Saturday, April 30, 2011

That Which Does Not Kill You...

5x7 inches, acrylic on gessoed mat board, painted en plein air at Riverside Park

I decided early this spring that this would be the year the I would give plein air painting another good solid try.  There is a plein air painting event each June in Beloit, called Edge of the Rock. I tried it with watercolors in 2008, and while I produced a couple of reasonable landscapes, both of which sold, I was frustrated every day by wind, rain, and curiosity seekers.  I didn't have any sort of easel, so I had watercolor paper clipped to boards on my lap, and it wasn't the easiest situation.  My butcher tray palette flew away in the wind, and I had no real way of controlling the moisture level of my paper.  

So, I decided that this time I would try acrylics, since I have been painting with them quite a lot this winter.  Yesterday was the first warm and sunny day we have had in ages and ages, and I decided to go out and give it a try, but things didn't go very smoothly.   I have been thinking about this for a while, and about a month ago bought a french easel on eBay, what I thought was quite a good deal on some quality used equipment.  It didn't arrive and didn't arrive.  Finally I got an email from the seller saying he was sorry, but he lived in Alabama and his house had a tree fall on it in a tornado!  Of course I said he should attend to his life first, that I could wait.  So, yesterday no easel.  I went looking for my trusty old camp stool, even engaged my husband in the search, but failed to find it - so I trudged to K-Mart and bought a collapsing chair that had been marked down a couple times.  The chair actually was fine, though I was disconcerted to come home later in the afternoon to discover my spouse had unearthed the camp stool from from a dark corner of the cellar.  I have plenty of places to sit now.

I had all sorts of lists from articles I had saved that had suggestions on what to take along when painting outside.  I have a nice big plastic zippered bag with strong straps for carrying equipment.  I found a big old plastic jar, the sort that might once have held condiments for a school cafeteria, complete with a screw on lid.  I had paper towels, brushes, paint, prepared small mat boards that I had prepared.  I had a little plastic palette with a cover, and my acrylic paints.  I had a sketchbook and a pencil, I had a little viewfinder that I made from scrap cardboard and and old clear plastic transparency.  I felt I had what I needed.  Then I made my mistake.  I added a little flimsy bottle of water for drinking, and on a whim, threw my trusty Canon Powershot camera in the bag.  

The plan was to head out the the Janesville Schools Outdoor Lab, a nice rolling park-like area with a stream running through it.  But as I stood in the parking lot, then hiked part way into the woods, I could hear what sounded like a large group of elementary students, so I decided to visit Riverside Park instead. Riverside is a lovely old park right on the Rock River, and I found an interesting tree to make my focal point.  So I set up the new chair, and went to unpack my tote bag.  Oops.  The small water battle had leaked all over the bottom of the bag!  My canvas hat was dripping, my roll of paper towels was wet on one end, and then I remembered the camera.  My heart sinking, I pulled the camera out of the bottom of the bag, and saw that the viewfinder had all sorts of moisture behind the screen.  So, I took out the batteries and memory card, and locked the camera in the car, along with the useless wet hat.  

After that, besides my fumbling around, and struggling some with paint that wanted to dry out on the palette because of the steady breeze, it didn't go too badly.  It has been such a damp cool spring that there isn't much color yet.  Across the river the willows are a pretty pale yellow green, almost like a green mist, but most of the leaves have not emerged.  I had a hard time trying to make the tree in the foreground interesting, and also suggest the woods across the river.  Then there is the issue of painting water.  I think I have my work cut out for me. 

There is good news.  The poor fellow in Alabama wrote today to say he had shipped the easel, and my camera apparently is still working.  A night in a bowl of rice, and half a day on a sunny windowsill apparently dried out the moisture problem.  I successfully took a picture of our cat, so at least I don't need to buy a new camera.

Update: This photo of the old willow was taken later, with a camera that was not soaked!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Dreaming of Sun

The weather all around the country has been very unseasonable, around here cool, overcast, drizzly.  I had planned to start getting outside to paint, but circumstances have conspired against me.  There's the weather of course.  But also I decided to economize on a french easel by buying one on eBay.  I won the auction, then waited and waited.  Finally I got an email from the seller saying his house had been hit by a tornado, that the easel was OK (like I cared at after he told me a tree was in his living room), and that when his car was fixed he'd mail the easel.  Sigh. Bad luck for him, but I find myself hoping he can find a way to get to the post office so I can get practicing for an upcoming plein air event. 

In the meantime I have been doing a little watercolor work.  I was reading a couple how-to books by Charles Reid, trying out his approach to painting people.  I don't think I'll ever come close to the way he paints, but I did have a good time with this.  I am afraid I borrowed the source photo from someone on Flickr, then didn't keep the link, so this sun worshiping lady will have to stay in my practice notebook, since I don't know who to ask for permission.  I liked how her arms framed her face, and the strong shadows and highlights.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Working in Watercolor

watercolor study from a photo by Edward Curtis

Around here the main topic of conversation is how tired we are of wintery weather.  Granted, we haven't had the big storms that hit further north, or the tornadoes that have wreaked terror in the South, but spring just refuses to comes.  The daffodils are finally blooming, as is the forsythia, but it's cold and overcast, and twice I've gone out in the morning and shook snow off the flowers.  I am tired of my sweatshirts and sweaters and down comforter.

The upside of this is that I have been inside painting.  I went to the figure drawing studio in Whitewater Monday night, one of three artists there, and tried my best to work only in pencil and watercolor.  I wouldn't show anyone the results, though I enjoyed the time I spent there.

 I've been working my way through exercises in several Charles Reid books, even watching a VCR tape I ordered  from another library.  I sure don't paint like Reid does, though I try to remember what he says about using color, creating lost and found edges, and figures in general.  This portrait is something I did today, a second try, actually, at painting from a black and white photo of a Native American woman taken by Edward Curtis.  I know I overworked it, but I still like the way it turned out.  I wonder if I'll ever make confident strokes and not go back over my light and dark areas.

Friday, April 8, 2011

LIfe Drawing Painting and Spring Studio Cleaning

8x10 inches, 20 minute watercolor

I drove to UW Whitewater Monday evening for their life drawing studio, and to everyone's disappointment the model did not show up.  This is a small but devoted group who all had scheduled their lives and hauled their materials to the university, and rather than turning around and going back home, we decided to be our own models, 20 minutes each - clothed.  It turned out to be lots of fun, and sitting stock still for twenty minutes turned out to be devilishly difficult.  I sat in a chair with arms, but still found my eyes crossing and my fingers falling asleep.  We took to calling the experience "model appreciation night," because each of us discovered how challenging it is to hold a pose for twenty minutes.  

I have been wanting to use watercolors for my medium in the Monday studio night, and to that end put together a travel palette with pigments I thought would be useful for doing figures.  In addition to tube paints, I took along a few watercolor pencils, and they have turned out to be the most useful.  I can quickly sketch, and also do loose washes by dragging my brush over the "lead."  This was my favorite quick study from the evening.  I loved the woman's comfortable attitude, her thick hair and flowing outfit, and it showed in what I produced.

Most of the week has been spent in organizing, weeding, and adding to my collections of watercolor pigments, brushes, papers, and also my acrylic supplies.  Why did I buy four different brands of phthalo blue watercolor, anyway?  And why did I pop for three 1" flat wash brushes?  Do I need to keep craft-quality brushes that have loose ferrules or are stiffened with acrylic gel medium?  The answer is clearly no.  Just handling these materials made me want to paint, so I have been doing that too, and it has felt pretty darned good. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

Virtual Paintout: Japan

5.5x7 inches, ink and watercolor wash

Most of the week I have been taking inventory of my watercolor pigments, getting the caps, which have mostly dried on, unstuck, and weeding out the ones that I either never use, or have a poor record for reliability.  I scraped the old Winsor Newton alizarin crimson out of my ratty plastic palette, and tried a new cool deep red called perylene maroon.  It comes out of the tube looking for all the world like blood, but I like the richness of the color.  I spent time recording the pigment numbers of all my tube paints, and discovered I have four tubes of phthalo blue, which is far more than I will use in this lifetime.  I wish pigment manufacturers would abandon cute names and just label their paints simply and clearly.

Anyway, since I was playing with watercolors I decided to give the most recent Virtual Paintout a whirl.  I thought at first I'd try a larger painting, but I ended up with a small one in a Canson watercolor notebook.  The scene is taken from Google Street View, in midtown Tokyo.  When I do these virtual tours of places, I look for scenes that have some good value contrasts, and I like to include something alive, an animal or a person.  I liked this slim woman walking in the shadows into the light. I struggle with trying to simplify scenes, suggesting building details without slaving over them.  I was pleased with the way I managed the bicycles, omitting spokes and even handle bars.  They still read as bikes, and I didn't go wild rendering them.  I wish I had saved even more white out in the sunlit areas, but that part still reads as sunlit.