Topsy Turvy

Feeling a bit upside-down today? With the holiday weekend, "Monday" is actually Tuesday, and after a luxurious three days off, it kind of makes one not want to go back to work...Sometimes it's good to shake things up and turn them around. 

I paint upside-down from time to time, so I can get a better angle and that perfect line, or so I can see what's "off" in my painting. That's a tip from Drawing on the Right Side of The Brain -> by turning the artwork upside-down, you brain stops thinking about what the object is, and simply concentrates on the lines and shapes - resulting in a more accurate rendition. Cool, right? Our brains are so amazing! 

Art of the Art Assignment

I highly recommend Draw it with your eyes closed: the art of the art assignment (published by Paper Monument) to all art educators. It's an hilarious account of the favorite/best assignments given to, or by, artists and art professors around the country.  These are mostly assignments in higher education, where the trick is to give students open-ended assignments with enough room for personal expression and imagination, while still having them learn something.  The embarrassing, kookie and sometimes inappropriate results had me laughing out loud (in public, no less) with the creative interpretations of students, some of which go very, very bad, along with the usual "happy accidents".  Inevitably, sometimes it's actually the teacher who ends up learning a lesson (eg. "never give that assignment again", or "only use that with grad students").  Covering all mediums, the book offers many fun, conceptual and useful assignments to take inspiration from as an art educator.

I got to thinking about the best assignments that I have received from my instructors over the years, and I've paired it down to three:

1) My high school art teacher gave us an assignment where we had to go out on the town over the weekend and find all the stores that might have useful (non-traditional) art supplies.

I lived in Hanoi, Vietnam at the time where I attended an international school and took the International Baccalaureate Visual Art 2-year course.  This meant that not only did I have to document all of my findings in great detail for my teacher, but I first had to overcome the language barrier and navigate the bustling and winding streets of the old quarter on my mission. While at the time it was terrifying, it has become one of the most useful lessons I learned in high school because (a) I built the confidence to just go out and find stuff in an unfamiliar place, a skill that has served me well over the years, and (b) my idea of what art supplies should be and where you should get them was shaken and replaced with a more imaginative take on the whole thing.

 

2) One of my college professors, Craig Nagasawa, made me limit my palette to 6 colors plus white for a whole semester. The result was so successful that I didn't add any new colors until 2 semesters later. The purpose of this limitation was for me to stop being overwhelmed by the amazing array of color offered in oil paints today, and to really learn how to mix color and figure out how to make the colors that I needed.  I now teach a class on color and whenever I see my students -- especially the color enthusiasts like myself -- come in with a box full of paints, I turn around and give them the same advice: limit your palette until you understand color better.

3) In my 2nd year as an art major, I  took a class with Kara Maria, a visiting lecturer, and her assignment for the semester was: make ugly paintings.  This seemed quite shocking to us fairly new painters/budding artistes, but her assertion was that in our naive pursuit of perfection our paintings became dull.  By being given permission to make "bad" paintings, we were suddenly freed of our self-enforced restrictions and became bolder, more willing to experiment, and less afraid of "mistakes".  My paintings definitely improved as a result of this simple idea, which I not only employ on my own students but I also have to remind myself of whenever I feel like my work is getting stuck.

 

Making of "Shadows"

One of my original ideas for this blog was to post in-progress paintings so people can have a look into my process and/or get painting tips.  Since I haven't been able to paint in awhile, here's a step-by-step guide to an older painting - "Shadows", completed in June. Sketch: I often find that students new to painting want to draw with pencil on their canvas before starting with paint. I never do that. I map out my composition very simply with a brush and some paint like so. You can see how I changed the size of the figure dramatically, not worrying about erasing because I was just going to paint over it anyway.

 

 

 

 

 

Color & Texture: Next, I start blocking in the painting, making adjustments and adding texture as I go. Painting is a very layered process for me, so there are often layers that never see the light of day, but add a richness (both in body/texture and in color) to the final painting.

I have been on this kick where when I use photographic references, I print them out in black and white and then paint my own colors. This has some challenges but also adds a level of mystery and excitement for me, the painter, because I'm letting the painting tell me where to go.

 

 

 

Figure: In this case I painted the figure and her dress in monochromatic colors because I was planning on glazing the colors on later. I purposefully kept her skin very light, while keeping the dress dark because I wanted the glazing to be more subtle on the dress.

 

 

 

 

 

Details: The picture I was working from was a night scene, so all the colors got more bluish in this stage. I also added more detail around the figure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Glazing: I finally got to the glazing stage, but by this time had decided I didn't want to glaze any of the skin. I liked that it was fresh looking and yet nostalgic because the burnt sienna base made it look like an old-fashioned tinted photograph.

Critique stage: At this point I felt kind of stuck with the painting, so I went to the art collective I am a part of to get some some constructive criticism from my peers. It's always good to get some outside feedback, to point out glaring errors and/or minor tweaks that make a world of difference.

 

 

 

Final: The suggestions I got were most helpful and definitely helped finish the painting. By darkening a shadow here and changing the direction of a line there, I was able to get a better and more effective painting.

I was also reminded to include reflective light. This means, simply, that if the reddish dress is next to the purple pail, then there should be some purple on the dress and some red on the pail. Likewise, there is some color in the shadow from whatever object is casting the shadow.

Making of "Looking In"

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. You wouldn't know it, but this painting started out as a baaaaddd abstract painting. Apparently it was so bad that I didn't even take a photo of it.  So, having decided it was going nowhere, I started painting this new painting on top:

The good thing about painting over an old painting is that a) your fear of messing up the canvas is gone; and b) you already have a body of paint on there so your new painting has a nice richness to it.

A couple things to note when over painting:

1) While you CAN paint oils over acrylics, you NEVER paint acrylics over oils. Think of it like this: what happens when you mix water and oil? The oil rises to the top. Same with painting, the oil will try to rise to the top, forcing your acrylic paint off (OK, this may only happen over an extended period of time, but if you want your painting to be archival, just say no!).

2) Turn your old painting upside down before you start painting the new one. This helps get rid of the distraction of your first composition and allows you to concentrate on the new one.

 

 

By now you're probably wondering why I take in-process photos of my work. And no, it's not for these mini-tutorials (although they are helpful). Rather, I had a professor who suggested we take photos so that we could mull over the painting while not in the studio. They don't have to be good photos (in fact, this is a very dark shot of the painting), just quick shots even on your phone so that you can see it.

This can also be helpful if you paint over something you like and want to bring it back.

And, I've noticed that looking at your painting on a (camera, phone, or computer) screen changes how you see it. You notice different things, particularly about composition, when it's once removed.

Another good trick is to look at your painting in a mirror -- this means you're seeing it in reverse and it's much easier to see if you've made a terrible perspective mistake or something like that. I use this all the time, I even went out and bought a 5"x6" hand-held mirror from the dollar store expressly for this purpose!

And voila, the final product!

(No, I did not do this painting in only 3 sittings, although it was one of my faster paintings).