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.

© Patrick & Kimberly Saunders, Plein Air Streaming, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s authors/owners is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Patrick Saunders for painted works, or to Kimberly Saunders for photographs, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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!

© Patrick & Kimberly Saunders, Plein Air Streaming, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s authors/owners is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Patrick Saunders for painted works, or to Kimberly Saunders for photographs, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Telluride Plein Air Experience

I'm a month late with this, but it's been one hell of a busy month with the launch of our PleinAirStreaming adventure.

For the week of the Fourth of July, I was honored to have been juried into the 2015 Telluride Plein Air Festival. Kimberly and I packed up the gear and drove from Kansas City to Colorado for a week of painting and photography. The drive itself was a beautiful experience, and driving into Telluride for the first time is almost unbelievable. What other town sports a waterfall at the end of their main drag?
Telluride looking east.
We got up bright and early on Monday morning and headed all the way to the east end of the town where I started on my first painting of the Pandora Mill. We were there before the sun had cleared the mountains, and knowing the background would light up as time passed, I focused on blocking in the mill.
Photo courtesy of Saunders Fine Arts.
Within a couple of hours, the sun cleared the mountain and the mill was framed nicely by the landscape behind it.

One painting down, time to find the next subject.

We decided to take the gondola up the mountain and check out the view. The view of the town and surrounding area from atop the mountain is amazing, and I came to respect the effects of altitude for the first time in my life.
Telluride from above. Photo courtesy of Saunders Fine Arts.
I started plein air painting two years ago, when a friend gave me a Julian French Easel. These are the classic plein air easels that have been around for over a century. It was a great gift, and without it, I might never have pursued plein air. French easels do have one major drawback - weight. We exited the gondola and made our way to a higher point, but by the time we got there, I was beat. Had to take a break and hydrate before I could get started. The French easel has since been retired, but that's another story.
Painting the St. Sophia Nature Center with my soon to be retired French easel.
Photo courtesy of Saunders Fine Arts.
I focused on the St. Sophia Nature Center framed in by the mountains beyond the town. The light changes fast on a day with this much cloud activity, so I found myself painting and repainting areas as the time passed.
"St. Sophia Nature Center" (oil on canvas, 12"x16").
Photo courtesy of Saunders Fine Arts.
The next day we had adjusted to the altitude enough that I finally hit my stride. We found a beautiful creek that flowed on the north side of the town. It was midday, but the light through the trees created a beautiful scene. This painting started coming together right away.
Painting Cornet Creek
"Cornet Creek" (oil on board, 12"x16").
Photo courtesy of Saunders Fine Arts.
Thursday morning was the quick draw, and I decided to focus on some poppies I found near the center of town. While we had two hours, this one came together in only an hour.
"Red Poppies" in progress
"Red Poppies" (oil on board, 9"x12").
Photo courtesy of Saunders Fine Arts.
Immediately following the quick draw, a live auction was held across from the Sheridan Opera House, and the Poppies painting sold.
Photo courtesy of Saunders Fine Arts.
The winning bidder. Photo courtesy of Saunders Fine Arts.
That evening was the awards ceremony, and every artist had to choose one painting to submit for judging by their peers. I chose the painting of Cornet Creek, and I'm proud to say my fellow artists awarded me 3rd place.
Artist Choice winners (left to right) - Patrick Saunders (3rd), Carl Bretzke (1st), John Lasater (2nd).
Photo courtesy of Saunders Fine Arts.
The sale took place over the next three days, but I continued painting during the show.

"Wild Onions" (oil on canvas, 12"x16"). Photo courtesy of Saunders Fine Arts.

"Mia" (oil on canvas, 9"x12").
Photo courtesy of Saunders Fine Arts.
All in all, it was a great week. I even walked away with a commission based on my winning piece. I didn't have time to paint it during the show, so thankfully, Kimberly was willing to hike back up Cornet Creek and grab plenty of reference photos for me.
"Upper Cornet Creek" (oil on board, 12"x16").
Photo courtesy of Saunders Fine Arts.
It wasn't just the opportunity to participate in the event that made the week memorable. The travel, landscape, and the wildlife - deer came by our window every day - all came together to make it a unique experience. We're looking forward to returning to Telluride in the future with the Airstream, of course!
Photo courtesy of Saunders Fine Arts.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Immortality of Paint

I've always sought a way to express myself, not so much for others to take notice, but to feel like my existence meant something in this world. I played in a number of bands when I was younger, thinking that someday I might write the perfect song that expressed me, but it was painting that I found to be the much more personal form of expression. Paintings are not just images, but a record of our experiences, conveying our connections to people, places and emotions.

In 1998, Kimberly and I added to our family. No, we don't have children in the traditional sense, but Ken and Barbie became the children that we doted on in the absence of human kids.
Ken & Barbie getting a bit too heavy for the table.
They added an immense amount of empathy to our lives, and gave as much as they got. The family continued to grow in 1999 when we adopted Dignan and Opal who were abandoned in a dumpster in Kansas City.
Opal & Dignan
In 2000, Barney and Betty joined us bringing our family to 8 souls living in a 1920s former farmhouse in Overland Park, KS.
The big babies, Barney & Betty
For 15 years, our lives revolved around the family, and every decision was influenced by every one of these wonderful creatures. Have you ever tried to find an apartment in New York City with 4 cats and 2 dogs? It is possible with some creativity. San Francisco wasn't much easier, but at least our walks involved a beautiful beach and a view of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Golden Gate Park
I started painting members of the family while still in the house in Kansas. It started with Opal. We had an empty bedroom that we never used, but she liked hanging out in there all by herself. The way the light splashed on the floor made her look all the more beautiful, and this was the first image I created after leaving my job at Hallmark Cards to pursue painting as a career. I remember that during the painting process, I was glued to the television as war broke out with Iraq, making me wonder if I could survive as a painter. The painting sold almost immediately, and even though it went to a great home, I was torn about letting it go. It seems that I had a similar emotional connection to the painting, just as I did to our fur kids.
"Opal's Room" (oil on canvas, 20"x30")

Over the years, I painted portraits of each of our family members. Barney and Betty were a struggle. There was just so much personality in each of them, that it was hard to capture in just one painting.
"Betty" (oil on canvas, 30"x40")
"Barney" (oil on canvas, 30"x40")

Dignan, the loner, was a portrait of beauty emerging form the dark around him.
"Dignan" (oil on canvas, 16"x30")

Barbie was a mix of pride and defiance.
"Barbie" (oil on board, 27"x19")

Ken developed over the course of an hour, his personality concentrated in his continuous stare.
"Ken" (oil on canvas, 12"x9")
In 2011, Opal was diagnosed with cancer, and given only a matter of months to live. We were in San Francisco at the time, and she loved to lounge around on her bed in front of her favorite window. I painted a new portrait of her to replace the one that was sold year ago. Against the odds, she lived another 2 years. I was glad to have the portrait hanging in our living room. It always made me feel that Opal was still with us.
"Opal In the Window" (oil on canvas, 19"x28")
As our family passed on, the portraits on the walls keep them in our hearts. Dignan passed from kidney failure in 2014. Barney's heart gave out in 2015, and one week later, Betty left us as a result of kidney failure.

When I say our lives revolved around them, it's not at all an exaggeration. Every morning, rain or shine, 100º or -20º, the dogs took Kimberly and I to the park at the crack of dawn. They lay at my feet as I painted and even attended classes with me. The cats were no different. Ken and Opal fought to be in our laps whenever I sat at my computer. Barbie demanded that I carry her cradled like a baby at least once a day. Dignan craved both attention and his space at the same time. We bought a king size bed, so that all eight of us could fit - for many years it's seemed as if Kimberly and I slept in separate rooms as animals pushed us apart, stretching out their own space on the bed.

Now, it's just Barbie. She still gets us up in the morning, but there's no longer the mad scramble of 24 feet running to the kitchen. Every morning, I pass by the paintings of all the kids as I get Barbie's food (and numerous meds) together. I have to admit that there's a certain comfort in seeing each of them in the mornings. I even reach out to touch the dogs heads in the paintings, scratching them between the eyes with a loving "good morning."

I cherish these paintings. I know that just as all things are temporary, these paintings will one day be gone. The canvas will rot, the varnish will yellow and the paint layers will crumble. Before any of that happens, myself and everyone that I know will long have turned to dust. I don't find sadness in this, but rather joy that these paintings continue to remind me of the times I shared with these lovely beings. Paintings aren't just images, they are packed with emotions and memories we want to revisit again and again. Compared to all of us, paint is seemingly immortal.