Use good painting posture and hold the brush properly.

4. Photograph in more than one background or setting.

5. Select time of day and weather. Late afternoon is popular with photographers because of the warm light. In my climate, sunny weather is glary, so I like the even light of overcast days for outdoor self-portraits. Don’t bother on windy days, unless you make the wind part of the visual story.

6. Plan on taking lots of photos in a few different settings, poses and expressions. My best expressions were when my husband was “fiddling with the camera settings”—I didn’t know he was taking pictures, so I put my hand on the top of the easel, my chin on my hand and gave him a bemused smile while I waited. Totally unposed, these were the best.

7. Generally speaking, wear neutral colors just as you would when painting en plein air. If you are a flower garden painter, however, you might want to brighten it up a little so you don’t get lost in all the color. One favorite in my notebook shows a smiling woman, one third of her face hidden behind her French easel and canvas. She is wearing a neutral shirt, but has on a broad-brimmed floppy floral fabric hat. She is surrounded by a blooming garden. This beautifully composed photograph shows an artist in her element.

8. My favorite photos show artists standing while painting. However, not all painters can stand for long periods, so sometimes it is appropriate for your portrait to show you seated. In that case, avoid letting the aluminum and bright plastic colors of your chair dominate your portrait.

9. Photograph at different angles: Facing the camera and various degrees of side view, and ¾ back view featuring your painted canvas and the matching subject.

10. Compose. Unless you have good photo editing skills, do extra work composing en situ.

11. Pay attention to your distant background: If you are a gritty “blighted landscape” painter, yonder dumpster may serve you well. But if you don’t want it in your portrait, avoid it.

12. Remove your own clutter from the scene, such as beverage containers, stool, bags, paper towel roll (some painters use toilet paper—what is a viewer supposed to interpret from a roll of toilet paper on an easel?)  If the portrait is about you as an artist, keep the paraphernalia simple. If it is about how you equip yourself to paint in the field, show it all.

13. Avoid trendy clothes unless you replace your marketing image frequently.

14. Hat is optional: Try different ones, and none.

15. Have the photographer stand far enough away to allow plenty of space around you, the model. Without the photographer right in your face, you stay more relaxed, your nose won’t be too big, and there is ample cropping space.

16. A formal face shot shows your potential collectors what you look like, but little about the artist you are. If you want a face shot, google portrait photography for lots of tips about making an interesting portrait.

17. From each photo shoot, try to accumulate several good PR photos that can be used for newspaper articles, holiday cards, and promotion in addition to your website and brochure.

18. Edit those photos freely. For those of you who are not technically savvy, cropping is pretty easy to learn and is often the only thing that needs to be done to an image. Do your editing on a copy: Always save your original unedited image until you are absolutely sure you don’t need it any more. Then keep it a little longer.

That’s it! Have fun out there, and feel free to add your suggestions.

Comment on or Share this Article →

DVD Review: "Three Landscape Studies" by Scott Christensen


««««« Scott Christensen’s DVD, “Three Landscape Studies,” is for anyone interested in plein air painting, using plein air sketches to work up a studio painting, and painting with a limited palette of 3 primary colors.  He explains his process in a way that is interesting and easy to understand. The filming is also excellent, frequently using a split screen so the viewer can observe Scott selecting and mixing paint as well as watch his painting technique. 

Scott uses three primaries, red, lemon yellow, ultramarine blue, titanium white and black. The harmonious range he achieves from these few colors is extensive. He uses color tonally with subdued results, and explains how to maximize the punch of an accent color in a tonal painting.

Years ago I experimented with three primaries and detested the results. After watching “Three Landscape Studies” I selected three primaries from my paint collection (only the red differed from Scott’s palette), and made some puddle color charts, labeling each addition of color. The results surprised me with their delicacy and range of color.

Four years ago I began having difficulty mixing color from my old familiar palette. I changed the bulbs in my studio lights and got a new pair of glasses, but nothing helped. My world was beginning to look depressingly dingy. I was diagnosed with cataracts. Cataracts are famous for making vision fuzzy, but their worst characteristic for a colorist is that they are yellow to brown. The ophthalmologist warned that color perception would be affected. It was. This may sound familiar to baby-boomer painters.

Scott’s “primaries only” palette may compensate for damaged color perception by limiting the potential for unbalanced hues. I am setting myself a challenge to do more puddle charts and to paint only with this trio of colors for the next few months. I’ll post the resulting paintings and my thoughts about the learning curve.

Although not new, “Three Landscape Studies” is worth viewing. I rented it from www.SmartFlix.com for $10, a handy way to view a DVD before deciding to add it to your permanent library.  Visit Scott Christensen’s paintings at www.christensenstudio.com

Comment on or Share this Article →

Critique: Inadvertent Symbolism

Symbolism can dramatically enrich your work if you know how to use it. It can also invade your work unconsciously, sometimes contributing to the painting, or sometimes undermining it. As you critique your paintings in progress, include a search for inappropriate use of symbols.

For example, I had only been painting a couple years, and was working on a large landscape in a workshop. As the painting developed, so did a prominent pubic shape right in the middle of the subject mountain. I was so embarrassed I didn’t want to be seen painting anywhere near that shape! But it had to be altered without damaging the believable contours of the mountain, the quicker the better. It was a self-taught lesson I never forgot.

Other shapes and relationships have caused me trouble from time to time: Utility poles that look like crosses, boulders that look like Volkswagens (maybe I wanted one in my youth.) And barriers: Barriers frequently impose themselves in my paintings, forcing me to break them for the viewer and for myself. Occasionally I leave barriers in place when they work for the painting.

Symbols came to humans before language. They developed in various forms: Religious, cultural and personal. A few are universal, such as the circle. Some become tainted by history, such as the swastika, an ancient widespread symbol of the whirlwind and the four cardinal directions.

Some artists develop a code of personal symbols and definitions. How you explain these to your collectors is a personal issue. I align myself with Native Americans who believe that revealing too much too often diminishes the power of the symbol. Other artists believe the story would be lost without explaining the symbolism. Know where you stand.

I’ve deviated a little from my original point. But I guess I wanted to stress that symbols and shapes in your paintings contain incredible power for the people who view your work.  When you find inadvertent symbols and shapes that distract from the meaning of your work, adjust them out of existence.

Comment on or Share this Article →

What This Juror Looks For

Every once in a while artists will ask what I look for when judging a show. I like that. It gives me a chance to teach artists to consider their work as a whole package. I feel disadvantaged, however, because oils are my specialty and other mediums and art forms are not. As a result, I’m a much harsher judge when it comes to oil painting.

When judging unfamiliar art forms such as weaving, I look for uniformity of weave, unless variation is a contributing factor in the design. In woodworking, I look for fine finish and smooth curves, unless ruggedness is critical to the sculpture. Also in woodworking, I look for how the grain of the wood is incorporated into the planning of the piece. Traditional quilting asks for fine small hand stitching, a plus over machine stitching. In contemporary quilting, I am tolerant of a wider range of stitch types. Watercolor is perhaps toughest for me to judge, and here I simply look for how well the painter supports the subject and mood with the paint.

In oil painting, brushwork and application of paint are important to me. Oil painting by its very nature is luminous, and I want to see that. Oil paint that is watered down with turp or clogged with sand had better have a reason to be so, and that reason must be more obvious than that the artist is cheap.    Required reading for all oil painters should be Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit.

In all work I look at the total presentation—how well the artist’s use of materials supports the underlying concept of the work. Do the color and composition get the message across? Do I recognize copied (or nearly so) work in an original category?  Does the work adhere to the rules of the competition? Generally, I try to give latitude in the choice of frame, but if several works are of equal quality, presentation becomes the determining factor. Sloppy presentation is always a negative, and includes dirty mats and glass, poorly cut mats, paintings that are loose in frames, dusty old Mediterranean frames from the 1970’s. Kitsch is a major turn-off.

I suspend my personal preferences as much as possible. They are not relevant when judging a show. Every time I judge a show I am humbled, and wish I knew more about art. I would like to leave comments on many of the entries as to why they won an award—or why they didn’t. Without that, what is learned?

Comment on or Share this Article →

Color


Color is the most challenging aspect of painting. There are no rules, only theories. The use of color may be guided by emotion, intuition or intellect. It may be based on local color or wild imagination, and it may involve personal or public symbolism. Color can be an effective tool for advancing your ideas. Or, it can undermine your entire painting.

Following are some random notes I will use in teaching a private color workshop. You might find them helpful.

No matter how realistic a painter you are, painting is an abstract process:  You are taking your view of a three-dimensional world and applying it to a two-dimensional surface. A certain amount of translation happens.

There are different theories about color. I consider myself a Tonalist (with my close color harmony and mixing on the palette) influenced mostly by traditional and mildly by Impressionist color theory.   Impressionists, the French ones, at least, did most of their mixing on the painting, or they just laid pure colors side by side and let your brain mix them.

Convey your message with color harmony or disharmony. Push beyond simple representation of local color to amplify the quality and character of your subject. This might mean intensifying color, but it could just as well mean reducing intensity, as I do in my quiet landscapes.

Four ways to reduce color intensity:

  • Add the hue’s compliment (always reduces the hue’s temperature, but you can control the amount of temperature reduction by your choice of compliment. Suppose you want to reduce the intensity of distant green trees: Alizarin Crimson will be a very cool compliment, while Cad Red Light will be a warmer compliment. Your painting will tell you which is needed.)
  • Add white (this tints the color, lightening the value.  White usually cools the hue.)
  • Add black (produces a shade of the hue, darker in value)
  • Add neutral gray (helps retain the original value. Paynes Gray, a blue-black, is not neutral. Ivory black is a better choice for shading.)

Next Blog: More about color and moving it around your painting!

Comment on or Share this Article →