In mid-May I had the privilege to participate in another Joseph Zbukvic workshop. It’s been almost two years (!) since I last studied with him. I’ve learned a lot since then, and felt like I was ready to receive new things as student. Technique can always be improved, but (in my opinion) those skills I might be lacking are simply because I haven’t gotten enough hours under my belt- not because I don’t understand the concepts. So instead, I went in with a desire to focus on composition, and those nuances of thinking that help one’s point of view coalesce into a compelling image.
The 4-day workshop was run by friends (people who had also studied with JZ before) and was composed of more advanced students (friends and acquaintances who had studied with Alvaro or Joseph before, experienced painters, etc). This was great news for us, as Joseph really shifted gears as a teacher, and set aside the normal curriculum. Not much conversation about Mr. Bead or the Watercolor Clock like last time. The presumption was that we all were acquainted with both. Instead, it was more like “painting amongst peers” with guidance from a master. Excellent news!
Back to Basics for a Bit-
We did start off with a simple demo about the comparative moisture levels of paper and brush (the Watercolor Clock, in essence) and how the two interact. “The biggest mistake students make,” Joseph said, “(besides dabbing!!! No dabbing!!) is to not pay attention to the palette and how wet the mix is, and instead to give too much attention to color.” Well said!
During this demonstration, he also focused on brushstrokes and how to minimize them to greater affect. This was an ongoing theme over the 4 days- this conversation about what makes up a painting, at its most basic level, and what we should really be focusing on. Musicians use notes to make a symphony, and painters, he reiterated, use brushstrokes. So make your brushstrokes count- make them have confidence and vigor. Much like the last workshop, the idea was that tentative brushstrokes get sussed out and noticed by a viewer. Through your brushstrokes they can understand intuitively that you’re unsure of what you want to do, whereas confident brushstrokes will pull a viewer in, even if they don’t know why.
Compositional Sign Posts-
Over the course of the workshop, a variety of basic compositional tools that Joseph came back to became clear. Of course, every painting has its own needs, so I would never want to lay these down as rules, but still… As I watched him paint over and over again, I felt like these were signposts for him to reference and ponder as he went about “seeing” and deciding what to include and where to include it-
-Have a clear foreground, middle ground, and background (or stage, actors, and setting) is important, and making sure each does their job is essential. Lots of compositional choices and edits stem from this basic concern.
-Clear out the clutter from the foreground so you can “enter” a painting was something he noted repeatedly.
-Generally, even if you have heavy darks elsewhere, retaining your darkest darks for your midground is useful, as it pulls the eye in to the contrast.
-As always, the subject generally plays best in the midground, like actors on a stage. Whether it was boats or cars or people, the presumption was always to place them as he saw fit. If Joseph wanted people in a scene, he placed them as he needed, with the general presumption that someone had been there earlier. In truth, he has a magic ability to seemingly “call” people into place with the needs of his composition. Haha! People always seemed to arrive on scene in the right location eventually! “See!” he’d say, pointing with his brush, “There they are. Just like in my painting!”
-If the background isn’t naturally soft or cool, it is often made to be so, as this helps it recede. The background is there to create a setting and a sense of space, not to compete with your focal point. So if it's not doing its job, you may need to help it do so.
-And in general… Don’t fret over being too literal. The goal is to create a painting that evokes a similar true experience to your own, so that viewers hear the hubbub of a busy street or the snapping of wind, feel the lapping of waves, squint at the light, etc. None of which have anything to do with laboriously recording all the accidental details that make up a scene. Make sure your choices help pull that response from a viewer. In my own words- Fidelity should be to the feeling you want to illicit, not to the superficial “barnacles” of time, that aren’t really about the deeper subject matter.
First Demo- Drydock Boatyard
Joseph moved into this quick demo after his earlier “basics” chat. What struck me was how much he edited out, removed things, nudged them around, etc. Early on, he commented on the idea that, “What makes an artist an artist is how he sees.” Of course, doing this isn’t a surprise to me, but it’s one thing to know it and another thing to see how far Joseph can take it. It was really liberating to see how free he was in his composition. “When you’re done,” he said, “you’ll only have the painting.” So true! I've always felt that this is something he says to help you judge yourself less- that the painting doesn't have to compete with the actual view. Which is true. But it also became clear to me that this is something truthful because it helps liberate you to paint what you need to paint, move what you need to move, simplify what you need to, highlight and focus on the story you are telling.
Here’s a photo of the view from the window he painted at. As you can see, it’s full of crazy stuff!! There was a pole in the way, and some low-hanging branches. There was a bunch of junk over to the left side, some sheds on the right, and in the foreground was a variety of small boats and other equipment. It blows me away when I look at this and then compare it to the final piece. It’s a little like being Alice, looking through the looking glass. The two subjects (the photo and the painting) are the same, like cousins, but Joseph’s lets you in.
Look at how those earlier "sign posts" come in to play. He cleans and opens up the foreground- to let the eye wander in to the painting. He softens the background. The shadows from the bridge are used to negatively light the surface of the boats, but he never pushes it too dark. Instead, he lets them remain mid-tones. Alternatively, the shadows the boats themselves cast (the primary players in his painting) are darkened. Finally, of course, he dramatically simplifies the subject. A recording of mundane details is not the purpose of the painting.
I had a very interesting conversation with him about the subject matter as well. I asked him if he considered keeping the upside down boats in the foreground (which I thought were interesting shapes). He felt that including them blocked you from entering the image, and that, most interesting of all, if they were included they would begin to naturally become a point of interest. The viewer would start to think they were the main subject, and the boats he really wanted to paint (the ones on the trailers) would become the background. I followed up by asking him what he would do if he did include the upside down white boats. His basic response- lift them up to the mid-ground make them the subject! So when it came time to do my own version of this on Day 3, that's just what I did.
My Take on the Boat Yard-
A few days later during one of the afternoons back at the studio space, I tried my hand at the boat yard. This was a difficult, jumbled subject, but I was interested in challenging myself... compositionally in particular. I didn't want to just repeat Joseph's painting and focus on technique this time (like I did in the last workshop! A great way to learn, by the way). Instead, I wanted to try and distill from the demo what I could and apply those mental lessons to my own work. I actually like my piece for some of what it does, but my painting is relatively representative of what you saw when you looked own. Comparing it and Joseph's compositions shows you immediately how much Joseph is able to "zoom" in and crop a subject. There's really something to learn here, not about technique but about "seeing" and choosing your subject.
As I was painting, Joseph strolled over and gave me two basic critiques- one was to put in darker shadows under the central boats to sit them on the ground (which we did), and the other was to connect more of my shapes. At first, I had the darker boats in the midground and the boats in the upper background, but these two areas were divided, almost like two paintings. This is as they are visually in real life. He put that funny little arch in the middle that connects the darker shadows up top with the jumble of stuff in the midground. In the last workshop (2 years ago), he talked about "funnels and ladders" as ways to connect disparate shapes, and allow the eye to travel. I saw what I felt he was going for, and added the person pushing a dolly over on the right. This was purely done to connect the shadowed area on the far right with the focal point area. In the end, these two simple changes really helped bring together pretty disparate elements of the painting.
Composition matters! :) Thank you Joseph!