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Sweet Mystery: Part Two

(click on any painting to view larger)

In the last newsletter (Sweet Mystery: Part One – Dec.2009), we talked about the way in which the human eye sees. How, unlike a camera, it focuses on one thing at a time, leaving the objects in its periphery merely suggested, and how those peripheral bits and pieces act as supporting actors to the main actor - our object of interest. We talked about color shapes and how the hardness or softness of their edges (the borders between shapes) can dictate how quickly our eyes transition between the shapes, and how we, as artists, can incorporate a variety of edges to more closely approximate visual reality.

We’ve all watched the objects on the ground blur into indistinct masses as they fade into the distance. Similarly, we’ve stared into a deciduous forest, in summer bloom, unable to distinguish one leaf from the next. Or how about those sunlit days, when the dark shadows are full of sticks, stones, branches and grass that blend into vague impressions. These are but a few of the sweet mysteries of the visual world that we must learn to integrate into our paintings if we intend to simulate visual reality. This is the poetry of painting.

So you find yourself painting on-location, confronted with more information than one painter can deal with in a lifetime: rocks, twigs, branches, leaves, grass, a few cows grazing and a nearby stream. So you stand there stupefied, shaking, while smoke comes out the top of your head, and you wonder how in the devil you are going to get all this down before the farmer calls the cows in for milking.

Well, let me offer a suggestion:

Try squinting.

I don’t mean one of those curl up your nose, crow’s feet around the eyes squints, but just a very light closing of the eyelids. This will eliminate all the unnecessary detail in the landscape. If you can’t see it – don’t paint it! Equally important – it will clearly reveal the quality of the edges between the shapes in the landscape, clarify the value relationships, and, in a word, it will “simplify” the entire scene.

With your eyes lightly squinted, a few edges in the landscape will remain razor sharp. These are the edges that will be used as the standard to measure the hardness and softness of the edges in the rest of the scene.

Now this may seem obvious, but you only squint at the scene – not at your painting surface. Open your eyes to apply your strokes, and return to the light squint when look at the scene before you. This takes some practice, but eventually this will become part of your on-location painting technique.

Note: This is also very important: When you are looking at the scene in front of you, you do, sometimes, have to open your eyes to see the correct colors. This is OK. Simply return to the squint to find the correct value and edge relationship.

I can’t take any credit for the development of the “squint” technique. In 1989, I took a workshop with Richard Schmid, and he talked extensively about squinting at your subject matter. It really changed the way I see. Instead of seeing, and thinking, of things in terms of outlines, I began to see the relationships between shapes of color. Trust me when I tell you that this didn’t happen overnight. I had a big cup to empty, and it took a period of time, and a great deal of frustration, before this new way of seeing took hold. If you are interested in a more in-depth explanation of “edges” and “squinting”, I highly recommend the book “Alla Prima (Everything I Know About Painting)” by Richard Schmid.

There are an infinite number of edges, and a variety of ways to achieve them. I thought I would demonstrate just a few examples. Some of this may seem rudimentary, but you may find it helpful.

Colors: Venetian Red and Cadmium Yellow

Example One:
I take a square of red (A.) and (while it’s wet) add clear water to the right edge (B.).
Example Two:
I take a square of red (A.) and (while it’s wet) run a wash of yellow into it.
Example Three:
I lay down a wash of yellow (A.), and (while it’s wet) I charge in a load of red.
Example Four:
The same as example three, except I wait for the yellow wash to become barely damp, and then I charge in some red. Notice that the patch of red doesn’t bleed as much.
Example Five:
I make a square of red and let it dry completely. Then I take some clear water and gently tease the edge of the square with a soft brush. When it loosens up, I dab off pigment with a piece of soft Kleenex.


It’s also important to know that a “wet-into-wet” technique is not the only way to create “lost” edges. When two color shapes have similar values (even more so with similar hues), the border between the shapes becomes indistinct.



Example One:
I paint a dark square of Viridian, and let it dry. Next to it, I paint a lighter value square of Venetian Red (A.). Note the hard boundary and the slow transition between the two shapes. I paint another square of viridian, and let it dry. Now I place a square of Venetian Red, that is approximately the same value, next to the first square (B.). If you lightly squint at this combination, you will notice that the boundary between the two is less distinct, and that the transition is much smoother. The edge is virtually “lost”.
Example Two:
Following the same procedure as example one, I instead use Viridian and Cerulean Blue. Since they have similar hues, edge between them becomes even more indistinct.
Example Three:
I begin this the same way as example two (A.). In order to soften the transition, I mix up a combination of my two cool colors and spatter the boundary between them (B.). This helps to soften the transition between the two shapes.
Example Four:
I begin the same way (A.). Now I over-paint the lighter side with a value somewhere between the two shapes (B.). This brings the two shapes closer in value, while creating interest in the right-hand shape. Further over-painting can generate more subtlety and a smoother transition.
Example Five:
Once again, I begin the same way (A.). Now I dry-brush (more paint, less water) the boundary between the two shapes.


This is, by no means, a comprehensive list of techniques for producing edges. You should, however, have an arsenal of techniques at your disposal to utilize as you become more aware of the edges in your subject matter.

This is a painting title “Summer’s End” (9x18 oil), that won the “Artists Choice Award” at the “Nomades del Arte” exhibition in Dallas last year. Look at the painting and ask yourself: Where is the focal point? How does the viewer’s eye move through the painting? What edges are “lost” (soft), and what edges are “found”(hard). What role do they play in directing the viewer’s attention? Who is the main actor, and who are the supporting cast, and how was their importance subordinated?

“Summer’s End” 9x18 oil

Using the above oil painting as a model, I decided to paint a watercolor utilizing the same principles that I applied when painting the oil. This is painted on an 11x20 sheet of Kilimanjaro
cold-pressed paper. The palette consisted of Venetian Red, Cadmium Red Light, Cadmium Orange, New Gamboge, Sour Lemon (Hansa Yellow), Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, Cerulean Blue.

Step One:

This step was painted wet-into-wet, start to finish, and remained untouched after it dried.

With an inch and a half wash brush, I laid down a wash of light yellow across the foreground, and began charging in pigments of various colors. This gave me a large, multi-colored area with very soft edges.  As the area was drying, I continued to charge in more paint and less water, giving me slightly harder edges. When the initial wash was barely damp, I put in a few strokes of almost pure pigment. These are my darkest foreground areas. If you squint at this first stage of the painting, you will notice that these darkest darks are almost hard-edged, but not as hard as the edge I left on my main boat. Why? (painting time: 25 minutes)


Step Two:

Similar to the foreground, this step was also painted wet-into-wet, and, except for a few tones on the trees at the right, was left untouched.

I began by using a one-inch flat, and laid in a middle value wash of Venetian Red and New Gamboge across the entire top section of the painting, cutting around my trees on the right. As the passage dried, I once again used more paint and less water, allowing the paint to work for me and dictate various subtle shapes in the forest. Those out-of-focus shapes are a great foil for the trees on the right. Those more focused trees help to explain that subtlety in the upper section of the painting.  (painting time: 20 minutes)


Step Three:

Now I finish off my three boats. I concentrate most of my time on the front boat. Its high value contrast and harder edges draw the viewer’s initial attention. The other two boats are given darker values and lesser attention to detail. They have a diminishing interest that helps draw the viewer’s eye into the painting. I put just a few small touches on the trees to slightly lessen their interest. The trees at the upper right provide a secondary interest, and a counter-balance that gives the viewer a reason to move around the painting. (painting time: 25 minutes)

“Summer’s End” 11x20 wc

I’m including a couple of recent oil paintings that also illustrate some of the principles that were discussed in this newsletter and the previous one.


“Street Scene – Granada” 9x12 oil
“Along the Cornwall Coast” 18x24 oil

Happy Painting!