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Artist’s Advice: On the Inner Critic

There is a phenomenon known as “the artist’s curse”–a state of perception in an artist of their own work as inferior and somehow lacking.   It is a virus of self-doubt instilled by the ever-present voice of the inner critic who notes with a jaundiced and magnifying eye only the flaws, imperfections and shortcomings in the execution of a piece of work.  The inner critic measures the latest attempt against past successes, other artists master works, or impossibly high aspirations.  It can lead an artist to destroy perfectly wonderful pieces of their labor in a pique of self loathing and doubt.  I think it must be something like the pathological state of postpartum depression in a mother who has delivered a child.

To combat this disease I believe it’s always best, as an artist, when completing a fresh work to pause, wait a while and put the voice of the inner critic on “mute.”  To let a painting “rest” for a time.  To avoid the temptation of tweaking and making “little fixes” here and there.  To avoid the nagging thought that, “if only I do this…or that…to this painting, it will be better.”  The state of final “finish” is arbitrary and elusive for each work and it is in this hyper-critical state of emotional attachment as we near the culmination of a painting that we can succumb to excessively analytical and even pathologically delusional perceptions of our own work.  It is the time when we most risk the fault of “over working” our piece.  Many a fine painting is ruined in the finish–most often by acting upon the infected perception of the inner critic.  Ironically, it is this sycophantic voice that prods us to “fix” which leads us to ruin and thereby causes us to hate and even destroy the works that somehow do not live up to our expectation.

It’s better to put the brush down and leave a canvas in a semi-finished state that conveys some truth, than to fastidiously pick at little details until the spontaneity, mystery and truth have been thoroughly abused.  By allowing the mind time to rest and detach from the passion of the moment–by muting the inner critic, we may return to comprehend with fresh, unprejudiced eyes, the beauty we’ve been fortunate enough to transmit and share with the world.

We may come to love our work as others do.

 

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Plein air painting with the New, Homemade Easel

I plein air painted at Ramona Grasslands with the new portable palette I recently crafted in my workshop. It was the “maiden voyage” for the palette, which I based on the Jim Coulter palette system–a clamshell design with an adjustable mast to hold various sizes of panels or canvas. If you’re not DIY inclined, you can see (and buy) Jim’s version of this plein air painting system, here…

www.artboxandpanel.com

…or another version based on similar concepts is the “Daytripper” easel system by Joshua Been, which you can find here…

joshuabeen.com

I chose to make my own, larger than any available from Jim because I like lots of space to mix and lay out my tools of the trade. It worked out well and even though a large palette, it was not difficult to hike in the half mile with everything I needed to paint.

Chromatic single pigments and earth colors.
Chromatic single pigments and earth colors.

The colors seen on the palette, laid on a piece of grey masking tape for friction (to keep them from sliding around) and ease of cleanup, from left to right, are:

cremnitz white
unbleached titanium
Primary magenta — R
cadmium red light — O
Primary yellow — Y
phthalo green-yellow — G
Primary cyan –B
ultramarine deep — I
dioxizine purple –V
yellow ochre
transparent red oxide
Payne’s grey
Mars black

…I also used a bit of “asphaltum.”

The panel was toned in advance with transparent orange.

Following are some photos of the easel, “in the wild,” where I bravely set my tripod over the opening to a den of vicious and possibly rabid squirrels.  You can see the bucket I use to carry all the necessities, too.  Those long, black nylon bags hold the tripod and my umbrella kit (which I didn’t need but brought along just in case). They both have shoulder slings, as does the palette box,which make all three quite easy to portage to the painting site.

RLO portable palette at Ramona Grasslands.
RLO portable palette at Ramona Grasslands.

I chose to paint a view of the largest oak tree in the grasslands. You can get an idea of the massive size of this old oak, compared to the heavy-duty, park picnic table nearby.  You can also see here the beginning phase of the painting where I’m establishing the shape of the tree.

Beginning block in of plein air subject.
Beginning block in of plein air subject.

…and finally, in this next photo you can see where I chose to stop painting.  I was having a difficult time resolving this one.  As I say to myself, “you can’t win them all,” and this one was giving me fits so I decided to pack it in and call it a day.  I’ll take time to let it rest and then return to it in the studio to see if I can make better sense of it.  I didn’t scrape it off entirely, which I would do if it was a total failure, so I think there is still a painting here, waiting to be finished, signed and framed.

Sometimes it's best to stop and reflect...
Sometimes it’s best to stop and reflect…

Here’s a skewed (to avoid glare) iPhone pic of the painting…

A WIP plein air painting by Ronald Lee Oliver
An example of a stopping point in a plein air painting work in progress.

Here’s an update after some studio work on this painting…

The old oak after some studio touches.
The old oak after some studio touches.

 

 

 

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Sometimes You Just Have to Toot Your Own Horn

I was surprised and pleased when an agent from Dick Blick informed me they wanted to feature an image of my painting, “The Watering Hole” in their Winter 2015 print and multimedia flyer.

Of course I agreed and also put in a plug for their “Masterstroke” brushes, which really are good quality sable brushes for the price.  I think it’s a fair deal–I get the benefit of some free (relatively) publicity and they get to feature a wonderful work of art to promote the sales of their brushes.

Above is an image of the ad as it ran in the flyer, along with the “Plug” from yours, truly. 🙂

If you’d like to see a time lapse video of me painting “The Watering Hole,” you can click on the play button below, which will play the video directly from my YouTube channel.

 

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“Mele Kalikimaka” Hawaiian #Pleinair Painting Trip

Mele Kalikimaka 2014

Mele Kalikimaka is the thing to say
On a bright Hawaiian Christmas Day
That’s the island greeting that we send to you
From the land where palm trees sway…

I guess after all I was not so naughty this year that I wasn’t able to make a Christmastime excursion with my beautiful wife, Jackie, to the Hawaiian Island of Maui.

This wasn’t a “painting only” trip, so I only made time for two 11 x 14 in. panels but they were both lots of fun to paint.  Even though the Trade Winds were fierce during one of the painting sessions, I managed to finish with no mishaps.

Though probably not the wisest thing to do, I diverged from my usual painting methods on this air travel trip and was winging it (no pun intended) with a color palette and paints I had never used before. To lighten the load and simplify things for flying, I chose to go with a five color palette and used water mixable oil paints for the first time.

It was really surprising how well it all worked out!

The colors I brought along were:

Cobra© Water mixable oils

  • Primary Cyan
  • Primary Magenta
  • Primary Yellow

Sennelier©

  • Mars Black  (a warm and fast drying black without the bluish cast of Ivory Black)

Rembrandt©

  • Payne’s Grey (I find it indispensable)

Gamblin©

  • Flake White Replacement (non-toxic and creamy consistency)

Each morning of painting, I pre-mixed a very vibrant chromatic palette from the three water mixable “primaries” which produced some very convincing greens, oranges, and fuchsias, as well as deeper purples.  I was careful not to “overmix” the paint piles, leaving striations of broken color in the mixes.  A sealable “Guerilla Painter” 9 x 12 in. palette tray kept the paint fresh and protected inside my pochade while exploring for a suitable view to paint.

This color palette worked very well and much to my relief, there was no problem mixing the “oil” paints with the water miscible paints.  The Cobra paints especially were surprisingly “creamy” in consistency and were very easy to mix and move about on the panel. While painting, when I felt I needed a little more “flow,” I used a mixture of my standard recipe medium, transported in an eye dropper bottle that consisted of equal parts stand oil, turpentine, and dammar varnish.  I brought no solvents because they must not be flown over (TSA will confiscate)  and it is an extra trip to the hardware store to get some when you arrive and then there’s nowhere to conscientiously dispose of it when you leave.

Another interesting thing about creating these two paintings is that I used one single brush the entire time!  I brought my brush wallet but became so engrossed in the painting process and not wanting to waste any time in capturing the light that I worked only with a single, quarter-inch “bright” hog bristle brush. I held a paper towel sheet in my left hand and wiped the brush clean between different colored passages.  I was able to make a surprising variety of marks with the stiff but springy little bristle bright. The only other implements I used to apply or mark the paint were my finger and in some few instances I removed paint with a cotton swab, which are essentials that I always pack when I paint en plein air.

All said and done, I had a great time in Hawaii and having the opportunity to paint made the trip just that much more special.

I’d like to say to any reader who chanced here and happened to read this far…

Here we know that Christmas
Will be green and bright
The sun to shine by day
And all the stars at night
Mele Kalikimaka is Hawaii’s way
To say Merry Christmas to you!

 

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Varnish ~ An Artist’s Hows and Whys

Varnishing a finished painting is a vanishing art.

Many if not most contemporary artists don’t bother, preferring to sell their paintings with a matte finish.  Some don’t like to wait for the paint to dry before the application of varnish, especially since the historical recommendation is to wait six months to a year beforehand. I varnish my paintings 3 to 4 weeks after they are dry to touch.  At that time the paint surface has oxidized and polymerization of the paint has stabilized (there are many studies on this, which I’ve read).  Molecular cross-linking, a form of drying will continue internally, under the paint film and then under varnish, for decades.  I don’t paint with ridiculously thick and deep impasto layers and I also use a medium, mixed with my paints to accelerate the drying oxidation/polymerization process, so I’m not concerned with areas of my paintings cracking or needing a prolonged drying period before varnishing.

I use a traditional dammar varnish–using the same recipe artists have used for centuries–which I make myself with easily obtained ingredients–dammar crystals and turpentine. Dammar crystals are the hardened sap which is gathered from dammar trees in the tropical forests of India and the South-East Asian peninsula and archipelagos.  Here’s a Wikipedia link:

An Article on Dammar Gum

It’s gathered in much the same way Maple syrup farmers tap the trunks of Maple trees to gather the sap, only dammar crystals harden on their own and do not need to be cooked down after harvest.

dammar

 

Dammar crystals, when burned also make a heavenly incense and if you’ve ever been in a Roman Catholic church on a Holiday or Feast day, you’ve probably smelled the scent of burning dammar crystals (it’s often a blend of dammar with frankincense and myrrh, or a host of other aromatics).  If you get your nose close to the surface of one of my paintings, you can actually get a sense of this fragrance.

To make the varnish, the dammar crystals must be dissolved in a solution of pure gum turpentine (about 2 to 1 turp to crystals), which is in essence the sap of pine trees which has been distilled down to the volatile aromatics and terpenes. I usually make a batch of varnish in an empty, glass pint-sized jar with a tight, screw-on lid.  It takes a few days of occasionally shaking the jar vigorously until all of the crystals are dissolved in suspension. Then, the solution can sit for a day or two until any unwanted particles of bark, dirt or dust settle to the bottom of the jar.  Decanting of the pure varnish is then done to another clean, glass jar, leaving the residue behind.

 

Diamond G Forest Products makes an Excellent Artist's Grade Turpentine...
Diamond G Forest Products makes an Excellent Artist’s Grade Turpentine…

That’s it!  These two ingredients, both derived from tree sap, together make an excellent, clear varnish which will not only protect the surface of the paint from damage and pollutants such as dust and smoke but is easy to clean and even remove if necessary.

Dammar varnish will yellow slightly, over time (decades) but this can actually give a painting a warm and subtle tone that can in some instances (especially landscapes) enhance the atomosperic aura of the painting. If ever the painting needs re-varnishing, the old varnish is removed with turpentine alone and another fresh coat of dammar varnish is applied.  This should be done by a professional conservator or at least with great care not to remove the paint layer below the coat of varnish, because turpentine will dissolve the paint, even if it has been dry for centuries! Cleaning the surface of a varnished painting can be done with a mild solution of Castile soap and distilled water, using a soft cloth and a gentle touch.

Protecting the paint surface and making it easier to clean aren’t the only benefits of dammar varnish–It also enhances the depth of colors and accentuates the contrast between the light and dark tones in the painting. It provides a translucence, a luster and depth that is the completing step that really makes a painting come to life.

I think finishing a painting with dammar varnish is the right thing to do and shows the artist cares enough about his work that he wants to enhance, protect and preserve it for future generations.