Category Archives: See like an artist

How to salvage a painting you are frustrated with

We’ve all been there. You know, that point in a painting where you say, “this sucks.”  You realize that it is not going the way you envisioned and it is quickly turning into something that you will gladly coat with gesso so you can start over with a new painting.

I always think the same thing. How did I get here? I planned ahead and had excellent reference material. I blocked in my colors and paid attention to the lights and darks. I kept checking the composition as I slowly started to fill it in and develop the details. Then, out of nowhere, I realize that I hate this mess of color in front of me.

Don’t get me wrong. There is something extremely liberating about grabbing out my bucket of gesso and covering over a painting. I simply chalk it up to a learning experience and move on. I never keep unsucesssful paintings around.

But instead of throwing in the towel so easily, I have a few ideas to get you to change your mind about your painting.

Tip #1:  Grab your palette knife and scrape off as much paint as you can. You will still have the general shapes and colors, but you no longer have the piles of paint that were built up as you struggled and struggled to get a certain area perfect.  You might be surprised how a thinned out canvas can reinspire you to go at it again.

Tip #2:  Turn your painting upside down. Many artists do that periodically anyway in order to check composition, color arrangement, and shape design. But it also helps at times to pull you out of a funk with a painting.

Tip #3:  Set it aside. Just put it away while you work on other paintings for a few months. Maybe you just need a break and will get back in the mood. Sometimes I think I simply have lost the mood I had when I envisioned the painting and I have to wait until I get it back in order to continue.

Tip #4: This is the most fun tip of all. I have at times given up on a painting, when I say, “oh what the hell.” I grab a large brush and just do extemely bold brush strokes. If it doesn’t turn out, I was scrapping it anyway. Check out “Indian Creek Canal – Huntsville.” This was actually a painting that I gave up on after blocking in the color. It sat in my studio, unfinished, for almost a year. One day I came up with the idea to paint with only large vertical and horizontal brush strokes. The result was something totally unexpected…and I loved it.

So the next time you are about to shove your palette knife through the center of you canvas, just take a minute and try one of my tips. You never know what will come out of it. Besides, you have nothing to lose.

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The truth about artwork

“Can’t you just paint my entire family perched on a rock off the top of your head? I’ll give you some photos to use.”

As an artist, I dread those questions because I know it will take a small disseration to explain why most artists can not just paint anything they want out of their imagination and make it come to life.

I discovered that most people truly belive that the great painters of old just painted their masterpieces off the top of their head and/or that reference materials is “cheating.” They do not understand that even the Great Masters had models and painted on locations outside.

Of course, the more an artist paints a subject, the more they can paint from memory. But usually a portrait painter can not paint a landscape without either being there or having good reference material. There are exceptions to every rule, of course. There are very creative , talented people that have no training or drawing skills, but create beautiful and emotional paintings. On the flip side, there are skilled technical painters who can paint in Photorealism.

I believe that most art should be in between somewhere. Every professional artist should be skilled in drawing, composition, value, color, and design. but also they need to put a part of themselves into the painting and create something with emotion.

What does that mean for commissioned art? Well I can paint a picture off a photograph and my paintings will look like that photograph. But we all know that photographs do not capture the likeness of a person – they are cold and distant and only show resemblances. Not to mention, there are other short comings with photo references such as distortion and loss of color.

Of course I can paint something that I do not know intimately by using a photo, but the viewer will be able to tell. Artists need to connect to what they are painting. For a portrait artist, this means that they need to spend time with the subject and paint them in their studio or have several photos to use with the right lighting and poses with tons of expressions to choose from.

For a landscape artist, this means going to the location and either painting en plein aire (outside) or taking the right photo references and making sketches or notes of colors and composition.

All we artists ask is that people understand that just because we can paint a nice picture of one thing, it does not mean that we have the ability to paint whatever we want with the same success. We do not have a magic talent, we just have developed skills in seeing things and expressing them on canvas or paper after years of practice.

So, just because somebody is “an artist,” it doesn’t mean they have this unique gift that allows them to create anything they want. And be gentle the next time you find out that an artist used a projector to blow up a photo reference. Honestly…they are not cheating.

Why an art blog?

You may ask, “What is this blog, and why should I read it?”

Well during the last several years I learned a great deal about the art community here in Grand Rapids, and I realized that, at least in the circles I belong, that there is not a large amount of dicussion over fine art. There was even less prior to Art Prize coming to town a few years ago.

But even now, we have our festivals and a rich culture, a few art competitions (ok Art Prize is the largest cash prize competition in history), and a number of non-centrally located galleries. But that is it. It just seems like our medical community draws more conversation than our art community.

Art Prize winner 2010

Art Prize winner 2009

I have found a select few who will engage in a conversation with me over brush strokes and the pursuit to avoid sentimentality in paintings. Unfortunately, most people that I know judge a painting on how realistic it looks. The closer to Photorealism, the better the painting, and therefore the better the artist. Just look at the winners and the top two-dimensional entries in Art Prize.

I admit that I had a huge learning curve these last ten years. I mean, I did not study art in college, and it was only a few years ago that I took my first workshop. As I grow as an artist and strive to create something more profound and emotional as opposed to creating a larger Kodak print, I realize how art can not only affect the artist, but also the audience. I have also found other artists and have heard their struggles to survive and support a family as well as others who wish they could make the leap to be a full-time artist and leave their unfulfilling “day jobs” behind them.

This would be a good place to make one of my confessions…I am a history buff. I’ll leave it at that for now, but it has been clear to me how art has been highly valued throughout history. Not just the good times, but the really bad times filled with war and plagues. I just can’t belive why people today do not value art and what it can bring to society, and why we do not talk about it at every third water cooler. I say ever third, because you still have to fit in the war in Iraq and the economy.

This brings me to the blog. I moved my website to the blog in order to merge it with the newsletter, The Art Advocate, I had created a few years back. I called it the Art Advocate because I wanted to advocate for art. Art and the discussion of it, the pursuit of it, and the appreciation of it, has value for us and I want to promote that. This blog is my attempt to bring art to those of us who do not hang out at an art salon (or do not konw that an art salon has nothing to do with your hair).

To answer the final question, Why should you read this? I honestly have no good answer for that one. I can say that one of my goals is for other more interesting writers to contribute as guest posters in the future, so be patient.

Until then, I hope your next water cooler (ok nobody actually talks at a water cooler anymore) conversation will include a discussion about the controversial issue of the use of photographs as reference material.

My best friend, my paint brush

Have you ever watched an artist gaze intently at his/her paint brush?

Maybe you overheard your junior high school art teacher whisper oh so quietly to their old wooden handled filbert brush while sitting in the corner of the classroom.

No? Well I know for sure that I am not the only painter with a special relationship with my paint brush. To confess, I actually have more than one brush that I am intimate with. In fact, I have a whole harem, including synthetic brushes and my Eastern European sounding foreign comrade, the Kolinsky sable brush (I even have him in two sizes). 

I am sure you may wonder why the paint brush is so important to artists. Other tools such as paint, easels, canvas, paper, and thinners can affect the quality of a painting. However, the paint brush will directly impact the styel which is unique to the artist.

My paintings just would not be my paintings without my flat or bright style bristle brushes. I will explain this more, but first I have to admit that my relationships with my paint brushes were not always like this. And like most relationships, it has evolved over time.

At first, I simply had a paint brush. I needed one of those to dip into the cup of paint in order to get the paint onto the canvas or paper without getting my fingers all dirty. They meant nothing to me and I would just discard them after misuse, lack of care, and abuse on the canvas. Buying a paint brush was easy too. I would go to a staore, find a size I would like, find the cheapest version of it, and pay for it. Boy those were the days!

As I got older and was able to financially afford higher quality materials, I thought that better paint would change my world. I once thought that a better golf ball would make my drives straighter also, but buying higher quality equipment will not make an athlete into a professional. Buying higher quality art supplies will not make an artist a professional either.

The paint brush, though, becomes part of an expression that makes an artist who they are. It does not make them necessarily a better painter, it just makes them who they are. Of course better paint and canvas can make a better quality painting, and watercolor artists would do themselves a great injustice if they used inferior paper. But each paint brush is designed to handle paint differently. My soft sable brushes are reserved for creating smooth blending for portraits. I use my synthetics to spread large washes of color in the beginning of my painting process.

And I rely heavily on my bristle brushes to create the visible brush strokes. These strokes are what I feel make my paintings interesting and are what I hope the viewers come back to again and again as they discover the variations and patterns, once the intitial emotional impact of the painting fades.

So what type of brush should an artist buy?

Looking at the paint brush section at an art store makes you think you are buying a hunting license. Do you want hog bristle, black sable, mongoose, or white sable? And what about the types of brushes? Do you want a flat or bright? How about a round or filbert, or maybe a fan brush? Is there anything wrong with synthetic brushes? I mean they usually are cheaper, so are they of less quality?

Unfortunately there really is no good information out there to tell you. Believe me, I looked. It really comes down to trial and error. But as you try different brushes, you grow as an artist. Then before you realize it, you start to forge a relationship and your style begins to emerge. Each brush stroke has meaning and only your brushes can help you make that stroke what it needs to be.

Next thing you know, you are alone in your studio, whispering oh so gently to your number 6 bright hog bristle brush!

What goes into a painting

Have you ever wondered what all actually goes into making a painting what it is?

There are plenty of terms to describe various art principles. Most of us have learned at least a little in school about composition, horizon line, value, hue, perspective; and some of us even learned about balance, proprtions, center of interest, and color harmony.

But there is even more, such as the concept of the path of the viewer’s eye, message, brush strokes, emotional impact, the Golden Mean, and secondary points of interest.

You can easily find hundreds of books and articles written about each of those topics separately, but how much of that actually goes into each painting? Some artists are unaware that they are practicing some of the principles and paint how they feel. Other artists have been known to spend hours preparing for just one single brush stroke. I’ve never done that, but I have been known to spend up to twenty minutes to  mix just one color on my palette.

Local Grand Rapids artist, Jim Connelly, once passed on to me that creating a picture is as much about art as it is about science.  It made me think about how there are many artists out there who are very creative, but lack the technical skills. On the flip side, there are artists who have developed tremendous skills, but their paintings lack the life needed to create an emotional impact. It is strange to realize how such a detailed painting seems to need something that beckons you to come back for more once the novelty of it all passes.

So when you are looking at a painting, how do you know if the artist is both creative and skilled?

The creative part is easy. When you look at the picture, do you find it interesting? Do you find yourself thinking about it after you walk away, or returning to it many times to find new and exciting things you never noticed before? Does it make you feel different, change your mood, make you think, or remind you of something nostalgic? Those types of emotional connectinos come from the heart of the artist, but what about the technical skills?

My wife puts it best when she looks at one of my paintings and says that she is not sure why,but it “just does not look right.” Well to get it to look right I have to go back to the basics. The big ones are value, proportion, and composition. If you saw in black and white, you would be seeing the value of each color (dark versus light). The values create dimension, making objects come to life. Similar values create patterns that move your eye around the painting and are so important that an artist can completely play around with colors as long as the values are correct. 

This leads us to composition. A composition has to not only lead the viewer’s eye into a painting, but has to move the viewer around the painting and find places of rest without letting the eye wonder off the sides. I sometimes spend hours trying to determine what a person would see first, then second, then third while looking at my painting. I have to make sure they find the center of interest, but are able to leave it and discover other gems, while still being able to find their way back to that center of interest.

Proportion deals with the relative size of things. You know, “is that vase way too big for that table?” Nothing ruins a contemporary realistic painting like the edge of a building being crooked or a person’s arm too long and bent in the wrong spot. 

To be honest with you, these are only some of the principles most artists think of while doing each painting. Most of these a viewer will never know about because I believe a good artist can mkae the painting look easy. But that is the beauty of a good picture. There can be so much  more than just the fact there is a flower pot on the table that is pretty, or that there are red and blue buildings that remind you of your hometown.

So the next time you find yourself looking at a painting you enjoy, try to look harder. Get up close and look at the brush strokes, or pick out the larger shapes by squinting your eyes. Try to figure out what you first see when you look at the picture, and then what you find yourself looking at next. The reward will be yours, because you will see what the artist sees.

And trust me…that is a wonderful way to look at the world around you.