Sunday, October 2, 2016

Trying New Things: Paint Annapolis

"Morning After the Holiday" (oil on board, 16"x20") by Patrick Saunders. Photo courtesy of Saunders Fine Arts.

As the unofficial kickoff to our East Coast tour, The Maryland Federation of Art's Paint Annapolis was as good a place as any for us to try some new things and expand our comfort zone. Kimberly wrote about some of her own experiences on her blogpost "Yaaahhhr Not Fraahhm Maaaahhhhland, Ahhhhhrr Yaah?", and I stretched myself as a painter as well.

Read more at the PleinAirStreaming blog...

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Getting the Pose Right: Photography vs. Painting

"Gene" oil on panel, 18"x24." Photo by Saunders Fine Arts.
Gene is our Boston Terrier neighbor who comes to visit us every day. He's a sweet guy with a great face, and from the moment we met, I knew that I wanted to paint him. There's just no way that Gene would sit still for a painting from life. He's incredibly photogenic, and Kimberly was able to shoot a lot of great photos of him in numerous poses.

I chose the photo that I felt captured Gene's demanding personality. He's the kind of dog that will stare us down until he gets what he wants - usually treats. After spending a few hours on the painting, I realized that something just wasn't working. He looked flat and awkward. I realized I'd made a bad reference choice. Time to scrape it down and start over.

The photo vs. the painting. Excellent photo and very much "Gene."
I could tell very quickly after the initial block-in (even with my inaccuracies)
that the painting could not capture the same emotions.

Sometimes, a great photo doesn't make a great painting. Photography can depict things that a painting might struggle with. Our brains tell us that the photo is correct, and we don't question the accuracy of the image. That's not necessarily true of a painting. Paintings make us question odd proportions, and Boston Terrier's can have somewhat unique body proportions. It was clear that I needed a different angle to emphasize the forms of both his head and body.

Thankfully, as I said, Kimberly shot a lot of great photos. I looked for one that clearly showed his stubby muzzle and placed less emphasis on the imbalance between his body and legs. The second painting went quickly, and I am much happier with the finished result.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Portrait Class at Harold's Art & Framing, San Antonio

"Huey" (oil on canvas, 14"x14")
Yesterday, I held a portrait painting workshop with a wonderful group at Harold's Art & Framing in San Antonio, Texas. In the morning, I painted a full demonstration of Huey. I opened up the entire process to questions and comments from the students, inviting them to help decide what was working and where the painting needed additional work.. It was great fun for all of us.

In the afternoon, the students painted from the live model. It's always exciting to see the varied approaches of the individual students. Thanks to all of you who participated.

I'll be teaching one more class at Harold's next month.


Saturday, March 19, 2016

New Posts On PleinAirStreaming

I've been posting over on PleinAirStreaming this past week. Please check it out. It's more of the travel blog that I share with Kimberly as we trek across the country. I'll still be posting here, but this will be more thoughts on painting and studio work.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Why are you NOT using Turpenoid Natural?

I love this stuff, and you should too.

There was a time when I hated cleaning my brushes. I would use either Ivory soap or Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver. Either way, it was a tedious chore that never fully cleaned the brushes. If I was in a rush, brushes didn't get cleaned and were ruined forever.

No more. 

Turpenoid Natural makes it a snap. I keep some in a Silicoil Brush Cleaning Tank (you can really use any container) and just swish my brushes around for a few seconds when I'm finished painting. Wipe them on a cloth and done. When I'm ready to paint again, give them a swish in mineral spirits to remove the excess turpenoid natural, and they're ready to go.

Best of all, it removes hardened paint. Let a hardened paint brush soak overnight, and it just might be saved the next day.

One note: never use it to paint with. Your paint will fall right off the canvas.

I received no compensation for this review!


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Looking Backward to Move Forward

Two months of portrait studies - some good, some bad. 

There was a time when I wouldn't dare paint a portrait from life. The model moved too much. It took time to capture a model's likeness. Layers of paint needed time to set up. I had a number of excuses for why I would only work from photos, but none of them were legitimate.

My reluctance all stemmed from my time as an illustrator. As a student, life drawing and painting was an everyday event. I enjoyed it, and the practice built confidence. Moving into the professional illustration world, I often had to paint people or places that I didn't have access to. This changed my work habits. I became reluctant to take chances, and my confidence in working from life slowly eroded. I noticed a change in the energy of my work. 

After ten years with Hallmark cards, I decided to leave commercial work behind and focus on portrait and studio painting exclusively. I had the opportunity to take a workshop with Carolyn Anderson, and painting from the model every day was a real breakthrough. Carolyn would ask me questions about why I made certain decisions during the process and forced me to recognize repeated failures or successes. When I returned from the workshop, the paintings I brought back were filled with a life and energy that I hadn't produced in many years. My wife, Kimberly, declared that I should never paint a portrait from photos again unless I had no other choice. She was right, but it took me many years to fully embrace the idea.

For a number of years, I continued to produce portraits from photographs. The results were mixed, but the process was always a struggle. When frustrated, I walked away. Some paintings literally sat unfinished for years. 

During this time, I taught portrait painting classes at the Kansas City Art Institute. At the beginning of every session, I would paint a demonstration from the live model. I was always a bit anxious prior to the demo, but it always went smoothly, and I was usually happy with the results. The more classes I taught, the more my confidence returned. Most importantly, teaching forced me to analyze how I painted. I had to be able to explain every decision I made to my students.

I started analyzing the issues I had when painting from photos. Working from photographs allowed me to walk away at any time and come back whenever the urge struck. This can be a double edged sword. Yes, the subject is forever frozen in time, but it completely changes the approach. Without the urgency of changing light or a moving subject, brushstrokes can look boring and calculated. It's very easy for portions of the painting to look disjointed, as some areas are dry before others are even touched. Wet paint into wet paint is very different than wet into dry. Even color can be less harmonious, as mixtures on the palette from the first session are long dry before the second session.

Fast forward to today, and I find painting a portrait from life far more rewarding than working from a photo. Although I still work from photos when necessary, I look forward to every opportunity to paint from a live model. For the past two months, I have been lucky enough to find places like the Coppini Academy of Fine Arts, and the San Antonio Portrait Painters where I can paint from the model every week. 

At every model break, I take progress shots, so that I can go back and determine what I did right or wrong. Below are just a few things I tell myself (with some examples), after looking back at my progress shots. Remember, there's no wrong or right way. This is just my approach, but I do encourage everyone to analyze their own process.

• Forget drawing with lines. Block in the light and dark values with thin paint. This will create form in the first session that can then be pushed and pulled into a likeness.

This is about 20 minutes. Very thin paint
just to establish where I want everything.
It's very easy to move if necessary.

• Get the values correct. The shadows are almost always darker than they initially seem. Without a proper value change, the form is lost.

Also about 20 minutes. I had to get the shadows,
lights and dark of her hair established quickly
to evaluate every other intermediate value.

• Don't go for detail in the eyes too quickly. Tightly rendered eyes tend to pop out of the image and look strange. In the end, the eyes might not need any detail at all.
Almost no detail in the eyes.
In the end, it wasn't necessary.

• Color temperature is far more important than local color. Are the lights warm or cool? Are the shadows warm or cool? If the temperature is correct, it doesn't matter what color it's painted. Getting the temperatures right also avoids "muddy" color.
I really pushed the color intensity on this one,
but it works because the temperature differences
between the light and shadows hold it together.

• Pay attention to the edges. Too many hard edges, and the eye doesn't know where to look.
I kept her right eye softer than the left
to drive the focus to the left side of her head.

• Don't paint when the model is on break. There's nothing to refer to, and you'll just screw it all up!

• Don't be afraid to paint over any area. There might be a passage that I initially love, but it's never safe if it doesn't fit with the overall painting.

• Even if the final painting is a failure, the practice was not.

There's far more to be concerned with and always more for me to learn and practice. There will always be circumstances where I need to work from photographs, but regularly painting from a live model makes me better at it. I even pretend that the photo is a live model, and set artificial time limits.

In the end, I realize that I need these opportunities to make mistakes and push boundaries. I don't believe in natural born talent (that's an entire blogpost itself). Practice is what truly brings confidence and growth, but reviewing what went right or wrong during the process can take my paintings further, faster.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Ode To Texture

Many years ago, I did a lot of photo retouching at Hallmark cards. This was back when Photoshop was in its infancy, and there was no one to train us how to use these new digital tools. The team I worked with did a lot of experimentation, and we quickly realized the importance of photo grain. We could look at an image and tell if it had been manipulated based on the photo grain. If an overzealous photo retoucher cleaned up an area without paying attention to the grain, a glassy effect drew our eyes right to that spot. I still see the problem when watching films. The story needs a photo of a character in an important situation from their past, but the grain of the actors face doesn't match the rest of the image. It all comes down to the importance of texture in an image.

Drawing, composition, value, color, temperature and texture - these are the elements I consider when painting, but not necessarily in that order. When I look at the paintings of Nicolai Fechin, Lucian Freud or Henry Ossawa Tanner, I can't imagine them without that rich textural quality. As a matter of fact, until I saw them in person, I hadn't really experienced them at all.

Nicolai Fechin. One of the most skilled at using texture in his paint.

Henry Ossawa Tanner. I've never seen a reproduction that did his work justice.

Lucian Freud

It starts with the surface. The texture of the painting surface can add excitement to the final painting and influence every step of the image creation. There was a time when I would work with prestretched and preprimed store bought canvas. My paintings tended to have a very uniform texture. You know the one, the rigid canvas weave that's all too perfect. In photographs of my work, the texture was even further enhanced and distracted from other aspects of the work. I often paint over old paintings, but before I do, I apply a thin layer of white alkyd with a palette knife. Once that's dry, the canvas surface tends to be hidden. I found that painting atop an old canvas yielded more exciting results. The brushstrokes were punchier, the surface even pulled the paint onto it with the slightest drag of the brush. That led me to start creating my own surfaces, whether it's canvas, hardboard, or even illustration board, I always prep the surface with enough gesso and/or paint to create a non-uniform surface. I'll do an entire surface prep post in the future.

My panel texture. Two coats of acrylic gesso applied with a brush, followed by one coat of white alkyd applied with a palette knife and then stained with a thin layer of burnt umber, wiped off.

Texture is just as important during the painting process. The difference between thick and thin paint application, the amount or type of medium, the quality of paint, the type of brush used (or even your finger), the pressure of your brush and the number of strokes all contribute to the final texture of a painting.

The viewers eye responds! Variations in texture guide them through the painting. Texture suggests detail that I haven't even painted.

I try different approaches. Pulling the brush, pushing the brush, dragging it so lightly over the surface that only small bits of paint are left behind. I stick to the fat over lean rule: while I paint very think at the beginning of a painting, I use almost no medium in the later stages. I drag wet paint through wet paint. I put two different colors on the brush without mixing on the palette and see how they combine on the surface. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Palette knives can remove all mistakes.

Thick and thin, scumbled, dragged - whatever works.
My biggest mistake in the past was overly blending paint on the surface. This created a glassy effect that acts the same as the photography issue I described earlier. If I put a stroke down, and it's the wrong value or color, going back over it with the same color on my brush is not going to fix it. Either remix the color and paint on top of it or scrape it down (yes, the palette knife again) and redo it.

Most importantly, I try not to overthink it and never use it as a gimmick. Too much is just as bad as too little. Let paint be paint. Beautiful things will happen that I couldn't possibly plan. A sky doesn't need to be perfectly smooth. Everything has texture. Embrace it.



Tuesday, January 5, 2016

New Year's Resolution: Rediscovering Dry Media



I have a drawing phobia.

Let me be clear what I mean by "drawing." I'm confident in drawing in terms of spacial relationships. I draw every day with paint. I'm referring to the classic definition of drawing "the art or skill or making pictures or diagrams with a pencil, pen, or crayon." Don't get me wrong, I can draw, I've just lost my confidence in the media.

I've heard so many students tell me that they are confident at drawing, but painting is so much harder. We learn to be comfortable with the pencil at a very young age. Somewhere along my journey through life, the tables turned for me.

I love the energy of creating a painting. The attack on the canvas with wet and moving pigment that drips, flows creates the unexpected and the exciting. I have gravitated almost exclusively towards alla prima painting. This could be seen as impatience, but I see it more as my love of the process and the painters I admire - Velazquez, Hals, Sargent, Sorolla, Fechin. I didn't always create work this way, but once I felt confident enough to do so, there was no turning back.

I studied drawing with the great Wilbur Niewald. I was trained as an illustrator by the master of the oil wash lift out technique, Mark English. An underlying pencil drawing was the cornerstone of everything. Once the drawing was complete, it would be sealed with a fixative and layers of semi-transparent paint would be washed over the top. Highlights could then be pulled out by "lifting out" the paint with a kneaded eraser. The piece could then be finished with colored pencils or some opaque paint. For the commercial market, it was a great way of working. Once the art director approved the drawing, the process of finishing the illustration was quick and more importantly dry and ready for shipping or scanning.

Illustration work from 1991.

My technique evolved when I took a position with Hallmark Cards. It was no longer necessary to seek approval of a sketch from an art director. I could go directly into the final piece. I apprenticed with a master floral painter, Gail Flores, and spent my days painting directly from fresh flowers. I learned quickly that an over rendered flower no longer looked like a flower. The reproduction methods used at the time made it essential to master watercolor and gouache. Any pencil underdrawing would reproduce as black, so we splashed the paint on directly but deliberately.
By the time I left Hallmark, I rarely used a pencil.

An example of my work while at Hallmark.

Fast forward to now, San Antonio, Texas.

While painting from the model at the Coppini Academy of Fine Arts on a Wednesday evening, I was invited to the drawing group the very next evening. At first, I declined, but then thought "why am I avoiding this?" Any opportunity to work from a live model is a good opportunity. I pulled out my sketchbook and was surprised to find that the last drawing in it was dated "1995." Yes, I had created many drawings in the decades in-between, but not in a practice setting.

The last drawing in my sketchbook. 1995?!

The drawing session was brutal. The evening started with quick gesture drawings lasting only seconds. My lack of practice with dry media made me slow and awkward. By the end of the evening, I was thoroughly disappointed with myself. How did I let this skill lapse?

It was a wake up call. Every instrument requires practice. I don't believe in natural born talent. Use it or lose it. Our artistic journeys take us down different paths, and sometimes rediscovering an old path can be just as exciting as forging new ground. In 2016, I will recapture my confidence with dry media - pencil, charcoal, etc. I'm going to fill sketchbooks!

Friday, October 23, 2015

PleinAirStreaming

Check out my new post about Sonoma Plein Air on my other blog, PleinAirStreaming.blogpost.com.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Art of the Small Town

"Santa Fe 2546" (oil on canvas, 14"x18").
My painting from last year's event that now hangs in the Marceline City Hall.
This past weekend, Marceline hosted an Oil Painters of America paint out and I was fortunate enough to attend for the second year in a row. I had a great time last year (painted my first train, which now hangs in the Marceline City Hall), and I was looking forward to returning.

Marceline is a small town in north, central Missouri. Originally a railway stop between Chicago and Kansas City, it is now known best as the boyhood home of Walt Disney. It actually inspired the design of Main Street U.S.A. in the Disney theme parks, but the town is the real thing when it comes to Americana. The restored Santa Fe Railroad depot serves as the Walt Disney Museum.

Arriving at 8 a.m., the streets were quiet, except for my fellow artists. We all met at the North Missouri Arts Councilgallery for check-in with Darrell and Darlene Gardner. Besides being an excellent painter, Darrell is responsible for organizing the event, and he seems to be the driving force behind the growth of art and culture in the community. The Gardners are also great hosts.

The forecast was for overcast skies all day, and I needed to find a location with some nice contrast to offset the flat lighting. I noticed Ma Vic's Corner Cafe buzzing with activity, and decided to set up across the street. I liked the abstract patterns in the cafe window made by everything happening inside and the reflections from the street.

Painting Ma Vic's Corner Cafe. Photo courtesy of Darrell Gardner.
Painting in progress.

As I painted, I had a steady stream of visitors coming and going from the cafe. Everyone was friendly, and I gave a number of impromptu micro lessons on painting to kids.

"Ma Vic's" (Oil on canvas, 12"x16") by Patrick Saunders

That afternoon, activity had really picked up. The street was shut down in preparation for a wine stroll that evening. At this point, we could set up anywhere in the street and not worry about the traffic. I set to work painting another street scene.

Artists painting in the midst of the wine stroll.

As I painted, the wine stroll began, and the town came to life. It wasn't just the wine that brought everyone to the event. There was a genuine interest in the art and its place in capturing the charm of Marceline. Small towns can be taken for granted. We often drive right through them and fail to notice the history that's still right in front of us. An event like this both documents and celebrates their beauty for everyone.

I was honored to win a purchase award from Yocom Jewelry.