Friday, 29 May 2009

Painting the journey ahead

This article was first published in my newsletter "Notes From My French Easel" – April 2009.

I have attended a number of art classes and I also like to paint with my daughters. I always find interesting seeing how people react when trying out a new medium.

A trend beginners have to fight against is their willingness to achieve a given effect straight away; to have the perfect representation immediately.

This attitude can lead to two different reactions. The first one is to feel dissatisfied by the appearance of a painting at an early stage, which will have a negative effect or at least give the artist some anxiety (“I will never get this right!"). In this case, it is great to have someone at your side who just gently leads you along the way (“It’s coming well, just carry on and you will see…”). The second reaction is to concentrate on a small portion of the work and push it to a finish state. I know some artists like to work this way, but I feel that you achieve better results by working around the whole painting. A painting is a whole and not a collection of small vignettes. Furthermore, you can only bring your subject to life by playing with contrasts, including sharp details contrasted with soft areas.

The benefit of experience is, beside technique, an ability to foresee what the painting is going to look like when finished. More precisely, the knowledge that each stage, each layer, participates to the final effect you are building-up to.

You become like a chess player who anticipates where the game is heading. The reality is that the painting will never be exactly what you anticipate it to be. But it saves you from throwing the towel too soon. It gives you enough confidence to build the painting over time, because you know where you want to go; you have the map and you can see, from the top of your hill, your final destination.

Practice gives you the confidence to paint the journey ahead.

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Monday, 25 May 2009

Find the right location for you plein-air painting in advance

You can wander for hours and hope to find a good spot for your plein-air painting session; however, you can end-up walking more than you paint. It is much more efficient to explore the area in advance and take note of the different potential painting spots. It won’t solve all your troubles (for instance, you find a big van blocking the view you planned to paint), but it will help to prevent most issues.

How to get the most of your preparatory expedition:

  • Explore the area at the same time that you plan to go painting the next day. This way, you will check the place under similar lighting conditions. This is particularly important if you paint in a city where buildings can block the sunlight.

  • Take practicalities into account: it won’t work if your ideal painting spot is in the middle of the road. If you know that the place you want to paint is full of tourists, aim at painting early in the morning, before the place is invaded.

  • How easy it is to access the place? Can you park your car nearby or would you have to carry your material over a long distance?

  • Are there any amenities you wish to have? If you paint in a public garden, you can enjoy a cup of coffee and take a break in the middle of your session.

  • “Open areas” versus “closed areas”: If you paint in the middle of the countryside, with fields and only a few trees, the course of the sun should not be a major concern. If you are surrounded by mountains, hills or tall buildings, how long will you have before they block-out the sun?

Related articles

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Friday, 22 May 2009

Matisse on re-working his paintings

«I want to get to this stage of condensation of sensations that make the painting. I could content myself with the first attempt at a work, but I would get tired of it immediately, and I prefer to rework it so that later on I recognize it as a representation of my mind. »

- Henri Matisse (in “Note d’un peintre” – Ecrits et propos sur l’art – Hermann, 1972)

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Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Sharpen your judgement and discover your tastes

Expose yourself to a vast sample of works and styles. Finding what you like is interesting, but study what you don’t like and you will learn as much if not more.

When you are studying works that you like, take the time to note the attributes that move you and try to understand why. Capture the emotion first before you try to understand. This way, you will discover what makes to “tick”.

When you come across a work you don’t like, don’t just overlook it and go to the next one. Overcome your prejudice and approach the work with an open mind. Note the elements you dislike. Then, do as parents would do with their children and work hard to find as many qualities as you can in this work. Challenge your assumptions. The reason to do that is to force yourself to go beyond the superficial rejection.

One of the reason you don’t like a particular work may be that you are not prepared for it or you are not “in the mood”. What I mean by this is that our tastes are not static, they evolve over time. I used to dislike bebop jazz, finding it too brisk and dense. A few years later, I listen to Charlie Parker with pleasure. I have listened to many jazz musicians from the period before and after bebop, read about it, studied the genre and have learnt to appreciate it in the process. This form of music has grown on me.

You need to give time to art. The music albums I prefer are not the ones I appreciated when I played them for the first time. It’s only after the fourth or fifth time that I really embraced their richness and originality. In the same way, go back several times to galleries and museum as each visit will enrich your previous experience.

Attend non-professional shows. Don’t skip the “bad works” (the quotation marks are here because what is “good” or “bad” is highly subjective). Review them and think about why you think they are bad works. How would you have done differently? Is it the subject? The composition? The colours?

Monday, 18 May 2009

Swindon Open Studios 2009

You may have noticed the logo for the Swindon Open Studios 2009 and the side of this blog as well as at the bottom of each page. This is happening in September 12th and 13th and I will take part in one of the venues in Old Town.

I am also part of the small team working on the event. In order to promote it, I contacted various web sites, made the 2 web banners, helped deisgn a poster and also started another blog specially for Swindon Open Studios 2009.

If you are an artist leaving or working in a 10 miles radius of Swindon, make sure you register. The form is on the Swindon Open Studios web site. If you don't have your own studio or do not want to open your house to the public, there will be exhibition spaces available in town centre.

If you can be involved in organising a local event, I really recommend it. I am connecting with local artists and it is a great opportunity for networking. By working on the promotion of the event, I will also learn many things that will be useful for my own promotional activities.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Boats in Honfleur - first session

This painting is a work in progress, but I took some photos on the way and you can see how it is progressing.

I shot the reference photograph in Honfleur, a beautiful harbour in Normandie (France).

I sketched directly the boats, using a hog brush and diluted paint

Starting to block-in the main shapes and the background.

Adding thicker paint .

At this point, I switched to painting knives.

End of session one. There is too much fresh paint to work on the canvas anymore. I have to wait for the paint to dry before coming back to it.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The emotional side of art prices

We often struggle to come-up with a price for our work. This post is not there to give an answer, but more to reflect on the emotional landscape that surrounds us. Understanding where we stand is a good starting point to look at pricing in a more objective way.

In the foreword to the book “
The Price is Wrong: Understanding What Makes a Price Seem Fair and the True Cost of Unfair Pricing " by Sarah Maxwell, Jon Luther wrote:

“What Sarah makes clear is that a fair price matters because fairness is the emotional part of economic decision making. Without an emotional base, we cannot make decisions. We have no way to determine what is good, what is bad; what is right, what is wrong. We base these determinations on our personal expectations as well as on the rules of society, rules that we all know intuitively.”

Regarding the general perception of art pricing, signals are confusing:

  • When the press talks about art pricing, it is in general to report record-breaking price following the auction of a masterpiece. The price bears no connection with the initial price of the work. The monetary value may or may not be rational in the same way the stock market fluctuations are difficult to understand.

  • Another strong myth that surrounds pricing is the myth of the broke talented artist. Everyone knows that Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime (“The Red Vineyard”, sold for 400 Francs). Some people still think that artists should not expect to make a leaving out of their art.

The price of art is more than cost. A work of art is the unique expression of the artist’s personality and the value of a work of art resides in the pleasure and inspiration it gives to its owner. How do you price emotions like “pleasure” and “inspiration”?

From the collector’s perspective (and this is true for any consumer), the first reaction to price is always emotional. Our perception of a work of art is altered by its price. If we see a price and believe it is too low, we think that there must be something wrong with the work and its artistic value. If we see a big price tag, we will infer that there must be some artistic qualities to the work (even if we don’t understand why).

From the artist’s standpoint, emotions can catch us in several ways when it comes to pricing our works:

  • Under pricing by lack of confidence. This becomes obvious when you ask an artist about his costs and discover that these are not covered by the price asked.

  • Under pricing because we don’t like a particular work. If it is a question of quality and you think the piece of art is not up to your standard, should it ever leave your studio? If it is a matter of taste, why discount it when other people may like the piece?

  • Pricing too high: art is so personal that we get emotional and price too high a piece of work that we like (in the hope that it will not sell).

  • Pricing too high: Pricing high to flatter your ego will not do you any good in the long term. What happens to the same ego if you never sell anything?

This article raises more questions than it brings answers. Pricing is art more than science. However, there are tools and guides that you can use to make your journey through pricing easier. I will cover these in later posts.

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Monday, 11 May 2009

The best way to remove masking fluid

I read a number of articles suggesting to use a rubber eraser or even sharp tools to remove masking fluids. However, these ways of doing can damage the painting.

There is a very effective way to remove masking fluid from your watercolour paper. I have been using this method for a few years now and never had any issue with it.

First, make sure the masking fluid and your watercolour paint are completely dry; otherwise you are going to make a mess.

After you’ve washed and dried your hands (to remove the natural oil on your skin), rub-off a small amount masking fluid with your index by moving the tip of your finger in circular motion on the surface of the paper. Try to pick an area where you applied the masking fluid thickly as it makes it easier to remove. Soon, a ball of masking fluid is going to form. If you have a larger surface, you may also lift gently the masking fluid film and add it to your masking fluid ball.

When you have enough masking fluid to hold the ball between your index and thumb, use this ball of masking fluid as you would with an eraser and go over the surfaces of the painting with masking fluid. The masking fluid on the paper will stick to your ball of masking fluid and will come off the paper easily.

The advantage of this method is that the ball of masking fluid picks up very well small amounts of masking fluids or masking fluid applied thinly and does not damage or blemish the paint.

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Wednesday, 6 May 2009

What is your favourite subject?

If I had to pick only three favourite subjects, I would say:

  1. Apples

  2. Cloudy skies

  3. Woods

I have always liked apples because they offer a wide range of visual qualities. They come in different colours (green, yellow, red or a mixture of these), size and shapes. Apples can be rustic or sophisticated; shinny or mat. These fruits are ideal for studying the way light plays on spheres as well as the different shadows.

Apple - oil on canvas by Benoit Philippe (Private collection)

Still life paintings are an excellent laboratory to learn to paint from nature. Apples are easy to find and stay fresh for a long time, so you can take as many session as you need to finish your painting after you set-up your composition.

Finally, apples remind me of Paul Cézanne.

Cloudy skies are another favourite subject. I like the changing nature of the clouds, their soft volume and how they make the sky interesting and ever changing. I usually use strong colours in my work, but enjoy the subtle variations of light and shadows in clouds, bringing out a high key palette.

I have painted many woods and it is a subject I am happy to revisit. The light is what always strikes me, from dapple light to rich dark green. Woodlands offer the freedom to paint quickly after setting the main elements with a few brush strokes.

How these subjects became favourites of mine? Practice plays a role here. The more you practice a particular subject, the better you become at painting it and enjoy the experience. The only thing to watch for is not to go into automatic pilot because you know (or you think you know) the subject well. In other words, I try to paint the apple I see, not a generic apple.

What are your favourite subjects? Why?

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Friday, 1 May 2009

What do you put at the back of your painting?

Why should you bother putting anything at the back of your painting as it will be out of sight when your work is hung? Think again.

Imagine that you sold a painting to someone you don’t know. The painting features in good place in their living room because they love it. Years later, some of their friends compliment your buyer about their taste and really would like to buy a painting by the same artist (you). Your collector goes to the painting, tries to decipher the signature, but is not sure about the name. There is no contact details, no address… You just lost a sale.

Currently, I use the following process:

  • For oil painting on canvas: I stick a label at the top of the frame with the indication of then title of the painting, the medium, my name and the address of my website.

  • For watercolours: At the back of the watercolour itself, I write the type of paper used, the dimensions of the work, the title as well as other relevant information (like the location of the subject). This is not visible, but in case the watercolour is transferred to another frame, the information will follow. I then stick a label on the backing of the frame with the indication of then title of the painting, the medium, my name and the address of my website (same as for oil paintings). In addition, I try to also stick my business card.

One thing to consider is that the work may be separated from its frame for all sorts of reason. It is therefore good practice, if you put information on the frame, to also put some information at the back of the work itself or on the stretcher for an oil painting or an acrylic painting.

What other artists do

Richard McKinley wrote a very interesting entry on Keeping Records of Your Paintings. A photo of the back of one of his pastel paintings shows what he puts on the back of each work: the code he uses in his inventory, title, medium, his name and copyright symbol. He also adds a printed artist statement and glass care information when he is using specialty glazing.

Shirley Williams, on her blog, described her process for cataloguing her work in her article How I Catalogue my Paintings
. She signs the backs of the paintings with her copyright year. She also attach a label with her name, the painting name, ID #, Media, Dimensions and Copyright.

I would be interested to hear about your own practice. Please share with other readers what you put at the back of your work by using the “Comments” section at the end of this post.

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