Sloppy brushstrokes

11 May, 2019.

I don’t paint in gouache a lot. In fact, I tend to go “in batches,” it seems… I’ll indulge myself for a couple of days, make several sketches, then put my kit away until I get the itch again.

I’ve learned one thing about myself in the process: I’m not terribly interested in painting hyper-realistic images, nor do I find it appealing to spend a lot of time “crafting” the brush strokes. In fact, I much prefer to strive for a bit of sloppiness so that the energy of an image isn’t lost in the technique.

This little painting came out of a quick and very loose sketch I made a week ago at the Guadalupe Center. A lot of liberties were taken here, mainly because the sketch was very loose and my memory of clothes and colors are limited to a few margin notes in the sketchbook.

I do enjoy contrasting warm and cool colors, and this was no exception.

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Gouache on Bristol board.

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Color in the Grays

10 March, 2019. It’s sunrise and the clock says one time, my body disagrees: there’s exactly one hour in dispute. It’s very still outside, and the waking temperature is just above freezing. It is, in fact, much warmer than the past several months of gloom.

Still, the ground is frozen as I crunch around the yard in house slippers, and the gloom is still clear in my mind. In the distance, the water tower is a mixture of Cerulean blue and Quinacidone red, the hues neutralizing each other into a luminous gray. In the ground below I see a favorite, Perylene green; I’ll have to mix in a red and blue to darken it further if I want to do more than paint it in my mind.

The sky changes fast and I notice that the cloud cover is a mixture of periwinkle and violets that contrasts lusciously with the rising sun, a brilliant, if somewhat diffused ball of orange.

Looking down at the sketching pamphlet I began yesterday, I suddenly realize I’ve been unconsciously digging colors out of my gray world.

Sometimes I rely on memory and impressions to sketch out an idea, but memory is a funny thing and subject to vagaries and everything with which one comes into contact between the actual experience and the time one attempts to manifest it in some way. This morning I felt the need to supplement my impression with a quick pencil sketch and notes. It seemed as though getting the placement and ideas of values was important, and little thought was given to the colors of this sunrise.

Realizing this was an error, I ran to the studio to grab my travel kit. Not finding it immediately, I instead picked up the butcher tray I use for studio work and returned to a room full of windows facing east. Two minutes later I had a satisfactory color study.

Not content, I decided to spend a few more minutes making a second color study. The graphic curve was added to create a sense of leading lines that complimented the diagonal bank of clouds.

Even still, the composition seemed unresolved so I played around with various croppings, eventually settling on this. And now, satisfied with the design, perhaps I’ll work on a more “finished” painting this evening.

Right now, the day is beckoning. Hiking boots and jacket won’t be in the closet for much longer, nor my sketchbook on the shelf.

Tonight, I painted quickly.

6 February, 2019. No school tomorrow – again. For three weeks in a row, Mother Nature has elected to hurl ice and snow and sub-zero temperatures our way, only to briefly rebound, then turn around and hit once more. For three weeks in a row, I’ve only taught four days out of five; today, in fact, I only led one single art class – and that for only thirty-five minutes: barely time enough to get out, then put away supplies.

Perhaps I was feeling the urgency to produce fast today, an urgency that was a reflection, no doubt, of my students scurrying around an art room and making a valiant, if somewhat doomed attempt at progress on this, day two of a four day assignment. The urgency I felt, therefore, was artificial. In fact, I had all evening to myself, and all day tomorrow, and the evening that follows. There was little need to rush through anything. Why not savor the opportunity, languish in this moment of unexpected freedom?

But I did not. There was an urgency to place paper on the board, quickly wet it, and just as quickly drag washes of color across the moist surface, haphazardly – but carefully and intentionally, mind you! – placing slightly differing hues of blue in such a way as to allow color to bleed softly into color.

I remember once in college being so affected, so overwhelmed by the beauty of a sudden thunderstorm that I painted in a near frenzy. My roommate thought I’d gone mad – and in a sense I suppose I had. My ability to use paint expressively was nil at the time, and the frustration I felt at an inability to express what I felt in that moment was keen. It is a frustration that to this day I can recall vividly.

Tonight, I painted quickly. The sketch took only minutes to express, and it seemed important that it happen in that way: quickly. To labor over the sky would be tantamount to sapping the life from the sketch.

Tonight I chose to let the sketch live or die by its own energy.

Or lack thereof.

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“Sky before the rain and ice,” watercolor on Strathmore Aquarius II, approximately 6 x 6 inches.

Passing Thoughts


27 January, 2019. Ah yes, another pleasant hour toying with my watercolor kit while the wind howls, fierce with cold. All the while, I dream of warmer times, perspiration on my back and the comfort of a cool breeze. The chill I feel isn’t from the evaporation of that trickle of sweat, but from the hard, cold wood floor of my studio space; the windows rattle and leaves fly past traveling on the gusts of wind. I return my attention to the half sheet of watercolor paper, the first wash almost dry enough now for the glaze that follows. I ponder the technicalities of painting something so much larger than the page of even my largest sketchbook. My discomfort translates into an exploration of an approach I’ve seldom embraced these last several years, that of working large. And though this is far and away much smaller than those enormous canvases I once smeared with thick layers of oil – still! This is bigger than the hand held sketches I churn out as I wander through life. To do something new and uncomfortable is the artist’s way.

This is the second painting I’ve made of this subject. Does two constitute the start of a series, or is it simply the continuation of a passing thought?

Watercolor on 300# Arches Cold Press, approximately 20 x 13.5 inches.

Snow Day.

26 November, 2018. Today is a “snow day” in Kansas City. If you live in in the south, you have no idea what that is; despite all the unpredictable types of weather you experience, snowfall isn’t one of them. And if you live in the mountains, or up north – or especially if you reside as I once did in Alaska, snow is such an integral part of cold weather that it seldom has a travel impact on your world in the way that the brutal combination of windchill, temperature, and snow fall does to those of us in the Midwestern and Plains states. Snow paralyzes traffic. Roads turn into dangerously slick channels down which automobiles slide through yards, ditches, and into trees and other cars. Black ice is a real thing, and scary as hell.

And school is called off, mostly because it’s unsafe for kids to huddle at bus stops when the windchill can cause physical harm. That’s a “snow day.” 

Everyone else has to go to work, but teachers and students are off. I hate snow days because we have to make them up – for every day off, we have another added to the end of the Spring school term, thus shortening my summer break. 

But the first heavy snowfall of the year is also a remarkable thing. Yesterday we experienced blizzard conditions with formidable winds, hours of snowfall twisting into bizarre and fantastic drifts, visibility limited to a few hundred feet. Watching it accumulate all afternoon from the comfort of my studio window is something of a treat. And today the sun has emerged – it’s still quite cold, mind you, and no chance of things melting off. It is, after all, a “snow day” and so I’m at home instead of in the classroom. The morning light casts a warm highlight across the snow-covered ground behind my house; the shadows are an exercise in color theory, perceptibly blue. In the distance, trees that weeks ago were aflame in red and orange are now dissembling hues of grey.

If I were a true plein air painter I’d be outside capturing this scene. But it’s warm inside, my portable easel is conveniently positioned at a window, and, well … after all, it is a snow day.

Gouache in Stillman and Birn Alpha Series sketchbook, approximately 4 x 4 inches.

Old roads, new to me.

25 November, 2018. There’s a new road on the south end of town, cutting across pastures, rolling hills, wooded bluffs and creeks, and eventually connecting the incorporated side of town with a highway to the east. This is a welcome extension for many: the alternative is a wide boomerang route, but happily – for me, anyway – few have discovered the new route. For the moment, it’s largely untraveled. 

There is also a bicycle path that parallels the extension. I’m always curious to find out where roads go for some reason. I tend to suspect that just around the next corner there’s something really worth seeing, something worthy of the extra trek. 

Pedaling along the path I found that this new extension opened up a more ready access to some roads that I kind of knew were there, but was unsure of how to get to. I filed away a plan to explore them on the very next nice day.

Despite the fact that as I type these words I’m sitting here waiting on a forecasted blizzard, yesterday was perfect. It was a day for raking leaves, for enjoying the sun, for being outside as much as possible – all of which I took full advantage. The day was, in fact, “the very next nice day.”

I ride a randonneur bike, which is a road bike set up to travel over distance and various terrain in unsupported fashion. One characteristic of many randonneuring bicycles is a large front bag with which one carries the necessities for a long, unsupported ride. It’s also a nearly perfect setup for an urban sketcher or plein air painter of my ilk. My kit fits neatly into the bag, and makes chance encounters along my route as simple as pulling over and leaning my bike on the grass while I sketch.

The roads I explored yesterday are typical of most backroads one travels in this part of the country. Farmland is a mixture of grazing cattle and large swaths of field crops: corn, soybeans, milo. Some patches of ground are hay fields, the rectangular bales I hauled for a few cents each in high school having long since transformed into large, round stacks. They are so large and heavy that it takes a tractor with a special fork attachment to carry and transport them.

Old roads, new to me: I see ponds and creeks I had no idea existed. Surprisingly, there are few farmhouses. I presume that until the recent thoroughfare went in, access was difficult. I am saddened at the thought that this will likely change now: I foresee these glad fields evolving into housing developments before too many more turns of the calendar page.

Gouache in Stillman and Birn Alpha Series sketchbook, approximately  4 x 4 inches.

To study, perchance to dream.

11 November, 2018. Why do color studies? I certainly can’t speak for anyone else, although I know the intention of the practice is to prepare oneself for the execution of a larger, possibly more formal work. Speaking for myself, however, the making of a color study is play time.

Opportunity time. A time to dream a little about the interaction of colors and shapes.

I tend to reside with one foot in each of two different worlds – a world of sketching, and a somewhat contrasting place of painting. My sketches live through a search for energy and freshness, achieved when I’m on my game through the use of line. Color is often important to those sketches, but generally subservient to the pathways described by marks.

When I paint I enjoy the interplay of shapes and color, the orchestration of colors striving for a visual harmony. With paint, I tend to have a more introspective focus; I get lost in my work, whereas with sketched line the marks are free and come naturally. I would love to combine the two camps more often, and celebrate when they do – but for the most part I find myself working as muse and whimsey dictate, in one world or the other.

Line or color.

Two worlds. So closely related, and yet for me there is a chasm separating the two.

Demonstration

5 November, 2018. In much the same way as when I introduced gouache to some of my students and fellow sketchers, I’ve had numerous questions about the Caran d’Ache Neocolor II water-soluble pastels I’ve been toying around with recently. This short video demonstrates a couple of things I’ve realized about working with this media. It is by no means a comprehensive approach, however. These pastels are entirely new to me and as I’m beginning to realize, they are a much richer drawing/painting/sketching tool than I initially gave credit for.

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.

Limited Potential

3 May, 2018. My 100 day tiny gouache painting challenge continues, evolving a little as I progress. My first deviation was to veer toward the limited colors of the Zorn Palette. By extension, the two example here are a variation on the limited palette theme, again using only three colors plus white, in this instance Perylene Violet, Yellow Ochre, and Ultramarine Blue to form a loose color triad.

Now to be completely transparent, I’m not at all certain I like this combination of colors. It’s pretty restrictive and seems to slant toward interiors (perhaps). But the beach scene works, and I do like that pink hue that emerges from the mix of Perylene Violet, Ultramarine Blue, and White. The blue and yellow are almost compliments of each other, and that’s visually interesting to me as well.

Next step in this color palette experiment is to try it out en plein air when I visit the Ozarks this weekend. How will it do with fresh spring foliage, I wonder?