Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Why Plein Air painting is so damn hard.

It is pretty safe to say that I am primarily a studio painter.

In some ways this developed almost by accident. I was trained indoors. My easel was heavy and didn't lend itself well to being lugged around outside; and the people I painted with were, generally speaking, not strong enough painters to feel comfortable working out in the open air.

As my painting skilled developed and my style began to show itself, the subjects I chose just lent themselves well to studio painting. I was trained with a mind toward a very simplistic set-up and method. I didn't know anything about Munsel notation, color strings, split compliments or the use of any brushes other than hog's hair.

I began experimenting with materials. I am a huge believer in experimentation. But like any good scientist experimentation required a control. In order to fairly judge the strengths and weaknesses on any particular support, medium, paint or brush, you have be able to reproduce the results. In essence, gaining mastery over something is the ability to control every aspect of a field of knowledge and get every facet to behave in a predicable way.

Essentially, mastery of painting is an exercise in making paint behave predictably.

But painting outside is an entirely different creature. Not only is there more information, there more distractions, more decisions, more editing, more weather and possibly most frustrating of all; more light.

Cathedral Park

St John's Bridge at Cathedral Park 11" x 14"

That doesn't mean that it always turns out bad. In fact, I have gotten some very good paintings from trips around Portland and have probably sold as many plein-air paintings as I have studio paintings. What I haven't been able to do however, is create good paintings consistently. As I said, the light drives me, how shall I say? Ah yes.... Bat-shit crazy. While the changing light is one thing, what really drives me up the wall is that the light outside is so much stronger than the light inside. Just to be scientific about it direct sunlight has a light measurement of 32,000 - 130,00 lux. The light inside? 50-60 lux, maybe 80 in the bathroom.

This frustrates the hell out of me particularly because what you see isn't what you necessarily end up with.

It's sort of like going out on a date. It's really nice, the candlelight is enchanting, there's soft music your digging the scene and then when you get back to your house you realize it's not that hot redhead from the office, it's OMG your cousin Kenny! And he hasn't showered! Or maybe it is that hot redhead from the office. You can never be sure till you get it home.

I am used to being able to control nearly all the aspects of painting from the materials I use, to the lighting and composition. painting outside doesn't grant you the same liberties that working in the studio does.

All in all, I'm not breaking up with plein-air but we are not currently on speaking terms.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Diary of a.... paint slut?

I am a paint slut.

I say this in the nicest possible way. While most painters are very very monogamous when it come to their materials, their pallets and their techniques I am not. I am an absolute raging paint slutty slutty slut-slut. I vacillate between single weave linen to heavyweight cotton duck, to clayboard, to rabbit-skin glue gesso primed medium-density fiberboard to PVA sealed birch hardboard to black-oil titanium primed linen affixed to high-denisty fiberboard with rabbit-skin glue. It's like the 1960's "free love" when it comes to choosing materials for a new painting except there is showering and deodorant involved (with me, not my materials).

Now, firstly, for anybody reading who doesn't know my work (how the hell did you end up here anyway?) I am primarily a miniature painter. That is to say very often my canvases lean toward the small size. For me, a full figure interior scene screams 8" x 10", 8" x 10"!! So very often this small work requires a real attention to the preparation of your support (canvas). as I've said above I though I would briefly run through some canvas I've recently used and give you the benefit of my morally questionable love affair with some of the many many types of painting surfaces:

Double weave 10 oz cotton duck:

Love it. It's real a workhorse canvas. I use it mainly on the canvases where I need the weight behind the brush. Because of the weight and the texture I rarely mount this to board. Generally speaking, I know some painters who prefer to paint on board (like my good friend Thomas Kitts. You can see his blog here; well worth the read) for the stability. Canvas affixed to board tends to have less of a problem with cracking than stretched paintings. Wanna know why? Because store bought canvas is, more often than not, improperly stretched. A good heavy weight canvas like cotton duck, if properly stretched, sized and primed is as archival as anything else. And when you start working bigger than, oh say, 14" x 18", mounting canvas on panel starts to become impractical.

Utrecht Double-Weave 9oz linen medium smooth texture:

The difference between this and cotton? Not a whole hell of a lot actually as far as painting texture goes. There are some who are uber-canvas snobs and who will paint on nothing but the finest belgian linen and those guys would love this stuff.

At this point, I feel it very important to stress that those guys are, simply put; Canvas Nazis. In the end it comes down entirely to personal preference which support you decide to use. I feel that one of the main differences between me and other painters is that I vary my support to take advantage of whatever subject I happen to painting.

In my opinion, the main advantage to linen lies with the finer weaves (which I'll get into in a moment). But those finer weaves become more of a hindrance than a help when it comes to working with larger canvases. Small brushes love a fine weave of linen and a rougher weave like two canvases above chew the hell out of them. If you are using a hog-hair or a similar synthetic why bother using a fine weave? They are too dumb a brush to notice. So why use a medium smooth weave 9 oz linen over a 10 oz double-weave cotton? The only advantage I can see lies in it's stretching.

Linen has less give than cotton does. In fact, dry unwashed linen will have almost no give at all when being stretched. While this does make stretching more difficult it does seem to allow you to keep the warp and weft (the lines you see in the weave) square to the stretcher edges. Who cares? Nobody really. That is until 250 years have gone by when the painting on the cotton canvas is cracking because the tension on the cotton thread is uneven due to improper alignment and stretching...

Michael Levine's lightweight unbleached clothes linen. Probably about 5oz.

Now this is interesting. I did experiment with a "apparel-grade" (I made that term up) clothes linen I bought downtown at Michael Levines (a sort of "fabric emporium" in the garment district of downtown Los Angeles.) You can readily see that the weave is far looser than an artist grade linen that is sold by Utrecht or Dick Blick. The verdict? Awesome for studies and at roughly 60% of the cost the price is certainly right. As to the archival quality, that I cannot vouch for. So I wouldn't go using it for the portrait commission you just received for the Duke of Edinburgh. Working out compositions? Yes.

Blick single-weave smooth "portrait grade" canvas 7oz.

For my miniature or highly detailed portrait work this is my go-to canvas. With a coat of PVA and maybe two coats of an acrylic gesso so that the canvas retains its toothy texture without impeding the flow of the paint of the brush.

The only drawback to this canvas is that it really is specialized. I attempted to use this once for a large still life 12" x 24". Man; worst. idea. ever. This is was before I started using the Kervin Mongoose Hair filberts , and as such I was using Chung-king hog's hair. Because the canvas has such a fine texture every single brush mark is visible. If you are a landscape painter this might be advantageous; especially if mounted on panel.

Utrecht Single weave 8.5 oz linen "66J" fine texture:

At the moment this is a new canvas for me. I picked some up yesterday for a tromp l'oeil I'm starting. From initial impressions I can say that there isn't too much difference I can see between this and Dick Blick portrait weave I have become so fond of. It is heavier, but only by 1.5 oz. The texture is only very minimally more pronounced than the 7oz portrait weave and I'm fairly certain you would be hard pressed to "touch-tell" the difference between this and the Blick. I have noticed however the tendency of the canvas to wrinkle which is giving me fits when attempting to apply it to a birch hardboard. To be fair however, I didn't watch the Blick linen before I used it which is not in itself a horrific faux pas. It just means that the starch wasn't fully removed (which adds an extra chemical in the cocktail. Albeit a relatively inert one)

As a final note. I nearly always buy unprimed canvas. It is sold primed which is awesome if you are lazy and don't care about having total control over the painting process. (I know, cheap shot right?) but I have experimented with primed canvas. Fredrick's makes a decent acrylic primed cotton canvas though it does have an oddly smooth texture. But really the main reason I do not buy primed canvas anymore is as follows:

Unknown brand (My guess is that it is produced by Satan in hell) Single weave linen canvas pre-primed with lead white. Probably about 5-7 oz. smooth texture.

Awful Awful stuff. I was given this canvas by another painter who had reached the same conclusion. It does not stretch well. In fact when I attempted to stretch it, the primer cracked.

Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot?

It would not easily mount on board either; bubbling and peeling off the support all over the damn place. When I did manage to get it reasonably mounted painting was like wrestling a bear. When you take a close look at the surface, the application of the lead white ground is fairly uniform and you can just see the tips of the weave creating what looks like a textured surface. Lies. LIES. It's like painting on glass. Glass coated with Vaseline. Even my fine brushes (mongoose and/or sable) couldn't make a uniform stroke.

I asked a friend about it and he suggested I give it a coat of wax to help the paint adhere. I suggested he hand me a shovel so I can bury the fucking roll in my backyard. Never again.

Anybody interested in taking it off my hands? Please?

Well. That's enough of a foray into my probably low self-esteem induced trysts with various canvases. Later on there will be more info on mediums, paints, panels and projects than you can shake a pamphlet on material monogamy/abstinence at me and shout about how my grandmother would be ashamed of my behavior.

Genius out.


New Beginnings

Ok, So:

Today marks a transition in the very small bloggosphere that exists here at Diary of a Genius. For the last few years I have mainly posted small excerpts of my life phrased as either comedic hyperbole (like when I told somebody that I wanted a flock of flying squirrels for my birthday) or prose rich moments where I am filled with inspiration (we all know how much I like deserts.)

However, this blog is transitioning into a more professional capacity one which will be exploring painting; in all it's technical, aesthetic and occasionally tragic glory. While I am by no means a huge expert, I have some small measure of information which others might find helpful. In addition, this blog will function as a showcase for upcoming work and a behind the scenes look into the world of a practicing studio artist. In a sense, it will more fully and truely become a Diary of a Genius.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Dunning–Kruger Shmunning-Kruger, that's what I say.

I'm going to be writing more of these I swear.

It's not so much that I have nothing to say, it's juts that from the days I began these blogs my perspective has changed. The more I've learned the less I have to say. Well, that's not exactly true, the more I learn the less I feel people have any interest in what I've learned. some people call this a case of "the more you know, the more you realize you don't know" psychologists call it the Dunning-Kruger effect.

From Wikipedia: The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to recognize their mistakes.The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their own abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. As Kruger and Dunning conclude, "the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others"

I spent a hell of a lot of time writing about how awesome I was. And in my defense. I'm fairly certain that I was as awesome as I said I was. But what's odd is that I can very objectively say that my competency and ability has grown by leaps and bounds, and so has my confidence. The problem is that my confidence has been moving in the opposite direction of my skills and I feel less confident in my abilities than I did 5 years ago.

How does that make sense? More importantly, as your talents and ability progresses, how does that not get worse?

There is an interesting by product of this and that is the desire to stay within a familiar subject matter, medium or in my case: size. I've undertaken a few new projects in the last few months that are larger than my usual maximum size of 11" x 14". That strikes me as odd. For some reason it is so much easier for me to work on a very very small scale. I have unwittingly become a miniature painter. Not that I'm unhappy with it, because it's been my experience that most people have the opposite problem, in so far as they cannot work small.

I am not a person who feels happy with being something because I'm scared to be something else. (although a slight exaggeration, it conveys the problem nicely.) So I attempt to work large and am almost invariably unhappy with the results. This seems unacceptable. I know that Henri Matisse felt that if he got one good painting out of twenty he was fortunate.

I am not Henri Matisse.

So because my blogging in the past has centered so fully around painting, where before I couldn't stop shouting it, now I'm inclined to hide in my studio and share very little of what I'm doing. Which as I said above makes very little cognitive sense.

I know other painters post progress shots and explanations of how and what they do for the benefit of their followers and collectors. At the moment I have very few of both (I do have some collectors, but am not entirely sure they are the type to read blogs such as this.) so it seems pointless.

But is it?

When I was first painting I scoured, positively scoured the internet for any useful information about painting and I found very little of it. Seeing somebody else working through the problems I was dealing with would have been tremendously helpful. I do miss teaching and perhaps this is will prove a viable way for me to pass information out into the ether.

So, starting as soon as I finish the current painting I'm working on (which I'm not inclined to let anybody see at the moment) I'm going to squeeze as much technical information into this blog as I can without it being mind numbingly boring.

I said it before, but this time I mean it:

Watch this space.