Saturday, October 25, 2008

In A Softer Light

Fourth week of class: Belvoir, oils on canvas board, 9" x 12"

The dawn's light was soft, presage to an overcast day. Driving to class the clouds hovered over distant Baltimore and the Chesapeake Bay in amazing formations: long, flat layers with torn edges. The light from the sun filtered through the violet clouds giving soft orange hues in places. The planes of trees at different distances were perfect for atmospheric studies. I almost drove off the road while looking. How I wished I could snap away with my camera while driving! Around here it's only on the highways that we seem to get those wide panoramic views.

The class met at Belvoir again, same as last week, but the light was so different. I wondered how we would render the difference, and Lee's demo was a great explanation of how the change in light affected the colors to soften and make them earthier. After all, that is what we are concerned with as painters: the light, how it affects objects. My awareness continues to expand, and here's my painting to prove it.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Saffron Harvest

Saffron crocus

Saffron is a spice valued in Spanish cuisine which is very expensive. Many years ago I remember the grocery stores would keep it under lock so people couldn't steal the tiny envelopes containing a few pistils, which were valued at around $5 in those days. I can't recall even seeing these at a regular grocery for years; I shudder to think what the price might be in a specialty store.

This ingredient is essential for paella and for real Cuban yellow rice, so I decided to grow my own. A few years ago I planted about 20 bulbs of saffron in the front yard. This past week they started to bloom: this is one of the flowers of the beautiful autumn-flowering crocus. The orange three-pronged stigma is the part used for the spice. I've harvested about a baker's dozen flowers so far, hope for a few more before the season ends.

I've seen photos of the area in Spain where saffron is grown commercially--it's a fairy-tale setting of round hills and ancient windmills. The flowers are picked in the morning as they begin to open, and traditionally are processed in family kitchens. The saffron workers' hands are stained orange from stripping the stigmas from the
thousands of flowers needed to make an ounce. Yet an ounce of the spice is worth thousands of dollars.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Colors at Belvoir

Third week of class: Belvoir, oils 9" x 12"

The Road at Belvoir, oils 9" x 12"

These are the two paintings I did yesterday at our painting class with Lee Boynton. The class was actually in the morning, but since I was free for the entire day, I brought my lunch and stayed to do a second painting in the afternoon.

The weather is turning crisper and the fall colors are starting to show, so the day's challenge was to find just the right colors to express the light and atmosphere particular to the unique day. Our class was held at a place called Belvoir, a private estate in Crownsville that had once belonged to the Scott family, renowned for having produced Francis Scott Key.

In the 1920's part of the estate was bought by relatives of Lee's mother-in-law, and is now owned by a private academy. We had permissions to use the grounds, and will be meeting there next week as well. I suspect Lee selected the location not only because it's bucolic and private, but because that maple tree we painted as it was beginning to turn, will likely be flaming with color by next week. I'm off to find more fall color this afternoon and tomorrow if the weather stays fine. Tune in next week.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Un-local Color

Spa Creek, 2nd week of class, 8" x 10"

What a beautiful day! Driving to Annapolis there was lots of "atmosphere," that light mist that suffuses everything around here on early fall mornings, fogging the distance. A bit of it stayed in the air as our class set up to paint at the same location as last week, this time in color.

Trying to find the right colors to render the effect of sunlight and shadow on the trees and water was much easier after Lee's demo and his explanation, and here's my painting, with a little help from our teacher. I 'm starting to understand how to organize my paintings better so I can achieve the effect I want. Now I'll be off to practice some more: the weather promises to be wonderful all weekend.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Painting for the Colorblind?

Spa Creek in Black and White, oils on canvasboard, 8" x 10"

This is one of yesterday's paintings done in Lee Boynton's class. His approach to teaching is that to understand landscape painting it's easier to start with value studies in black and white, but that doing these value studies in charcoal, pencil, or pen and ink (which is what most of us have done before) doesn't necessarily translate into oil painting: the student must use oil paint in order to understand how to work with it. So for this first session, we painted only with black and white paint.

I like the way he breaks down the process of bringing order to the painting. First, he subdivides the painting into three basic values: light, middle and dark grays to create the composition. Each value represents an area of the landscape, with the sky generally the lightest value, the ground the middle value and the trees the darkest. Once we have the shapes of those three areas established, the composition is in place and it should "read" as a representation of reality as well as an abstract composition.

Now to begin to articulate what we are trying to represent, each value is subdivided into three more values within that range. Within each subdivision, we can begin to define the sky as generally lightest at the horizon and darkening toward the zenith. The ground plane (in our case the water in the creek) again has subtle variations, while the variation in trees gives an idea of the distance from the viewer and their shapes.

The title of my post is intended to be amusing--contrary to what I once imagined, people with total color blindness (achromatopsia) do not see the world as we would on an old black and white TV set. They actually are quite impaired, unable perceive critical visual information in bright daylight. The neurologist Oliver Sacks writes brilliantly about this unusual condition in his book "The Island of the Colorblind," about an island in the Pacific where this rare genetic condition has a high incidence. In a chapter in another of his books called "The Case of the Colorblind Painter," he writes about a painter who becomes colorblind as a result of brain damage, and the fascinating ways he adjusts to his new life in the absence of color.

It's amazing how seeing in color informs us about distinctions between objects, distances and spatial configurations, not to mention how lovely it is in and of itself. Now that we have a better understanding of the underlying order in a painting, next week our class will start dealing with the complexities of color.