Saturday, April 20, 2013

Painting vs. Painting

Comparing your works to an admired past master can be fun, and a learning experience. However, it is easy, in that even before you place the jpegs next to each other, you know the master has beaten you. Looking at these two paintings, it is immediately clear which work is by Tom Thomson, and which one is by me.  He was the master, and always will be.

Comparing your work to current painters can be more conflicting.  It's exciting to find living artists that you can learn from.  On the other hand, it would be nice to feel admired. Acknowledgement from within the field is also inspiring, and desired.

The real challenge comes when you compare your works against each other.  If they are too similar, you are not learning.  If they are too inconsistent, you are not in control.  Signs of improvement bring joy, failed works and clear weaknesses bring harsh realities.

As always, the best approach is whatever teaches you the most.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Degrees of Abstraction

The more a work leans towards abstraction, the more the remaining elements take on. For example, features in a portrait, details in a landscape, and reflections in a still life carry weight within a painting. As elements are removed, their visual clout is transferred elsewhere, as the total impact must remain the same. A colour field painter has reduced everything to just two elements: colour and the actual paint. They now carry all visual burden.

Looking at the landscape on the left, oil on canvas, 16 by 20", detailed depictions of leaves have been removed; replaced with strong colours. Light and shadow have been replaced with contrast through colour temperature.

Every painting starts the same, as a blank canvas, and every painting ends the same, as a visual object. Everything in-between is a distribution, or redistribution, of visual elements.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010


I've always told myself that as long as something was learned, every painting was worthwhile. For example, in the painting on the left, oil on canvas, 24 by 30 inches, the trees push to the foreground, to a point where they appear as though drawn over pre-existing areas of colour. Lesson learned.

This approach has obvious benefits for someone learning to paint, and that in turn is something that arguably never ends. However, does there come a point where it's just an excuse for lack of success? What if the best painting is perpetually the next painting.

The counter-argument to all of this is best said by fellow painter Cynthia Agathocleous: "You do not need an excuse for failed works; the experience in itself is worthwhile." The act of painting is rewarding. If it wasn't, who would do it?

Tuesday, August 03, 2010


Development of alkyds began in the 1920s. Today, alkyd based oil painting mediums are readily available and popular. So widespread has this synthetic resin become that some products, with "traditional" names, are in fact alkyds in disguise.

Not to dissuade anyone from using them, but when a medium begins to dominate, is there a danger that painters, who are just starting out, will not even try older recipes? What if an established painting medium worked better for a particular style, but since alkyds are easily acquired, the painter will not even be aware of other approaches? A similar argument can be made for acrylic gesso, which has almost replaced glues for preparing canvases. What if a traditionally sized canvas simply creates a better surface for a particular type of work?

The key of course is to experiment will all kinds of oil painting mediums, including alkyds. Even when a formula is found, style and technique can change, and alternate mixtures must be tried again.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Wasted Paint

Upon being instructed to abandon a work in progress, to save materials, a fellow student replied that there is no such thing as wasted paint. As long as the brush is moving, you are learning, regardless of the end results. I always found this comment interesting, as it suggests certain universal aspects of painting.

Regardless of skill or experience, many works will simply not turn out. The best baseball players in the world don't hit the ball every time at bat; strikeouts are inevitable. At the very least, experience is gained, even if only in the application of paint. Familiarity with the tools and materials must be acquired, and thus any use of them will arguably lead to improvements. The image can also be analyzed for potential weaknesses, such as struggles with a particular colour. Is there really such a thing as wasted paint?

However, for those works that are clearly not going well, a possible question is, would it not be better to immediately proceed with a new painting? The brush would still be moving, and now with a fresh start, the added chance of better results.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Subject Matter

A fellow painter once remarked, upon viewing some of my landscapes, that it was clear I lived in a country setting. Like so much in painting, this could be interpreted in numerous ways. It does however put forth the question of subject matter, and what best suits each painter. Initially, my landscapes were an attempt to break away from the structured forms of past still life paintings. Scenes such as the one above, oil on canvas, 20 by 28 inches, practically demand a more open application of paint and colour. The subject matter changed the approach and even style of painting. Also, I have actually worked, cutting wood, in the forest depicted. How much does a personal connection find its way into the final image? If I packed up and painted landscapes in a different part of the world, would something be missing?

The counter-argument to all of this would be the works of Vincent Van Gogh. His favorite subjects were portraits, landscapes, and still lifes; the three most common in painting. Regardless of which one, Van Gogh's talent, skill, and of course expressive abilities, shown through. In other words, it didn't matter what he painted, his personality dominated.

Saturday, May 03, 2008


Everything in a painting is there for a reason, even if the painter is not immediately aware. A diptych, for example, is created on two panels for a purpose, and not just for the sake of splitting an image in two. The surface of a painting is also chosen for a reason.

When starting in oils, I primarily painted on unsupported masonite. The initial explanation was cost related; it was simply less expensive than canvas. What I did not realize was the effect the masonite surface had on my brush marks. The rigid panels pushed paint forward, as the applied texture remains intact. In other words, the tool marks are not altered by the surface; as opposed to the flexibility or bounce of stretched canvas. This lead to, or was the cause of, dabs of strong colour throughout the work. Eventually, I decided to tone down the brush marks, and switched to canvas, with it's texture and more subtle effects. The surface used relates to the style of painting created.