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:
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.
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.
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!
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 😂.)
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! 😉
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
I took a composition class at Fullerton College with Marshall Vandruff last fall and was introduced to a more analytical approach of studying masterpieces. Instead of making a copy, we did value studies, and took closer looks at the use of patterns, directions, rhythms etc. in composition.
For me, the value study is the most valuable. Many artists recommend doing a value sketch before any painting, but I was never clear about what I should look at and work on in this step. As a result, I either skip it, or simply map out the light and dark in my reference. In the class, we were asked to turn some master pieces into two tones, three tones and four tones, and see if they still work. And that’s the key! A good painting should work at every stage, and a value study is make sure that the black, white and sometimes grey shapes are well designed and interesting. Why? because when someone look at your painting from afar or as a thumbnail, those value shapes are the ones that call attention.
Here are some examples of the studies I did for the class:
A few notes:
I used to do master studies by copying the entire painting. I find it very helpful, especially in appreciating the whole process of creation. Sometimes, however, when I am trying to get all the details right, I overlooked the big pictures. Single out certain elements of a masterpiece and study only that helps me go deeper in that direction.
Most of these studies are no bigger than a business card. They are not easy to do but still much faster than copying the whole painting in details. I could study a lot more masterpieces this way. I think these small studies are complementary to the detailed studies.
In theory you can go up many more levels in tonal studies, but as you can see, a 4-tone study is already very close to the final identifiable shapes. I personally find two-tone is the most important. That’s the first impression. Three and four tone studies help you work out more complicated and subtle designs.
The colored studies should also have a focus (such as temperature), and should still focus on big shapes.
Another thing these studies did to me it enhances my sensitivity to the design elements in a painting, and now when I am looking at an artwork, I find myself doing mental notans and arrows!
My 2D Design class comes to an end and the final project is a poster designed as a tribute to an artist. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920) is an artist I admire and want to study. So I took the opportunity to revisit some of his art:
All the images are paintings or sketches by Mr. Thiebaud. You can find his self-portrait, his portrayal of his wife, his best-known subjects, pies and cakes, and his typical landscapes – San Francisco streetscapes, Sacramento River Delta and mountains and many more. I also included one of my favorite quote from him.
I like Mr. Thiebaud’s vibrant but often economic use of color, his bold and whimsical composition, and above all, his ability to turn mundane subjects into humor and drama. There’s also a healthy positivity in his art, that always cheers me up.
Mr. Thiebaud just celebrated his 100th birthday this past November.The Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento curated an exhibition commemorated the event and Smithsonian has an interesting article about it. Obviously Mr. Thiebaud is still painting everyday, playing tennis and driving!
Would art do that to me? 🙂 Best wishes Mr. Thiebaud!
The rich colors of the season remind me of a series I did years ago. It consists of four still life paintings, done in watercolor and ink pen. It was the first series I ever did and was done before I had any appreciation of doing things in some sort of consistency. My natural inclination is always jumping around among different things.
As I have better understanding of the creative process, I start to see the benefit of staying for a while with a particular technique, a color theme, a subject matter, a design concept, etc. It reenforces your strength, challenges your thought, and often leads to new discoveries.
Anyways, here they are:
The things that connect this series are techniques and subject matters. I set up some “fall” related objects and chose four settings. They are parallel to each other in terms of relationship. Another way to develop a series is to derive new pieces from the old one. I am in the process of an experiment of that and hope I will be able to show it soon.
Yang Guifei 杨贵妃 (719-756), Imperial Consort Yang, is one of the four best known beauties in ancient China. She married Emperor Xuanzong 玄宗 (685-762) of Tang Dynasty in essence, granted the highest rank among the Emperor’s harem, but was not his official wife (I believe he didn’t have one at the time.) Her family rose to power because of the Emperor’s favoritism, but also caused a lot of tension in the court. During a rebellion that forced the Emperor to escape the capital, the imperial guards blamed Yang Guifei for distracting the Emperor from his royal duty and forced him to kill her. Her short but eventful life was commemorated in poetry, paintings, dramas, and novels throughout Chinese history till today. The legend even goes beyond China. Some Japanese believe she didn’t die but escape to Japan.
In the outskirt of Xi’an, a city in central China, and once the ancient capital of Tang Dynasty, there’s a tourist site called Huaqing Palace. It’s said to be the royal resort of Emperor Xuazong and Yang Guifei. I visited the site two years ago, and was fascinated by the story and the modern obsession of it in China. I always wanted to make an artwork about it, but find it very hard to condense a rich narrative. Eventually, I did it with 5 paintings – 5 sides of a box.
The story begins with a peony. In Chinese culture, peony not only implies beauty, but it’s beauty in richness and glory. It’s the national flower of China today. The blooming flower is Yang in her innocent years. The background design is a twist of the Taoist symbol. Legend has it she spent some years practicing Taoism in a temple before entering the palace, a fashionable thing to do among upperclass women at the time.
The story continue on to the Huaqing Palace panel, where she enjoyed the Emperor’s love. Yellow is an imperial color in Chinese culture, and dragon is a sign of the emperors. The figure on the left is after an modern statue of Yang in Huaqing Palace. Among the four ancient Chinese beauties, Yang was regarded as the plump one (that also reflects the aesthetics of the Tang Dynasty). However, her modern statue is not only slim, but also western – makes you wonder about the presentation, representation, and the interpretation of history. The ribbons were often used in traditional dance and Yang was an excellent dancer according to legend. Huaqing Palace is also a site for hot spring, and you can still see the pools where Yang and the Emperor enjoy themselves today.
The next panel is a part of the map of the capital of Tang Dynasty, with the yellow part represents the royal palace. The hairdos and hats were an indication of the social position back then. As illustrious as the imperial couple, they were both just chess pieces on a political power grid. This is especially true for a woman like Yang. However she’s favored by the Emperor, she’s never the only woman around him.
The final part of her life story features a broken jade bracelet. Yang Guifei’s maiden name Yuhuan, in Chinese means jade bracelet. In Chinese culture, broken jade is also a symbol of the death of someone beautiful or virtuous. The battle horses and banners referenced ancient paintings about Tang battle scenes.
The top of the box is a collage of how Yang’s life story was remembered throughout history. The calligraphy is part of a long poem Chang hen ge 长恨歌, “Song of Everlasting Sorrow,” written by Tang poet Bai Juyi 白居易 (772-846). The poem is a retell of the love story of Yang and the Emperor. The painting next to it is done by a Japanese woman artist Uemura Shoen in 1922. There are still TV dramas produced present days in China. The cell phone is both our means to access history nowadays, and a tool to fulfill our desire to share some glory of a celebrity. I change the Apple symbol to Lichee fruits – a favorite of Yang Guifei. Legend has it the Emperor ordered the battle horses to transport the fresh fruit (native to southern China) to the capital (central China) for her in three days!
The most difficult part of the project is to balance the narrative and the art. I have a story to tell, but I also hope viewers could find the work interesting to look at even though they don’t know anything about the story. I want the symbols and the designs I use serve both as literary and artistic devices. For example, there a line running though the four sides of the story with a tiny circle on each side. It loosely follows the geographic route from her birth place, to the Huaqing palace, the capital, and finally her death place. The color changes of the line correspond to the vicissitude of her life. It links the narrative, and I hope it also moves the eyes.
The project is acrylic on a wooden box, and the surface of the box was quite textured. I sanded it, gessoed it, but it’s still very different from painting on canvas or masonite board. It’s a lot of work. Having so many surfaces to work on expand my ability to tell a complex story, but it also gives me the trouble of finding a place for it in the house! 🙂 Honestly speaking, I couldn’t tell if any of these makes sense, but I had a great time working on this project.