Lessons from the workshop

I thought I'd share a few of the studies I worked on during the Matt Smith workshop I posted about earlier this week. I will first preface by saying that my haste in preparing for this class came back to haunt me, so while I was well prepared in terms of my art supplies, I misunderstood what I was supposed to bring in the way of reference materials. The support documentation said to bring plein air studies and/or photos, and for some reason I took that to mean that plein air studies were preferred (maybe I was just hooked on the idea of plein air!) I probably should have asked beforehand about this because I did feel a little puzzled when I was packing about referencing a small scale plein air to make another small scale painting. (I usually translate small plein airs to larger works in the studio, but the recommended canvas sizes were all under 12x16"). In any event, I packed a number of my plein air pieces for reference, and then as a total afterthought printed off a few of my photos "just in case."

After seeing one demo and hearing the discussion though, I realized the error of my ways. I talked to Matt about what I should work from and he said he would rather see what I could do with my photo references for this class. Matt did bring a number of his own photo references for people to use, but I really dislike using other people's references. Even though we are composing with light and form, I want references that reflect my real experience of having seen (and felt) a place.  So I did what I could with what I had, but I really wished I had brought a more extensive selection of my hundreds upon hundreds of photos I have in my personal archive.

This  first painting is also the most incomplete:

In all of my paintings the common feedback from Matt was to take my brush and "knock back" some of my brushwork that competed with my statement or focal area. For instance, in this painting, our conversation went something like this:

MS:  "Is this painting about the light or shadows?" JY: "Well, I like the highlights on the edges of the poplar trees the best". And with that he took my brush and blended back the rather boisterous brushwork that was beginning to take shape in the shadow passages. MS: "You're giving equal weight to both." Next he mixed a bold tree highlight and swept it upwards on the edge of one of my poplar trees calligraphically, making the highlight really jump out. JY: "Ah, I see! But...I wouldn't just leave it like that...would I? It looks pretty unfinished." MS: "No, not necessarily. But you may restate and knock back several times before you get it right."

 I have such a love of brushwork, but it probably can work to my disadvantage sometimes. The hard part, I think, is figuring out what, exactly, is "right", and what is too little or too much. It's all about finding that balance, where active areas are juxtaposed with quiet passages. It's the quiet passages that play a supporting role and allow the more active ones to take center stage. To paraphrase something Matt said in one of his talks, it can't all be "important". Filter the noise and find the important elements.

I soon abandoned the first study, deciding to just keep that as an annotated lesson.  The second 8x10" painting below is more complete, and may look familiar to some long time blog readers. That is because I painted this scene before en plein air, and blogged about it here. The photo in the link is too dark overall but even so, I think this second study is much more infused with light. (So this exercise will be very helpful to me when I translate the concept to a larger painting, which I really am excited to do now! ) For the painting below, though,  I thought I'd try it again using just my photo reference and see what kind of feedback I could get, and whether it would look decidedly different as a result.

 "Rooted II" (Study) Oil on panel, 8x10" ©Jennifer Young

"Rooted II" (Study) Oil on panel, 8x10" ©Jennifer Young

I really loved the composition as it was, so it remains relatively the same in this second attempt. But in terms of paint application,  I got some helpful hands-on feedback from Matt again. Again he took my brush and knocked back the brushwork of the distant trees to make them sit back more and look less stylized.  Fair enough. He then demonstrated "opening up the shadows, using reflected light cast from nearby objects to cast color into the shadows. He put a touch of blue, for instance, on the shadow side of the tree trunks reflecting the water, and the warmer tones reflecting warmth from the stones or earth. That was awesome. After that he showed me how an assertive hand used to apply just a few intense highlights could suddenly make the painting pop. I reworked some of what he put in but played with those general ideas. But that rim light of his along the trunk and the 3 or 4 dabs of bright green paint on the tree leaves remain just as they were applied. (And don't they just sing?)

I felt I was finally getting somewhere on this final painting (below), though we had some helpful discussion early on about using perspective to direct the viewer to the focal point. He again knocked back the distant mountains with no paint, just several swift blending strokes (sigh.)  I don't consider this painting really finished either but I love the composition and I think I would like to try this again on a larger scale. It's the Dordogne as seen from the top of the Chateau de Beynac.

 "Dordogne River" (Study) Oil on canvas, 9x12" ©Jennifer Young

"Dordogne River" (Study) Oil on canvas, 9x12" ©Jennifer Young

I think overall his main critique of my work was that he wanted to see both more paint and a more deliberate, assertive handling of paint. And it's really hard to do the latter without the former. As he put it, you need to have enough paint there so that it expresses the character of the medium. Otherwise you need to ask yourself, "Why are you painting in oils?"

The class was listed as an intermediate-advanced class and I felt the instruction and the students lived up to that. I left the class pretty exhausted but with a lot to think about on my 6 hour drive back home. It will be interesting to see how I can apply Matt's feedback and insights to my work, while still making my paintings "mine". Once or twice the feedback was hard, but I soon realized, as with any class, it's important to leave your ego at the door and come with an open mind if you really want to learn.