Category Archives: Ramblings

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. πŸ˜‚

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? πŸ™‚

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! πŸ˜‰

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!

Zorn Palette Continued …

Aeris, oil on wood board, 11 x 14 in, May 2021
Woman with hat, oil on wood board, 11 x 14in, May 2021
Young woman, oil on wood board, 11 x 14 in, May 2021

I just realize that I almost skipped the entire month of May. Well, I have been painting and taking online lessons from New Masters Academy, Watts Atelier, and Sentient Academy. The art world is online! (There is a potential danger of being overwhelmed with too many good stuffs though πŸ˜‚.)

I have continued working on portrait and oil with the Zorn palette (I talked about it here). There are still a lot of the basics about the oil medium that I need to grasp, such as keeping my paint clean, using layers, being mindful about brushstroke economy etc. These skills directly affect how far one could push the range of the Zorn palette. As muted as it is, there is drama to be laid out.

The last piece is a bit too much fun. I used Gamsol to dilute my paint and put on a thin layer of background in the beginning. Too much of it makes the paint “watery.” Normally I would wipe it off or wait for it to dry. This time instead, I added more to see what would happen. And wow! It ran down with all those interesting patterns! I don’t know if the piece was ruined or what – it’s a practice painting anyways, but it made me curious about what else this medium could do! πŸ˜‰

Show News

California watercolor artist Mike Bailey once said in his workshop that artists should keep going back to their old works and find inspiration there. In the past, that’s something I rarely did. My own works used to make me sad. If they are good, I feel like I haven’t made any progress, and if they are bad, I am bad. Last year when I started my social media presence: this blog and my Instagram, I managed to go through some of what I had done with Mike’s words in mind. It took some getting used to, but after many self-pitying moments, I saw sparks. There are things that generate ideas, things that remind me of techniques I learned and forgot, and things I simply want to re-do.

One of the sparks is an old abstract acrylic painting “Waterfall”, a design still excited me:

Abstract landscape, acrylic on canvas, primary colors
Landscape, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30

I kept the design, but drifted away from the primary colors and brought in the fluidity of the watercolor medium. Here’s the new version:

Abstract landscape, watercolor, colorful
Waterfall 2, watercolor on paper, 22 x 28 in, 2020

The new piece entered the juried Watercolor Group Show at Blue Line Arts Gallery last year and is also part of the Santa Clara Valley Watercolor Society 53rd annual show. SCVWS is rolling out the participating artworks on Instagram now.

The “treasure hunt” will keep going! 😁

Earlier this month I also submitted a self-portrait to Art Room Gallery’s Portrait Show, and received an “Honorable Mention.” Here’s the artwork:

Watercolor portrait of the artist, abstract, pouring
Decision, watercolor on paper, 9 x 13 in, 2021

As I mentioned before I have been focusing on portrait this year. Though techniques are still my major concern, and I understand it takes far more than the a few months to grasp it, I do often think about if I could go deeper than just the face. “Decision” is an attempt to bring out a bit of the inner world of the subject.

Focusing on Portraits

I have been more and more focusing on portrait painting in oil recently. Neither do I have the intention to become a portrait artist, nor do I want to switch my main medium to oil. It’s a practical choice. With portrait, I don’t need to spend much time choosing subject matters and thus narrowing on technique. There are plenty free references online, and there’s always the option of a mirror. Plus, it’s easier to find more comprehensive oil classes from online than other painting mediums.

Since last fall, I have taken three portrait classes. The format is similar – the teacher demoed in class, you did your painting at home and submit online for critique. In retrospect, the painting styles I was shown are quite different.

The first one was with an extremely talented young artist, Kailun Qu. Kai painted in alla prima style, fast, spontaneous, and effortless (seemingly). He gave effective critics without reservation, something I’ve been looking for for years. Here’s one of the portraits I did for the class:

Portrait, oil on paper, fall 2020

The next artist I studied with is almost the opposite of Kai. Renowned figurative artist Joseph Todorovitch held a 5 week workshops online, with 4 hours each week. The 20 hours were dedicated to one painting, and in the end he’s not done. Later we received 8 more hours’ demo. Take a look here and you’ll understand why the labored approach is fully justified. It’s quite surreal to witness the birth of a masterpiece, but I have to admit a couple of weeks into the workshop I realized this is way above my weight class. I didn’t spend even half of that many hours on my version:

Alexandra, 20 x 24 in, oil on panel, February, 2021

The most recent class is from Watts Atelier, Portrait in Oil with Ben M. Young. Watts has all sorts of art classes all year long, and is more focused on basic skills. You can choose to audit or participate in the class, and the feedback worths every penny. Here’s one of the class homework:

Portrait, oil on panel, Feb, 2021

The good thing about online classes is that if you pay for the critique, it’s not just a verbal feedback. The instructor could easily paint over digitally to show exactly what he meant. Plus you get to keep a video version and therefore the ability of constant review. I will repeat some of these classes on my own several times to get the most out of them, and probably take a few more from Watts. For the time being, that’s the plan.

Hopefully later on I could carry the techniques I learn this way onto other subject matters and even different mediums.