On the fourth day of the 2012 Federation of Canadian Artists (FCA) workshop on Salt Spring Island, our group was with Stephen Quiller [see my introductory post about this workshop]. Our location was at a private farm, on the coast, a couple of kilometers south of Ganges [see map]. This was another location that offered some subject matter to suit everyone’s tastes – there was the farm, with trees, chickens, road and fences and nearby, ocean-side fields and beaches.
Stephen Quiller is a water-media artist, not making a big distinction between water color , acrylic and gouache media. He is very comfortable with and knowledgeable about all. Quiller is noted for his work with color and has a number of products and books relating to his Quiller color wheel. In fact, having studied his books, was how his name popped out for me, amongst the four workshop instructors. One of the key lessons from Quiller related to his efforts in identifying color complement pairs amongst the many hues of colors available today. By mixing these pairs one is able to obtain some very nice clear greys, or neutral tones. Interestingly as he was unable to find a perfect complement to cadmium yellow light, he had his own created – Quiller Violet.
As in the days that we spent with the other workshop instructors, the format was to have a demo/talk first thing in the morning and then the participants would disperse over the area to work on their own and then we would gather again just after lunch for another demo. On this day we also got together for a group critique at the end of the day.
The demonstration started off with a description of Quiller’s color theory and then he got into working on a piece – an abstracted depiction of the landscape in front of him (using acrylics). Quiller\s approach was to start with thin, transparent washes and work his way to applications of opaque paint. Before starting the actual painting Quiller asked that any questions be saved until the end so as not to disrupt his process. I expected him to be in the “zone” and therefore completely silent during his painting process but while he was clearly in the zone, there was one side of him that was still giving a very useful running commentary of what he was doing and thinking.
Having so many possibilities for paintings around this location, it was difficult to choose. I hiked down the shaded path from the farm area to a large grassy spit which featured a greeny bay at low tide on one side and the open water and a rocky beach on the other. On the land was a large grassy field bordered by some trees sporting dramatic autumn colors.
The field/tree scene won out for me so I set up my pochade box in the shade looking out over this scene and got to work. I was experimenting with my process again on this day – still trying to find the best way to use acrylics for this plein air work. I learned on the previous days that my paints were just drying out too quickly on the palette – even when I used the Sta-Wet palette with a wet sponge underneath.
This day I tried pre-mixing my tube colors with heavy gloss gel to slow the drying time and also to give me a thicker paint, which I prefer for the impasto style. I stored these premixed colors in little plastic cups with lids, which were great for ensuring that the left over paint could be saved for my next session. I still used the Sta-Wet palette as my surface for mixing (and saving) other colors.
It was a good day with Stephen Quiller. the information on his color theories was good but largely review. there were a couple of things that he said that while not new or revolutionary, really stuck with me during that day and I’m still thinking about them.
- “See the stroke – put it down” is what he said. These are simple words, a simple concept but oh so important so as not to muck about in one’s painting and thereby destroy the freshness and expressiveness of the image.
- “Always finish your paintings”. There is a tendency to give up on hopeless cases, canvases that you just know can’t be saved. Quiller said that the last 15% of a painting can be very hard – but very beneficial. Keep working on the problems and you will learn something and probably something that will help prevent you from making the same mistake again!
John’s forte is painting urban scenes with watercolor. Our painting location for this day was the Garry Oaks Winery. This place wasn’t an urban location but John found a suitable building on the premises to use as the subject for his demonstration piece. Not being particularly drawn to buildings myself I found this site with many opportunities for landscape paintings. I’m particularly fond of the parallel lines of the rows of the vineyard.
Shortly after our arrival at 9 AM, the group gathered together and John began his demonstration. Unlike many instructors who do not like to actually demonstrate by creating a full work from start to finish, John did. He did do a few things in preparation before the group arrived and also did a bit of work while we were scattered in the fields. Nonetheless, through the two demo sessions that he did we got a good idea of how he approached his work. John works in watercolor so many of the tips and techniques (e.g. masking off sections of the painting and use a mouth-blown sprayer) of that he shared won’t have direct applicability to my current style but I have carefully tucked away his approaches for future use.
One thing that John talked about which is fully applicable to any media, concerned values and planning your composition. He said to consider that your scene has three regions: a foreground, a middle ground and a background. Also consider that there are three value families: Light (say values 1 to 3, on a nine point scale), middle (values 4 to 6) and darks (values 7 to 9 ). John suggested doing thumbnail sketches of the composition using all of the combinations of value families with the three regions. For example you could do the foreground in your darkest values, your mid-ground with your middle values and the background in your lightest values – or you could flip that around making your foreground lightest and background darkest. Or maybe you make your middle ground darkest
There are 6 combinations of the value families that you can assign to the three different sections of your painting and each can impart a different mood on the scene. Also worth remembering is that you don’t need to be a slave to reality – just because nature is presenting you with a scene where the background (e.g. distant hills and sky) are very light, your painting does not have to be the same (it could be – but that your choice!).
This lesson stuck with me, it was with me through that day as I tried to apply the idea, but it was also there in the back of my mind throughout the rest of the week. A good principle, a good lesson!
After the morning demonstration, I wandered up and down the road beside the vineyard looking for just the right scene to capture my attention. I ended up finding a nice spot in the shade under a massive old oak tree, looking out over a section of the vineyard with curving rows. I would spend the rest of the day in that spot and although the painting, didn’t turn out to my satisfaction. I kept repeating my mantra from Day 1 ” I don’t have to produce a finished painting, I am just here to learn”!
During the course of the day, John made the rounds to visit the students scattered around the property, offering individual suggestions. He got to me quite late in the day and suggested that I add a figure as a focal point. I don’t often include figures in my landscapes (although I often thought I should). Anyway, I did put in a suggestion of a figure and have to agree that it does add a focal point to an otherwise ungrounded painting. What do you think?
So that was day 2 – another day of solid learning, another day of not so successful painting – and all in a very beautiful locale. [click here to read about Day 3]
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).
The 5-day workshop ran from Wednesday September 12th through Sunday September 16th. There were about 100 participants divided up into 4 groups. For the first four days, each group spent a day with a different one of the four workshop instructors, at a different site on the island. On the last day, everyone painted in and around Ganges on their own.
Every day we were out painting “en plein air”, in landscapes which offered views of coasts, fields, forests, buildings and animals – something for everyone!
The four workshop instructors were: John Salminen, Elizabeth Wiltzen, Carla O’Connor and Stephen Quiller. Each instructor focused on a particular media but were able to provide valuable guidance to everyone, in whatever media the participant chose to use.
Another very unique and welcome feature of this year’s workshop was a talk on Friday evening, given by the world-renowned (and Salt Spring Island resident) painter and naturalist, Robert Bateman. Bateman is obviously a man with a million stories (and opinions), a good an passionate speaker (looking way younger than his 82 years). On this evening he spoke about his development and influences. I learned that he had once painted landscapes in the style of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven (and quite frankly, that earlier style appealed to me more than the his realistic wildlife work). I was also impressed by (and would never have guessed) his appreciation for abstract expressionists such as Rothko, Kline and Still. He demonstrated how he was influenced by their compositions and incorporated them into his high-realism wildlife paintings. Overall it was a very enjoyable evening in a very good week.
Our last day of the workshop (Sunday) was different, but nonetheless valuable. We painted in Ganges, had group critiques of the work’s week as well as the opportunity for one-on-one critiques with Robert Genn. Late in the afternoon there was a two hour “wet canvas” sale – an opportunity to show and sell paintings. The well organized workshop week wrapped up with a very nice banquet – a excellent meal and an opportunity to chat and reminisce with old and new friends, on Sunday evening.
Next year’s FCA week-long workshop is being organized for Whistler B.C. in September 2013. After this years experience I will be giving serious consideration to attending that one too.
In future posts on this blog I will share some of the things that I learned during this week on Salt Spring – there was something learned everyday and from every instructor – stay tuned! [go to Workshop Day 1 post]