Simplify – that is the message I took from Elizabeth Wiltzen, our group’s first-day instructor at the 2012 FCA workshop, on Salt Spring Island. (for an intro to this workshop, see my first post in the series). Liz is a very accomplished oil painter of landscapes, from Canmore (Alberta, Canada) who had worked in watercolors for years. Interestingly, she is also a life coach and an avalanche rescue (with dog) volunteer.
I liked the way Liz started off the workshop: encouraging, no demanding, that we drop any pressures (self imposed or imagined) to have to complete paintings during the week. We were there to learn, to experiment, to try and fail, but ultimately to grow. She joked that the “wet paint sale”, scheduled for the last day, was not happening. It was of course, but we were to act as if it wasn’t and not feel under any pressure to produce. I though this set a very good tone, not only for this day but for the entire workshop. I know I adopted that mindset and while I would get frustrated with a lack of quality output, I kept telling myself that I was there to learn and if I didn’t end up with even a single finished painting, that was okay – that thought settled me down on more than one occasion.
On this day, our group was on a beautiful private property, right on the south coast of the island, between Ruckle Park and Fulford Harbour. The views looking towards the water were particularly stunning. The views looking inland weren’t bad either, with fields, buildings, trees and rocks.
Liz started off with a good talk about her plein air painting equipment as she set it up for her first demonstration – of the exercise she wanted us to take on that morning. During that day we were given 2 exercises. That first one was to simply a scene to a few (5 to 10) large shapes and assign each shape one of just 5 values – and then paint it like that! This sort of exercise is nothing new but it was nonetheless very valuable. It is so easy to get overwhelmed by a scene, all the details and color. What this exercise demonstrated is the value of getting down good solid “bones”, an infrastructure for the painting! When you’ve got a believable value composition down, you are half way there!
On the right is my small painting resulting from that morning’s exercise – again the goal being to simplify shapes and values (and of course it is not as easy as it looks)!
The format of this first day of the workshop was typical of each day. We would get on site by 9 AM unload our gear and gather as a group (of about 25). Our instructor for the day would then give us a talk and demonstration (for maybe half an hour) and then we would scatter around the site to get down to painting. When done for the morning we would typically eat the lunch that we had brought and then gather as a group for the afternoon demonstration.
At our afternoon gathering, Liz demonstrated the exercise that she wanted us to try that afternoon. Still on the theme of simplifying. the challenge was to do a painting using just 50 strokes of the paintbrush. Well this was interesting – she made it look easy but of course it was not. A good starting point was to follow the lesson from the morning by establishing your composition with a limited number of large shapes. When it came to the painting, one trick (especially in the early stages), was to load up a paintbrush and without lifting it from the surface, sweep it all about to fill in the large shapes. Later strokes would be shorter and useful for adding highlights and providing definition to the painting. One of the unexpected challenges of this exercise is keeping track of the 50 strokes – once you get into the painting zone it is so easy to lose track of a simple thing like counting. Before I started painting I took a couple of pine cones and pulled off 50 scales, put the 50 markers in a pile.. Then after each painting stroke, I simply tossed away one of the scales – when they were all gone, my painting was “done” (“remember, it’s just an exercise”)!
It was a good first day with the exceptionally beautiful landscapes that I was expecting, great weather, a chance to meet a few of the people in my group and of course a couple of lessons in simplification that stuck with me through the week (and beyond).
A while back I reviewed a handy little iPhone app called ValueViewer. It helps artists (especially plein air painters) to see, to simplify the number of values (white, grey, black) in a scene. I liked the concept but thought that the original app had some serious flaws – primarily that one couldn’t save the image that the app produced.
On April 20th, 2012, version 2.1 of ValueViewer was released. It is a winner! One can now open any image from the iPhone camera roll (or take a new photo on the spot) and most importantly save the modified image back to the camera roll. From there the image can be uploaded to a computer and printed out. This is of great value to me for generating a reference print to use in the studio.
The user interface is a bit different from the original version and maybe not quite as intuitive but with the built in Help info and a bit of practice I think it will be fine.I like that one can flip from portrait to landscape format, adjust the window to any standard canvas size and to zoom in or out with simple finger action.
My only complaint is that one can not select the number of levels displayed. You can select gray scale (“infinite” levels), Notan (two levels: black and white) or three levels (white, gray and black). I would like to be able to choose, say 5 or 9 levels. The app does allow one the flexibility to adjust the mid-point on the value scale and the range of the gray region.
In conclusion, this version (2.1) of ValueViewer kicks the app up to the “very useful and recommended” level.
I recently discovered and purchased the ValueViewer App for the iPhone. This app was endorsed by PleinAir Magazine so I figured it would be good. The premise is very good – take a photo of a scene with your iPhone camera then let the app break it down into a few values (lights and darks) so that you can rough-in the appropriate values to start a painting. Getting the values right, from the start, is a very important part step for producing a representational painting. The basic functionality of the app does allow you to capture a scene, break it down into 3 values and allows you to play around with the composition by zooming in on the image and cropping it to one of 3 common canvas/frame proportions (3:4, 4:5 & 11:14).
However, beyond the basics there is not much to this app. The following shortcomings quickly become obvious:
- can’t save the grey-scale image (so you can’t upload the image or print it)
- only 3 values (black, white and grey). I would like to see it selectable to 5, 7, 9 or 11 values
- only 3 set frame sizes (no ability for user to define others) and
- you can’t toggle between portrait and landscape orientations
I do like that there are 7 setting that allow one to adjust the scene for high or low key image. That is you can choose a 2-scale image (mainly black with a bit of grey or mainly white with a bit of grey) or five 3-tone (different proportions of black, grey and white) between these extremes.
So overall this app show promise but I’m afraid it’s not really ready for prime time – certainly not at a $4.99 price. In the current version (version 1.1 released 2011 July 22) I’m not even sure it would be up to the value of other 99 cent apps. The ad in PleinAir magazine does promise “more features coming soon” and it was on the basis of that promise that I made my purchase, to show support and provide encouragement for the developer to take this app to where it should be. It could be a very handy tool for painters working en plein air or in the studio.
Addendum: a new version (2.1) of this app was released in April 2012 – see my thoughts here.
In an earlier post I pointed readers to some of my favorite snow paintings by the Canadian Group of Seven. I did not include there any of the paintings by the not-quite-a-Group-of-Seven-member Tom Thomson. You might say I was saving the best for last. Tom Thomson is my favorite and certainly was a master of the rugged Canadian landscape in all seasons. Although he would typically spend his winters working in his studio in Toronto, Thomson certainly encountered and painted snow and ice in the early spring and late fall.
As I had done with the Group of Seven snow paintings, I studied prints of Thomson’s works to better understand the values he used for snow and the relative difference between snow in the sun versus in the shade. I used my value scale comparator with a value 1 being associated with pure white and a 9 for black. I observed a fair bit of variation in Thomson’s paintings with snow in sun appearing to be anywhere from a 2 to a 5 but 3 was the most common sunny snow value. When the snow was in the shade the value usually dipped a couple of points. Although not scientific, with my eye I estimated the shady snow in Thomson’s paintings to rand from 5 to 8 with 5.5 being the most common.
First Snow in Autumn is a very snowy painting with clear areas in sun and shade. By my estimate this one of the highest values for sunlit snow. The almost white color I would estimate to be a value 2 while the light blue shadows are about a 5.5. Early Snow from the Winnipeg Art Gallery although darker in value overall with a 5 in the sun and 7 in the shadows still reads believably as a snowy winter scene. Probably a textbook example of values for snow is in Thomson’s Woods in Winter with a value 3 for snow in the sun and a drop of 3 to a 6 in the shadows.
The painting that I observed the biggest difference between sun and shade values was Path Behind Mowat Lodge with a difference of 5 – from a 3 in the sunlit area to an 8 in the blue/purple shadows cast upon the snow.
So what did I learn from my little study? Snow in the sun should be depicted with a value of around a 2 to 4 and the shadow on the snow are about 2 to 3 points lower (darker). This generally mean a value between 5 and 7. Of course my little investigation is not highly scientific. I was just working off prints in books (Incidentally Tom Thomson, edited by Dennis Reid is a good one, full of images ). I think that maybe if I could measure the value with scientific instruments directly off the original paintings then I could know the secret – but then again I think it probably wouldn’t make that much difference and having a formula, or specific numerical values certainly isn’t going to allow one to recreate the magic of a Tom Thomson painting.
Here are links to a few other Tom Thomson paintings featuring snow from the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Canada: