Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Should you work with a brief?

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

In his book “Hot-wiring Your Creative Process: Strategies for Print and New Media Designers”, Curt Cloninger gives the following definition of a brief: “The creative brief is a short written document outlining the problems, goals, strategies, and challenges of the project.”

Sometimes, we get some boundaries that act as a brief: when we paint for a themed exhibition, enter into some competitions or accept a commission.
Even if nobody gives you a brief, it is still a good step to draft your own brief, understand what you want to express and why a particular subject grabbed your attention. As artists, we often skip the pre-design phase and go straight to our canvases because we are so eager to paint. But creating a mental brief or jotting notes on paper is like taking a deep breath before you dive.
The central question is “why am I painting this?” There is no unique answer:
  • I like the subject (but why the subject appeals to me?) – You have to keep asking until you get a specific answer.
  • I want to perfect a technique (painting with knife, glazes, etc.)
  • I want my work to be inspired by an old master’s work
  • I want to create a particular effect.
When you identify the area you will concentrate on, you make each painting an exercise, a stepping stone on the way to continuous learning. Focusing on a particular aspect of your practice and regarding each painting as an exercise will take the pressure off - How would feel you if you were asked to paint a masterpiece (who would be judge?) and your life depended on it? The second benefit of seeing each painting as an exercise is that you will stretch your limits. By going in “exercise” mode, you grant yourself permission to take risks and experiment. You are more likely to end-up in an interesting place.

Finally, knowing where you go means you know when you get there. So, thinking about what you want helps you to determine when your painting is finished.

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Saturday, 26 June 2010

Pastel underpainting with rubbing alcohol

Using rubbing alcohol to create an underpainting with pastel is great because it dries so quickly. An advantage of pastel is immediacy and this technique keeps you going. The other advantage is that you can use the same medium (pastel) for the underpainting.

I use Conté square hard pastels and a cheap synthetic flat brush (as the surface I paint on is like sand paper and I don’t want to ruin a good brush).

A few points I noticed last time I used this technique:

  • In the final painting, I like to blend the colours together with short strokes, so creating planes by washing the pastel pigments in the underpainting creates a welcome contrast to work against.

  • I start by washing light colours to reduce the risk to muddy them. When I started with dark colours, I had to stop and wash the brush with water and soap because a few dark pigments were enough to turn the lighter colours dirty.

  • This technique works well with dark colours. Dark pastel sticks are dryer, brittle and tend to make dust. When I create a wash with rubbing alcohol, it binds the pigments together and onto the support.

  • When the brush is loaded with dark pigments, I can even paint with it elsewhere on the work.

  • I repeat the process more than once. I apply the pastel pigments, wash them with alcohol, wait until the work dries to assess the overall aspect of the underpainting and start again until I am happy with the colours and shapes.

  • It does not matter if the colours are smudged together. This is just the initial stage, not the final painting.

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Monday, 21 June 2010

Nap time at Willard Park

Nap time at Willard Park - Watercolour (31 cm x 39 cm) by Benoit Philippe

Willard Park is located 2720 Hillegass Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94705. It is a neighbourhood park in Southeast Berkeley and includes a large grassy area and a children play area.

The house visible in the background is on Derby Street, one of the streets along the park. On May 8, 1982, ceremonies were held to name the park after Frances Willard, a suffragette, educator, and temperance leader.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Cable car ride

This one took me a couple of weeks. The canvas is a really nice linen canvas made in Italy by Belle Arti that I bought from Jackson's art. The canvas is extra fine grain, very smooth and springy.

Cable car ride - oil on linen canvas (50 x 60 cm) by Benoit Philippe

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The spirit of Notans

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine" – June 2010.

Notan is a Japanese word that literally means “light–dark”. This is a way to place light and dark next to each other to translate three dimensional shapes on a flat surface. The difference with traditional drawing is the absence of gradation in the shadows. Instead of a full palette of tones transitioning from dark to light with all sorts of greys in between, notans rely on the strong dark and light opposition. The Yin-Yang symbol, a disk with harmonious black and white curved elements, is a good example of what strong and elegant design a notan can achieve.

The concept of notan brings another important learning: black and white (or positive and negative spaces) have an equal importance. Because we draw in general with dark pigments on a white surface, we give more importance to the subject itself than to its background. Yet, the light forms come to life only when surrounded by dark areas and both dark and light spaces are necessary to create a complete image. Practising notan is exploring the power of negative space.

Two value notans are the simplest form but maybe the hardest one to master, because your only choice is between black and white. You have to cluster shapes into the light family or the dark family. The trick is to think and see in terms of pattern, not lines. In practice, squinting your eyes at your subject will increase the contrast as you won’t see mid-tone values. When you start, it is easier to establish the design with a line drawing and then darken some of the shapes with black. As you become more familiar with the process, try to shade the dark patterns directly.

Notans are a great tool to explore composition and lay out different ideas. Work small and draw a series of notans to experiment with symmetrical and asymmetrical designs and play with negative space. Crop your image and create tension by having some elements disappear beyond the frame of your notan.

Notans make you see abstract patterns in a scene. Don’t try to be representational when drawing notans: forget about details and go for geometrical, abstract shapes. If your composition works in black and white, then you will be working with a strong and tighter composition.

Three value thumbnails aren’t notans in a strict sense, but are a useful complement to work on the value arrangement by defining a simplified tone map based on dark, mid-tone and light values. They are quick to draw with a pencil (use an 8B pencil that makes very dark marks if you press on it or lighter ones if you draw lightly) or with a grey and a black felt pen (prefer makers with a large tip so you don’t get bogged down in details).

We saw how notans can help at the design stage. Using the “spirit of notan” can also help at a later stage. While working on your painting, take photographs of it, convert them to black and white and print them as thumbnails. You can use software to manipulate photographs and change the setting to greyscale or no colour. Print them in small format so that you can see better the large masses without any distracting details. It is like stepping away from your work and looking at it from a distance. This will assist you in judging the pattern of lights and shadows, and seeing if your composition is balanced. You can also check the photograph against your initial notan and make any necessary correction.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Home, Sweet Home (Berkeley)

This is a house in Berkeley, not far of Prince Street. I just loved the big armchair in the porch, like a throne for its proud owner.

The light and the vegetation created complex patterns. I hesitated between using pastels that I could apply in strokes or oil (painting knives would have been handy). At the end, I decided to go for pastels.

Home, Sweet Home - Pastel (31 x 39 cm) by Benoit Philippe