Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Habit and Creativity

Thinking about the old dilemma of "what to paint," that is, the difficulty some have finding a subject and starting to work. For me, as I wrote in a post not too long ago, the habit of daily painting or drawing has provided continuity and functions as a way to study all sorts of things, old and new. My feeling is that the habit itself plus study make my daily routine work, for me. But perhaps only the habit of making something regularly is the real trick. I did some research on habit and creativity, not expecting to find very much, but found quite a lot.

Hoff, "Risk Factors," oil on panel, 20x16
Surprisingly, creativity is actually a pretty new concept in human cultures. The idea of humans being creative only arrived during the Renaissance; before that a person who painted pictures or sculpted wasn't said to create something new. Instead, these craftsmen were viewed as imitating nature rather than making something new. Others thought that a drawing or painting was about discovering something of the natural world by recording it. Regardless, humans couldn't make something new; only deities were able to create. The Renaissance gave us the concept that humans are curious and creative beings, not simply discovering nature but creating something new via those discoveries. Leonardo da Vinci is (of course) the paradigm of that era.

There is considerably more to creativity than investigating the world and recording it, though. Another aspect in our culture is idea of imagination. The ability to build stories or images or characters (among other constructs) based on the mind's imaginings has become more and more important in the last century and a half. Think of  how imaginary stories, novels, photos, films, computer gaming, CGI, and virtual reality have emerged in that period. Further, philosophers and psychosocial investigators have been joined by neuroscientists in exploring just what creativity really is. Nearly countless investigations of behavior, memory, intelligence, brain activity and more in relation to creativity are continuing.

Hoff, "Shellac Jug," casein on panel, 9x12
Creativity isn't really definable in a concrete way, though, so far as I can see. Consider the endless discussion regarding "what is art," and see the same situation with "creativity." Hard to define, but we know it when we see it. Creative people have good imaginations but some painters and illustrators do indeed simply record what they see without imagining anything. So do some writers and filmmakers. Creatives are generally bright too but many are average in terms of measured intelligence. Creatives have good memories but again many reproduce what they see or hear without reliance on memory. There is more, but the point is how little we know about what creativity really is. There are no doubt other levels of complexity.

It was habit as a spur to creativity that got me thinking on these things in the first place. The question is whether habit (some would say "ritual") actually matters. For me, a morning ritual (habit) works well.

Search the Internet and you'll find abundant affirmations of habits of creative people--sites that claim  by adopting certain specific habits--four of them, or seven, or dozens, or whatever, or adopting only the habits of the most creative people--you can boost your own creative juices. Maybe so.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Equipment for Outdoors

Hoff, "Upstream, Druid Hill Creek," oil on panel, 12x16
Outdoor painting has become important to me, and although I knew what painting equipment would be needed, it took a few sessions to learn about (and remember) accessory equipment. It's clear that there are definitely non-painting items that are needed. I don't use all of them, but here are a few things every outdoor artist ought to at least consider.

When painting outdoors it's a very good idea to wear sunscreen, particularly when in full sunshine. But don't be fooled by a cloudy day because the burning rays of sun penetrate through clouds. You can get a truly awful burn on an overcast day. And don't think you're completely safe under a shade tree or umbrella because reflected sunlight (from a body of water for example) can also burn.

Insect Repellent
While not everyone is lunch for mosquitoes and other biting pests, some of us definitely are. These days insect bites are potentially health issues as well as comfort problems. Besides preparing with the right kind of clothing--long sleeves and trousers for example--using repellent is a sensible step.

Hoff, "World's Largest Ag Tires," watercolor, 4x5
Water bottle
Nothing is worse nor potentially as dangerous as being a long way from a source of water, so I always make sure to carry my own, and double the amount if the terrain is arid. My basic kit contains a reusable, insulated one quart water bottle with a removable top. In summer it holds ice water. In other seasons, maybe coffee.

Many plein air painters use some kind of shading, either a small shade that attaches to their easel or a free-standing umbrella. Part of the reason is to shade the painting and avoid difficulties with colors but the other is to keep the blazing sun away. While not utterly essential (you can often find a shade tree or building to shelter you), a sun shade makes it possible to set up in many more places. And if you don't need it that day you can always leave it in your vehicle.

Hoff, "801 Grand," watercolor, 3.5x5.5

There are all sorts of miscellaneous items that can be very handy.
  • Appropriate clothing is critical, depends on weather expected, and works best as layers. Don't forget a hat. Some artists use fingerless gloves in winter to facilitate brush handling.
  • Rags or paper towels. It may be silly to mention these, but I forgot them once. Clearly towels and rags are needed to wipe brushes and palette, but may also be needed to wipe away paint or solvents on clothes, etc. Bring more than you think you need. You can leave some in the car.
  • Trash bags are essential for whatever might be discarded so bring your own. Not every painting location has trash cans.
  • Rain gear or a big plastic bag for storm emergencies can help keep you or equipment at least partially dry.
  • Cell phones seem ubiquitous nowadays, but quite a few forget them. Your cell phone camera is also useful to make reference photos and progress pics of your work.
  • Folding stool or chair. Although I prefer to stand when painting, a place to sit during breaks helps avoid fatigue. Some people prefer to paint sitting down. 
A final word about equipment. It's easy to burden oneself with non-essentials. If packing one's gear into remote or even difficult spots, lighter is better. Traveling light means a pochade box and tripod not a folding paint box, a few brushes not twenty, few or no paint tubes, rags, solvent container and/or medium, a cap and water bottle. Sunscreen and insect repellent can be applied in the car and an umbrella left behind if not needed. If you're painting with oils, you'll have to haul considerably more gear than with watercolors.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Plein Air, Druid Hill Creek

"Streambed," oil on panel, 8x8
The summer is progressing from hot to inferno and from swampy to desert-like, but outdoor painting continues. Although oils continue to be my main outdoor paintings, I've had a chance to do a couple of casein pictures outside, too. My oil painting outfit for outside is a French easel, which is heavy and clumsy to set up, so much of my outdoor work has been just outside the studio doors. Happily, there is a painting at every turn out there, looking across, upstream and downstream on Druid Hill Creek. A small oil--6x8 or 8x10 takes only an hour or two, which is fine since the light changes almost that quickly anyway.

"The Garden, Early Morning," oil on panel, 9x12
My technique with spending a great deal of time looking at my subject, trying to learn it from the standpoint of value, color, and possible compositions. (An old mentor used to say that you should spend more time looking and less time painting. Good advice.) To begin painting I block in the image using raw umber thinned copiously with turpentine, washing in thinly. Next come the darks, which in outdoor work are warm and painted thinly. From there, working all over the painting I block in big color masses--a lot of greens outdoors, and blue sometimes. Those steps are with big brushes--8 or 10 flats. Then with smaller brushes and brighter values I paint details. It's easy to be overzealous with detail instead of giving the viewer's imagination a chance, so I try hard not to do too much and then call it finished.

"Blue Spruce," oil on panel, 9x12
This particular landscape is the view across Druid Hill Creek from my studio. The land slopes up from the creek bank and becomes dense woods perhaps thirty yards farther. There is a pale blue spruce at the edge of those woods. I painted the two companions too, the larger a mulberry and the thinner a black walnut. This is late morning.

As the season matures a lot of my time will be outdoors, especially when my new plein air setup arrives.
Thoughts on Painting Outdoors
More About Plein Air
More Thoughts on Outdoor Painting

Friday, July 19, 2019

What They Said

Sometimes a quotation from another artist has resonance for me. Here a some great quotes from a few of the masters and a painting by each.

John Sargent:
John Sargent, "Dr. Fitzwilliam Sargent," oil on canvas 1886
"A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth."
"Make the best of an emergency." (speaking about watercolor)
"The thicker you paint the more it flows."
"Mine is the horny hand of toil."

Edward Hopper, "Early Sunday Morning," oil, 1930

 Edward Hopper:
"If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint."
"All I really want to do is paint light on the side of a house."
"It's probably a reflection of my own, if I may say, loneliness. I don't know. It could be the whole human condition."

Andrew Wyeth, "The Crossing," tempera, 2002
Andrew Wyeth:
"I'm much more interested in the mood of a thing than in the truth of a thing."
"When you lose your simplicity you lose your drama."
"It's a moment that I'm after, a fleeting moment, but not a frozen moment."

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Finding a Subject

Some painters see subject matter everywhere. John Sargent is supposed to have commented that wherever he turned there was a painting to be made. Many artists paint happily every day in a seemingly endless stream of subjects. Others, while motivated to draw or paint something--anything--find themselves stymied. What to draw? Finding one's subject, even for the day, isn't always simple or easy.
Hoff, "Roman Umbrella Pine," watercolor, 4x6
In my own painting practice there have been pauses, cessations and complete halts over the years. The gaps were mostly the result of outside events beyond the scope of discussion. Beginning to paint again has usually been simple enough. The impetus when re-starting has most often been the emotional necessity to paint a particular subject--the need arises without thought. Sometimes the adoption of a new medium has been the way to begin working again. For example, years ago, after a long hiatus from oil painting I started working again by making watercolors instead. The experience of learning and using simpler (but less forgiving) water-based paint was stimulating, invigorating even. The new medium provided opportunities to explore and grow that had gone stale when I was using oils. Watercolor painting has the virtues of simple and portable equipment and ease of cleanup which gave me opportunities to work on site or outdoors. Furthermore, traveling with watercolor was simple so sketching opportunities were more available.

Hoff, "Banana," oil on panel, 6x8
But what about escaping from other fallow times? For me, a day inevitably comes when large works are finished or so preliminary there's little else to do on the large project. Then what? One way I use to keep working is doing small dailies. For a few years I did an oil sketch in my studio every day, usually 6x8 or so, mostly still life. The subject was often one or two objects placed near the studio window. Those "windowsill works" kept me looking, thinking, mixing and applying paint even if any larger works were temporarily stalled. Applying a time limit of less than an hour to finish one forced me to work to place strokes of paint deliberately and not waste time overworking.

Dailies provided me opportunities to study different aspects of painting technique or brush handling. In nearly every case, the subject was chosen at random.
Hoff, "Creamer," oil on panel, 5x7
Reasons for sketching a particular thing could have been interest in the object itself (like a banana with its peculiar yellows), or in how the subject looked in strong light (like a shiny coffee creamer), or in how to render water in a glass. So in my case there were several motives for each work. Some call the randomness of this approach "just paint something," which is a perfect description. The immediacy of choosing a subject and painting it in a short time frame provides a challenge and an opportunity for significant observation and concentration. Those short, timed yet spontaneous oil sketches provided wide learning opportunities and made the work a daily habit. I still do morning oil sketches occasionally, but these days I mostly warm up for the day with a digital drawing or two every morning.

Hoff, "1958 VW Bug," digital drawing
As to finding one's overarching subject, it seems to me that the best thing an artist can do is to recognize that true art is deeply personal. For the artist now, subject matter begins in the experiences, ideas, loves, hates, and more that populate an individual personality. It's probably not a conscious process for many, but nonetheless many artists' work clearly shows what passion(s) drove their work. As an example, consider Claude Monet--his passion was light and seeing the world, which for him meant gardens and countryside; he didn't paint cities much, nor figures. On the other hand, Lucian Freud was interested in the landscape of the human form and regardless of medium (he also etched), that was his subject for much of his career.

For me, cities and their people are endlessly fascinating--shapes, colors, shadows and lights, overlapping and intermingling--buildings, hurrying figures, signs, and vehicles too. The play of light over the city is always interesting and challenging. An abstractionist might say something similar about only the shapes, or maybe only light and color. For me, the subject is cities.

Choosing a subject means considerably more than looking for something to draw and paint.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Art and Air Travel

Hoff, "Lisbon Trolley," wc in sketchbook, 2017
For a long while, when traveling for more than a day or two I've carried along art supplies and made pictures. At first it was simply a sketchbook and pencil, then a watercolor set and paper (postcard sized and bigger). Eventually other art materials have come along too, but mostly I opt for portability. For an artist, sketching is a non-stop discipline.

But besides pencil or small water media outfits like those mentioned, can an artist take other supplies along on an airline flight? Some worry that their oil paint can't be brought onto airliners but the rules aren't so restrictive as they imagine.

Hoff, "Plum Point," oil on panel, 2019
Certainly since the rules regarding carry-ons have been changed, bringing oil paint and related supplies aboard--particularly liquids--has become a bit different. Inflammables can't be brought aboard any airliner (and were always banned), so solvents including mineral spirits, turpentine, alcohols, and so on are forbidden. But painters' oils--linseed, walnut, etc.--are not inflammable and are therefore allowed both in checked bags and carry-ons as is tubed oil paint, according to the Federal Aviation Administration rules available online. So for an oil painter it's simple enough to leave solvents in the studio and buy a small container on arrival. That said, in years past sometimes less-informed members of Transportation Security actually confiscated tubed oil paint in once in a while--it happened to a friend--but not so much today.

My own experiences traveling with oil paint have been uneventful. During the early part of this century when there was more apprehension about paint on aircraft I shipped my oil paint and materials ahead of time and shipped them back. Since the beginning of this decade I've packed my oils and supplies in a checked bag without incident. In general I do not travel with oils unless participating in a specific oil painting event.

For me travel supplies will continue to be a sketchbook or two, a few graphite pencils and a kneaded eraser, a few disposable technical pens, a waterbrush or two, and a small watercolor set. Besides that, these days a computer tablet and stylus round out my kit. All will fit into a single compartment or two of my carry-on bag and any part of the kit except the tablet slips into a convenient pocket. For me, travel should be light.

For a complete list of banned and allowed items for airline travel see the FAA website.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Kinds of Paint

In the past one kind of paint predominated for artistic purposes, even if other kinds of paint were available. For example, very ancient paintings were made with encaustic, if the famous Egyptian burial portraits of two millennia ago are any indication. But egg tempera (water-based), was the main paint of classical antiquity, another half-millennium later. But it seems that paintings were very occasionally made made with oil-based (nut oil) paint during those times too. Nonetheless, tempera's ubiquity lasted into the 15th century or so. Tempera was then superseded by oil painting and became almost unknown. Watercolor did become the sketcher's friend from the 18th century on but wasn't predominant. And so art stood until the mid-20th century. The list of paint types has lengthened in the ensuing seventy years to include traditional watercolor, gouache, casein, egg tempera, acrylic, and water-mixable oils. Other media now are considered painting, too, including pastel and (for some anyway) colored pencil.

Hoff, "Portrait of Bill," oil on canvas. Private collection
Nevertheless, oil painting is still considered the queen of mediums. Oil paint remains the art medium of choice mostly because oil paintings are desired by the market. Oil paintings are considered more durable. Oil paintings age well, when constructed well. Oil paintings can and do become heirlooms, particularly family portraits. Oil paintings command higher prices and investor interest. Oil paintings are a centuries-old tradition. Because of the amount of time needed to master a new kind of paint, plus the work and time involved, and potentially reduced income afterward, why explore and use any of the alternatives to oil? Why, indeed. There are a lot of good reasons.

For me, and probably for many, it's useful to learn all sorts of paint. Using different kinds besides oils has improved my knowledge of the behavior of paint of all kinds. Each kind of paint has different properties--more or less opacity, differing drying speeds, and so on. Some paints have similarities too. For example, gouache, casein, and acrylic all dry very quickly. But gouache can be rewetted while acrylic and casein form a permanent film that is unresponsive to water. Another example: watercolor and acrylic behave similarly, if the acrylic paint is thinned sufficiently, but watercolor can be rewetted and acrylic can't. In contrast, oil paint remains "open" (wet) for days unless driers are added.
Hoff, "Taco Loco," watercolor on paper, sketched on site

Although the time and effort spent may seem enormous, working with newer mediums hasn't seemed onerous to me. Instead,  devoting a few hours a week outside my usual milieu provides continued practice in everything in painting--vision, composition, drawing, values, and so on--just with a different type of paint. It means continued practice on fundamentals while learning a new paint. In any event, it works for me.

So what kind of paint do I prefer? Well, it depends. My preference for studio paintings is oils, which is where my training and experience are. Oil paint remains workable for a longer period, makes more luminous images when used effectively, and has the advantages outlined above.

What about sketching?
Again, it depends. When doing a color sketch of a studio subject oil paint is preferable because the colors and paint can be matched as can the paint handling, drying and opacity. On the other hand, sketching outdoors is more convenient with watercolor than with oils, mostly owing to portability of watercolors. A pocket watercolor set and sketchbook are wonderful, lightweight tools that fit a jacket or jeans. I carry a small watercolor kit in my car too, and use it as often as possible. Watercolor sketches provide fodder for studio oils. You could use other water media--even acrylic--to sketch too.

What about acrylic, casein, and all those others?
They've been good learning tools and I use them from time to time for fun and experience. Here are a few thoughts.

Casein dries quickly, handles nicely, and dries to a nice matte finish. In many ways it feels like oil paint on the brush. (Gouache does the same things but can be altered with water.) Casein paint is useful if you have a covered palette to help keep the paint moist, because it dries so quickly. Casein is great for sketching--you can paint over mistakes in only a few moments. Casein has been most useful to me when making small, quick sketches. Other artists are making beautiful paintings in the studio and outdoors as well using casein.
Hoff, "Silver Creamer," casein on panel
Gouache or acrylic can be used for sketching more closely emulate oil paint at least in some artists' hands, so they are common substitutes in the studio, particularly. Illustrators used gouache long before acrylics were developed, mostly because the matte finish of gouache photographs well.

In short, learning the behavior and handling of as many different kinds of paint as possible has been a valuable pursuit in expanding my horizons. 

Thursday, July 04, 2019

Independence Day

Today is the anniversary of our nation's Declaration of Independence. The fundamental statement of that document is the concept that "all men are created equal." That statement of principle became a real beacon in the centuries that followed. The world is so very different now that one wonders what those who founded the United States would think. Would they approve?

Here is a 20x16 oil on panel of Uncle Sam, the symbol of the country, after an original by the great J.C. Leyendecker.
Hoff, "Uncle Sam in the 21st Century," (after Leyendecker) oil on panel, 20x16

Independence Day
July 4th

Tuesday, July 02, 2019

Past Favorites in Reproduction

Many artists offer reproductions of their works. After all, an original oil painting can only be sold once, but a print of that painting can be sold many times. If an artist pays attention,to the volume of prints sold it might be a rough insight into popularity of a particular work. Although there is no statistical significance to a simple insight it may provide an interesting set of images to review.

Hoff, "NYC Spring," oil on panel
The most popular image I have made, based on the number of prints sold, is "NYC Spring," an image of a woman in a red dress emerging from an underground stair into a city street. The original was an 11x14 oil painting that sold four or five years ago, but since I've also sold a number of prints in various sizes. In fact, a print of this particular work sold an an arts festival last week and remains one that visitors to the studio mention favorably.

Another city subject has sold in reproduction nearly as often. This one is a view of the Chrysler Building at dusk and carries the title "Invictus," which is Latin for unconquered. It was originally intended as a comment on how the attack on New York was being overcome. This image in print reproduction continues to sell in the original size and larger. It was originally an 8x10 oil painting.

Although print reproductions haven't been a focus of my commercial efforts these past few years it's probably time to start offering more prints of these and other favorites.