An Artistic Journey
Recently I've been appreciating my 20 years' experience which makes my painting more creative and intuitive. From years of practice I have vastly improved my skills in critical areas such as drawing, paint mixing, and composition. I now have systems that work for me to prepare my canvases and plan my artwork. I am clearer about what I like and what suits me so I have a better sense of what to paint and how to approach it.
When I look back to when I started painting I am proud of myself for persevering through the frustration and the doubt. I wouldn't say painting is my happy place. It's more that painting is what I absolutely want to be able to do, and when I create something that I'm pleased with it's REALLY satisfying.
But there is still SO much to learn. Each work brings new possibilities and new challenges, every one interesting. And the more skills I have the more enjoyable painting becomes. So what are these skills that work for me?
My hard-earned lessons in oil painting technique
Artist emotional skills I've learned
But there's more to making art than just techniques. I think mindset is even more important. Here are the approaches that make a difference for me.
Claude Monet said, "Color is my day-long obsession, joy, and torment". I would say the same thing about painting in general. Most days it's challenging, engrossing, and satisfying. I feel lucky to do what I do and I can't imagine doing anything else.
Cell phones: not romantic?
I didn't think too much about it when I started including cell phones in my work. Since their introduction in 2007, smartphones gradually became an extension of everyone's arm and part of everyday life. When I photographed people on the street, many scenes included phones, so they naturally became part of my work.
Phones have become so ubiquitous, I was a bit surprised when people remarked on them in my paintings. It must have been a jolt for them to see cell phones in figurative art where it had never been before. After all there is not one cell phone in all the painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I was delighted that many viewers thought including cell phones in my paintings was interesting and fun, perhaps a new symbol of modern life. But a few were less pleased. My sense was that they felt that the technology detracted from the romance of my paintings, and that it was a bit of reality that they would prefer not to see in their art.
A love/hate relationship with my cell phone
I certainly understand that sentiment. Like many, I have a love/hate relationship with my phone. But now that cell phones are an integral part of our lives, I feel that they belong in my scenes of everyday beauty and happiness. They are part of our relationship with others and of our daily activities. They help tell the human stories in my paintings.
For instance, in the painting above we automatically recognize that the two women on the left are hovered over a phone, even though we can't see it. I've decided that they're checking when their favorite restaurant opens for Sunday brunch, while the woman on the right is looking for messages about meeting up with her friends. It's all part of the story of these figures.
Cell phones as design elements
I also like to use phones as design elements; they can function as dark or vivid punctuation against lighter, more neutral colors. On of my favorite parts of the painting above is the seated woman's hands as she lightly grips the phone. They seem so graceful and elegant. Also, I like the contrast in pose and energy of the woman in the beach chair concentrating on her cell phone versus that of the woman lying on the beach towel dozing under the warm sun.
I find that many of my beach scenes now include people on their phones, reading an eBook, checking messages, or taking a selfie. It seems that anywhere people relax, they're on their phones.
Cell phones in Paris
In city street scenes as well, cell phones are rarely absent. In some cases, the cell phone creates the story. In the top painting, the woman is distracted by her phone while her dog barks at a biking commuter. In " No Time for Lunch", the woman is engrossed in her conversation while she strides down the sidewalk. But I think my favorite cell phone painting is "Perfect Selfie". What better way to use a cell phone than to take a romantic selfie with your sweetie in front of a flower market in Paris?
Your turn; if one of my paintings hung in your home, might it include a cell phone? If not, why not?
Paint and magic
It's natural that a lot of my scenes of Florida and other vacation destinations include water. I find that painting the transparency and reflections of water in oceans and marinas is challenging but very satisfying. And when I succeed, it's magical!
Effects of sun and wind
I start by breaking the water surface into large shapes of different values. I squint at my reference photo and look for the main areas of light and dark. I also consider the atmospheric conditions; is it sunny or cloudy? does it look calm or windy? The amount of sun and clouds will affect the color and value of the reflections, and the wind will affect the surface texture.
In the painting above, the warm sun means warmer lights and darker darks. And I've made the surface of the water near the shore appear broken up into small wavelets by the wind, but closer to the boats it is more protected, I've made it look smoother.
Similarly, this bay in Hydra, Greece was relatively quiet, so the reflections are just a bit squiggly. Notice that those reflections always line up vertically with what they are reflecting, and that the tilting mast of the center boat has a reflected tilt in the same direction. Knowing what to look for and getting these kind of details right adds to the illusion.
In "St. Pete Stroll", above, the motion of the water adds energy to the painting and moves the viewer across the canvas from left to right. The diagonal slashes of solid blue alternated with sections of reflected color indicate that the water is pulsating and the wind is picking up.
Surf spray and foam
Above, I was especially pleased with the lower section of surf with its strong darks and lights and its little dots of spray. The colors and values of the bits of water seen through the foam explain the form of the wave and the sand underneath.
Notice the subtle reflections of the women's legs and the of the colorful floats. These bits of color make the women look like they are standing in the water holding the floats and they unify the painting.
Above in "Shell Collectors", the range in values from light (foreground) to dark (horizon) makes the water recede. Also the spacing of the lines of surf in the water get smaller in the distance, helping to create perspective. My favorite parts of this painting are the reflections of the women in the puddles and the the little birds with their dark shadows.
A simple backdrop
In "Sun, Sand, and Conversation", the water is painted very simply with just a darker value at the horizon to make the surface recede. The bit of brown in the closest water hints at the sand under the shallows. I often change the color of the water somewhat from what I see in my photos. Here I made it more aqua to work with the aquas in the foreground, and to contrast with the ultramarine blue in the sky.
Of course there's no one way to paint water. For some examples of beautifully rendered water look at these paintings by a few of my favorite artists: Joaquin Sorolla, Claude Monet, and John Singer Sargent. The Sargent page has an especially large number of works; scroll down to see many of his masterful paintings that include water. Sigh. There's always more to learn!
What I'm looking for
I like to paint sunlit city life in Florida and Europe. When I'm roaming the streets taking photos for my work there are a handful of subjects that make me perk up and look for a shot. These items appear in my work with regularity because to me they have a sense of fun, joie de vivre, and vivid color. Here they are, in no particular order:
Below are details of paintings with examples of these favorites. Hover for information or click to enlarge.
People and dogs
People are in all my paintings because they add life to the scene and make me wonder; Where are they going next? What are they saying and feeling? What would it be like to be there? I want their presence to create an open-ended story.
And dogs! Dogs are the best. If I could find more dogs to paint they would be in every painting. They bring joy and energy, and they're patient with our human foibles. Yes, I am a dog person. Besides, you rarely see people walking their cat.
French cafes and waiters
Why is it that the cafes in Paris are the perfect place to relax and let the world go by? For me they are the quintessential coffee break experience; ambiance, history, great coffee, and fun people watching. I especially like the traditional black and white uniform of the waiters; they are visually dramatic and add a touch of and formality to a daily pleasure.
Bicycles and Scooters
You might be surprised at how hard it is to get a photo of a bicyclist or scooterist (sp?) as they pass you in the street. As I walk along looking for photos, by the time I realize that I have a good subject, they have usually passed. Or a car has blocked my shot. Or the angle isn't right. So frustrating! But I like how they add a sense of motion and fun to my paintings, so I keep trying. I really want to rent a red scooter and tool around Paris or Rome. But the opportunity hasn't arisen. Yet.
Water, boats, and palm trees
Painting scenes of Florida cities means I've learned to paint these ubiquitous aspects of our urban landscape. I study the different varieties of palm trees, leaf shapes, and tree profiles. I also look carefully at the appearance of water in terms of colors and reflections which reveal the weather and wind conditions in my paintings. And boats always require careful observation in order to mimic the complex curves and unique styling of each craft.
I could go on...
There are actually many more items to add to the list. But these are the main ones. Your turn: What do you think I'm missing? What should I be adding to my cityscapes that would be fun to paint and to look at?
Suffering for Art
Being an oil painter used to be pretty hazardous work, what with toxic pigments like vermilion, lead white, and chrome yellow, as well as toxic solvents like turpentine. Things have improved a lot since then, but it pays to understand the risks and reduce them as much as possible. Also, as I become more environmentally conscious, I have worked to reduce waste and reduce my use of products that harm the earth.
A SAFER STUDIO
I use Gamsol as a solvent to thin paints and clean brushes. All mineral spirits give off toxic fumes, but Gamsol is the least volatile and is not absorbed through the skin like some others. Of course I could use water-soluble oil paints and eliminate solvents completely, but I tried them and I was not happy with the results.
So to minimize my risk of breathing Gamsol fumes I keep it in a small container with a tight fitting lid. I keep the jar capped when I'm painting and only open it to clean brushes. I also have an exhaust fan that is built into the ceiling of my studio and I place the solvent between me and the fan, so that the fumes are lifted up and away from me.
Traditional painting mediums (which make paint spread more easily) were mixtures of solvent, sunflower oil, and stand oil. I use a non-toxic medium from Gamblin: Solvent-Free Fluid. I thin it with a bit of Gamsol for the early layers and use it straight after that in order to maintain fat-over-lean.
Varnish for oil paintings is also toxic, so I always work in a well-ventilated area and wear gloves.
I prep my canvases with tinted gesso. Although gesso itself is not toxic, sanding it can produce particles that are hazardous to the lungs, so I do this in the garage and I always use a mask.
A few of today's oil paints come with warning labels because their ingredients are toxic when ingested or breathed. The Cadmium Red and Cadmium Yellow that I use have such a label and for that reason I don't eat in my studio and I make sure I wash my hands after every painting session. A good rule of thumb for all pigments: don't eat paint!
If you want more detail information on studio safety, Gamblin Colors has an excellent in-depth guide on the topic on their website.
A GREENER STUDIO
In the past ten years I have become increasingly concerned about how items from my daily life are harming the environment, including items that I use in the studio. So I have made the following changes:
Your turn: what are you doing to reduce toxins and pollutants in your home and work areas?
One of the best
Carol Marine is one of my favorite contemporary artists and an inspiration to me. She was one of the early members of the Daily Painting movement, where artists would paint one small piece a day and post about it on a blog. Her work is known for powerful compositions, strong, harmonious colors, and painterly brushwork. She is also a generous and effective painting teacher and has taught hundreds of workshops across the country.
Carol Marine grew up in Texas. She studied art in college, but later said she learned nothing in school about the basics of painting; not composition, color theory, or value. Afterwards she painted large canvases and sold some in galleries, but many were disappointments.
Stumbling onto the idea of daily painting, she began creating small 6"x6" still life pieces like the two above every day while her son was napping. She worked from life, using everyday objects like dishes and food as her subjects. Marine found it invigorating to have quick results and discovered that working small helped her learn very quickly. Also, because she was painting so many canvases (200 in the first year), she was more willing to experiment and more accepting if the painting didn't work out. She called these duds "wipers", as she would just wipe off the canvas and start again.
After painting hundreds of still lifes, she expanded her subject matter to include people, cityscapes, and plein air landscapes. When possible she would paint from life, but she also painted extensively from photos such as scenes like the two images above, using what she had learned from still life painting about color, light, and shadows.
One of the things I most admire in her work is her ability to suggest complexity and movement in a painting without getting bogged down in detail, as displayed in the genre scenes above and the cityscapes below. Her brushstrokes are deft and practiced, their simplicity belaying her vast experience.
Marine's color schemes are powerful and harmonious. She is a master at depicting surfaces in sunlight and her work vibrates with the sense of strong bouncing light.
A great teacher
I was lucky enough to take one of Carol Marine's workshops before she stopped teaching. It was one of the most well-organized and clear workshops I have ever taken, and it was made even more enjoyable by her charm and good humor.
While she no longer gives workshops, Marine has made available teaching videos that each address a specific aspect of painting. She also has published several books on her work, including "Daily Painting" which contains a wealth of information about her painting process and is the next best thing to taking a workshop.
I hope you are as inspired by Carol Marine's paintings as I am. To see more of her work, visit her website at https://www.dailypaintworks.com/artists/carol-marine-1. Enjoy!
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?
I'm Linda Hugues and I paint cityscapes of everyday happiness 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!