Upcoming Workshop- Wet into Wet Landscapes, May 31st- June 2nd


It's still 6 weeks out from now, but I wanted to get this info out earlier this time. I'll be teaching a 3-day workshop at Arts Benicia at the end of May.  Class will be Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, 930-330, with a break for lunch in the middle. 

Of course, we'll be painting lots of landscapes and exploring technique, and having a good time doing it!  But we'll also be moving past the brush as we judge and build compositions- exercising our critical eye as we work towards you painting your own subjects on Day 3. 

If you're interested in signing up, here's the link- Loosening Up With Wet-Into-Wet Landscapes. The fee is 295$, paid directly to Arts Benicia through the website.  I've got a few enrollees already so far, and I hope to see more of you there!  :)  If you've not painted watercolors much before, this would not the be the class for you, as the intent is to move beyond just technique and a bit more into the thinking and planning and building of a painting.  I'll be offering an introductory Wet Into Wet class in July.  However, if you've taken a class from me before, this would be a good follow up to stretch your skills! :)

Creating Good Artificial Lighting for Your Art Workspace


Given work, raising a family, and the short days after the New Year, I’ve recently been trying to find spare hours to paint when it’s not daylight.  As such, this past winter I did some research and set up better artificial lighting in my “studio” space (aka, the back table).  What a pain!  LOL.  But my pain and research shall be to your benefit!  Read on, and learn about what makes good lighting in your work space and what you might buy to achieve it.

First, what is the measure of success?  The goal is generally to attempt to duplicate the experience of good, indirect northern light on your paper.  This is much like the kind of cooler, ambient light we get in well lit homes, and the kind of light we generally get in galleries and such. So if you’re planning of sharing your work in spaces like that, then the goal is to create lighting situations that, as close as possible, replicate that experience.  Much like this—


This is where I normally paint, when I paint at home in the day.  Lots of cool, northern, ambient light coming from in front of me.  No shadow cast onto my paper from myself.  A sliding glass door to my right as well, facing east, for a bit more indirect light in the afternoon.

This is a lovely place to paint by day.  The issue was night. 

I already had overhead lights, of course, which I used in the evenings from time to time and thought would be fine, but I became increasingly unhappy with the setup.  Why go through the hassle of changing the whole setup? A few basic reasons—hue shift, inaccurate values, and cast shadows. 


How Bad Lighting Affects Your Paintings

Most of the time, we’re not looking at paintings in the evening under warm yellow light, and it can greatly affect how we see color.  Just how yellow is typical indoor light?  In this photo you can see my overhead lighting, with two of the original warm, yellow bulbs in it and one of the newer bluer bulbs for contrast—



How much of a difference does that kind of lighting make on your painting?  Here on the left is a photo of a painting I did outdoors, and on the right is the same painting photographed under the typical yellow lighting one might use at night at home.  Note how the sky is no longer a clean, cool blue, but instead an off gray, while the cool gray shadows on the mountain have become a sunny warm grey. Also, all the whites have a gentle warm cast to them now, in the indoor photo on the right.  Additionally, in the dimmer lights, middle values read darker.  I find this particularly so in the trees in this image, if you look at the trunk on the left or the foliage on the far right.  All of this is just based on the lighting.


Of course, it’s one thing to have the lighting change the way a painting looks after you’re finished, which is a pain, but this shift in hue and value can also occur while you’re painting the piece.  This can cause all kinds of problems later on, because lighting that is too warm and dim will make you over compensate with a palette that is too cool and pale.  Come morning, you’ll experience that sad moment when you go to look at your painting (that one you were so satisfied with!), and find the whole thing has a very blue cast.

The second, and more obvious, thing that comes from bad overhead lighting is that you yourself often cast a shadow upon your painting, like this—



How Good Lighting is Measured—

First, the good news is that other people, like this fellow Will Kemp—  http://willkempartschool.com/art-studio-lighting-design/  --have done a lot of the heavy lifting for us about this sort of thing.  Follow the link and read up as much as you want.  It’s a really wonderful resource, and goes farther in depth than I do in this post.

I’m going to do the cheat sheet version here.  This is where we get a little technical.  If you just want to know what I bought and recommend, scroll down below.  If you want to know more about lighting, read on!  We need to track a few things if we want to set things up right, like

1) the color temperature (is it warm or cool?) of your lighting (measured in Kelvin),

2) whether the type of light it emits has a good “Color Rendering Index” (we’ll talk about that later),

3) whether it’s bright enough (measured in Lumens, not watts), and

4) the location and distance of your light source, relative to you and your canvas.


Lets look at them briefly, one by one –

Color Temperature—Most lights that we use indoors, as noted before, are pretty heavily yellow.  They often run in the 2000- 3000 Kevin range. We need something around 5000K, which is supposed to be a cool, neutral light.  If you put one in with that rating, you’ll be astounded at how “blue” things look. At the very least, I was.  This is meant to replicate the kind of natural ambient Northern lighting I discussed earlier, rather than a warm, sunny, southern facing window.

CRI—Color Rendering Index— this is a measurement of how well the light source you have produces a full range of hues when it bounces off your paper.  Think of old LED tubes, that made everything look blue in your our garage.  That’s what we want to avoid.  Instead, we aim for a cool 5000K temperature light that also reflects a full range of color.  The closer it gets to doing that, the closer it gets to 100 CRI (like sunlight), when it accurately produces a full range of hues.  Is there science behind it all?  Yes.  Do I understand it?  Nope.  LOL!

Lumens—this is a measurement of how much light your bulb produces.  It’s used instead of watts.  This is particularly important if you’re using a newer (much more advanced) LED bulb, where the wattage is far far less than for a typical incandescent bulb, but the volume of brightness is comparatively far greater, in terms of how much energy it uses.  This is why they make such and such watt “equivalent” LED bulbs, so we have a comparison point for how bright they are.

Distance— this might sound simple to say, but, of course, the farther your light source is from you the dimmer it gets!  That’s part of how Lumens are measured.  It’s not just what the bulb produces, but can also be measured as the amount of light that arrives at a point (like your canvas).  There’s a complicated equation if you go the reference page I linked to, but the short of it is that most typical lighting situations need about 1500-2000 lumens.

Position— This depends a lot on the type of media you use.  There’s lots of recommendations online about lighting from above, but this almost always has to do with painting vertically with oils or acrylics.  All the advice that I got (which turned out to be true!) is that a watercolorist needs the light to come from the side, from directly above, or from slightly over the shoulder opposite the hand you paint with (as in, a right handed painter would have light come from slightly behind his left shoulder).  This does two things—it stops your active painting hand from casting a shadow on the area you’re working on, and it stops glare from bouncing off the wet paint into your eyes (which happens if you place your light in from of you at all).


Results and Tools-

There’s a lot of advice on the internet about lighting that involves Halogen lights and diffusers and stands and… and and and.  This often has a lot to do with lighting that professional photographers use.  I preferred the simpler route, which seems to be serving pretty well so far-- meaning my results are good enough that I can paint at odd hours, and yet my color and values still look correct they next day. 

So, with that goal in mind, the good news is that there are now tools (bulbs) that we can buy that provide basically everything we need, and cheaply. 



I picked these up from Amazon for about 30$ for a lot of 4.  They’re bright 100w equivalent LED bulbs that only use 16 watts, so they’re energy efficient.  They each produce 1660 lumens (the equivalent of 4 of my old incandescent bulbs!).  They have a CRI of 95, and they have a 5000K temperature.  They even have an E26 base, which is the label for bulb bases that fit a normal bulb bottom.

I tried these at first in two simple work flood lamps that I aimed upwards, but I found these too indirect and dim, like this—


Instead, in the end I took the advice of others and chose not to remake the wheel!  I got this toJane lamp for 40$. 

ToJane Lamp.jpg


With its super flexible triple-hinge system on a swiveling base, I’m able to place the lamp exactly at the location I want, at the distance I want.  And in the end, this has also allowed me to flexibly shift and place the lamp exactly where I need it, as I work on different parts of a painting.


And that’s it for now!  If you’re interested in improving the lighting setup in your art making space, I hope these notes from my own experience help you along the way.  For perhaps 75$, in the end, you can do it pretty simply, as long as you know what you are supposed to be looking for, and what to do with it!  :P

Drying Shift- Wet versus Dry Color


In this little post, I wanted to touch on how much watercolor really does lose chroma and value when it dries.  Drying shift is real, and your wet mix has to compensate for it.  You have to learn to trust it will occur… usually through some repeated failure.  ;)  As I’ve heard more than watercolor teacher say, “If it looks right wet, then it’s wrong.”

In this first painting (up above), you can see how the shiny purple area of stone is richly colored and dark in value, and yet how much paler and grayed out it is in the final version (below), when the “body” of the water is gone, and the pigment has settled down into the fibers of the paper--



Colors are more vibrant in some other mediums, such as oils or acrylics, because the particles of pigment permanently float in the body of the binder- linseed oil for oils, and acrylic polymer for acrylics (please correct me if I'm wrong!).  We use gum arabic or honey, which dissolves in the water as we paint.  With watercolors, once the paint dries, the particles float down into the fibers of the paper, where light is scattered and refracted and the color experience gently dulled.  This is why applying a light matte spray varnish can make your colors "glow" and become darker- you're lessening the power of the paper to scatter light.  Have I ever done that?  Nope.  But I've read about it, so I guess that makes it hearsay.  ;)  Perhaps a reader can comment on that. 

If you're interested in reading more about these technical elements of binders, papers, and how watercolors (and watercolor papers) reflect and interact with light, you could follow these links to some very interesting sections at handprint.com - The Material Attributes of Paints and The Secret of Glowing Watercolor.  It's dense and sometimes (too) technical, but I've learned a lot and consider the website a very good resource. 

In this next piece, which in general I actually like, focus in on the bright red flowers in the center, and the orange flower in the upper left.  This is early in the painting process, while the paper is still wet and the pigments fresh--


They are all definitely paler and more grayed out in the dried version below--


Sometimes you can remedy a mistake like this by glazing, but some things you just have to let go and accept, particularly if you were painting wet into wet, or have been using bonded, interlocking shapes, such as here.  By the time I recognized the issue here, it was really past altering.  The original edges to the red flower were all soft and wet-into-wet, and the darker values on top made it very difficult to separate out the original shape.  Sometimes, also, you have the right value after drying, but the vibrancy of the wet hue is gone.  This causes problems too if you glaze, because you can’t really fix the problem without altering the original value… which can often lead to paintings that are far darker and more brooding than you originally wanted.

This is the sort of painting process that just needs to be done as well as you can the first time through and then let go.  “Fixing” the drying shift just makes it worse.

Plein Air in the Snow!

Late in February, I headed up to Yosemite to go to the reception for the Yosemite Renaissance show (which was lovely, by the way!).  I figured I ought to try to do some plein air work while I was up there, so I set about doing some research.  As a pretty typical California boy, I deal with snow only in small amounts, and so have never painted in conditions like that.  Thank goodness for those crazy folks back east, who have to work in this kind of stuff before!  Here are two links I found useful-



What amused me most was how much both posts focused on what to wear, and talked little about dealing with paint in the cold!  Hahaha! But it's true.  If you're cold, its hard to focus on making beauty.  So I listened to their wise words, and layered and layered, bought some snow pants, had my non-painting hand in a snow glove (Michael Jackson style!), stayed close to my car (or my room) to get warm as needed, and stayed out of the wind.

This is from my first day out, on the road that goes around the valley.  In the winter, there's lots of room to park.  So I just found a spot and pulled over, literally, to the side of the road. Set up my easel and got to painting.  This is closer to the entrance of the valley, with El Capitan behind my back.


My photo above came late in the game, and the mountains are so tall that the light changes quickly in the valley in the winter.   So there was a bit of a slash of light that came down on to a few of the trees that's not in the photo, before the light went behind the mountain.  I had to paint that from memory after the fact.  I really wanted to get that cold, glaring light that was bouncing off of the snowy mountain.

This second one was painted from the stoop of my little wooden cabin in Half Dome Village.  Again, that glare off the mountain, through the trees, was lovely!  I brought vodka to mix with my water (as I read about), but never got around to using it.  By the time I recognized my need here, it was too late, and I didn't want to stop the process.  It was early morning, so things were pretty cold.  Right around freezing still.  You'll notice the crystallization in my sky wash, which started to freeze up when I painted it!!  The water in my bowl was fine, but my little mixtures of paint were definitely turning to slush on my palette.  I took the painting in to my room and set it next to the heater to get things to defrost and dry.  Brrrrr!!!



After spending too much time driving around the valley the first day, looking for subjects to paint, on the second day I figured, "Eh!  Why make it hard?"  So I went out to the snow covered parking lot at Half Dome Village and painted this lovely subject!


Once again, it was pretty cold, so things weren't drying.  I had to go to my car and blast the defroster to get my initial wash to dry thoroughly.  This was a good thing too, because there were drifts of snow coming down from the pines up above.  When the paint's 100% dry, nothing reactivates- which is good, because I had multiple splats of snow on my sky!  But if you look closely at Half Dome, you'll notice little "flecks" in the wash- those were from little snowflakes fluttering down into the wet wash.  :)


The snow dribbled down into the trees too.  More like "chunks" of snow "plopped" onto my painting.  But still, you get the idea!.  I didn't mind the effects, but I wished the trees were darker.  So when I got back home I did a few things-

1) I did an additional wash on the sky, to make the snow-covered shoulder of Half Dome "pop" more.  The value was too pale on the original- Cobalt Blue really does dry much much paler!

2) I darkened up the base of the trees to better reflect the shadowy nature of them.  I liked the dribbles in the first batch better, but there was no contrast in value between them and Half-Dome, so I like that element better in the 2nd version.  Whaddaya gonna do?  You can't have both!

3) I also worked on darkening up and growing the raven in the tree on the right.  Lots of ravens around the park, cawing and such!  Very emblematic to me of the space in winter.

It's also worth noting the basic hue shift between the two paintings.  This really has more to do with camera work- one in the shadows of my car on a snowy day, and one in the more controlled environment of my house with good lighting.  The second is much warmer and more accurate. 



In the end, the process was pretty doable!  :)  These three were all done between 30-40 degrees.  Cold, but not insane.  But if I hadn't had my car's defroster or my room's heater, I'm not quite sure what I would have done.  It's hard to do a proper watercolor painting without atleast two washes.  I've seen a person (really) use a blow torch to dry things out in the field.  I guess that'd be one way to do it!  But without that drying tool, it's hard to get things done.  If you can stay close to the car, things get much much easier- just gotta follow the proffered advice and bundle up properly for sitting in one spot in the snow for an hour!  :)