Experimentation

29 July, 2018. I’ve been pretty busy this past week getting the Art Department ready for the start of classes in a couple of weeks. Long story short: Not a lot of time to paint or sketch – but plenty of opportunity to be pondering ideas.

Occupying my thoughts has been gouache and limited color palettes. Gouache continues to intrigue me as a media, and I love how a minimalist approach to color results in harmonious combinations. A surprising number of people have asked me about using gouache as a plein air media, so just to prove to the more incredulous I made this 6 x 9 inch sketch. The colors on my palette are Perylene Violet, Ultramarine, Yellow Ochre, and white – the jury is still out for me on this particular triad, by the way.

I tried as best I could to make a photo from the same point-of-view as my painting position, but the wide angle lens of the iPhone tends to exaggerate reality somewhat. I wanted something to look at to later compare the location color to what results from the use of the limited palette. Sketchers can’t get hung up, however, on making a “photographic” color match. In fact, I think a successful sketch relies more on value contrasts, color massing, and a certain degree of loose invention.

One other thing that’s occupied my thoughts has been field kit. I make no secret that I try to keep my kit as minimal as possible. I’ve got a wonderful plein air pochade box that I once used when I still painted in oils, but it – pretty much like every other similar set up – just feels cumbersome to me. I want something that I can either carry under my arm or, even better, in my hip pocket. It’s why I prefer a sketchbook and a few pocket tools.

But I want to be able to supplement that effort with kit that allow me to work a little larger from time to time, or to use for demonstration purposes. This is why I decided to just build my own, relying on a sturdy light weight tripod that I already own and a lightweight platform constructed from high grade wood. A tripod socket was installed on the underside of the platform.

The platform – I don’t have a name for this thing! – works really well and is very sturdy. It’s light enough that I can carry it along as a drawing board. I plan to add a thin lip along the bottom edge so my brush doesn’t roll off!

These acts of experimentation is fun and I like that I was able to “field test” my invention while also continuing to experiment with gouache and color.

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To color, or not to color?

21 July, 2018. There are times I worry my sketches are getting a little too precious. I really prefer they be incomplete thoughts rather than finished artworks. I like to experiment, so I kick myself when I begin to wonder if I’ve taken a sketch “too far.” I mean, that’s really sort of the point in the first place, isn’t it?

So here I find myself in a dilemma of sorts. I am enjoying my recent foray into gouache over toned paper. I’m enjoying the effect of black and white inks over toned paper. And I’m enjoying the way the two approaches blend together. The dilemma is that I like the look and the story-telling qualities that result from both approaches. I asked myself if I’ve gone too far by adding the color (or, conversely, should I have added color to my black, white, and gray sketch?) The mood, atmosphere, and even expressiveness changes with the addition of color. One person says color makes the scene “happier,” while another vehemently disagrees.

I like how the absence of color de-emphasizes the skin color of my subject in the black and white version. In the color version, the emphasis is on the shapes created by the group of people. It makes me realize how much my choices can affect the narrative. Color, value, contrast, etc. are more than just Elements of Art; they are story telling devices.

I find I have little in the way of drawing consistency, by the way. Sometimes my figure drawings seem to just fly off the pencil or pen and onto the paper, other times I find myself making much more expressively cartoonishly exaggerated characterizations. The pencil of this one felt stiff at the time I was sketching it out, but a day later I found myself admiring the construction as I began to add inked lines to the page. Inventing the fabric patterns that I kind of sort of think I recall was the most fun part of moving from pencil to ink.

By the way, if you’re not dividing your page into thirds to remind yourself how to place key elements of your design, you’re missing out on a compositional device that I find very helpful. I’m not a slave to the practice, but it sure does help to keep sketches from looking like the subject was just plopped down in the center of the page. I really believe that asymmetrical balance is far more interesting than symmetry of design.

The Heat Is On


18 July 2018. It is densely humid. The temperature is flirting with one hundred degrees: in a word, the heat is stifling. Along Prospect Avenue, to those who are observant there is a concrete “park” – in other words, an expanse of off street pavement. Perhaps a building once stood on this spot, or even two. It’s difficult to accurately gauge.

And it’s really of no concern to a group of eighteen or twenty children running around, happily oblivious to anything beyond the boundary of tarmac and broken concrete and old foundation. Adjoining the sidewalk stands a tall tree, its canopy offering a trifling umbrella of shade. Standing watch within the meager cover – sitting, actually, in two folding lawn chairs – are a pair of women, mothers. They chat, one watchful and ever vigilant eye on the youngsters.

Games are invented on the spot, the rules constantly evolve, kids run and skip, visible waves of heat rise from the ground, generating an atmospheric disturbance ignored by all.

I inked the basic drawing with a fude-tipped fountain pen and filled the black areas using a fat marker loaded with India ink. The fude tip is flexible, with a wide range of line widths possible; it was an excellent choice to generate the expressive quality I hoped to achieve in this sketch.

I’ve unexpectedly returned to using a pencil to draft the construction drawing rather than making a direct ink sketch as I’ve been wont to do for a while.

 

Structures

10 July, 2018. There’s beauty in the sometimes haphazard way we cobble together the structural aspects of our world to make the places we live and work and play functional. Wood and stone, gravel, wire, logs – they’re all the Legos we put together, take apart, then put back together again. The configurations evolve as our needs change. Things get nailed in place, leaned up against a wall, tied to something else.

Light falling upon the most pedestrian of things, the most utilitarian of buildings, can result in the most dramatic of atmospheres, the most touching of aesthetic experiences. Places of work intrigue me. People toil in these places, and when they’ve left, gone home; when they are occupying another space, the emptiness left in their wake is powerful. The loneliness is poignant.

My tools of the moment are a Uni-Ball Vision pen, a Uni-Ball Signo white gel pen, a limited palette of gouache and a flat brush. The gray-toned paper in my Stillman and Birn sketchbook is pretty close to perfect for my present needs. 

A Tale of Two Water Medias

8 July, 2018. As I’ve demonstrated on these pages the past several months, gouache media has captured my attention and a fair percentage of my sketching focus. I find myself torn in some ways: torn between using gouache as a limited tool (as above) vs. using the opaque paints to create a work in its entirety (as below). I’m also torn between gouache and watercolor. It’s easy to say well don’t be torn, use them both. But they handle so differently and have such different personalities.

I appreciate the way that gouache can be handled rather thickly – almost an impasto technique. This little color study demonstrates that brush marks can be incorporated into a media that I used to think was only suited for perfect, flat colors. There’s an energy  to this approach that can feel electric, fresh, and lively.

And so it’s been mostly gouache for me the past week or so, and definitely the past five or six months. I needed a bit less heavy handed touch so I went back to my pencil sketches and hit some of them with light washes of watercolor. Aside from water, the two paint medias are seriously different. The application of paint differs: On the one hand delicate little touches of watercolor, or bold washes of gradient color; on the other, much thicker individual strokes, opaque. The tools I use differ: with gouache it’s a stiffer bristle brush, probably made for oil or acrylic; with watercolor I prefer a nice quality round in a 12 or 14 size.

One media is energized, while the other tends to be sedate. These little sketches have a ton of “Dib-dabs” throughout.

When I got back home and made a few watercolor sketches, it felt good to simply “do.” Watercolor doesn’t require a lot of technical thought for me, whereas gouache is still new enough, still unknown enough, that I’m working towards a better understanding of it every single time I paint. Weirdly, I find myself referring to the use of watercolor as “sketching” while the process of applying gouache is painting. I wonder why I make that unconscious distinction?

I was one of the artists featured during a city-wide “Water Garden Society Tour” and felt less inclined to use gouache than watercolor. I do wonder though. I wonder if the dense shadows of foliage, painted thickly, is some of my recent practices in gouache painting emerging in my watercolor sketches. Could be there’s room for both in my life.

Color Studies

4 July, 2018. Now that my June travels have ended, numerous people have said things like “What are you up to now?” and “Must be nice to be off all summer long.” As it happens, I report back in just a few weeks so I am using every spare minute to sketch, draw, or paint. Once I’m back in the classroom, opportunities to do so will be stretched very thin for a while.

Sometime back – around a hundred days ago or so – I set myself a goal of creating 100 small gouache paintings in 100 days. I didn’t make that goal, but the point in doing so was to learn the media. And I’m feeling more and more confident as I continue to experiment with color palette, technique, and papers. Most recently I’ve been working on small color studies to explore ways to respond to light and shadow.

These are rather liberating in one sense: because the focus is on combination of color, the stress of representation is off.

A few weeks ago I wandered into a gallery and was surprised to discover they were selling work from some of my favorite artists: Thomas Hart Benton, Andrew Wyeth, and Wolf Kahn, to name but a few. I’ve admired Kahn’s use of color immensely and the experience of standing in front of his monumental canvases, just soaking in the color, prompted me to begin these color studies. I want to be cautious that his influence isn’t too strong – I’d rather not wake up one day only to discover what I’m doing is simply derivative. But it’s fun and interesting, and intellectually stimulating all at the same time.

Nearly all of my recent color explorations have been in gouache. This has changed the way I’ve been approaching my sketchbook stuff: rather than working directly with a pen, I’ve been composing with pencil first to nail down shapes and proportions.

This allows me to create an inked line drawing as a second step, with time to deliberately plan out the large black negative areas that I love to incorporate into my sketches. The drama and impact of these shapes is important to me and important to composition. This also allows me to work faster in the field, because the third and final step is getting done later on.

“Later on,” because I want to ponder how color will affect the way each composition gets “read.” I am trying to take advantage of the three values: black ink, white gel pen ink, and gray of the paper, while at the same time purposely selecting areas of color painted in gouache. The effect is interesting because there are areas that are rendered that contrast with areas that are flat. It feels to me as if the space is being redefined by the lines, color, and the choice to leave some of it untouched.

There’s also a sort of storybook character to these illustrations, and that narrative quality intrigues me to no end.

I said nearly all of my color work had been made with gouache, but earlier this week I felt like working on something large. So I got out my butcher tray and watercolor kit, a couple of really big brushes, and a full sheet of Arches. This particular scene from Menemsha has been in the back of my mind for a couple weeks now – no idea why. I don’t feel like the watercolor, regardless of the scale, does it justice and may take another stab at it. This one feels to me like a study rather than a finished piece.

Island Time

30 June, 2018. The first week of travel found us in Vermont. I’d looked forward to Vermont; it’s a beautiful place and I enjoy trekking through the place immensely. After leaving there, the next leg of our journey found us heading for Martha’s Vineyard. Having never visited the island before I wasn’t sure what to expect. As it turns out, it was my favorite destination.

So we stay very near the water, and having read an ad in the local paper for six dollar lobsters, we cannot contain ourselves. Let’s head there for lunch. The girl on the pier smiled as we walked up and made a half-hearted attempt to coax us into the restaurant. However, the newspaper had made a monumental typographic error and the lobsters were not six dollars! Later, after an unsettled stomach from the meal at the place we did visit, I found myself wishing we’d taken her up on the offer, despite the difference in lobster price.

Eating always provides a ready subject matter for sketching; The Little House Cafe was pleasant, somewhat eclectic, and our fellow breakfasters chatted quietly while I sketched them.

My favorite places to sketch on the island, however, were the piers and harbor areas.

Boats tied up alongside the piers, the verticality of the logs sunk deep into the underwater ground, the weathered look of the places – I found all of this visually interesting.

Each boat has a backstory of some sort: What destination is she bound for tomorrow? Did the fishermen score an excellent haul? What was the water like where they came from?

The decking and vessels are peopled with folks moving about with purpose. No one pays me any heed as I wander about, my sketchbook out and my pen roaming the pages.

As morning morphs into afternoon, once empty parking areas begin to fill. Visitors come to the adjacent beach or to buy fish. Some are here to hire a boat or crew, while others – like me – are simply gawkers.

A narrow jetty divides beach and docking area. I sit on large rocks and watch the clouds, occasionally sketching, but not with any serious attempt at making art. A mom and child wander past, clearly curious about what I’m doing … but seem timid and never come over to visit, to ask questions, to look.

One morning I head inland to a nature preserve. I’ve been invited to make some plein air work, which I do after developing a few quick sketches.

Before getting out my paint I take a stab at finishing off the gray-toned Stillman & Birn sketchbook I’ve been working in for much of this trip. Mosquitos are eating me alive – the nature sanctuary is something akin to a swamp in places and they little vampires are abundant as hell.

A small plein air painting does eventually emerge. Later, I carefully mat and frame the work. It’s shipped off to Felix Neck for an exhibition that opens this coming weekend. Sadly, I will not be able to attend.

Most nights are calmly spent sipping wine in the backyard, walking down to the water, chatting. One night we wandered into town and listened to a blues band. A young woman wearing a Hawaiian shirt and porkpie hat looked as far from a blues guitarist as one might imagine, but she was great! The lady could play a wicked blues guitar.