Good Thing She's Cute

All my paintings in the past year were done in acrylics, and now I'm trying to ease back into watercolors. Over the years I've done many watercolor paintings using a limited palette - basically just red, yellow and blue - such as Jerry Van Music Man and Grandpa's Fiddle Break. In those cases, I mixed the pigments on the palette to create new colors, then brushed the mixed colors on the paper. Now I'm trying another method: letting the 3 colors mix directly on the watercolor paper. It's a technique used by many watercolor artists but one I've never attempted. I was motivated to give it a try after viewing the paintings of eminent watercolor artist Lian Zhen, which blew me away. I was investigating his work online since he will be the juror for the 2018 Tennesse Watercolor Society Exhibition (which I intend to enter). He uses several different palettes of 3 watercolor primaries, but I selected three I've used before with good mixing results: Holbein Royal Blue, American Journey Coral Red, and American Journey Carr Yellow. The choice of colors is important; each needs to be a pure tone so when mixed they won't create shades of brown or grey. For example, a greenish-blue like Phthalo Blue Green Shade when mixed with Coral Red as I used would not create a clean, pure purple. There are many good choices for painting from a limited palette, from all the professional watercolor manufacturers.

As you can see, the colors end up very bright and not realistic in this method. The success of the painting depends strongly on values, which I wrote about in a blog post recently. The more the color is diluted, the lighter the value. Some places the colors blend with soft edges, other places have sharp divisions between colors... which creates more interest. Leaving random whites from unpainted paper adds a bit of sparkle. I also went back into the dried painting with my X-acto knife and scratched pigment off to reveal the white paper below, such as in the eye highlights and whiskers. This is possible because I've used a very thick watercolor paper, Arches 300lb. I love that particular paper since it doesn't buckle when wet and the cold-press version had a nice texture. In the end, I also painted some strokes of the same colors to indicate the fur and freckles and to intensify some of the darkest areas.

The subject of this painting is my four-year old dog Maggie Mae. She was truly the 'puppy from hell' but after age 2 became much more sweet, relaxed, loving, and under control. On her worst days we coined the phrase "'...good thing she's cute" - her expressions made it hard to be angry for long. We rescued her, so her heritage is unknown but best guess is coon hound mixed with beagle. Her big eyes are captivating and she is very photogenic.

I like this painting process, and it stretches me to try something different. I need more practice at it however; when working in the wet-on-wet foundation stages you have to keep moving and complete a lot in one session. I'm more accustomed to painting for an hour one day, two hours another day, etc. Also, this painting is small, about 10" x 8", and I want to use the painting method on much bigger paintings.

You'll probably be seeing more watercolors done similarly by me in the near future. Try this yourself!

This Bud's For Me

I don't often do a painting just for myself, other than my own dogs' portraits. This is a special one which I was determined to finish in 2017. It's part of a series, another atypical characteristic of my art. It's not a Monet-type of series, where he painted subjects such as haystacks, the Rouen Cathedral, and waterlilies over and over in different lighting and weather conditions. No, my series is very different - I have painted the same vase three times over the last 55 years!

This all began when I was a child. I was constantly drawing and even won an art contest in the first grade. For some reason, of all the artwork I generated when I was young, my mother saved just one. Perhaps it was because it was a drawing of a vase she owned… ? I rediscovered this little crayon drawing in the 1990s, when Mum was sorting through her memorabilia and doling out old treasures to each of her four children. She gave me a little piece of newsprint paper with a drawing in crayon of her vase with flowers, under a candelabra. On the back of the thin paper, in my mother's distinctive small handwriting, are the words "By Judy, age 7." That would date it to 1962.

I didn't remember actually creating the drawing, but I remembered the vase as soon as I saw it. I don't think Mum used the vase for floral arrangements, so I must have been inspired to add the flowers because of the tulips in relief on the piece itself. The hanging light was likely from my imagination too, since we didn't live in a house with any similar lighting. When I asked my mother if she still had the vase, she said my younger sister Jean had it (she sweetly relinquished it to me upon my request). As an adult I had become interested in antiques, and when I got the vase I noticed the marks on the bottom identified it as Hull pottery, made in one of many companies in Ohio in the early 1900s. My research revealed that Hull produced many pieces with the same pink-yellow-blue glaze pattern as well as a variety of shapes with a similar tulip design. Of course, my attachment to my mother's vase was purely sentimental.

In 1997, 35 years after I had created the first drawing, I decided it would be fun do a painting of the Hull vase, since I been a fine artist for many years. I bought some tulips and made an arrangement in the vase, adding an old photo of my mother as a child with her young sister Emma. I positioned the items on a crocheted lace doily and took reference photos for the still-life, just using lighting from a window in the entry hallway to my home in Florida. I created the new painting in watercolors, which was my media of choice at the time, and titled it "Now and Then." The original crayon drawing and the new watercolor were framed and have hung in my bedroom since then, with the Hull vase on my nightstand.

Fast forward to 2017. Usually a painting comes before the framing, but the opposite happened in this case. I had bought a lovely antique tiger oak frame which matched a lot of our furniture. I wanted to paint something to fit the frame and hang it in my house. With these thoughts circling around my brain, the idea for my new painting came together when I saw colorful tulips for sale last spring. It had been 20 years since I painted "Now and Then," and 55 years since the crayon drawing, so it would be interesting to do it again, in acrylics this time. So I bought a pot of yellow and a pot of pink tulips and gathered some props to set up a still-life. As the newest painting shows, I arranged the tulips and set the vase of flowers on top of an oak bookcase which has a decorative panel on the back. I laid one yellow tulip at the foot of the vase. A little oval frame in this grouping features a photo of me at age 7. I used an old brass table lamp to cast some sidelight and positioned everything on an antique cotton mantle cloth, one of many pieces of needlework with tatted lace in my collection - my grandmother taught me to tat long long ago. To make an interesting composition, I bunched up the fabric and let it fall unevenly over the end of the furniture, instead of laying it flat and straight.

I took over 50 digital photos of my arrangement, trying different lights and exposures with my little point-and-shoot camera. I've got decades of experience in Photoshop, so I did some combining and retouching on the shots I liked best, to create one reference photo.

Technically, I painted this on a masonite panel pre-coated with gesso, rather than on stretched canvas, since the frame has a very shallow depth. I had never used that type of board before. Bad choice - I struggled with the ultra-smooth non-absorbant surface, which was rather unforgiving. I usually don't like to make my brush strokes obvious, and it was difficult to control this effect. It actually took me many months to complete the painting, but, in the end, I am happy with the results. I will hang "Once Again" in my bedroom, making it the third in my little series.

December: Values

One of the most important design elements in a painting is value. Value (or tone) can be defined as how light or dark a color appears, rather than its actual color ("hue" or "chrome.") Think of a black and white photograph, where the image is composed of blacks and whites, plus a full range of grey values. The same is true of a drawing in pencil or charcoal, as with my drawing of my cat Ernie. Turn any color image into black and white or into a monotone - any one color with a range of values - and you can see the values more clearly.

Just as white blends to black with many tones of grey in between, you can create a range of values from white to any color. Using transparent watercolor is a bit different, where water is added to a color to make it lighter, relying on the white of the paper to show through the transparent coating of pigment. With oils and acrylics, a light color is sometimes used in place of white to create a lighter value, such as adding a little yellow to a dark blue.

Successful representational paintings have a range of values. For the artist, values are a tool to help to define forms and create the illusion of space. A ball will have the lightest values where the most light hits it; a gradation of light to dark values will define its round shape, and the edge furthest from the light source will be the darkest value... no matter what color the ball is. Values should be used to emphasize the focal point of the painting; I learned in a workshop that the darkest darks and brightest lights in a painting should be reserved for your main subject.

Colors which are naturally light, like yellow, will have a smaller range of hues than a dark color like black. Also, how light or dark a tone appears depends on the other tones near it. If your overall painting is light, a mid-tone might be dark enough for your effect, rather than a very dark tone which might be too stark.

I use values in many ways in my paintings. "Let It Snow," a barnyard scene I painted in acrylics, is primarily painted in whites, blacks and greys, which is how the weather dulls a scene when overcast and snowy. Any really bright colors would have clashed in this landscape. The house on the Maine coast in "Solitude" is painted in watercolor with just two colors, so it heavily depends on blue and brown values to define the scene. The white of the watercolor paper shows through where the paints were most diluted, as in the sky. One of my many dolphin paintings, "The Color of the Waves," uses a rainbow of unrealistic colors, but the scene looks natural because I concentrated on getting the values right… as shown in the greyscale version of the painting which I created in Photoshop.

If you are struggling with getting your painting to look right, and can't figure out exactly way, try doing your next painting just with one color and white. It's a great exercise which will help you understand the value of values in all your future paintings.

I hope you've enjoyed my monthly art postings with focus on different aspects of art. Coming soon - my newest still life painting!

November: 12 Tips for Reference Photos

"Elle's Tobacco Planter"
I once visited a gallery where the artist's bio said he painted everything from his imagination - this was hard to believe, considering his work was realistic, detailed, and covering a wide variety of subjects.

I learned quickly when I began painting decades ago that I would need to rely on reference photos to paint from. Some artists work outdoors, on location - en plein air - but that requires the time and flexibility to get out with all your equipment at a designated time. Since painting is my 'moonlighting job' that kind of scheduling doesn't work. And my brain doesn't function like that gallery artist's; to paint the way I most enjoy, representationally and with detail, I need to have reference photos. I often do commissioned paintings of pets, homes, and other personal themes, and good reference photos are essential to help me capture exactly what my customer wants.

The photos shown at the top of this post were among many I took of an old piece of farm equipment, parked along my friend Mitch's long driveway. I photographed in different seasons, at different times of the day, and from different angles, which all helped me to paint "Elle's Tobacco Planter."

"Jerry Van, Music Man"
For years I've been using the same point-and-shoot 14.1 megapixel digital camera, after a long reluctance to retire my 35mm film camera. Mine is a Sony Cybershot with a Carl Zeiss 4x zoom lens. Even smart phones take great photos these days, with amazing ability to capture low-light scenes without using a flash. My camera is small and easy to carry, so I often slip it into my purse just in case that inspiring scene reveals itself when unexpected. Many photos I've taken were not with the intension of using for a painting, but later inspired me. I have a huge digital file of potential images for future paintings, and I call upon it frequently. Many people say my artwork looks like a photo, but I am only trying to use my photos as references, changing the colors, lighting, composition, emphasis, arrangements, and other aspects to suit my art. Notice the many different angles I shot photos of the two outdoor musicians; one eventually became the basis for my painting "Jerry Van, The Music Man."

 With so many images readily available online, most art competitions and galleries are now requiring that any paintings submitted are not based photos taken by anyone other than the artist. Now, more than ever, it is important for a painter to take his/her own reference photos.

The following tips are helpful in using photos as reference for paintings, but they are also good basic photography tips, even for non-artists.
  1. Take lots of photos, but trash any which are out of focus, do not show the subject well, have bad lighting, or for any reason are simply not good.
  2. Take photos in high resolution. Low resolution is fine for internet use, but high resolution will retain all the detail when enlarged or printed.
  3. Hold your camera square with the subject in front of you; if you tilt the camera down, as you might if photographing a flower, or you turn it up, as you might if photographing a tall building, then the image's perspective will be distorted. A camera lens doesn't see exactly as the human eye does.
  4. Try to be a eye-level with your 'center of interest.' This might mean laying on the ground to capture a basket of napping kittens or standing at a second story window to photograph a statue.
  5. Move around in front of your scene; a slightly different angle might reveal it in a more interesting manner. A lovely side-lit shot might turn stunning when the same subject is backlit, as happened with my reference photos for my painting  "When She Was Three."
  6. Take wide and close-up shots; wide shots give you more flexibility for cropping off some of the edges, and close-up shots show more detail.
  7. Learn to use the exposure settings on your camera; if I photograph a blue flower in normal mode, the blue tends to turn white. By adjusting the "OEV" setting, I compensate for the camera's default setting. I try shots at various settings on the ± OEV scale. This changes the exposure value and I am able to capture the blue properly.
  8. When possible, take photos of your subject in different lighting, at different times of the day, or in differing weather conditions. See how I returned to photograph the old truck in "Volunteers" in different lighting.
  9. When photographing animals or people, it's helpful to use a 'burst' setting, On my camera, this setting takes 3 photos at 0.7 second intervals with one touch of the shutter button. This helps with blinking or moving subjects.
  10. Take both horizontal and vertical shots
  11. You can use 'artistic license' anytime, altering your photo, adding or deleting to the image. You can combine references from several photos into one painting, as you've often seen me do. See how I did this in my recent painting "Red Bug."
  12. Repeat Step 1!
As the reference photos with the old barn show, I took photos from different points of view. For my painting "Jesus Saves," I chose to crop the image as shown with the green rectangle, and added the handlettering as a focal point in my painting.
"Jesus Saves"
For specifically taking photos of pets, read more of my photography tips on this page of my website.

Little What's His Name

For an excitable little dog, he's been very patient. Watson joined our family in January 2015 and I've finally finished his portrait, which I started months ago… painting is my moonlighting job, so life often gets in the way!

We adopted Watson from the local shelter where he had been surrendered by his owners just before Christmas. He was estimated to be about 11 months old and responded well to his distinguished name. We figured we better not change it to Jethro, which would have gone well with his new older sister Ellie Mae. However, we kept struggling to remember his name. He was called Winston, Wilson, Wallace, and other "w" names as we tried to adjust. We even called him Mr. Bates since we were into watching Downton Abbey and Watson followed each of us whenever we went from room to room like a faithful valet.

His cuteness was hard to resist right from the start, and Watson had other good qualities which made me reluctantly agree to make him the third dog in our Two Dog Ranch family. (Was I dreaming when I came up with that name for our property years back, thinking we'd never have more than 2 dogs?!) Our middle dog, Maggie Mae - just one year older - had been the puppy from h#!@; fortunately she has matured into a sweetie, although with an independent spirit. Watson was house-trained, got alone with our other dogs and cats, didn't chew stuff, barked only when necessary, and was a great size at 35lbs. Other than the spins he goes into when he gets excited at the mention of a walk or a ride, he's a great little pooch. I'm happy to add him to my dog gallery.

I've done many custom pet portraits and dogs are one of my favorite subjects. Get details about sizes, prices, tips on taking reference photos and more on my website.