To start a painting I sometimes spend time looking at images for a jumpstart. These images could be photographs I took on trips, pictures from art books, drawings and sketches, postcards, or magazine advertisements – just about anything that makes my eyes happy. If I find an image that is particularly exciting I will pin it up near my easel to keep it as a reference while I work. There is a danger, however, in working too closely from a reference image. If I stick too closely to it, the work will look tight and lack spirit. One of my favorite artists, Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) said "Imitation is not inspiration, and inspiration only can give birth to a work of art." Here is a trick I like to use so that I can refer to other images, but still keep my painting fresh and original. I try to pick out at least three images for reference, not only one. I will then use each for a different inspirational aspect. For instance, one image may have a color palette that inspires me, while another image has a composition that looks enticing. The third image might have certain forms or shapes that I like. By using and combining all three at the same time, my imagination feels free to add, edit and transform the images in front of me, and my painting ends up a complete surprise, as well as extremely different from any of the original references. In creating my newest painting, Think of Something Fun, I used several of my landscape photographs and some sketches I had created on hiking trips in New Mexico, especially several of Georgia O’Keeffe’s favorite spots in Abiquiu, New Mexico.
You’d think being a Santa Fe painter surrounded by beautiful skies and bright light, would be enough to keep me inspired for every painting session. There are plenty of times, however, that I need to work at it. Energy, spontaneity, clear focus as well as inspiration, are qualities I need to create my work. Sometimes these qualities come to me naturally, while other times I need to work to get them activated. The key for me comes from using what I call my “Objective Eye”. This Objective Eye is readily available during the first hours or days working on a painting. But after working on the same painting for a long stretch of time, I lose it, and may get bored, side tracked and have difficulty making the new decisions that had been abundantly flowing a short time ago. My Objective Eye helps me see the work fresh, make good painting decisions, and continue being inspired. I have several tricks to keep it on. To start a new painting series, I begin by preparing 8-10 canvases at a time. I rotate working on each of them separately, painting on about 1-3 of them each day. Whatever painting is currently being worked on, I will have hanging on my wall easel. The rest of the works are lined up along the floor facing the wall. That way I cannot see them in my periphery. By focusing on only one painting at a time I don’t get overwhelmed by looking at the entire group of work, each of which would be calling for attention all at once. My motto is to only look at a painting-in-process with my brush in hand, and paints ready to go. As soon as I look at the work, after not having seen it for awhile, my first impression, my first decision, is the most accurate because it comes from the “Objective Eye”. By sticking to this plan, I am able to take action as soon as I see the next step. No time lags. There’s a three time rule in play while painting. If you see something that needs fixing in your painting, but don’t take action, and you do this 3 times, you won’t see it again, and the mistake stays. The Objective Eye starts to edit. Take advantage of your Objective Eye. It is the artist’s best weapon.
Using contrasts or opposites is an important painting tool. Pairing warm with cool colors, or hard edges with soft, or simple spaces with complex ones, adds intrigue, focus and power to the image. Since I like to use glazes and transparent layering in my work, an essential contrasting technique then, is the use of opaque painted areas. Not all colors are opaque right out of the tube. The newer colors, which often have unusual names like Phthalo or Quinacridone, are naturally transparent. The more common colors such as Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna and Cadmiums are naturally opaque. (More information about pigment differences is included in my new book, Acrylic Revolution.) To paint opaquely, I start my painting session by adding a large lump of acrylic Molding Paste in the middle of my palette. Pastes in general are opaque, and will whiten colors as well as thicken the textural quality. To the paste, I add about 15% retarder and some water, mixing thoroughly, and keeping the paste mixture in a close clump on the palette to keep it staying wet longer. As I paint, I make smaller mixtures on the palette using 1 part colored acrylic paint to1 part of the paste mixture. I usually apply it with a painting knife. A painting I recently finished, called Koi Pond, uses this acrylic technique, using the paste mixtures all applied with a knife. My paintings currently on exhibit in Santa Fe use a combination of the opaque pastes with transparent glazes.
Glazing is a technique commonly used in many mediums such as oil and acrylic to create transparent layers of color. Since acrylic can be used thickly with no cracking or adhesion problems, it also has the benefit of offering some more unusual painting applications. By using a thick acrylic gel, and adding this into regular acrylic colored paint, you can create a thick but transparent subtly colored mixture. Apply this mixture over previously applied dried and painted layers using a variety of application tools to create some unusual effects. There are many acrylic gels available for purchase. Gels are actually an acrylic medium, with the addition of thickeners, to create a thick or stiff acrylic that can be easily manipulated in a sculpting manner. I like using painting knives, rubber shaper tools, fingers, sticks, etc, as well as brushes to get my textural effects. The main point to keep in mind, is to use a clear acrylic gel to get the transparency, instead of an opaque paste. And to use a small amount of color into a larger amount of gel. I like to use a 1:10 ratio of color to gel.
A glaze can be considered a delicate layer of color. Delicate because it is so subtle and transparent. Therefore, a glaze is best used on top of a stronger base color. A common Old Master's Technique used a grisaille, meaning grays, which is an underpainting composed of dark and light paint colors using combinations of grays or neutrals. This "gray" underpainting allows the artist to concentrate on patterns of dark and light and general composition concepts, without thinking of color just yet. When this grisaille, or first layer of paint is dry, the artist applies glazes of color over the grays, shifting the hue, and turning the gray painting into a colored painting containing a variety of values or tones. There are many ways to create underpaintings, and the use of grisaille tends to evoke an Old Master's realism. As an abstract artist, I like to apply bright opaque areas of color as my underpainting and then use glazes over those to shift them in tone and hue. This contemporary use of glazing has many advantages, including creating the illusion of solid form from the previously flat underpainted color shapes. Here is my favorite example of when to use a glaze. Let's say you were commissioned to paint a realistic portrait. After painting for quite awhile you finish the portrait in all its full gloried detail. It's fabulous! However, the client upon seeing it feels the skin tone is a bit too yellow. To repaint the portrait would take a long time, and feel like a waste of time. Instead mix a glaze of violet (yellow's opposite or complementary color) to tone it down. Apply a single even layer of this violet glaze over the entire portrait. If the glaze is too strong the skin tone in the portrait will turn violet. But if the transparency is correct, the yellow will get just enough violet on top to neutralize it towards a more acceptable skin tone. I like to mix a glaze and then test it on top of a small area first. I keep playing with it and testing it until it's just right before applying it all over.