Pulling back the curtain
I'd like to share with you a behind-the-scenes look at my work on a recent commission. This was for a long-time client who wanted a gift for his daughter. The families both live in St. Pete and love the area, so a painting of the Vinoy Hotel was a natural choice.
This hotel is the crown jewel of St. Pete, Florida and a beloved landmark for residents and visitors. It's imposing size, expansive wings , distinctive candy pink color, and fanciful tower make it a beautiful backdrop to the nearby boat basin filled with sailboats, catamarans, and power boats.
It all starts with the photos
To begin, I took many photos of the scene to give me options for composition. Here's how I started with those photos and ended with the completed commission:
For me a painting is finished when it achieves my original vision and nothing detracts from the whole. I usually give myself some time to live with the painting to make sure nothing else catches my eye. Then I varnish the the canvas and deliver it to my client.
I'm happy to report that the daughter was delighted with her gift, and it looks perfect in the living room of her new home.
On to the next painting!
It was love at first sight
Have you ever fallen in love with a piece of artwork at a gallery or art show and then had sticker shock when you looked at the price tag? It can be disconcerting to compare the cost of original art to the cost of prints—whether high-quality limited edition prints or mass-produced ones. How could an original painting be worth the considerably higher cost?
Good question! Let me explain.
Why original art is worth more than a print
1. ONE OF A KIND
This is an object made by the hand of the artist and it is unique. No one else will have this artwork. You will not see it in stores, in galleries, or at your friends' homes.
2. CONNECTION & STORY
You are part of the artistic process; your appreciation and purchase of an original work continues the journey that began with the first inkling of an idea. You have the opportunity, through talking with the artist or gallerist, to better understand the artist's techniques and inspiration. Many artists love to share their creative journey with their clients through newsletters, talks, shows, etc., and will stay in touch with those who purchase original work. (I do!) Plus your experience about how you discovered the artist and what you learned of their work is a story that you will naturally share with friends as they view your original painting.
In my experience, a print of a painting never matches the colors of the original. Even with expert printers, I have found there is always a color compromise. Some colors are close, but others miss the mark considerably, despite multiple corrections. Eventually I gave up offering prints of my work.
To prove my point about the difficulty of color matching, above is a screen shot of different prints of a painting by Monet available online. The values and the colors of blues and greens considerably. Look at the reflected yellow at the waist of the dress in the left print which is different in the others. Which print is closest to the original? Who knows?
Original art allows you to see details in the brushwork and subtleties in color that are just not visible on a print. These are the nuances that the artist consciously manipulated in order to create feel of the painting. The original gives you the full visual experience and is the same object that the artist labored over for many hours and finally signed with satisfaction.
5. MILES ON THE BRUSH
One of the reasons that an original oil painting is much richer than a print is because it expresses the culmination of the artist's creative voyage and discoveries to that point. All the trial and error over years of honing their craft result in a sophisticated mix of materials, technique, and vision that is much more evident in the original than in the print.
6. SUPPORT THE ARTS
I think one of the most important reasons to buy original art is that you are supporting the arts in your community and in the world. The richness of our artistic expression as a culture depends on artists being able to support themselves as they create original artwork. Artists need you to see and interact, and yes, buy their work so that they can continue to produce fabulous art.
Notice that I haven't said anything about art appreciating in value. While your wonderful original painting should be worth more over the years as the artist's prices increase, I don't suggest you buy art with an eye to selling it. I think you should buy what you love and plan to let it enrich your life for years to come.
But, it might make sense if...
I will agree that there are a few times when it does makes sense to buy a print:
Your turn: What do you think about when you buy artwork? How does price affect what you buy?
When is a painting finished?
For me a painting is finished when it achieves my original aim and nothing bothers me. But sometimes I think I'm finished and then later I see a way I can improve on the work.
That's what happened with the three paintings below. After I lived with them for a while it became clear how I could improve the composition, values, or colors. Then I was itching to get started, but the work had to wait for a break in my schedule. Recently I was able to tackle several of these paint-over paintings and I'd like to share the results with you. Who doesn't love a good makeover? It's always fun to compare the before and after.
When I put the images side by side, I realize that the differences are not that discernible at this scale looking at photos versus the originals. But stay with me. I'll point out exactly what I did, and why I think it improves the painting. Then you can decide for yourself.
Red can be difficult
I realized that in this painting the red car always felt too dark and the color too dull, but I didn't know what I wanted to do to improve it. The car in my reference photo was black, which did not give me any clues in terms of how to paint a red car. I decided to make the value lighter and use a cooler red. Next I worked on the yellow greens in the greenery. On the Munsel color wheel the compliment of red is not a forest green, but a blue green, which I tend to like better. So I made all the greenery less yellow and more blue. I'm pleased with the painting and I feel it is more unified.
Yellow vs. blue
I looked at this one for quite some time before I figured out what was wrong. I realized that because I had a lot of each color, the yellow in the umbrellas was fighting for attention with the blue in the ocean. I liked the shape of the umbrellas but I didn't want them to take over the painting.
So I made the umbrellas much less saturated, I lightened the sea to reduce the contrast against the terrace, and I made the shrubbery less yellow. All this makes the people and furniture more prominent, which I like.
Out of the shadows
This last one is even more difficult to see in the photos. In normal room lighting this painting felt dark and the line of trees in the background tended to disappear in front of the building.
I lightened the trees, making sure to keep the lighter foliage cool. This is because the trees were in shadow, so the light would be coming from the blue sky and not from the yellow sun. I also made some minor changes to the woman walking in the background and the light blue car to make them a little more prominent.
In all these paintings, subtle changes made me much happier with the images.
OK, tell me truthfully: in the three cases above, which do you like better, the before or the after? Why?
So many wonderful art exhibitions, so little time! The recent show in Los Angeles and Chicago entitled "Manet and Modern Beauty–The Artist's Last Years" is one I truly wish I could have attended. Manet is one of my favorite painters and to see so many of his works in person would have been a real treat. But it wasn't possible. Instead I asked Santa for the exhibition book for Christmas last year. (Thanks, Santa!)
This is a serious gift; it's a large 384-page coffee table book with gorgeous photos of 90 of the artist's paintings and sketches, many of which were new to me. I won't try to summarize the entire book for you, I'll just touch on what I most enjoyed.
First, some context. The impetus for this show of Manet's later work was the 2014 acquisition of "Jeanne (Spring)" by the J.Paul Getty Museum. The Getty curators felt that this painting was emblematic of Manet's focus in his last years because it shows his growing fascination with contemporary fashion and femininity, as well as his expanding skills as a mature painter.
Manet's work of this era often focused on the stylish young women of Paris that he depicted in portraits as well as genre scenes set in cafes and theaters. In other paintings he showed the details of everyday life; vases of flowers, household interiors, and small studies of fruit, vegetables and other edibles. Art historians tended to ignore these smaller, less controversial pieces in favor of the artist's bolder, much larger works of the 1860's, like "Luncheon on the Grass" and "Olympia". This Getty exhibition showcased the accomplished intimate works of Manet's later years and allowed them to shine on their own.
The exhibition also gave insights into the artist's daily life with dozens of Monet's letters with watercolor illustrations, including charming sketches of flowers and deft portraits of acquaintances. These pages demonstrate Manet's inquisitive spirit, his tireless passion for creating, and his observational skill. It's easy to imagine him sitting at a cafe observing the fashionable footwear of Parisian women as he wrote his letters and sketched in the margins.
Several small paintings depict casual flower arrangements, pieces that are stunning in their intensity and freshness. Viewing these gems is a masterclass in composition, color, and brushwork.
The book contains a fascinating chapter on Manet's painting techniques, gleaned from intense inspection of his work and aided by infrared photographs that showed successive painting layers. Manet's paintings have the look of au premier coup ("first strike") painting, which is painted wet-in-wet in one sitting and has blended brushwork and partially mixed colors.
But in actuality, Manet's work was a combination of wet-in-wet technique and layers of revisions. Manet's process, grounded in his classical art training, started with stages of drawing, ébouche (value underpainting), and preliminary color layers. His modern palate, bold colors, and loose impressionistic techniques belied the planning and revisions of the painting's beginnings.
I was surprised to read that many of Manet's works have scraped paint surfaces that reflect unsuccessful sessions. It's comforting to learn of the struggles of a master painter, and fascinating to find that he used many of the same techniques that I do.
I'm sorry that I missed this exhibition, but the book's in-depth analysis and its beautiful images of Manet's paintings made reading it a delight in itself.
To learn about the exhibition that I did attend, Manet: The Early Years, read this blog post. What art exhibitions have you caught recently? What would you like to see?
Useful Little Gems
I just love my little 4"x4" pen and ink minis! They're quick, loose, and simple. If you follow me on social media you have seen them occasionally in my posts.
I do them as part of my planning process for my larger oils. They help me to define the values of the painting, the areas of light and dark that will create the overall design. To make them, I think in terms reducing everything to only three values–dark, medium, and light–and of having uneven amounts of each. For instance. the one above has more medium value, less light value, and a smidgen of dark value.
The Big Shapes
Another advantage to making these little sketches before I paint is that they force me to identify the larger shapes in my image and not get bogged down with the distracting details. It's the big shapes and values that create the impact of the painting and that plan the movement of the viewer's eye across the canvas. By working on a small sketch with large shapes I have an opportunity to easily play around with the design before I put paint to canvas.
Fast and Loose
Since I'm not trying to create a perfect drawing, I can sketch very freely using only a few lines to indicate figures, buildings, etch. When drawing people, however, I do pay attention to where the head is over the feet, the body proportions, and the line of the shoulders. These little things often indicate posture and mood.
Love Those Sharpies
I work with three different thickness of markers to add texture. My favorite pens are Sharpies because they give a rich dark line. I don't, however, like how they bleed through the back of the paper. But they make such a nice line, I forgive them.
This viewpoint of this sketch is unusual for me, as it's from above. I liked the strong angles of the stairs against the water's edge, and the big repeated shapes of the umbrellas.
In this sketch the placement of the darks draws your eye around the painting. You enter the painting in front of the figures, travel left to the water, and then follow the line of the trees to the right and then left up the hill.
Here your eye starts with the large church against the water, then moves downwards and right following the trees to finally focus on the foreground figures.
I hope you enjoy my little sketches. Please let me know what you think!
It's Not What You Think
I think people sometimes have the wrong idea about artists. Since we're doing something that we are compelled to do and are creating a product that we love, they think time in the studio is spent in a glow of peace and creativity. "It must be so relaxing to paint!", they say.
Well, no. At least not for me. Painting is work, like any other job.
It Doesn't Get Easier
For me painting at its core is problem solving. I start with an unclear vision of what I am trying to produce. As I work toward realizing that vision I follow a path of uncertainty, false starts, and frustration, as well as inspiration and satisfaction. Every day when I go into the studio I ask myself, "How can I make this better?"
As I was starting to learn how to paint, I often thought, "Oh, it will be so much easier once I learn how to do this. Then I will paint without struggling." But then I read, "It doesn't get easier, you just get better." Fortunately, reading that didn't deter me, and years later I can confirm the sentiment. I am more accomplished than I was 20 years ago, but I demand more of myself and my work, so it's just as challenging.
Trial and Error
My time at the easel is one of complete trial and error. Each painting is a record of corrections on top of corrections until the image is mostly what I intended and no longer has anything that really bothers me. Sometimes that's the best I can do. Most often I am pleased with the results, and sometimes I create something that's wonderful. Often after I live with a painting for a while I discover more aspects to appreciate and a few more things to correct. And then I move on to the next challenge.
Along the way I have learned techniques that help me to avoid pitfalls and produce better work. Here are some of them:
In the end I think that persistence, curiosity, and drive are at least as important as talent in advancing as an artist. I feel privileged to be an artist and to work at this challenging and rewarding profession. I look forward to many more years of trial and error, learning, and creativity.
Your turn: when you're stuck in your work what techniques do you use to change your perspective and problem solve?
But What Is It For?
I know you've seen color wheels. You probably also know the three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue, but you may have wondered how artists use the color wheel, if at all. In this post I explain how I use a color wheel to create color schemes and show examples in my paintings.
I have my color wheel next to my easel and I use it all the time for color mixing and to create harmonious color schemes. You'd think I would have the thing memorized by now, but I don't, and since I'm a visual person, it helps me to see it.
Color Mixing 101
You may remember from art class the idea of the different types of colors. Red, yellow, and blue are the primary colors (at left above) and theoretically all colors can be mixed from them. (That's not actually true in terms of paint pigments, but that's another post).
The three secondary colors (center above: orange, green, and violet) are made up of the two primaries nearest them. The six tertiary colors (at right above: yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, red-violet and red-orange) are each made up of the primary and secondary colors nearest to them.
The main color relationship that is useful to me is knowing what is a color's complement, or the color that is opposite on the wheel. At full strength these two hues will be very vivid against each other. If one is dulled, then they will look very harmonious. If you combine them at equal strengths, they will make a neutral color.
I can dull a color by adding a small amount of its complement. I do this frequently because I rarely use colors full strength out of the tube; they would just be too bright.
The classic color schemes are based on complements:
Examples of My Color Schemes
"Cold Duty", New York City, oil, 16"x16", ©Linda Hugues, sold.
This complementary color scheme uses strong yellow-orange and toned down versions of its compliment, blue-violet.
"Our St. Pete, oil, 36"x36", ©Linda Hugues, sold.
This complementary color scheme emphasizes dulled blue-greens against brighter tones of red-orange.
"Neighbors", Paris, oil, 30"x30", ©Linda Hugues, sold.
This tetradic color scheme uses two complementary pairs: yellow-orange/blue-violet and red/green.
Notice all the neutrals that support this complex color scheme.
While I often approach colors analytically, I don't always end up with such clearly defined color schemes. In the end I always stand back and decide what feels right to me. Understanding the rules allows me to confidently break them.
Now for you: do you think about color theory when you create or view art? What approach appeals most to you?
A Trip to Remember
This was a commission for clients who who typically visit Paris in November because there are so few tourists and no lines. My clients had a candid photo of themselves in front of the Square du Temple, an English landscaped botanical garden in the heart of the city. I love this image because my clients seem delighted to be together in the City of Lights, and not at all bothered by the late fall temperatures.
Starting on Canvas
Top left: I started with a 6x6 pencil grid on my 30"x30" canvas, and used that to place the elements in roughly the right spot. Then I refined the drawing and used grey and white paint to show the darkest and lightest values. Lastly I continued to refine the drawing using a thick black line.
Top right: Here I started to block in color, just using two values for most forms. I wanted the warm muted fall colors in the background to contrast with the cool colors of their jackets and the bench in the foreground. I put the faces in very loosely.
Top left: Here I continued to refine all aspects of the painting. I decided the tree in the middle distance on the left needed some green leaves, even though it was November. Artistic license! :)
Top right: I worked further on the faces and clothes. I lightened the foreground bench and the distant grass. I added texture to the ground under their feet and put more detail in the orange shrubbery behind them.
The Dance of Painting
I never start a painting knowing exactly how I will paint it or how it will look. I have an idea, but the painting really takes form step by step as I react to what I see on the canvas. I see something that needs to be changed; made lighter, darker, warmer, cooler, bigger, or smaller. When I do that, then I see something else that needs to be modified. So it's a dance, a process that creates the painting from a series of decisions, each flowing from the one that preceded it.
"Fall Vacation", Paris, oil, 30"x30", commission, ©Linda Hugues
It All Comes Together
Here's the final painting of "Fall Vacation", Paris, oil, 30"x30", ©Linda Hugues. I think the colors and values work beautifully together, and my clients' expressions and poses make the painting.
Below you can see a detail of the faces and figures. The challenge with this kind of commission is to have enough detail on the faces to make them recognizable, but still keep the image loose and painterly.
The Clients Love It!
The clients were delighted with the commission. She said,
"We love the painting and will cherish having it. We always love to buy paintings to remind us of where we've been on our travels. This one is extra special because it was such a special time for us."
Detail "Fall Vacation", Paris, oil, 30"x30", commission, ©Linda Hugues.
Great Camera, So-So Photos?
There are so many great camera options today; smart phones, point-and-shoot cameras, and DSLRs. No matter what you use, my tips (and example photos from our vacation in Greece) will help you take more photos that you'll want to share. If you're already a pro, skip to the bottom and leave me your best tip! If not, read on:
Tip 1: Experience First, Then Shoot
Vacations can be overwhelming! I understand the temptation to look quickly, take a photo, and move on to the next thing. But that robs you of actually experiencing your vacation. And a photo can never duplicate the in-person experience. What I try to do is to give myself time to just be, to feel what it feels like to be there. This allows me to decide what is unique and wonderful about this place and to then try to show that in my photos. In the photos above, I liked the contrast of the solid historic buildings with the delicate, fresh flowers so that's what these photos show.
Tip 2: Place the Subject Off-center
Centered subjects can be powerful, but they can sometimes be boring. I usually find it more dynamic to have an off-centered subject that is balanced by other objects in the composition. One easy way to do this is to mentally divide your viewer into a 3x3 grid and place the subject roughly on one of the 4 intersection points. My iPhoto editing function has that grid built in so its a snap to do this when I crop the photo.
Tip 3. Think: Foreground, Middleground, and Distance
Did you ever photograph an amazing vista–like a view of the Tuscany countryside–only to be disappointed by the result? In the photo everything just looks small and distant. Instead, include objects in the foreground, middleground, and distance, to provide a more interesting composition and show scale.
Tip 4: Cull Frequently
It is a good idea to take lots of photos; trying different viewpoints means you have a better chance of getting a great shot. But you know you won't want to wade though hundreds of photos when you get home. I like to eliminate the duds daily. When we sit down for a meal or a break, I pull out my camera and go through what I've just taken. I usually edit out at least half my photos this way and only keep the promising ones. When I get home, I cull even more.
Tip 5: Crop, Crop, Crop!
In my experience amateur photographers don't crop nearly enough. When you crop you have an opportunity to straighten the horizon (do you do that too?) and re-compose the image to make the forms bigger and place the focus where you want it per Tip 2. Here I eliminated the busy left side and cropped the top and bottom of the image. This makes the fortress bigger, the dark dock on the left is now a nice foil for the bike rider, and your eye moves easily around the image.
Did this help? I hope so! Please leave me a comment to share your favorite photography tip.
Did you ever look at a painting and say, "How do they DO that??" Well here's your chance to see. This is a step by step record of my progress (and missteps) as I painted one of my latest.
"Follow Me" is a scene from St. Petersburg, a beautiful city on Tampa Bay that attracts retirees from around the world. I wanted to capture the chic, laid-back vibe of a Saturday morning on Beach Boulevard.
Not A Piece of Cake
When I look at these images of my progress it looks so easy and straightforward! But with each step I consider multiple options for form, line, value, and intensity. I ask myself, "Does this part work? Does it work with the rest of the painting?"
When I think I'm finally finished, I put the painting away for about a week so I can look at it with a fresh eye and make final adjustments. Then all that's left is the signature and a coat of varnish. And on to the next painting!
I'm Linda Hugues and I paint cityscapes from my travels in Europe and my home in Florida. Here on my monthly blog I write about everything related to my art life, in and out of the studio. Enjoy!