Paint Shapes, Not “Things”

Tiny fourth layer—the darkest shadows at the base of the pears and the stem on the pear in front.

Want your paintings to look unified? It helps to combine “things” into larger shapes, and then use smaller shapes to (partially) separate them. Here’s an exercise to help you practice.

First, set up a still life with a couple of simple objects. Avoid anything that has a lot of pattern, texture, reflections or complicated edges—you want to be able to capture the overall silhouette fairly easily. A couple of pieces of fruit or simple vegetables work well. Or a couple of eggs or smooth stones.

If you like more geometric shapes, you could include things like a simple mug or bowl, or a little box. Try to stay away from anything that will tempt you to get caught up in details or worries over getting the right proportions, so you can stay focused on the main point of the exercise.

Use a desk lamp or a sunny window to set up your still life with a single strong light source, so you have some definite shadows.

Our setup: two simple objects, set up with a strong light to cast clear shadows.
Our setup: two simple objects, set up with a strong light to cast clear shadows.

 

Next, using a graphite pencil or watercolor pencil, whichever you prefer, lightly draw the outer silhouette only of the objects and their shadows. Most people find it quite difficult to draw just the outer silhouette, so alternately, you could draw everything, and then erase all the interior lines. In the example below, I’ve drawn the lines in ink so they’ll show up in the photo, but you’ll want to make faint pencil lines, just dark enough for you to see where to put your first wash.

Draw ONLY the outer silhouette of the objects PLUS their shadows. I've used ink, so the drawing will show up in the photo, but you should just make light pencil lines.
Draw ONLY the outer silhouette of the objects PLUS their shadows. I’ve used ink, so the drawing will show up in the photo, but you should just make light pencil lines.

Next, fill in the entire silhouette with ONE wash. By “one wash” I mean that you DO NOT stop at the “edge” of any of the objects! Just keep right on going. The entire area should be wet all at the same time.

However, you can change value and color as you go. If you have objects of two different colors, the colors will bleed into one another, but that will actually work to your advantage. By the same token, the color of the objects will bleed into the shadow areas, and that also is a good thing. (To see a more dramatic example of how this works in multiple colors, you might want to watch the Bowl and Lemons demo from my Watercolor Jumpstart class.)

I switched to darker, greyer color as I got to the shadow areas, but as you can see, it bled into the still wet area of the pears. It turns out that is a good thing, so don't try to prevent it.
I switched to darker, greyer color as I got to the shadow areas, but as you can see, it bled into the still wet area of the pears. It turns out that is a good thing. It will actually help us suggest reflected light, and the overall lighting in the scene, so don’t try to prevent it.

If you haven’t done the Bowl and Lemons exercise, you might find it helpful to paint along with me on that exercise before trying this one. In the Bowl and Lemons exercise, I have made the decisions about what shapes to paint for you. In this exercise, it will be up to you to find the smaller shapes to layer over your first wash to help the viewer distinguish individual “things”.

Next, I’ve chosen to paint the “shadow side” of both pears as one shape. To help me see the overall “shapes” that make up these “things” I use the standard artist trick of squinting until all the detail is lost and all I can see are the larger shapes that make up my setup.

I also lifted a little color on the pear in back to suggest the small highlight. And, because I was hurrying a bit, the shadow under the pear in front was still wet, so my new shape bled into that area. I didn’t worry about that, because I know that I will be layering another shape on top to make the shadows on the table, so that little bleed will get covered up.

As I add new shapes, I keep reminding myself to leave at least some of the previous layer untouched. Doing this helps me resist the temptation to endlessly “fix” stuff by going over the entire first wash and keeps the painting looking fresher.

The new shape layered over the first wash.
The new shape layered over the first wash.
Second layer—The shadow side of both pears.
Second layer—The shadow side of both pears.

Next, I painted another layer over the cast shadows on the table, (plus darkening the stem on the pear in back and adding the little blossom end on the pear in front).

Notice I only needed a small shape to make it possible for the viewer to see the separation between the two pears. Make it a goal to use as little as possible to “separate” two objects. Most of us want to do WAY more than necessary!

The shapes I added in the third layer.
The shapes I added in the third layer.
Third layer—The cast shadows, and a small shape to "separate" the two pears.
Third layer—The cast shadows, and a small shape to “separate” the two pears.

Finally, I darkened the shadow side of the pear in front, added the small, dark shadows directly below each pear, and the dark stem on the pear in front.

Fourth layer—the shadow side of the pear in front, small shadows below each pear, and the stem of the pear in front.
Fourth layer—the shadow side of the pear in front, small shadows below each pear, and the stem of the pear in front.

Done! At this point we can see the two pears as two separate “things” sitting on a surface, casting shadows, but we did it by painting shapes, not things!

Tiny fourth layer—the darkest shadows at the base of the pears and the stem on the pear in front.
Done! At this point, you can see the pears as two separate “things” with cast shadows, but we did it by painting shapes, not things!

It’s quite a challenge to learn to see this way, so don’t be discouraged if you have a hard time with this exercise at first. Instead of laboring over each layer, and going back to “fix” your work, give yourself a short time limit—say 5 minutes—to complete each attempt, and then change things around and try again.

Remember, the goal here is to practice the technique, not “make a painting”. You don’t have to show these to anyone, so push yourself to see just how little you can do to suggest things by layering smaller and smaller shapes. Try hard not to ever entirely cover up a previous shape!

Don’t make this a chore! Use it as a warm-up, or when you only have a few minutes to paint. Set a timer, and when the timer goes off, give yourself permission to be done with it.

The more you do this, the more you’ll tune in to this way of looking at the world while planning your paintings. And you’ll also be gaining confidence in the power of a few small shapes to dramatically change how your paintings look, which will help you relax and paint more freely and boldly. And who doesn’t want that? 🙂

 

 

New Watercolor Mandala Template

One example of using the mandala template in this article.

I know some of you enjoy using the templates I create for my Watercolor Prayer/Meditation Mandala Mini-Retreats. I created a new one that was very popular at the last mini-retreat, so I decided to share it with you here. This one has some larger open areas for you to add shapes, lettering or images of your own.

One example of using the mandala template in this article.
One example of using the mandala template in this article.

The first image below is the full design, intended for a 16×16″ sheet of watercolor paper or board. The template is for one quarter of the overall design. You can either print out 4 copies and tape them together before tracing the entire design, or you can trace one quarter of the design at a time, until you have traced all 4 corners.

The second image is just the center portion of the larger design, which works well on its own on a smaller sheet of paper (say 8×8″ to 12×12″). There is a download link under each image, to download the template as a PDF file. (If you’re reading this in an email, you will need to click on the article’s title to go to my website in order to be able to make the download links work.)

Enjoy! (Love to see images of your completed mandala—please share images in the comments section!)

4-fold spiral
Download template for the large 4-fold spiral mandala.

 

 

4-fold spiral mandala (center only). This version is best for 8" diameter and smaller.
4-fold spiral mandala (center only). This version is best for 8″ diameter and smaller.
Download template for the small 4-fold spiral mandala.

“No Mistakes” Art-Making

The tan color in the background of this painting was an accident, but the piece that resulted is one of my favorite paintings.

Do you ever make mistakes when you’re working in your journal? Or doodling?

Ever put down a wobbly line? Smear some ink? Drip watercolor where you didn’t mean to?

How does it make you feel? Perhaps a bit aggravated or disappointed? Do you ever want to tear a page out of your journal because it isn’t pleasing to look at?

Yeah. Me, too.

On the other hand, I have come to realize that many of my favorite artworks—and definitely many of the ones that were “breakthroughs”—arose from mistakes and the struggle to “salvage” them.

glowing orange spiral on deep red background, painting by Lynne Baur
One of my favorite pieces from the 30-paintings-in-30-days challenge resulted from a mistake. This painting emerged from a “failed” landscape.

 

What is a “mistake” in art?

In some areas of life, a mistake can have pretty serious consequences. An injury, a financial loss, a relationship strained, a cherished possession damaged.

But in art-making? Not so much. In art, a “mistake” is the name we give something unexpected and unintended that we’re not sure we like.

What happens if you make a mistake in a doodle or a drawing or a painting?

Nothing.

It doesn’t blow up in your face. No puppies suffer. The only thing that might implode is the plan you had for the piece.

But, maybe what you are calling a mistake is the voice of Spirit, of the universe, of chaos, of the Trickster, of your subconscious . . . telling you to lighten up, reconsider from another perspective, break out of a rut, let go, wake up . . .

Maybe it’s the challenge that will bring you a bit closer to clarity or understanding.  Maybe it’s a doorway to mystery and wonder.

Maybe all we need to do is embrace our art “mistakes”, let go of ego and fear, let go of whatever plan we were clutching so tightly and enter into a dialog with the materials to see what might emerge.

Maybe we just need to wrestle with our mistakes, for what the struggle teaches us.

Maybe they’re not mistakes at all. Maybe they’re genius in disguise, if only we can find the way to work with them.

The tan color in the background of this painting was an accident, but the piece that resulted is one of my favorite paintings.
The tan color in the background of this painting was an accident, but the piece that resulted is one of my favorite paintings.

 

Digital Doodles

Horse drawn with Paper by 53.

Before I get into today’s article, a little housekeeping. As you probably know, the 30-Doodles-in-30-Days Challenge is over, but the group wanted to continue receiving daily doodling suggestions. It turns out the easiest way to make sure people can get their doodling prompts in the event of an email glitch is to post them on my blog.

That means when you receive this newsletter, you may notice a series of one-line articles under “Recent Posts” consisting of the past several doodling prompts. If it’s not your thing, just ignore them. But even if you don’t aspire to doodle every day, you might occasionally be inspired by these little one-liners.

Use them as is, ignore them or rebel against them and do something completely different! The doodlers tell me that they often find them stimulating to think about, even if they don’t actually doodle anything related. I hope you enjoy them, too!

Now, what’s this about “digital” doodles?

I know many of you have iPads (or other tablets) or smartphones. Have you ever thought of using them to make art? There are many, many fun apps that allow you to draw, doodle, “paint” and modify your photos—and a lot of them are free, have free versions, or cost only a few dollars.

Even if you are already thinking you want nothing to do with drawing on your phone, you might want to scroll down to the end of the article for a photo app that can “paint” better than I can! (Seriously, these look like real watercolors!)

Digital apps lack the tactile appeal of real art materials, but there’s no mess, and if you’re like me, you may forget your sketchbook, but you usually have your phone.

Next time you’re waiting at the dentist or traveling without your sketching materials, try one of these.

I’m not going to try to give any sort of comprehensive overview. The folks at Creative Bloq have done that far better than I could. I just want to give you a bit of an idea to get you started.  I have an iPad and a Mac, so that’s what I’m able to address personally.

Creative Bloq has an extensive review of iPad apps here. If you have an Android tablet or phone, check out this article.  For iPhone apps, try this article. (The iPhone article covers more than just sketching, but the drawing apps are covered.)

Drawing and Painting Apps

Paper by 53

This one is my all-around favorites, all because of one simple feature: you can “rewind” to an earlier version of your doodle!  You simply place two fingers on the screen and move them in a counterclockwise circle—like winding back the clock!—and your drawing slowly “undraws” itself.

You can go back and forth until you find just the stage you like best and then continue drawing from there. Wow! Does that ever take the stress out of drawing!

I’ve barely scratched the surface of what this app can do, but here’s a link to a great series of how-to articles.

For iPad only (sorry!). There is a free version with a very cool variable-width pen tool and some basic colors. Upgrades allow you to add more tools (brush, marker, pencil) and a color-picker so you can use any color you like and build your own palettes. 

You can also print a physical book from your digital sketchbook. (No, I haven’t tried it. I’m not THAT good with it!)

Horse drawn with Paper by 53.
The brown and orange lines are drawn with the pen that comes with the free version. The “watercolor” effects are part of the paid version, but it’s just a few dollars.
Eazel

This one is a “painting” app made by Adobe (the same people who make Photoshop).  Fun and easy to learn.  (No free version, alas, but it’s only $4.99, so not too expensive.)

Tap all five fingers on the screen to call up all the controls. Slide a finger up and down to change the size or opacity of a brush. Touch the color wheel to choose a color.  The “wet” paint can be blended with another color.

A fanciful landscape in Eazel. Great way to try out wild color ideas without using up any paint.
A fanciful landscape in Eazel. Great way to try out wild color ideas without using up any paint.
Sketchbook Express

A free, and pretty powerful, version of Sketchbook Pro. This one takes a little longer to learn, but is probably the most powerful of the three.

I often use this one to do planning sketches for paintings, because I can “erase” and cover up things so easily. It allows me to get a watercolor look, but with almost infinite ability to make changes. Makes planning fast and easy (so I actually do it!).

Nice for drawing and doodling, too—no stress!

Digital painting of boats at Fisherman's Wharf.
Digital painting using Sketchbook Express.

Fun Apps for Photos (that also help you learn design)

There are tons of photo filter apps out there. I really like the ones that take a photo and simplify the shapes in some way. This not only results in some fun photos, it helps me see the big, connected shapes that help make a drawing or painting hang together.

Popsicolor

This one doesn’t seem to do much, but what it does is usually pretty cool.

Choose a photo (or take one), and then choose a color scheme by selecting two colored “popsicles”. The app reduces your photo to a “line-and-wash” drawing using those colors.

A photo of irises processed by Popsicolor. Makes it really easy to see just the big shapes!
A photo of irises processed by Popsicolor. Makes it really easy to see just the big shapes!
Waterlogue

Choose (or take) a photo and let Waterlogue do its thing. There are a bunch of variations, but I think the default one is usually the nicest.

I’ll say no more, and let the results speak for themselves.

Photo of irises, processed with Waterlogue iPad app.
The same photo, processed with Waterlogue.

Amazing, isn’t it?

If you don’t try any of the others, this one is really worth a try. As any photo app, it works better with some photos than others, but I’ve seen some of people’s grandkids and pets that were really hard to tell from actual paintings!

And what a great tool for training the eye and helping to plan a painting!  (I’m using it in my beginning watercolor classes for exactly that.)

Happy (digital) painting!

Get Out of the Moment

abstract gold and grey painting

Huh?

Everything you read these days seems to extol the virtues of being “in the present moment”.

I’m not questioning the value of being attentive, appreciative and aware. In fact, a few weeks ago, I suggested some ways to use art-making to deepen your appreciation for the beauty and wonder in your everyday routine and environment.

And of course, returning to the present moment can be a good way to disengage from worrying obsessively over possible disasters that you can’t prevent, or regretting something you can no longer mend.

But it drives me up the wall when I see articles with titles like “15 Things You Should Do . . . ” or “9 Easy Ways to . . . ” tossing around phrases like “all we have is this moment” and “live in the present” as though it’s somehow wrong to think of past or future or anything that’s not right in front of you this moment. As though ignoring everything but the here-and-now is a magic pill for happiness.

I think the truth is a lot more nuanced than that. (So, by the way, does the Dalai Lama.)

But my principle objection to admonishments to always “be in the moment” is not philosophical, it’s practical. Some of the finest things in life deliberately take us out of the here-and-now. I think we should both celebrate that and use it to live more fully.

moon and breaking wave
“No ocean wave ever really looked like this, but it captures the memory of seeing moonlight glimmering through a breaking wave—a wonderful memory that makes my heart feel full of wonder every time I think of it.

Art, music, literature, film . . . these are quintessentially human activities. And they nearly always involve transcending the here-and-now.

We love stories of long ago and far away and what-could-be.  Imagination is the wellspring of much joy, excitement and wonder. Our ability to imagine what-might-be drives both scientific and technological developments, and cultural change.

On a more personal note, how much of the pleasure of gatherings of families and friends is reminiscing about the past—finding the humor in things that might not have been all that funny at the time, keeping the memory of loved ones now gone or far away, imagining the future of the brand-new granddaughter or the college-bound nephew?

sketch of tent on rainy cold day
The main reason I keep travel sketchbooks is that looking at my sketches takes me right back to the place I was visiting—weather, people, food—even the discomforts. It’s funny now. 🙂

While the performance may happen in the moment, the book may be what I am reading right now, and the people I’m laughing with are right here, all of these activities are inextricably linked to memory and imagination, past and future.

Our creativity itself is inextricably linked with not-here-and-now.

This was brought home powerfully during the doodle challenge when we worked on prompts such as “doodle a texture that fascinated you as a child” or “doodle something from a dream (or daydream)”.

sketch of young girl
A mysterious dream-girl. In the dream, she was both a real person and a painting in a museum. The person lived on in the painting, the painting breathed and moved. Fascinating.

Not only was the work powerful and moving, but we doodlers were more deeply engaged.  Stories and strong emotions emerged. Loved ones and special places were invoked.

Sometimes people feel called to “make art” or “be creative” but they’re not really sure what it is they should make. When the time comes to put pencil or brush to paper, they’re stuck.

The next time you’re stuck like that, try making art that connects to the past, the future and the what-might-be:

  • your earliest childhood memory
  • a favorite toy or possession from childhood or some other time in your past
  • someone whose voice you’d love to hear right now
  • a wonderful (or terrible!) moment on a trip or vacation
  • a place you’ve always dreamed of visiting
  • a place you would live if you could just wave a magic wand and be there
  • something you imagine (or know) your great-grandmother might have cherished
  • something you imagine your great-granddaughter might cherish (and perhaps the story she will have heard about it)
  • a potent dream image
  • an imagined person who, if you met them, would change your life completely
  • what a piece of music would look like if you could see it
  • what it might really feel like to be a tree, or an elephant, or an ant

You get the idea. Get out of the present moment. On purpose.

Where/when would you rather be?

abstract gold and grey painting
The sound of a gong breaking the silence.

 

Spiral In, Spiral Out

glowing orange spiral on deep red background, painting by Lynne Baur

The 30-Doodles-in-30-Days Challenge is drawing to a close, but one thing I have discovered is that everyone has enjoyed having a daily  doodling suggestion (a “prompt”) as a creative springboard. And seeing each other’s responses to the prompt sparks additional creative ideas and a sense of community.

Several doodlers have joined our ranks in just the past couple of days, even though the 30-day challenge is nearly over. There seems to be quite a bit of interest in continuing with the daily prompts and our Facebook group.

Before I can turn the daily prompt into an ongoing activity, I have a few technical problems to resolve, but we’ve had such a good time, and it’s been so helpful to everyone to have the sense of community and interaction, that I want to open up the daily doodling prompts and the Facebook community to others of you who might not have wanted to commit to creating every single day, but might still find the creative prompts and/or the closed Facebook group enjoyable.

Next week, as the 30-day challenge ends, I’ll be able to tell you more about how the doodling group is evolving, but for now, I thought I’d give you a prompt to play with in the meantime.

Since I’ve been on a spiral kick myself lately, I invite you to create a “doodle” (or doodles) based on a spiral or spirals.

(Remember, “doodle” means whatever your creative spirit needs! It could be an actual back-of-the-envelope-while-on-the-phone doodle. It could be an intuitive painting, or a drawing, a sculpture, a collage, or even a poem or song.)

Judging from what I see from fellow artists, and comments on my own work, a lot of us are fond of spirals.

At least part of this is probably because of the many spirals found in nature.

fiddlehead fern
Photo used without alteration under Creative Commons Attribution license. (Image linked to original source.)
fossil nautilus shell
Photo used without alteration under Creative Commons Attribution license. (Image linked to original source.)

The sense of movement a spiral conveys is also part of its appeal. Gazing at a spiral can give you a sense of being drawn downward, to a place of peace and contemplation, or inward to an interior space of memory or self-exploration. Or a spiral can give a sense of outflowing energy and expansiveness.

glowing orange spiral on deep red background, painting by Lynne Baur
One of my 30-paintings-in-30-days pieces. I’m working on several others featuring spirals.

Simply drawing a spiral is soothing. Our joints naturally move in arcs, so the circularity of a spiral feels natural and effortless, while the inward or outward movement gives the motion interest and variation. Spirals are easy to connect to arcs and to each other, to decorate a design or create a texture.

Ink doodle or crow decorated with spirals.
Ink doodle or crow decorated with spirals.

How does it make you feel to gaze at a spiral? Or draw one? Is it like a dance?  Are you going down the drain? Or being flung exuberantly out to the stars?

What images, thoughts or memories do spirals call up for you? Do they have special associations or meanings for you?

Does it make a difference which way the spiral turns? Whether you start in the center or on the outside, or spiral in, and then back out?

I invite you to join me in experimenting with spirals this week.

And stay tuned for new opportunities to connect with others in our creative community via Facebook as the Doodle Challenge evolves.

And please share your spiral creations here, if you like. (Click the “comment” link. You can upload images to the comments.)

 

 

 

 

The Sound (and Look) of Music

Last week, I talked about the power of “doodling” or art-making to focus your full attention on a sensation or experience.

This is one of the main reasons I make art. Not to hang something on the wall, but to enhance my experience of life. Sketches while traveling or walking the woods, watercolor washes capturing the colors of the morning sky or a delicious flavor.

One of my favorite ways to use art-making this way is to draw or paint to music.

Perhaps you recall these two “doodles” from last week’s post.

A doodle expressing the sound of a classical guitar piece.
Classical guitar music.
A doodle expressing the sounds I was hearing in a coffee shop.
Coffee shop sounds.

Both were done to music, but neither is intended as a “representation” of the music. It’s more like that “dancing when no one is watching” sort of drawing. Simply letting my pen and markers move to the music, for the pure enjoyment of immersing myself in the rhythm, the sounds of the instruments, the flow of the melody.

Pen and marker is convenient when I’m relaxing on the couch in the evening, but to really play with music and art, I want a brush in my hands!

Abstract art to music. Working on top of a previous creative seed to the music of Alan Hovhaness (Symphony for Metal Orchestra).
Working on top of a previous creative seed to the music of Alan Hovhaness (Symphony for Metal Orchestra).

A brush can flow, like music. A brush can also be staccato, flicking drops of paint, or make slashing, crashing movements or even drum on the paper.

Watercolor, acrylic and ink also flow, like music. And like different instruments or voice parts, the fluid colors mingle and blend.

This is not about making a finished piece of art, but it is a great way for me to get my analytical side out of the way and allow surprises and “happy accidents”.  I learn a lot about my materials this way.

Copper metallic paint with opaque turquoise swirls.
Detail of the left page. Here, I combined metallic washes with some opaque color, not something I’ve used much in my work. But I might start after seeing this!

There’s really no need for me to say more except: go try it!

Grab a brush and some watercolors or acrylics, put down some plastic so you can spatter and splash if the music moves you, put on a favorite piece of music (or album) and let the music guide you.

Don’t think, just let the brush dance!