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First off...I don't believe in the idea of the experience needing to be
easy. I inform them it will be a bit like engaging in war. The canvas is
out to thwart their efforts and defeat them at every turn. Victory
however, never comes without battles. To encourage them after saying such,
I assure them that first and foremost my objective is to increase their
appreciation for the challenges of painting and that like them I have
experienced all that they are about to experience. If they struggle and in
the end have some sense of satisfaction from what they've accomplished,
they will look at the works of art of accomplished artists and masters with
respect and have a connection with them in the context of history. An
appreciation for mastery and the commitment it requires.
As an artist, I paint in watercolor, oils and acrylics...and choose
acrylics with the high school students because of the easier clean-up and
avoidance of the collective strong odor of oils. I have them assemble the
canvas frames and stretch, and then gesso...always demonstrating first.
For nearly 20 years I painted layer upon layer and detail upon detail and
won some rather prestigious awards with works having 200-300 hours in
them...but, I have gone through a period of reinventing myself painting now
more painterly realism and am happy I went through such before getting back
into teaching. I really like Charles Hawthorne's approach of his students
using palette knifes. For one thing, if forces students to emphasize and
focus upon color...secondly, you save on brushes, thirdly a knife is quick
and easy to wipe clean and so color goes on cleaner and paintings look
brighter and less muddy.
I don't have them use knives entirely....but do have them use them much for
suggestion of detail and emphasis of color accents.
My method is similar to my approach with oils. In fact, if you purchase
the medium "gelex" from Liquitex and want to try it yourself, (use about
1/3rd gelex to the paint) it will leave a thicker impasto oil like drag to
your paint, and will fool even galleries that your acrylics are indeed
oils. I've had that problem a number of times and had to correct them.
Students begin by squinting at the stilllife, or resource image. My
students get plenty of stilllife work drawing, so I usually provide photos
of landscapes that I take out on my own plein air sessions.
During their squinting, I have them look for the larger masses, and
specifically the darker values. I have them use a rag, wrapped around
their index finger...and with plenty of water dip into the paints and mix
and then rub the masses onto the canvas.
If you'd like...you can begin with a premier on Impressionism, and do
include examples of American Impressionism- for we have a rich landscape
history of such.
Still squinting their eyes at their canvas...they take a broader flat
brush, or palette painting knife, and begin to block in the effects of
light in color. I really teach and think in terms always of cool and warm
colors. Sunlight delivers the warm spectrum, and lack of light is cool, so
all shadows reveal some cool color which in turn will make their adjacent
warm masses look warmer by comparison. Remember, pigment must have some
exaggeration as they are poor substitutes really for actual rays of light.
The eyes see many more subtleties than pigment can imitate. For this
reason, students will get bogged down by details and this is why I have
them squint their eyes at the subject and their work. Squinting plays down
and even eliminates a lot of the detail that removes a sense of unity and
harmony, a sense needed to pull the work together.
So...now, they have blocked in their shadow masses and their light. Middle
values are put on with smaller 1/4" flats or brights, and rounds...and here
is an important step that took me much of my life to learn. Detail can be
effectively suggested in these stages so much that done right it can bring
immediate life to the work. Such steps used to take me the brunt of my
time. Painting the actual detail that is. Not anymore. I've learned that
painterliness will cause the viewer to read more into the picture and sense
greater detail than could be painted.
How I do this for example? Well..let's say the student has blocked in the
basic mass shape of trees. Instead of having to become an expert on trees,
they think instead of becoming an expert of detecting shapes...and, the
shape of skylight poking through the masses. Taking a sky color and small
rounds or tip of knife, they squint again at their resource to pay
attention ONLY to where sky pokes through. (*note- This is so easy to do
for someone skilled and experienced...but because it seems so easy students
may subcumb to dabbing without consideration to paying attention to the
shapes of the negative space...and soon their tree mass may look like it
has chicken pox! ) I spend time explaining the importance of negative
space, because folks...that is how we suggest detail of the positive
element. If a careful and deliberate application of sky color is poked in
here and there on the masses, the shape before you suddenly takes on the
character and life of trees!
I have them squint their eyes and do this with water as well...water's
reflections, etc; always playing the negative shapes against the positive
for definition and suggestion.
I tell the students beforehand that it takes having made about 120 bad
paintings to learn to master painting, and that this is a process. You
build the students up to be frustrated and fail if you suggest painting to
be easy. Many people that tried painting could have become fine painters
except that they tried it 2-3 times and came to the conclusion they
couldn't paint. Sorry...painting develops as it becomes a passion. So, my
advice for you as instructors is to begin by emphasizing the purpose NOT to
make a great finished piece, but to embark upon an experience that will
help them appreciate what it took for good painters to become good. After
all, we are to instill art appreciation as well. In other words, we aren't
really going to fool ourselves to think we can do one painting and it will
turn out comparing to that of professionals. We are doing it to experience
the painting process, and appreciate what it is painters do. Period.
Now...here is the good news. As the students hang in there. As they
engage in war with the canvas, the forgiving properties of acrylics that
allows mistakes to be painted right over will eventually with some guidance
and developing a handling of the materials see the painting forge ahead
until it begins to look good! I think to choose to do something
nonobjective because we may wish to avoid frustration will not bring the
student to experience satisfaction and respect for the paint or of painting
history. The work will...in time...with persistence, begin to turn around.
This is my first year of teaching at this school I'm presently at, and I
was very pleased with what the high school students did. I believe they
were themselves shocked. One boy whom had developed a passion for drawing
hated his first two weeks of painting. However, a painting is a bit like a
frosted cake...that doesn't look like a frosted cake until the last touches
of the frosting are completed. It takes a bit of faith that the finished
work will look like a painting and something like that which they are
portraying. That faith MUST come from you, because these students have no
record of finished works to look back upon during moments of doubt to boost
confidence. You must be a cheerleader and encourage them on. WHEN they
succeed, and succeed they will...your faith in them will not go unrewarded,
and their confidence in you and themselves will not go unnoticed.
The painting will take time. It must. Much is to be learned. The
painter's job is to take that which is complex and simplify it enough that
the beauty locked and imprisioned in even that which is mundane and
overlooked is released.
I have learned by experience that 90% of the time a student or any painter
has a problem with their painting that it will be a problem with contrast.
Thus, it will be helpful to have students write down how contrast is
achieved. For example such a list might be- dark versus light, warm
versus cool, texture versus lack of texture, detail versus lack of detail,
an area of disinterest (neutral) for the eye to rest versus an area of
busyness (interest) etc;
I have just completed two days out of doors painting two different oil
paintings. These out of door paintings are called, "plein airs". Each
took about one hour, both 12" x 16" and done later in the afternoon as the
sun was going down. Standing in the snow painting on my French easel. All
20 sum years of experience come to bear in the challenge of capturing the
spirit of the scene to get the "ah-Hah!" as I call it, before the sunlight
totally transforms the scene before you. It is crazy fun...and nuts! At
any rate, I took digital images of the experience, and the second day broke
that session into stages of progression of the painting. For anyone that
would request, I would be glad to forward jpgs that you can use or look
over of my painting session.
The sun does determine when you must finish, and the object is to do as
much of the painting as is possible in short order so that minimal touching
up is required later. I intentionally adjusted the jpg sizes so that
downloading time would be minimalized. Just email me if interested at-
artist's site- http://cwinc.net/larryseiler
WetCanvas Artists page- (shorter and quicker loading)
"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man
persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress
depends on the unreasonable man." George Bernard Shaw
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