Category Archives: Ramblings

Our turn, finally …

Years ago in a watercolor class, we practiced rendering glasses by choosing from a couple of setups. I got ambitious and turned the practice into a full painting:

Still Life, watercolor on paper, 14 x 20 in, c2015

The roses were supposed to be a different setting, and I didn’t choose it because I thought apples would be easier. However, in composing the whole piece, I thought the glimpse of the flowers would be interesting. As you can see, I indeed didn’t know how to handle those petals and leaves back then, but I think they added liveliness to the scene. I remember some fellow artist commented, “The roses are saying,’We are here! Our turn! Our turn!'”

Recently when looking through some old reference photos, I was surprised to see that I actually took a few shots of the roses at the time. Hence, their turn:

Red Roses, oil on canvas board, 11 x 14 in, August, 2022

Hehe, the petals and the leaves are still challenging, but I feel they are happy to be in the spotlight!

Oil and Watercolor

The way I learned to paint in oil, is to start with an underpainting. It could be a monochromatic value sketch, or a diluted full color draft. Either way, the underpainting would be covered by thicker paints as I progress and hopefully the process took the work to a better place. Once in a while, I just fell in love with the underpainting, and the continuation of the work was saturated with doubts.

This river landscape (a Watts homework) was an example. The one on the left was the underpainting and the one on the right, the final work. I hesitated quite a while after the first draft about whether I should proceed at all. There was a liveliness and richness of color that I loved and didn’t know how to preserve when I added more paint to it. Also got lost was a sense of flatness, something more graphic and watercolor-y. This is not to say the underpainting was a better painting, but it makes me wonder the different directions I could have taken in finishing up this work (if it is not a homework in realistic landscape). Even some of the pencil marks begged to stay!

Moreover, can I achieve a watercolor effect with oil paints? Well, somebody can.

Those men were children once. Julian Meagher, 100 cm x 100 cm. Oil on linen, 2015

That’s Australian artist Julian Meagher, who painted in oil but managed to achieve the transparency and the lucid aesthetics of watercolor. Apart from his website, Amber Creswell Bell’s collection Still Life: Contemporary Painters has a good section on Mr. Meagher’s work. He painted with extremely diluted oil paint, and did not hesitate to use the white of linen canvas instead of white paint. The result is a good combination of precision and fluency.

His works remind me of Giorgio Morandi (1890 – 1964), one of my favorite still life artists (as I mentioned many times before). The technical approach couldn’t be more different. Morandi is opaque and static, while Mr. Meagher is more colorful and vibrant, cleaner and much more scaled up. However, the solitude, the quietness and the thoughtfulness are there.

The more I see good art, the more I am wowed by the range and the potential of the each medium. We are only limited by our skills! (Is this a good thing or a bad thing? :))) )

Another Digression – MidJourney AI Art

You heard the buzz: there’s another way to do art. You type a few text prompts, and the AI will return results. One of the recent AI generative art lab is Midjourney. You can try it for free on MidJourney’s Discord server with a limited number of images.

Here are some of my attempts:

The prompts I gave are: “oil painting, still life, bronze vase, light pink roses, curtain, table, realism, expressive strokes, worn palette;” – basically, a Watts’ Atelier homework. The first result it returns contains 4 choices:

You can choose to further develop them and make variations till you are satisfied or give up. Some of the “final” ones:

Here are some of my Kandinsky (kandinsky with expressive bold strokes, fish, abstract colors) and André Masson (André Masson drawing, colored pencil, street musicians, metro, gloomy):

A few notes:

  • It’s a lot of fun. Thanks to the limited number of trials that I didn’t end up spending my life on it.
  • I don’t really know how to make the best out of this Midjourney. I have seen amazing artworks coming out of it. I assume the the prompts you give make all the difference, but I didn’t spend time digging what the algorithm handling better, more general or specific instructions, more or fewer words etc.
  • Also, if the attempts are not limited (with a subscription I assume), you can keep manipulating them. The result may get much better or worse.
  • If you are into digital art, this can be a tool, and if you are making abstract art, this can be a great idea generator.
  • But, who can claim the authorship? In a few pieces, there’s even an attempt of signature. Whose signature? It seems to me like Kandinsky or Mason. So does the algorithm aims at creation or imitation?
  • I also like the fact that in some cases the painting comes with a frame.
  • One thing for sure, if the big names in art history and all the prodigies online haven’t stopped us attempting new artworks, AI wouldn’t either. Back to painting! 🙂

Show News

I am not a particular fan of insects, but the sound of cicadas is a constant in my childhood memory. Summer time in Beijing when the city was still haze free, kids with long bamboo sticks were searching for cicadas in the canopies of trees. The molt makes good ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, probably for treating cold. When I first saw the picture of a blue cicada I was delightfully surprised. I never knew cicada could be this pretty. The ones we had in Beijing were black and brown. Yet, we all romanticize our memory, don’t we?

Acrylic painting of Blue Cicada with a microphone
Sing, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 24 in, 2020

“Sing” participated the annual show at the Pacific Art League last year and this year’s Santa Clara Valley Watercolor Society‘s annual show (accepting all water media now).

“Summer Dream,” which currently on view at the Pacific Art League gallery, was inspired by two of my previous pieces. The design came from “Marching” (not obvious, I know, long story still developing), while the color theme “Landscape.”

Summer Dream, acrylic on canvas, 22 x 28 in, 2021

By the way, naming the artwork is probably the hardest part of the creative process, at least for me. While “Sing” may be self-evident, it was still an afterthought. As for “Summer Dream,” hehe, I grabbed it out of nowhere the minute before submitting it for the show, and had to check the register sheet to remember what it was when I brought the artwork in. 😂

Colors Getting Loud

These are some of the portraits I’ve done recently. Palette wise I have pretty much opened myself to everything now:

Japanese Girl, oil on canvas board, 11 x 14 in, March, 2022
Male Model, oil on canvas board, 11 x 14 in, March, 2022
Female Model, oil on canvas board, 11 x 14 in, April, 2022

Here’s an old Zorn palette one:

Female Model, oil on canvas board, 11 x 14 in, December, 2021

A few notes:

  • The first three paintings are supposed to be gesture studies. I obviously overworked.
  • On the other hand, spending more time designing the background makes the process more interesting and the painting more finished. I like that.
  • Managing an open palette did distract me from better value control and cost more subtlety in skin tone.
  • I am thinking a two-step approach to improve: first spending more time preparing the palette – premixing most of the colors like I did with the Zorn palette; and then use a timer to push for a more gestural result. Two hours? Three? 🙂

More Limited Palettes and Moving on …

Zorn is not the only limited palette used by artists. Well-known landscape artist Scott L. Christensen stayed with lemon yellow, cadmium red, ultramarine blue and white for many years, and his method has many followers. Presidential portrait artist Mark Carder teaches a palette of 5 colors, permanent alizarin crimson, cadmium yellow pale, french ultramarine, titanium white and burnt umber. Karen Blackwood painted her award winning coastal sceneries mainly with alizarin crimson, cadmium yellow pale, ultramarine blue, titanium white and viridian.

It’s not hard to see that all these are some versions of the primary colors. Replacing Zorn’s ivory black with Ultramarine and yellow ochre with a brighter yellow allows a more chromatic and less muted approach to painting.

Using a limited palette doesn’t mean you can’t use other colors. The above mentioned artists, Zorn included, all supplement their palette whenever necessary. Limiting color choices is to create harmony and in training, helps us focusing more on values. Eventually, we need to listen to the painting itself for what color comes in.

I have been staying with Zorn for months now, and it serves well for portrait painting. As I moving on to more still life and floral paintings, I began adding more colors to my palette. Zorn is still my starting point and foundation for each painting. Here are some recent exercises from my Watts classes:

Oil painting of sunflowers in bronze jar, realism
Sunflowers, oil on canvas board, 11 x 14 in, 2021
Oi painting of Irises in a blue vase, drapery, realism
Irises, oil on canvas board, 11 x 14 in, 2021
Oil painting of pink roses in a bronze vase, drapery, realism
Roses, oil on canvas board, 11 x 14 in, 2021

Zorn in Watercolor & Gouache

Watercolor portrait of model Felicia, Zorn palette, realism
Felicia, watercolor on paper, Fall, 2021
Watercolor portrait of old man, Zorn palette, realism
Old Man, watercolor on paper, Fall 2021
Gouache portrait of young girl, Charlotte, Zorn palette, realism
Charlotte, gouache on watercolor-board, Fall 2021

A few notes:

  • For the watercolor paintings, I planned two different approaches, a softer and muted one, vs a more vibrant and contrasted one. The results were somewhere in the middle. Especially for the first painting, I wish I had softened some edges and let go certain definitions instead of spelling out everything I saw.
  • The gouache one is a homework from Watts. It is a practice of the Zorn palette and the tiling technique. I found both the medium and the technique challenging. Tiling is to juxtapose thick layers of close-value paints and blend them (if necessary) later. It’s a good preparation and practice for oil painting, but it requires a lot of patience in value control and shape design. Hehe, patience! 😉

Busy with the Basics

After some deliberation, I signed up for Watts Atelier‘s online program in July. The program has a drawing and a painting part, and both start with the basics. There are video demos, handouts, and homework to turn in. It is probably good enough for the money even if you just watch Jeff Watts doing the demos, but you don’t want to skip anything to do it right. That is to say, it is not a small commitment.

Here are a couple of paintings from the Phase I Portrait and Phase I Still Life homework:

Still Life, burnt umber pick-out, August, 2021
Cast Quarter View, two color, August, 2021
Still Life, 3 colors, August, 2021
Skull Front View, 3 colors, August 2021

A few notes:

  • In Phase I, the painting routine starts with a single color, burnt umber, progress to two colors, burnt umber and white, and then 3 colors, phthalo-blue, black and white.
  • I will go back to Zorn in Phase II.
  • I sometimes wonder if I will become one of those forever learners: keep taking classes and never become a standalone artist. I feel so comfortable following a routine and not to think what to do next. On the other hand, it’s not like I have nailed the skill part already. So this is an experiment. Let’s see if the intensive training at Watts would eventually set me free by building confidence through skills.
  • Watts has some gouache courses but no watercolor. Jeff once said many amateurs started with watercolor, but it is actually a most challenging medium to excel in. I do feel I see value better and have more control over shape and edges with oil. I still hope to apply whatever I am learning to watercolor. It is such an expressive medium.

Recent Works, Still Zorn …

Oil:

Oil painting of a young woman with head wrap, earrings, Zorn palette, realism
Young Woman, oil on canvas board, 11 x 14 in, July 2021
Oil painting of a young woman with earring, Zorn palette, realism
Young woman, oil on canvas board, 11 x 14 in, July 2021

Watercolor:

watercolor painting of a young man with  green jacket,, Zorn palette, realism
Jeff, watercolor on paper, 9 x 12, July 2021

The more I learned about anatomy and head drawing, the more I am afraid of making mistakes, and the tighter my paintings become. Especially in watercolors, things were all under control (to the extend of my ability of course). They rarely just happened. The recent Draftsmen podcast mentioned how as a student, one learns and memorizes everything, and later forgets everything to become an artist. Hehe, we’ll see.

Zorn and Quasi Zorn

Zorn in oil, the usual approach:

Raven, oil on board, 11 x 14, June 2021

Quasi Zorn in watercolor:

Girl, watercolor on paper, 9 x 12, June 2021
Amanda, watercolor on paper, 9 x 12, June 2021

Quasi Zorn is 1) when I realized that I didn’t have ivory black and cadmium red in watercolor and replaced them with neutral tint and pyrrole red; and 2) when I couldn’t decide if the white of the paper counts or I should use the titanium white. The paper white doesn’t help in mixing colors, but the titanium white turns everything too opaque. I will keep digging and meanwhile order some new colors!