Thursday, April 19, 2012

Hummingbird (a small mixed media)

When I'm doing watercolor lessons with classrooms, I often end up with random areas of washes or other techniques. While I never do them with a particular intention in mind, one piece caught my fancy because it started to resemble the sky outside that day. So with a little water work, I cleared out a few clouds ... and then left it sit for months.

This particular piece is approximately 2" x 3" - not a canvas for an overly ambitious picture. But eventually I got an idea and so began to work. We have a hummingbird feeder outside our back door and it's fascinating to see the colors that reflect off these tiny birds, as well as the attitude they give you if you're too close for comfort. Talk about short man syndrome!

Even with the background in watercolor, the natural choice for me was colored pencil. I really am not a watercolor artist and still like a sharpened tip for working in small spaces. So I began with a sketch and then started to build the layers and the areas of color.

I found that it wasn't quite as balanced as I would like so in the end I added a few subtle blossoms (the view behind the feeder is a cherry tree at my house).

(Here's a more natural light look.)

To frame it for the regional CPSA exhibit, I elected to go with a simple 5 x 7" brushed aluminum frame and weighted the textured white matting. It was a delight to work small and I'll be doing it again sometime with other sample pieces I've been collecting.

"Hummingbird" is now part of a private collection.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Audition (colored pencil on a dark background)

This little hippo sketch had been rolling around in my sketch book for quite sometime after an afternoon at a local gymnastics club. I've always been fond of her and wanted to give her a chance to show off her skills.

I began on a piece of dark Canson acidfree matboard. I wanted a stage look but wasn't really thrilled about the idea of building up layers and layers of dark around her on a white surface. I like the challenge of putting her in the limelight instead.

Knowing the layers that would have to be built up for light/bright colors, I did put down an underpainting layer of white in a few key areas as I went along. I also used black to create areas of shadow on the background which was actually a very dark teal. If the background had been black, I still would have used a black pencil crayon to create visual distinctions in the corners where the change in texture between the duller finish and the luster of the colored pencil would create depth of its own.

And of course, her ballet shoes went on very quickly.

Then it was time to start layering in warm grays (about 30 - 50%).

From here it was largely a matter of building up the areas of color. You'll notice I tend to leave edges until the last and leave myself "reference lines" - areas I don't fill in until I'm ready to add the shading. No particular reason, I suppose, but in large areas I don't like to lose track of my drawing. Often I find my character suddenly needs a diet, or a nose job, or something if I obliterate the lines I want.

The floorboards were one of the areas I let the matboard texture work for me here. I built up several layers, added some highlighting with a brighter shade and then realized I had built up a little too far out for my spotlight so had to work the line back by carefully erasing (you don't want to crush the texture or tooth you'll need for later!) and then softening the harsh edge with some relayering. I also filled in the body color for the little ladybug audience, although I left their details almost until the end.

Final details included some stage makeup (in the form of lipstick), highlights and shading in her bow, body, legs and ballet shoes, slight shadows on the floor for stability, and, of course, the details of the ladybugs.

My personal opinion is that I think she got the part :).

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Wings of Praise - a mixed media project

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I have always had a love for music. I played piano for many years and often miss it. (I also had a short stint with the guitar and the flute and would enjoy getting back to them but it may not happen for awhile.)

Over the years I have also built up a small collection of vintage sheet music - some with tattered and torn edges, some showing the yellowing of time, some with hand written notes from students working through a challenging piece. As this collection built, so did the (completely separate) conviction that I wanted to do an art piece with a simple design - a dove - but fairly large in execution. In the course of three years, I began a dove piece at least four times and each time it became something completely different. (Completely!)

But finally, the concept and the vision meshed. And I began what was for me a very experimental piece. I had not worked with paper on canvas before but that was the combination I wanted to try.

I began by base coating a 36" x 48" gallery wrapped canvas in Windsor & Newton's Windsor Blue acrylic paint with a small foam roller. It took three heavy layers to get the depth and evenness of color that I wanted but I was thrilled with the result. I wanted a rich blue that brought to mind deep evening skies where the stars only begin to glimmer against its velvet depth. (The picture is coat one - see the problem?)

Then I began on the dove. It took many tries to find the shape I wanted for this dove. It had to be simple enough to be able to cut individual segments but complex enough to give the idea of feathers in upward flight. When I finally arrived at the form I wanted, I printed it out to size (piecing my paper templates together) and traced each segment onto tracing paper, allowing extra at the "base" of each feather for overlap. It took some mental gymnastics to be sure which pieces would be front and back, but eventually I had them cut and labelled to help me put them back together in the right order.

Next, I went through my sheet music and found the piece I wanted. It had to have enough pages to do the complete dove, had to have the beautiful warmth of aged paper, and I wanted it to somehow suit my feeling for the piece. I found the music I wanted in an 1880 printing of Pastoral Sonate by Joseph Rheinberger Opus 88. Each pattern piece was traced out with an eye to direction and it's placement, then cut with an Exacto knife.

When the pieces were all cut, they were assembled on top of my drawing to be sure all pieces were properly in position and that they still kept a sense of harmony when assembled. (I actually recut three pieces because the more complex passages made those pieces look too dark and too heavy for the position I had placed them.)

Once I was happy with the layout, the final step to prepare each piece was to edge each one with a burnt umber Prismacolor NuPastel pastel stick and blend the pastel along to edge with either my fingertip or a kneaded eraser. This created a shaded edge that would keep each piece defined when they were assembled into the final image.

Then it was time to begin assembling the dove. I laid a piece of parchment paper over my template to help with positioning and then brushed Yes paste on the back of each overlap section before laying it in place. I worked the tail feathers, then the wing in rows (bottom to top) before attaching them to the body and back wing. The parchment paper let the whole thing peel away cleanly when the pieces had dried.

At this stage, I was concerned about how a varnish would affect the pastel shading or the inks of the sheet music. I didn't want it to smear under a liquid varnish, so at this stage I sprayed the entire dove with Prismacolor workable fixative. (A spray varnish might also have been an option at this point, but I was working with what I had on hand.) Let me say here that this was probably the riskiest part of the whole experiment. I did not know if the varnish would even hold over a fixative but it was a chance I felt I had to take to protect the dove. I applied several thin coats of fixative to be sure the surface was completely sealed.

Finally, it was time to get back to my canvas. Because it was such a simple composition, I wanted some detailing to add visual interest and balance. My choice was to add "rays" of light in Liquitex metallic acrylic paint - gold, silver and bronze. To apply the paint in as straight a line as possible, I pulled a length of quilting thread through the paint, then stretched it across the canvas, keeping a contact point constant in the upper right corner. (Actually, because of the size of the canvas, a family member helped me hold and position the string across the canvas before we lowered it to the surface. We found that we got a better application by sliding the thread 1/4" along our line once we had touched down.) I did not want them to be completely solid lines so if the thread slid through the paint dollop rather unevenly, I wasn't concerned. A couple small spots had to be retouched with an 18/0 liner, and I later adjusted some of these lines once the dove was applied so that they were not in direct contact with the dove body in ways that might create a visual distraction. I did, though, let a couple of the lines hit the canvas edge.

(My "pull" station.)

Once the lines had dried, I applied the dove to the canvas, again using Yes paste applied as evenly as possible. (Note: if you ever try this DO NOT use an adhesive that goes on too wet - your paper will crumple and curl and inks may bleed through. If you want a smooth application, keep your adhesive as dry/sticky as possible. Of course, the crinkling of a wet application is pretty cool too but wasn't what I wanted for this piece.) Once the dove was in place I weighted it using parchment paper on the front and books, boards, etc on the back to try to ensure complete contact while the adhesive dried. A couple spots did lift and I later pressed them back down by putting more adhesive under the "bubble" with a small brush and weighting again.

To finish this piece, I used Liquitex gloss varnish and again applied several layers with a small foam roller. The varnish did hold very well over the fixative although it also did seep under the paper edges in a few spots. I really liked the additional effect of age that created though.

As an experiment I was very, very happy with the way this piece turned out and have plans to do several more with the same technique. The final piece can be view here in my Etsy store.

(I'm also rather excited to say that this piece is eligible for "Painting of the Year 2011" though SOSA, a local organization for visual artists that I've been part of for several years.)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Tooting my own horn

I'm in the process of finishing two pieces for the CPSA DC201 annual exhibit in Corvalis, OR next month. It's been a little while since I did a full piece in colored pencil and I found myself reviewing this one as a personal refresher.

I love music and musical instruments. Sometimes I'd rather draw them than play them (and while I can only play a few I can try to draw them all). So I began with a trumpet. I had seen a call for poster art for our local jazz festival and had been listening to some "Satchmo" Armstrong so it seemed like a logical place to begin.

I've already mentioned that I enjoy colored grounds so I decided to try this piece on a black Canson matboard (which, you will notice, does not photograph well).

With the initial sketch in place, I began by putting a tonal layer under the highlights of the trumpet with a cool grey.

From there, I moved on to what I considered the darker colors of the trumpet - the brassy browns and golds.

The color palette was actually quite limited. I think I used a total of 7 colors in all. The reflections from a trumpet actually form quite distinct zones that can be filled in in almost a paint-by-number method.

The final step for the trumpet was to fill in the highlights and then burnish the entire piece with a colored pencil. It helped to blend the color edges just slightly and to add some extra polish. Matboard has a fairly shallow tooth so complete coverage (I learned earlier) takes repeated layers with workable fixative. Since I with dark grounds I never want to take the risk of clouding the background so I did not use any fixative on this piece and just left those small gaps in the coverage for added texture. In a reflective surface, it's surprising what will translate as something just being reflected. (I will add that I have used workable fixative on dark matboard but never more than two very lightly applied layers.)

The final stage was to add the music ribbon. Remember this piece was to be a poster so I left room for text, although I probably would have left the design fairly similar regardless. The music was done with white but the backsides of the spirals with a cool grey 20% to give a little dimension.

The final piece eventually was titled "Where Will the Music Take You?" and can be seen in my Etsy store here.

Where does music carry you?

Friday, February 11, 2011

A fish in the water

"Tails" is a painting I did several years ago and was fun mostly because of the background technique that I was experimenting with. Because it was so long ago, I may not remember all the steps of this particular painting but let's see how I do.

For many years, we had several fish tanks around the house and this particular twin-tail goldfish was one of my favorites. It's always amazed me how much personality a fish can have. If you've ever tried photographing fish in an aquarium, you'll know it can be a bit of a trick because of glass reflections, water distortions and the tendency of fish to shy away from anything that looks like a big eye :). But I did finally get a shot that I liked - very foreshortened but that showed off his twin tails.

I began with a 16 x 20 canvas panel. They have the advantage of being more rigid for paint applications that will be thick or heavy. Plus the rigid base also works better for techniques that involve pressing, rolling or stamping - the canvas doesn't flex like a traditional wrapped or mounted canvas and so the texture stays more uniform towards the edges.

I base coated the panel in a medium blue shade, then while the paint was still wet, I laid a sheet of large-bubble packing wrap over the painting and pressed it in. I let it sit for a minute to give the paint a little time to set up so I would get more dimension to the texture, then pulled it away and let the base coat finish drying.

After it had dried, I applied successive washes of a dark green and white to help "pull out" the bubble shapes on the background. The more dimension to your texture, the more paint will "catch" and show it up.

Then it was time to put my composition together.

Using a 1/2" flat wash brush, I cut in several strands of greenery and then added a first layer to the fish, leaving the area around the eye, gill and body edge near the tail fin clear so the basecoat showed through and would serve as shading under later layers. I knew I'd have some coverage issues from working with complementary colors but was still surprised by how the first layer of orange turned completely yellow. I also added a first layer to the eye with black.

Then it was time to get to the rather tedious work of applying successive layers of orange to the fish body to get deeper color but also to provide contouring. The second layer was a repeat of the first, then I began adding some fin details by shading washes of the same color over the fins, keeping the heavier gradation towards the body.

It was also time to start building up the greenery - using several mixed shades of cool and warm greens to give variety, depth and movement to the "reeds".

About the fourth or fifth layer, I added contouring to the body by using a red shade for the deeper shades and a gold mix for scale highlights. These I added one scale at a time using a slant cut, dense pack 1/4" brush and building layer on layer as I wanted the highlights to build up.

The final step (for the goldfish) was to add a final layer of orange to the body as a light wash to help blend the various areas across the fish. At the same time I picked out some of the highlights on his body that were not scales (ie. at the base of his tails).

In looking at it, it was still pretty atonal - not a lot of variation - so I picked out three of the background bubbles and outlined them with white shading. And he still felt too suspended to me. So I added a variety of colorful dots to the base to be the gravel of his tank. The fun of aquarium gravel is that is comes in such a huge spectrum of colors that I could choose anything a wanted. Then a final wash of green (algae-esque) gave a sense of uniformity to the gravel.

I finished the painting with several coats of high gloss varnish at this point (for a more watery feel to the final painting), but I later found a fun idea for framing him as well. Because I used a panel instead of a standard stretched canvas, I was able to find a 2 1/2" deep shadow box frame that suited it perfectly. The combination of glass, gloss and depth make it look even more like he is at home in his aquarium!

So my question after trying this background technique is: what else could be pressed into, dragged across or stamped on a wet base coat to create some fun and fantastic backgrounds?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A trip to the train station

I was recently part of a local business's celebration when the building they were in turned 100 years old. It's a phenomenal building and is the home of Porter's Restaurant. Working with the local historical society, they have done a beautiful job of restoring this building and making the most of its historical elements.

I've always been excited by the fact that this building was built as a railroad station. Some of my favorite buildings are old railroad stations so this was a particular delight to me. As part of their celebration of this anniversary, they invited 50 local artists to each paint their impressions of the building. The resulting paintings will be on display for the month of November 2010 and available for patrons to view and to vote on and to purchase if interested.

It was a unique experience to compose a painting of this sort. Brian, one of the owners, graciously gave us a tour of the building and let us take photos where we wanted as reference material. One of the features of the building that I have always loved is the large curved counter that is the original ticket counter for the train depot. It has been moved into the bar but I wanted to make it central to my painting. I also wanted to give an idea of the time that has passed in this building. (A history of the building can be found here.) Other great features include their patio with antique railroad and luggage items, the building's stucco mixed with coal dust from the trains, a few table tops made from old crossing signs, and the graffiti that has been scratched onto the bricks over the last century by waiting passengers (including the original Bobo the Clown at one spot).

After mulling over several ideas, I decided I wanted the different decades of the building to be represented with the people that used it in a progression at the ticket counter. Think how many stories walked through this building! Several hours of research and several rough drafts later, this was my final sketch.

The restaurant supplied each artist an Ampersand Cradled Artist Panel for Oil & Acrylic and I transferred the sketch to it. This would be a new surface for me and I wasn't sure I would like the texture. (Although I did put it to use later.)

Because I wanted to try to maintain a vintage feel to this painting, I base coated the entire panel in a neutral gray. Then I began with the red brick of the walls - both interior and "exterior". I made my own mix fairly simply in two shades and created a washed area before adding the grout lines. I elected not to add them all because it created a visual grid that was very distracting. There are a few vertical lines added for reference but not many.

Then I filled in the larger woodwork surfaces, again using two prominent shades. I wanted the warmth of wood but not to the point of distraction.

From here it was time to begin my characters. I had chosen a porter, a 1910 woman, a 1930s woman, a 1950s man and a modern-day woman to represent some of the decades the building had been in use. Again, all colors were grayed somewhat to maintain a feeling of history but chosen to provide some color impact in such a busy background. And I also purposely elected not to give them facial features or varied skin tones. Partly artistic preference (I figured that out of 5 faces, 1 would most likely end up driving me crazy by not working), partly historical cultural mix in the area. I haven't totally decided whether that was a successful decision or not but I do like that it adds slightly to the impressionism of the painting.

At this point, I also did some of the edge work. Because I was so tickled at the idea of coal dust being mixed into the stucco of the building, I added Liquitex Black Lava to the gray border paint. I also textured these borders by "patting" the wet paint with the flat side of a 3/4" brush.

From there it was on to details of shading and background. This was a bit of a challenge because from the reference photo above, you can see the impressive number of bottles in the bar. In person they add to the ambiance of the building but I didn't want the painting to be too heavily weighted to one side. So I elected to severely limit the number of items on the counter behind the bar. After they were painted, I washed the whole section with the same dark brown of the counter front to knock back the colors a little, and used the same dark brown to shade the large corner bricks. They turned out very well, IMO. I also added the Porter's logo to the table stand on the left. It's such a delightful logo and, in addition, gave a little balance to the black of the porter's uniform. This is also where the texture of the panel came in useful as one brush stroke skimmed over the surface became a plausible wine label.

One change I did make from the final sketch was to add a single light fixture over the bar on the left. It made a visual break in the double window, and added a lighter highlight to keep the eye transitioning through that section of the painting.

So that was my adventure into a historical impression painting. I was a little surprised by the amount of color mixing even though I'd kept my palette relatively limited because of the small panel size. I always enjoy painting clothes and fabric so that was a treat for me. All in all, it was a fun exercise and I'm please with the overall effect. It still remains to be seen if the diners agree :).