Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Tufted Titmouse Tries

Back to practicing with birds and backgrounds in my Moleskine. This one started with a pale, wimpy background, and the next layer didn't work, so I started to play with dabs of paint. Then I added more washes. What a mess. At first I hated this one, but now I don't hate it ... don't love it either.

For this one I switched to regular, 140# watercolor paper instead of the Moleskine. It was nice in that the paper held the dampness better. I need to work with regular paper more if I'm ever going to learn to watercolor well.

From a photo on Flickr by aya88.


Karen at Pen in Hand said...

I like how cleanly you do your bird paintings. They come out nice and light-feeling, just like the birds themselves.

Lin said...

BEAUTIFUL, Jenny! Yep, I like this background a lot! And that expression so fits those titmice -- like they're keeping a secret!!

Teri C said...

I am loving your little birds. I love the background in the second one and the softness of the birds.

I also talk to myself when I don't use good WC paper-it makes such a difference.

biteyourowntail said...

If thie second one is from a photo I'm doubly impressed - you've captured the life/'jizz' of the bird really well. Jizz is a term used by British bird artist John Busby - it's kind of the essence of the bird.

soulcomfort said...

I find, too, that it is a lot different using the WC sketchbooks than regular WC paper. A little more difficult, I think.

I love your little birds! You have captured their spirit! (I like that "jizz" term--hehe!)
Always, Rita

caseytoussaint said...

Jenny, I think these have both come out beautifully, but I have a slight preference for the second one. I love the way you express so much in a simple way.

Jana Bouc said...

I love these birds. They're so sweet and delicate and pretty! It does make such a difference to work on real watercolor paper, doesn't it. The Moleskine watercolor paper is pretty decent but it can't really compare with a good 140 pound watercolor paper.

josé louro said...

For watercolor the minimum i cam get satisfied is 300g,

Anonymous said...

Good work! And may I say the sure sign of success is that you're doing so much of it. That tells me you're loving it and that gets you to do more, and that's what makes you better...

OK, some feedback. First, you've got a great drawing sense. Your line drawings show excellent grasp not only of the objects and scenes you draw, but of the presence the line itself has in your drawings. Rarely do I ever feel you're fighting the line, as some people do, trying to warp it to their own notions instead of letting it speak for what it is.

LIkewise your watercolor work is superb. It's been years since I studied watercolor (I went on to gouache, which lets you cheat by giving you opaque white to work with) but I can see how well you're handling watercolor's unique one-way quality. Again, you hagve a delightful freshness that like good flower arrangement, looks like you just casually slapped the color there without effort, yet it is jsut the right thing.

On that note (I promise there'll be criticism coming soon too) may I say how adept you are with color, both in hue choice and handling of lights and darks. So you really have a tremendous amount of ability going in y our paintings- many people struggle for years to get to the ability you now have.

OK, what can be improved? Well, I think the time has come for you to master use of foreground, midground, and background. This is jsut a matter of observation of the world around you, maybe some notes, and then practice- fortunately you have great wrist skills, as we used to say- you have great mastery of the materials, now you need to give a little thought to what you can do with them.

When we look at a scene, we naturally see parts that are close up, medium distance, and far away. We take this for granted because we have to focus our eyes (or grab the reading glasses).

But in addition to focus, there's something else nature does to give us clues as to the extent of the landscape. It turns out that brain research shows that we are designed to respond more to faces and landscapes thatn anything else- so we are naturally prone to recognizing certain signals that an artist can include to suggest landscape even when there is very little information, maybe just some colored shapes.

One thing in particular is color changes. 'Purple Mountain Majesty' isn't just good lyrics, it's a fact of nature- air isn't really clear, it's slightly purplish blue. You can see it when you look across a long landscape, or at mountains, but the other day I was looking out the window at some pine trees across the street and then another hundred feet farther away, and I could see the slight difference in color even in that short space.

So what we are taught as artists is to divide the picture into foreground, midground, and background. For instance the foreground might be a close view of a bird on a branch a few feet away, while in the midground a dozen yards away, tree foliage lends texture- but then perhaps we see a bit of sky with horizon way far off in the distance.

Or another combination is to put the main subject in the midground, with something in the foreground like branches or leaves that frame the picture, and then another bit of background to lend 'front and back' to the picture.

You get the idea. It's not that you have to follow such a rigid format, although there is a certain formal beauty to it, especially when you have nature or botanical themes. But really there aren't three layers, there's a whole range from close to far away.

One of my favorite places to study this (depending where you live) is someplace you can see the ocean and mountains. In Seattle we look west across the Puget Sound, and see several layers of islands, then finally the Olympic peninsula and its mountain ranges. The fun for an artist is to capture those land shapes and to try to suggest their relative distance purely with color, or even light and dark.

Here's pictures of the kind of color changes I mean:

So I'd suggest as part of your studies with birds and backgrounds, that you go sketch some cartoons of various combinations of foreground, midground, and background objects, and do some studies aobut what colors it takes to suggest the difference. The interesting thing is that when you get teh colors right, you don't need any details or hardly and shapes to get the feel of the background- and that's ideal if you're creating a background for some foreground subject like a bird.

In that light, if we look at the backgrounds to your birds right now, we see good color and good texture, but nothing to suggest any part of the background is close or far away. (actually that's not true, the fact that it's darker lower down and lighter higher up does suggest that effect, but with all respect it looks more like you stumbled on that effect rather than pulling off on purpose.

To be more specific, you have encountered a classic problem of a painter- you've done such an outstanding job on the bird that the background is not nearly as good by comparison.

I had a painting teacher once who used to show us all kinds of art and talk about it. One day he took all these different paintings (paper copies of course) and cut them into strips about an inch wide, and we looked at one strip at a time. You couldn't tell which were the abstract paintings and which were impressionist but still representational. It was interesting to discover that the good non-abstract patinings were good as abstract paintings in that light, mainly because they were consistent. No matter whether a bit of paint was in the subject or the background, it was applied with equal focus and beauty.

This is part of why bad paintings are so bad- think of the velvet paintings of the sad puppy dog with big eyes- not only are they cliche, but worse, it looks like the artist spent weeks on the eyese and the lips, but gave little attention to the elbow, or earlobe. Then you look at a painting by the great masters, and you see an image of a beautiful woman whose face is actually a few simple brushstrokes, but even the rocks and trees and grass seem alive and filled with beauty- you know what I mean. A lot of time it's the consistency that does it.

So you can bring up the level of intensity of your backgrounds by playing with color to suggest distance, and you don't need to bring in any more detail when you do that- the focus can be still on the bird or whatever is your subject of interest.

Actually this point is one of the biggest differences between so-called 'nature artists' who paint mostly animals and birds and such, and all the rest of the artists- often people painting nature's curtters are so enraptured by their beauty that they don't look beyond their subject. Take a look next time you see a painting of a wolf and see if you see what I mean.

All of which is to say you are now at a point where you can take the next step which will take you to the next level of artistic quality. YOu have the skill, now jsut use your head a little and you can greatly increase the impact of your work.

Although... you may find that landscapes ar emore fun than you thought. One of my old teachers did a whole series of watercolor landscapes that were nearly abstract, just these beautiful wide splashes of color with very little detail int he shape, but the colors were right on. Look at a mountain road with the blacktop and the red earth and the gree trees and even with your eyes completely blurred you can tell from the colors right where you are.

OK, that's enough from me, your unexpected visitor and commentator. This is my busman's holiday, I teach art and I'm off for the summer on vacation, but I guess I can't keep my mouth shut. That and I was really impressed by your work, you should keep it up, don't stop, and don't ever worry about what other people think. Anyone who knows good art will see it in your work, and the best artists are never threatened by the success of another- if everyone did brilliant geunius art, we'd have so much more great art to enjoy!


Jenny said...

Thanks to everyone for your kind words, and to Anonymous, here is a copy of a post I made on the EDM Message Board about your comment:

"An Anonymous Three-Page Comment/Critique on My Blog

"I was very depressed about my lack of progress these past few months, though I felt my drawings were usually easier to do and watercolor wasn't so scary. I am aware I need much more practice, but I've been hiding out lately and doing grids for watercolor mixtures instead of drawing or painting. At least I'm more familiar with color names and attributes.

"Today I received a three-page critique in an Anonymous Comment. Wow! There were so many positive statements within the comment. The author may not have realized how new some of this is to me, so to me the statements were doubly positive.

"The author kindly pointed out some things I can work on, and I can actually name more. *lol*

"I really appreciate the fact that someone took the time to give so much encouragement along with their observations. I've received many positive comments in the past, but I thought people were mainly leaving socially nice comments of encouragement.

"Instead of running rapidly in the wrong direction, I may be moving slowly in the right direction.

"Many thanks to the anonymous commentor."

good with color said...

I love the softness and subtlty of your birds

Cathy (Kate) Johnson said...

Wow, Jenny, that WAS a wonderful and helpful comment. As a teacher myself, I'm much impressed with not only what was said but HOW.

Your work deserves the attention--it's very fresh, and you do show lovely drawing skills. We all get discouraged from time to time, but don't let it stop's like a plateau, when you're dieting. Soon, you'll find you're moving forward again, if you keep at it!

juj said...

Wow Jenny - what a goldmine of advice you got. I'd say "lucky you" but I don't think it was luck - I think you earned it. Good for you!

mARTa said...

so Jenny, can we get this person steered to our blogs? LOL. How fortunate to have had someone take the time and lucky you to be the recipient of such good suggestions. I even learned from reading the critic! Your progress in contagious!

Africantapestry said...

Lovely birds Jenny. And what a wealth of information you've received from Anonymous! It was like a class for all of us to take something from! You do great work, keep it up.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad my comments were helpful. Just one last bit here and then I'm off- I surf random blogs for fun. For some reason I really like seeing all the slices of life, and occasionally there's something I can actually contribute to.

But yeah, there are these issues artists face. If you have classrooms full of artists year after year, you start to see patterns, you start to see particular things that help most often. And a lot frankly comes from what my teachers taught me. It's humbling to realize that some of the thigns they said- I didn't get it at the time but years later I figure it out and then say "Wait, that's what he always used to say to me! D'oh!"

OK, before I go let me pass along a couple of things which I find most helpful. If I only have so many minutes to talk to a roomful of artists, what could I say that would be most helpful? So here goes:

About every year or so, it happens again- one of my students talks to me after class and wants personal advice. It seems they've met this person who's really special and they think it might be a REALLY GOOD THING. But! Whenever they try to do art when their special person is around, they fight, feelings get hurt. And they're worried because art is so important to them that this might be a REALLY BAD SIGN.

And I have to laugh and say Yes! That happened to me! and it happens to all of us artists! I hear this again and again. We love these people and yet when they come around when we are doing art, they drive us mad.

But here's the weird thing: I would bet 50$ that if I sat down with a paintbrush and easel in the room full of all of you, or my students, or any artists, there's be no problem. I mean, you might annoy me being noisy and distracting, but not in the same way, and we could talk about our art without driving each other crazy.

Why is that?

There is a conventional explanation: Artists are crazy. Crazy people tolerate other crazy people.

But I have another idea, and it comes from when I was in art school, I noticed that one thing we learned how to do was talk about art. We didn't talk about how we talked, but it was something we learned, and we learned it as much from each other as we did from our teachers.

The great thing about artists is that, excepting the occsasional jerks, most of us are really encouraging to each other. Great work never threatens anybody. You can even be completely selfish about it- I want everybody to do brilliant art so I have more brilliant art I get to enjoy! It's a practical reality, that's the way artists are, so we have this ingrained ethic of non-interference. The LAST thing I would want to do is say something that messed up your experience of makign your art. So that's the underlying assumption.

(And just think how different it would be in a room full of law students)

So how do we do it? Here's my theory:

There are two let's say 'modes' (or 'moods') that an artist uses: expansive and contractive. Expansive is brainstorming, wild speculation, sketching. Contractive is critical, editing, repairing, polishing, perfecting.

So what we learn as artists is to observe an artist working and match their mode. If we don't know, we stay neutral (or assume expansive)

"So how's it going?" (neutral)

"Pretty good, I'm not sure yet, I'm still trying some things, I've got some ideas, there are a couple of ways it could go..." (all expansive)

So we respond in kind: expansive talk means nothing critical or negative whatsoever, pointing out successful things and even suggesting new ideas is OK:

"Cool, I like what you have going with this blue part, your colors are really interesting, I can't wait to see how it proceeds... what if you turned it sideways? what if you made it 100 feet tall on the side of a building? what if you made a jazz concert poster out of it? what if it were done right now?..." (one of my favorites as I was famous for overpainting and wrecking paintings that were great an hour before)...

All that is expansive, and OK. Might not go ahead and follow that idea, but that's ok, thanks for playing.

But if you were to say:

"Ew. It's not going well, is it? You can make it look better, right? Oh! You made a mistake there. I don't like those colors. You misspelled a word there." (all contractive)

And the poor artist is going to run screaming from the room! "You popped my bubble! Argh!" Even if what was said is true, it doesn't matter, it's painful and destructive to the artist.

OK, but what if the artist themself is contractive?

"So how's it going?" (neutral)

"Well, I'm fixing some things, and some things are better, but I've got some problems still. I need to go over all this..." (contractive)

"OK, well, I see you missed tome eraser marks over there, and it would be better if you made the voice of these three sentences the same, and right now it looks like the violet is the only violet in the entire world, that color isn't anywhere else so it's like it's pasted on top of this unrelated scene, so... it would probably help to put a little bit of it somewhere else, like in those shadows, or just any little bit somewhere, so it feels like the colors are more related and together. " (contractive)

Again, your suggestions may or may not be useful, but they are welcome and in the right spirit.

But suppose our contractive artist is met with thie response:

"Gee, that sure is pretty. You sure are good. I like it!"

"Good? Pretty? What are you, my mother, do you want to hang it on the refrigerator??? Can you please say something helpful here?!!"

Once again proving what the world already thinks: artists are crazy, if you say something nice, they get mad, if you say something critical, they get mad. They're just crazy.

But there are two other ways in which we can apply this information. On of course is in how we conduct critiques. I teach commercial art, so we deal with not only the fine art aspects, but the political issues of making a client happy and serving a purpose- that's when it's not only art, but design.

So for example, how do you deal with it when you hire an artist and they do a great piece of work but it doesn't suit the project? Like, I had am audio guy who wrote a soundtrack for our commercial, and it was brilliant cool dance music, but this was a commercial for the humane society on how we should adopt puppies and kittens, and it was all wrong for the project. And he was like "what do you mean, don't you think it's good?" Anyway, that's design: Art for a purpose, for a user. What was I going on about?

Oh right. So the way we do critiques is to include both expansive and contractive feedback. In class, we all talk expansively about the work first. What do you like about it? What's hot? What's interesting? and there's always something good you can find to say about any work.

Then, we turn to the contractive, what doesn't work as well? What's a weak link? The consistency issue fits right in here 100%, and that's frequently a challenge especially as artists become more skilled, and as they bring in more kinds of media.

You've seen it before, think of those godawful magazine spreads where the color is divine, the proportion fantastic, the rendering superb, and OMG who picked that FONT? They should be slapped! Its' very easy for artists to focus on what they do well because it makes them happy, and contractive feedback can really help identify where we can improve one thing to benefit the overall consistency.

But you always talk about both, and invariably it works best to talk about the positive, expansive, first, because it makes it easier for the artist to open up to discussion, feel safe, and not threatened by then hearing about the weak points. In commercial art this is the classic management style for managing artists: you 'sugar coat' the criticism with praise to protect the artist's feelings (or they'll sulk and stop doing good work) What they don't realize is that this works because of the expansive/contractive modes.

OK, that's it about critiques. You can pay money to take classes where basically what you do is you do art and then you hold a critique, with the teacher leading. It's great when you've got someone experienced, but even just a critique of your peers is a huge help. Back in the day we didn't have blogs, this is such a powerful tool for artists to support each others growth.

I would say that the best thing you can all do for each other and yourselves is whenever you post new work, give good critique- praise the strong points, brainstorm along in fun. Then, point out the weak links, opportunities for improvement, problems or errors. Your feedback may or may not make sense to the artist, but it has the most chance that way of reaching them and being the most help if you do both. You can always find something to praise and something to suggest for improvement.

OK, but that's not all. The other reason I tell you about expansive and contractive is that I think it's the reason for most of the worst problems people have doing art.

Like... I have friends ho love art, they wnat so badly to be artists, they buy supplies and talk about nothing else, but somehow they manage to never get any art actually done, good or bad.

So I think what happens is some people start their brainstorming, and the minute they get an idea they switch over to contractive, as their evil jiminy cricket voice says "that's no good, you're no good, you can't do it, it won't amount to anything." It may be an internalized voice of some terrible person who put them down in the past. But the minute they try to start anything, all ideas get crushed. And frankly, this is also a cultural thing in the eastern US, which is why I left there. Out east it's crowded and everything sucks and we all hate everything and if you write poetry it will suck and if you do aret it will be bad and miles davis was such a god of music that (I actually heard a horn player say this) miles was so good that I can't stand to play my horn, he was so good. And i'm like, how does that help you do art?

Or on the flipside, I have friends who love brainstorming pie-in-the-sky ideas, but the minute iut actually coems down to making a schedule or a budget or a plan, they're not interested, they want to go off on some new wild concept instead. So they never get anything done either.

I think one of the vital things an artist has to learn is the mental yoga of controlling the mind, such that when you are expansive, be expansive! Muzzle that critic, we don't want to hear it, it doesn't matter if it sucks or not, go wild! And then when you are contractive, really be contractive and take your lumps and be diligent and patient and get it down.

I guess the advice is just do one or do the other, but beware, beware of switching back and forth. Can you? Can you jump from brainstorming to editing for just a moment and then go back? Sure, it's good highwire fun, and when we are really in the groove we can do it (one reason 'in the groove' is so productive') but it's risky, depending on the work and how hard it feels, you might want to play it safe and do one or the other really deliberately.

I know some artists who schedule one or the other kind of work on different days. Or another trick is to always, when you stop for the day, leave something ahead for yourself, something you can edit or fix and something you can brainstorm on, so that the next time you can pick it up and get in the flow of the work more easily.

It's lovely dropping in, and I will again someday, everybody go do a bunch of art and talk about it. You must realize that a community like this is like a magnifying lens that amplifies everyone's efforts and helps them grow faster through discussion. You -can- do art alone, but you learn faster with other people.

Good on you, good on us all. I'm going to go do some art now. It might not look like painting, but that's ok...

martha said...

Well, I don't have a much to say as that last commenter :) but I do like your sketches very much. The glow on the belly is especially striking.

Ask the Moon said...

I admire the breeziness and fresh-colored foliage behind your birds #1. It's so hard to just stop before it gets muddy. And you're so prolific! Amazing amount of work you are doing in a short time. I think rather than Anonymous's jazz poster idea, a little Haiku would set it off nicely.

Sue said...

Two comments: First, the bird is beautiful. You can even sense it's personality.

Second, a comment on the previous long comment above - whoever you are thank you! That was the most helpful bit of advice I think I've ever read.

mrana said...

Wow Jenny, what great advice we get to share with you! I have to thank Anonymous too! I don't feel I have anywhere near the experience to be able to comment on that level, but I CAN tell you that I do love your paintings and as far as these two are concerned, it's the colours and the less busy background in the second one that attract me. My humble two cents worth :)

G's Cottage said...

Hi, I popped through from Woolgathering. I really needed your Anonymous Commenter's insights. Her discussion of contractive and expansive modes is helping me see why my husband and I have trouble talking about my writing.

I studied journalism 30 years ago but only recently signed on to write a weekly local soft news column for the paper. I also do my own photography for the column.

I like your paintings of the Tufted Titmouse. I started getting some at my feeders last winter. They're very tricky to photograph though.

I enjoyed visiting your pages.

Robyn said...

How wonderful when one can conjure up a Muse - you are blessed, Jenny - as are we all, who got to read along.