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!