Trudging around in the Bugaboos, I’m thinking how rules are meant to be broken. Having said that, a few rules for acrylic and oil painters are well worth following.
My only reason for backing up my helicopter and dumping them off on you is that these rules can save a lot of trouble and make work fresher. Up here in the scudding clouds and creaking glaciers I’m also realizing they’re not my rules but the rules of the truly great painters who have trudged in humbling spots like this before.
1. Start with a toned ground. It can be grey, brown, red or whatever, and it can be wet or dry. When you prime your canvas with a coloured ground, you won’t have to fight the tyranny of white. Leave the fighting of white to the watercolourists. This way, there will be a significant tone on all parts of your canvas — happy accidents or paucities will occur, and the ground becomes part of the overall effect.
2. Establish your foreground first. We painters tend to start by painting the part of the landscape that first knocks our socks off, and it’s not always the foreground. Actually, compelling foregrounds are often the most difficult part, even though they are vital to a strong composition. Foregrounds determine where farther-back focal elements may be placed.
3. Plan ahead to one, two, three, four, five. You don’t want to make the painting just a foreground and a background. Even though your painting may be two dimensional and flat, it needs to have at least five elements of interest as it recedes. At the expense of being too simplistic, an example would be foreground rocks, a lake, a mountain range, a distant mountain range and a sky.
4. Establish at least five large complex shapes. Dynamic, even abstract shapes add magic to the magic. Patches of snow, ominous spires, dark and light rocks are generously pressed into compositional service. Interlocking with one another, these shapes tease your viewer’s eyes into seeing your magical experience.
5. Take your brush here and there like a bee in an alpine meadow. In other words, don’t laboriously work on or try to finish off one particular part. Paint promiscuously. Watch the greater image materialize. You need that thing over there to tell you what to do about that thing over here.
Like life itself, there’s more to this than meets the eye. You can make up a pile of additional basics and rules for yourself. These five are a good start. Ours is a game of rugged individualism. But even rugged individualists have a few rules that make their climb easier.
PS: “Oh the difficulties of mountain art for too little genius.” (J. E. H. MacDonald)
Esoterica: Plein air invites a Zen-like attitude and acceptance of the spiritual flow. Lost in a cloud of our own making, days pass far too quickly. The more I look at this life, the more it seems a combination of inhaling the gifts and letting your work tell you what it needs.
No white-fighting here
by Dwight Williams, Meridian, ID, USA
We watercolorists don’t fight the white of the paper, we leave it alone. The gorgeous white of pure rag is one of the best things we have going. Many watercolorists don’t leave enough. I couldn’t send you an example of leaving a lot of white on the blog so here’s an extreme example. And, when we do this, think of the paint expense we save. And speaking of “rules,” two things: I thought I’d break some, or at least bend them compositionally, in this painting; and second, I grew up in Missouri where we said, “In the world of mules there are no rules.”
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Never Ending Preparation
by Tim Kernen
I spend hours in never ending preparation, many of them looking at wonderful pictures of things and places and colors and shapes and how all of them could make a glorious painting. Then I tear it out and place it in the respective folder that I spent many more hours organizing. The next day it starts all over again but today I’m using technology, jumping from one web site to another while trying to find that YouTube demo that’s going to be sooooo good for me that I’ll jump right up and begin painting. Oh wait !!! What was the glimpse of wonderful color??? Not there… no not there, either. But I just know I can find it!! After another 1/2 hour (or 2 hrs) I have seen the most unbelievably beautiful sights that I just can’t wait to share with everyone in my paintings!! By now I’m very tired and everyone knows that people can’t be creative when they’re tired. We do need our rest so I’ll get started first thing in the morning.
(RG note) Thanks, Tim. Never Ending Preparation (NEP) is a widely available addiction as dangerous as drugs and alcohol. A form of procrastination, it often takes on the guise of “research” and can have one or two of many root causes, including avoidance syndrome, fear of doing the work, or fear of not being prepared to do the work, Educosis, pathological collecting, psychological compulsion, or just plainly hanging on to bad habits.
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Wandering boy wants to come home
by Rob Zeer, BC, Canada
I’m a Calgary boy living and painting in Munich. “Mountain Rules” made me a bit homesick. The Rockies are a humbling and spiritual experience and teacher. Your five essential rules learned painting the raw elemental aspect of the Rockies are applicable everywhere. I personally liked your rule, “Paint Promiscuously.” It would be nice to combine painting in the high range of the Rockies and a trip home to Alberta. If you have room for an artist next time, please let me know.
(RG note) Thanks, Rob. For those interested in possibly joining us next year in the Bugaboos, our dates are August 20 to 24, 2014. You need to leave a small, refundable deposit with Audrey at 1 800 661 0252. You might think about inquiring now as there are only so many seats in the helicopter.
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Slow drying acrylics on location
by Hiro Sugino, Scarborough, ON, Canada
I am attending a Plein-Air workshop in September. (Ontario) I would like to try Golden Open paints first time. My Instructor suggested to bring a Wet Palette container for Acrylics. Would you recommend it for Golden Open or not necessary? I use Liquitex heavy body paints with a retarder and water on a butcher’s tray at my studio. I appreciate your opinion always.
(RG note) Thanks, Hiro. You might try a Wet Palette container for Golden products. I don’t use one nor do many of my friends. Golden opens stay pretty wet for plenty of time on their own, especially in humid environments. I recommend you buy two of the small golden sets-“Modern” and “Traditional” at about 30 bucks per set and try them out. Limited palette, fun mixing, sophisticated results.
by Elizabeth Coxe
Recently on some of my plein-air expeditions, I have been zooming in on some details because I like some shapes I’ve found. I’m not sure how to apply rule #3 to this kind of landscape painting. Am I turning a landscape painting opportunity into a still life with a whole different set of rules? My instructor suggests that if I am going to do zoom-in landscapes, I move closer to my subject. Yesterday I was painting boat hulls, and would have had to walk on water to get closer. Is the zoom-in landscape a bad idea?
(RG note) Thanks, Elizabeth. The important thing to remember is that paintings are not necessarily “what is seen,” but “what is to be seen.” In other words, the composition often supersedes reality. If homing in with a viewfinder or a telephoto view can help you find your reality, then go for it.
by Phil Chadwick, Southampton, ON, Canada
Spending a lifetime as a scientist in a bureaucratic cartoon taught me to bend rules — even detest rules.
I know and worked with Dilbert and even the evil, pointy haired boss. The first rule for me has always been that “there are no rules” — service and product is what really mattered most.
This character flaw has manifested itself in my plein air art after being quasi retired for the last couple of years. I paint for myself and just strive to get better — I mean no harm and let the inspiration move my brush and pigments.
But Robert’s Five Rules are more like fundamental truths. One must never bend the truth. Honesty and integrity in art is important and these fundamental truths are the road signs to help you get there. Artists on their individual journeys would be wise to heed the signs in getting where they want to go.
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How things change
by Karen Ilari
I wanted to write to thank you for something you did for me 7 years ago. In 2006 I wrote a
letter, my name at that point was Karen Ashmore. I was in despair over finding time to paint. You published the letter and asked readers to help me out. I received hundreds of encouraging responses and I can’t begin to tell you how encouraged I was! Thank you!
With that encouragement, I continued to carve out time, flash forward to today. My kids are out of the house, I married a wonderful man who supports my art, I am able to work 3 days a week at my day job, which gives me 4 days to paint! I and am actually making a modest income selling my paintings, though I sell them mostly to make room for more! I’ve had a couple of solo shows, successful art festival booths and have had luck selling on Etsy. I’m just having a blast. And the old misery and depression of the past is just gone. I can’t imagine how I would have gone through the transition to “empty nest” without my passion for art. I still – 11 years into my journey – wake up every painting day excited to get to my easel. And I truly thank you and your wonderful readers for being there at that critical turning point in my life!
I remember how it felt to have so little time, and money, to pursue my passion. I’ve even started a little free website where I’ve been posting videos in acrylic landscape painting instruction. I’m up to 91 members! They watch the videos, post paintings for critiques and comment on others work. It makes me feel great when they say I have inspired them to pick up the brush!
So thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
First Light on the Harbor
oil painting, 18 x 24 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Martin Rutte of Santa Fe, New Mexico who wrote, “Can I please have your permission to use ‘Paint promiscuously. Watch the greater image materialize.’ on my Facebook page? It’s called “Project Heaven on Earth.”
(RG note) Thanks, Martin. If it’s okay with Facebook, it’s okay with me. Incidentally folks, “Project Heaven on Earth” looks to me like a winning concept.
Enjoy the past comments below for Mountain rules…