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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? 🙂

Master Studies – Facial Features

It’s been a while since I did any master studies, and luckily the Watts’ program forced me to catch up. Here are some of the facial features I copied recently:

Eyes – Fechin

Nose – Rembrandt

Lips – Leyendecker

Ear – Bouguereau

A few notes:

  • The reference photos I used are provided by Watts Atelier, and some of them are not very close to the original. For example, I believe the last one is from William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 – 1905)’s Portrait de Gabrielle Cot. The original painting is high on realism. This doesn’t really affect the study though.
  • The most difficult thing I found is to re-create the texture, which is achieved by either manipulating the surface (Fechin) or brush strokes (Rembrandt). In the former case, it’s hard to guess how the manipulation was done. As for Rembrandt, it’s a laboring buildup that can’t be achieved in a few hours. For now, I am still focusing on the basics. Texture and brush strokes are like signatures. They are very personal and take long time to form.
  • I find choosing a topic and taking a small portion of the masterpiece to study is more effective than copying a whole painting. I also like the exposure to different styles. Bouguereau and Leyendecker are completely new to me and I find the highly stylized approach from the latter very refreshing.

A Delayed Plan for 2022: Portrait, Still Life, Landscape and More

2022 for me is not only moving on from the beloved Zorn palette, but also a broadening of the subject matters. The plan is to keep practicing portrait and still-life, with an emphasis on loosening up and becoming more gestural. Meanwhile, I will add landscape and later figures to the learning schedule. For medium, oil is the focus for now, but I’d like to do more watercolor sketches with or without ink.

Here are some my recent homework from Watts:

Oil painting of orchid flowers and a Buddha statue with drapery, realism
Orchid and Buddha, 11 x 14, oil on canvas board, Dec. 2021
Pine trees in front of snowy mountain, oil painting, landscape
Pines, 11 x 14, oil on canvas board, Jan. 2022
Oil painting of crashing waves and rocks, seascape
Waves 1, 11 x 14, oil on board, Jan. 2022
Oil painting of an old man, gesture portrait, realism
Old man, 11 x 14, oil on canvas board, Feb, 2022

A few notes:

  • Landscape is not a particular interest of mine, but for years, I used it as a check-mark to see if I have made any progress in techniques. After doing other subject matters for a while, I would attempt a few landscapes to see if I feel more confident and comfortable. It never did!
  • It took me some time to figure out that apart from value control, the key to a successful landscape painting is shape design. To deliver a believable tree, on surface you have more leeway than doing a portrait, but the lack of definitive guidance (the shape of an eye, a nose etc.), you need to come up with your own. That freedom can be a curse.
  • Looking above, it suddenly hits me that before doing trees, it might be a good idea to practice more bearded and hairy portraits first! 😉

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

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.

100 Day Art Challenge (1) – Day 1 to Day 25

I’ve been doing the 100 Day Art Challenge at New Masters Academy for a while. I chose to focus on the figures and portraits for this challenge. Here are the first 25 days of the paintings and drawings I’ve done.

Take a look (click on the thumbnail to see a bigger image) :

Color Studies (3) – Analogous Colors

In order to push myself to work more, I participated a “100 Day Art Challenge” by New Masters Academy, of which I became a member last year upon a Black Friday sale. I committed myself to figure or portrait drawings or paintings for 100 days. We’ll see how it turns out.

Since it’s not a small commitment (for me at least), I think it would be a good idea to shoot a couple of more birds in the meantime, such as incorporating some color studies into the challenge.

This week I did a couple of small paintings using analogous colors. Analogous colors are a group of 3 to 5 colors next to each other on a color wheel. From a design point of view, complimentary colors are for contrast, and analogous ones are for harmony.

I tried to limit my choices to 3. With tint and shade of each color and various intensity, there should be enough to work with. In theory.

For the first painting, I planned to use red-orange, orange, and yellow-orange. In practice, the darkest I could get is a deep shade of red-orange. As it seemed not dark enough, I kept adding black to it, and in some places, I just used black directly. The black also contributed to the greenish color in the background. Meanwhile, since I mixed my yellow-orange with yellow and orange, some of that yellow also got in. Looking back, I blamed my disastrous control of color on a lack of design. The reference I chose has strong contrast, and darker colored clothing. If I want to use colors in a limited way, I need to go beyond a literal reading of the reference, and have a better strategy for value:

Portrait of a Young Woman, watercolor on paper, 9 x 12in, April 2020

For the second painting, I chose yellow-green, green, and blue-green. I think I still got the value wrong in some places, but at least I stayed within my color choices:

Female Figure, watercolor on paper, 9 x 12 in, April 2020

The last one I used blue, blue-violet, and violet. I started this painting with Tombow water-soluble markers. Tombow has a hard and a brush tip, allowing more diverse lines. However, they are not as water-soluble as Crayola. There are lines I couldn’t disappear with water, and a big part of the painting process was to resolve the problems caused by those lines.

Portrait of a Woman, watercolor on paper, 9 x 12 in, April 2020

In the end, I am very glad I did this experiment. Even with the painting I cheated, I can still see how analogous colors help bringing things together. It’s not that each painting has to follow a color formula, but these are tools to help us to achieve harmony. Because of that unifying power, using analogous colors is also a great way to create a mood in paintings.

More on Monochromatic and Morandi

As I mentioned before, the paintings of Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) often have a monochromatic look, even though he used a lot of colors. The result is a very restful and understated effect – something I always find difficult to achieve. Usually the more time I spent on a piece, the more colorful it becomes, as if keeping quiet on canvas or paper is against my nature. The same goes with details and edges. The more time spent, the more definition, and the looseness and gestures are lost.

So I tried a couple with limited time and clear goals. 1)No more than 2 hours per piece; 2) limited palette to create near monochromatic effect; 3) less definition; 4) lost edges; 5) be quiet.

Still life, acrylic on canvas, 9 x 12 in, 2019
Still life, acrylic on canvas board, 16 x 20 in, 2019

I think goal setting with time restriction is an effective way of practicing. Right? :))

Morandi (2) and Pairs (III)

This was a class assignment – choose an artist to study, and then paint in his/her style. I was very into Giorgio Morandi at the time (still am now), and he became the subject of my study. To my delight, during my research, I found out that Morandi was very much influenced by another favorite artist of mine, Paul Cézanne; and he in turn, heavily influenced a contemporary artist I admire, Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920). Have I found my “art parents?” (A term I learned from Draftsmen Podcast, S1E5.)

So I set up a still life scene and gave it a try:

Acrylic painting of clothes hanging
Still life 1, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 in, Spring 2018

I know, there’s nothing Morandi about it (see my previous post about his style). The objects are asserting and the colors are singing. I don’t dislike it as a painting, but it’s definitely not the reservedness and tranquility I was after. So I gave it another try:

Still life 2, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 in, Spring 2018

Well, this is still not Morandi. It’s still me, and it’s very hard not to be me. I understand I will never be Morandi, and that’s not the point of studying a master. If every painting is a self expression, every study of other’s style is a self reflection. I have a lot of passions that I don’t know how to control, and observations I don’t know how to choose and let go.

For sure, I am not done with Morandi yet.