Painting Upside Down

Painting upside down to see rhythms and values better.

Currently on the easel.

Previously I wrote about using a mirror to correctly see shapes while working from life. This is a short post on the usefulness of painting with with your work upside down when inventing subject matter in the studio.

I’m currently in the process of enlarging some small plein air sketches from my Austrian trip into polished studio pieces. Much of the work requires, to some extent, inventing my subject. I find that flipping the painting upside down and observing the work free from the recognition of the objects helps me to quickly see some types of errors. Proportions and edges, especially, are two things that become easily noticable. In the gif below, the ‘before’ image shows how I originally painted the Hohensalzburg fortress above Salzburg as it appears in my sketch. Flipping the work upside down I immediately saw how the ‘steps’ were all exactly the same, so I shortened the bottom one, and raised the top one, to remove the repetitiveness.

Keeping variety in one’s edges is also important in painting. Surfaces that turn away from the viewer generally need a softer edge, elements where we want a focus are often given a sharper edge. Variety along the same edge can add interest to a work. As with repetition in shapes, turning the painting upside down makes it immediately obvious where the problems are with regards to the edges in the work.

Gif of changes in a studio landscape painting.

It’s always been interesting to me how much of learning to paint is trying to rewire the way our brains see the world. In part this is because human beings evolved to see in an environment very different from the one we live in now. One of these adaptations is that our brain looks for patterns constantly, and my own observation is that seemingly unimportant areas in our vision, when painted, are forced into repetition that doesn’t exist in nature. For example, my students will paint every tree in a line of cypresses in Italy as being exactly the same: Tree, tree, tree, tree. The same goes for the shapes of a distant mountain. The line intervals are often drawn as being exactly the same, even if the direction of the line changes. In both cases, careful observation (or me pointing it out) shows that the cypresses are very different from each other, or that the segments of the line describing the outline of a mountain are very different, one from another.

From reading scientific theories about why this is, it appears that our brain filters out the ‘unimportant’ stuff by not focusing on the subtle differences in similar objects. This was in order to focus on things like predators, which would have been much more important for most of our evolution. This filtering out takes the form of generalizing individuality in aspects of the visual world. Part of learning to paint a landscape is learning to recognize this and focus on capturing exactly that variety in nature that our brain tries to ignore.

Another good example is the way students being taught cast drawing have to be told over and over to not look into the shadows. Once upon a time, looking into shadows was probably a very good idea for survival. In naturalistic painting, however, looking into shadows and painting the subtle differences usually results in an exaggeration of those differences when seen in relation to the whole image. It distracts the viewer’s eye (perhaps because their focus on what is in the shadow is compounded by the painter’s focus on what is in the shadow) and breaks up the sense of atmosphere of the work. ‘Less is more’ is the usual guideline when looking for detail in the shadow passages of a painting.

Turning one’s painting upside down forces the brain to see the subject as a series of abstract shapes. Without the immediate recognition of the objects, it becomes easier to see some of the basic pictorial rules being broken in our work.

Lastly, in the studio where I trained as a portraitist in Florence it was standard practice to keep the work in progress upside down on the walls so our eyes wouldn’t get used to them. The idea was that if we saw the paintings all day while we weren’t working on them, the images would some how be imprinted in our minds, and it would be harder to see the mistakes later while the work was next to the model. Today I still keep my work in progress upside down while not being worked on for this reason.

Winter Gear for Plein Air Painting

Plein air painting in heavy snow.

The joy of plein air painting in winter.

I love painting snow scenes outdoors in the winters, but I really, really hate being cold. I also struggle to work when I’m uncomfortable, and I believe painting is difficult enough even in the most controlled of situations.

Picking the right gear for plein air painting can be a problem as most winter outdoor gear is made for hikers or skiers/snowboarders, where the wearer will be moving a great deal. The manufacturers’ ‘minimum temperature’ is based on a much more active user than the average plein air painter, and I find that for standing still for hours in the snow means you pretty much have to double the listed temperature range on clothing. Ice-fishing and hunting forums are great places to research winter plein air gear, as they tend to have similar needs to us.

For staying really warm the key is lots of layers. Sierra Trading Post has a good guide to layering. Their interest in layers, however, is on being able to remove them when one warms up. I find I rarely remove a layer while plein air painting as I’m gradually getting colder the longer I stand still. The layering is important to me for getting warm enough in the first place. The downside with lots of layers is that movement gets harder, and for painting one doesn’t want to feel restricted in their arm movement. After painting for hours in multiple layers I get really sore shoulders.

Photo of my plein air at painting set up at St. Bartholomew's Church,  near Berchtesgaden.

Plein air at painting St. Bartholomew’s Church, near Berchtesgaden, Germany.

The last two weeks I was painting outdoors in Austria and Bavaria in below-freezing temperatures and really suffered from the cold due to poor equipment planning on my part. I had to stop painting a couple times due to the cold, and I was often tense and stiff from standing still for hours without a proper kit on. Over the course of the trip I gradually picked up the gear I needed to work comfortably.

My plein air footwear collection.

Three seasons worth of plein air painting footwear.

My old, cheap, pair of hiking boots weren’t waterproof enough for the amount of snow we found. After struggling a couple days with wet, very cold feet and trying to find some decent winter boots locally, I ended up just driving to the Meindl factory in Kirchanschöring, Bavaria, about half an hour north of where we were staying. I have a pair of Meindl hiking shoes which I’ve worn every day for a few years now and they’re still in great shape (on the left in the photo above). They were also really comfortable from day one and this trip I didn’t want to waste time breaking in new shoes. Furthermore, because of all the scouting I was doing by car, I wanted a smaller winter boot that I could wear while driving. Having a large choice at the Meindl store in the small town was perfect. In the end I picked up their Garmisch Pro GTX (in the middle in the photo above). The trade-off for being able to drive safely is that they’re not as warm as the moonboot-style boots that most winter plein air painters wear. These Meindls keep my feet warm in snow for over an hour, but after that I start to feel the cold. On the other hand, they’re such comfortable and well-made footwear that I later drove back and picked up a pair of Dovre Extreme boots (far right in the photo) for the rest of the year.

From people who know much more about standing still in cold weather, Stapleton Kearns recommends the Trans-Alaska III Pac Boot from Cabelas, and the Baffin Polar Series are recommended on ice-fishing forums. I hate the idea of buying shoes online, so I’ll look at them in stores when I’m over in Canada this August. Amazon also sells boot blankets, which get high praise from hunters, though I would think painters who stand would move too much and wear them out.

Another idea I’ve seen on ice-fishing forums is to take a piece of styrofoam to stand on to keep the shoes from touching the ice. Leo Mancini-Hresko uses the mats from his car for keeping his feet from touching the snow for the same reason. (In the photograph from 1893 posted below, Finnish painters Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Albert Edelfelt are clearly keeping their feet off the snow as well.)

Photograph of Finnish Painters Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Albert Edelfelt Painting in the Snow

Finnish Painters Akseli Gallen-Kallela and Albert Edelfelt Painting in the Snow in 1893.

For socks I was using Salewa and Meindl merino wool hiking/hunting socks. The Salewas kept their shape better, but the Meindls were warmer. When it was really cold I put Little Hotties handwarmers in the toes of the boots and, for those times, I preferred the thinner Salewa socks. Good American sock brands I see recommend are Darn Tough and Point6. Electric, heated socks are always tempting too.

I find keeping my feet warm to be the most important thing in winter plein air painting.

For baselayer leggings, I have a pair of merino wool bottoms from Patagonia which have worked well in the past. This year I somehow forgot them while packing and could only find the synthetic ones available in the local stores. The synthetic ones supposedly work well for activities such as hiking or climbing, but for standing still they’re a disaster. I layered two pairs and still felt the cold in my legs. Winter hunting forums recommend First Lite, Ibex, or Icebreaker for merino wool baselayers. (Many are on sale at the moment, if you can find your size). In past winters I’ve always worn snowboarding shells over my regular pants and usually never had problems with cold legs.

For me, the upper body is the easiest part to keep warm. Even though my current Patagonia parka isn’t great for really cold days, I find that with enough sweaters on it works. I also have a Patagonia down ‘shirt’ (really just a lightweight down jacket) which I use as a mid-layer when it’s really cold. As I said above, wearing lots of layers makes it more difficult to move your shoulders to paint. Someday I’ll pick up a dedicated painting jacket, one that is both really warm and allows a great deal of mobility, something like the Arc’teryx Ceres, or Rab Neutrino, but I’d like to try one on before dropping that kind of money. The really warm jackets which allow great mobility get really expensive really fast. I also dislike the really bright colors that much of this gear comes in. I paint often in city centers in Europe in the winter, and I try to attract as little attention as possible while I’m working (something like this, as tempting as it is, I feel is out of the question). More importantly though, the bright colors can reflect back onto the painting while working in the sun, which affects the way one sees their colors. I find muted colors in the middle value range, or blues, are the best for shirts, sweaters and jackets.

For my hands, I find any decent winter glove works on my left hand where I hold my brushes. On this trip I was using a cheap, lightweight wool glove without problems. On my painting hand I can’t wear a glove and paint comfortably, but I find my hand gets cold after a while. My solution is to carry a Hibbard Mitten in my pocket and put it on when I feel the cold. During those periods I’ll work on areas which don’t require much precision and after a few minutes my hand is usually warm again, and stays that way for a while. When it gets cold again I rinse and repeat. If there is a wind or it is really cold I can do a whole painting wearing a Hibbard Mitten, but I prefer not to.

For my neck I wear an old cashmere scarf and never have issues with cold on my neck. A good neck-gaiter would probably be a better idea as the scarf can sometimes come lose and hit your palette. I’ve also looked into balaclavas, and will pick one up to try, though it will probably be a good idea to keep the face open while painting in cities.

Hat-wise, my wool fisherman-style hat worked fine this trip. For anything colder a fur-lined bomber hat would probably work better. Though if things get that cold I’ll probably paint from a heated car, or through the window of the hotel or house where I’m staying. When it’s snowing heavily I put the hood on my parka up and it’s designed to stick out from my face quite a bit and keep the snow off.

Photograph of my plein air set up above St. Gilgen, Austria

Plein air painting above St. Gilgen, Austria.

Also, when it’s snowing heavily I use an umbrella from Easyl to keep the snow off of my palette and the painting. I’d like to thank whoever left it in my car, it works great.

I’ve read that other painters have problems with their paint stiffening up with the cold. I’ve never had this issue. My Williamsburg titanium is a little bit stiffer perhaps, but nothing unmanageable. The only real difference I find painting outdoors in the snow is that I go through a lot more white and ultramarine.

If anyone else has any ideas or suggestions, I’d love to hear them. I’m still trying to figure this out.

The Iphone as a Painting Tool

A short post on using an Iphone as a black mirror. Like most of my tips, this is not my idea and I understand this has been common practice for a while at the ateliers like the FAA which teach sight-size. I mentioned it to other painters who hadn’t thought of the idea and it was well-received, so I decided to post it here.

I made the following video a few years ago demonstrating the use of a mirror in sight-size portraiture:

And in the next video of Ben Fenske painting a landscape you can see how often an artist will reach for the mirror while working:

The fact is, the mirror is one of the most efficacious devices for checking shapes and proportions in painting. It can be used without sight-size, but having everything visually locked-in makes the mirror especially powerful as an artist’s tool. For commissioned portraiture, where speed and accuracy are so important, it is really essential.

In landscape painting, artists will often use welding glass (sometimes called a black mirror) as it also greatly reduces the values. This allows the painter to see a value range closer to what they can actually capture in paint, and simplifies the number of values they need to compare.

Enter the Iphone, the $700 black mirror.

The Iphone has a flat, black glass screen and works perfectly for measuring shapes, proportions and values while landscape painting. Most of us also carry our phones around with us all the time. I recently inherited an older Iphone to replace my Nokia. While I’ll miss the maps and the privacy of my previous phone, I hated the rounded screen as I couldn’t use it to check shapes. Since I often forget, lose or break my painting mirrors when I travel, it will be a nice upgrade (that and the fact that iOS supports Instagram so I can stop borrowing the wife’s phone to post).

De Mayerne Medium in America

Plein air figure painting.

Gregurić Breg (unfinished). 100 x 80 cm, oil on linen. Painted with the new medium from Blue Ridge Oil Colors.

Blue Ridge Oil Colors is going to start pre-making the medium I use and selling it in the US. (For people in Europe who don’t want to make their own, I would recommend getting it from Zecchi). If you want to make your own I also have a youtube video showing the process.

I was trying it out recently on this large plein air figurative piece, and in my sketches from Copenhagen. The Blue Ridge version dries faster than what I’m used to using. I know that’s a plus for a lot of artists and it certainly is for me when I travel. During longer projects though, like the one posted above, I sometimes like to scrape down a fresh painting at the start of the next session, and this medium dries too quickly for that -just a heads up.

The recipe is a variation of the medium developed by Charles Cecil and is originally based, in part, on the writings of Theodore de Mayerne. De Mayerne was a Swiss doctor who was friends with Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck. He wrote one of the rare documents discussing painting materials of the 17th-century, and he appears to have consulted with both Rubens and Van Dyck regularly on their opinions. His writings discuss straw-colored Strasbourg turpentine and thickening oil with lead in the sun, as well as many other art material related topics. You can buy an English translation online.

While I much prefer the smell of Strasbourg turpentine to Canada balsam, the Strasbourg turpentine sometimes beads a lot when beginning again on a dry painting. (Looking closely at Isaac Levitan’s paintings you can see the same beading, which makes me wonder what he was using).

At any rate, it’s a great medium for laying-in (add some turpentine), as well as glazing at the end of a project. I’ve been using it for over twenty years now and my early pieces are all in fine condition.

Wet Panel Carrier

wet panel carrier.
Ray Mar Art Supplies makes these great wet panel carriers for plein air painters. Unfortunately they’re only available in inches. I tried to get Sandro at Zecchi to make them with centimeter sizes but no dice. Since I’m about to go painting on a boat for a week I decided to make my own with that hollow plastic sheeting they sell at hardware stores, and I just copied the Ray Mar design (actually my wife figured it out, I discovered I can’t visualize a 3D object as a flat shape).

Here are few pictures of it:

MAD_3776

MAD_3777

MAD_3778

MAD_3779

And here is the design, for 20 x 30 cm panels, if anyone wants to make their own. I just sealed it up with electrical tape, and made the slots from slices of the plastic sheets. I would get a medium thickness for the plastic, the one I used was the full-sized one and it’s too thick. Also, next time I would rip up an old CD case for the slots to hold the panels.

Wet panel carrier for 20 x 30 cm panels.

Wet panel carrier for 20 x 30 cm panels.

Photographing Paintings with a DSLR

When I wrote about photographing paintings last time, I discussed hiring professionals and the equipment they use. In the years since that post, digital camera technology has developed a great deal and in a direction which works well for photographing paintings.

What an artist needs in a photograph of their work are the correct colors, values, and chroma of the piece, with a distortion-free lens, in a very high resolution which can show the detail in the brushwork, as well as the varying sharpness and softness of the edges. For years the best way to do this was with a medium format camera with a digital back. The price for this equipment could run easily into tens of thousands of dollars. The major recent change in consumer digital photography is that the camera companies have engaged in what technology writers derogatorily refer to as the ‘megapixel war’. This race for better sensors with higher pixel counts has pushed the capabilities of DSLR sensors into the range of the low-end digital backs, potentially saving the DIY painter a ton of money.

Obviously hiring a professional photographer will achieve better results. They will have better equipment and the experience to know how to use it. They are also incredibly expensive (in Italy I paid €100 per photo, or about €1000 for an hour’s work). You can buy a whole set up for the price, and since photographing paintings is really a one-trick pony, getting it good enough isn’t that difficult.

To photograph artwork well one needs the following equipment: A tripod, proper lighting covered by polarized film, a color calibration system and gray card, a decent DSLR body which can be tethered to a computer, a computer with tethering software, a good macro (micro) lens with a circular polarizing filter, and software to edit and archive the work.

First place the painting on an easel with two bright, full-spectrum, lighting sources at 45 degree angles to the artwork, put the camera on a tripod so the lens is parallel to the surface of the painting, as shown below. Lights, painting and camera should be at the same height. There should be no other light sources, and anything white that can cause a glare on the painting should be covered.  (Professional studio photographers recommend not using the camera’s auto white balance, so I first set my white balance in the camera to 5400K (which is similar to the color temperature of the light given off by my bulbs). I then made a preset in the camera, photographed a group of paintings over and over, and tweaked the color settings until my light balance looked correct when the image first comes out of the camera) .

How to set up to photograph artwork.

My set-up for photographing paintings.

Put your calibration card in front of the painting, photograph it, then run it through the included software (if needed convert RAW to DNG with Adobe’s free DNG converter). The software finds the color squares, measures them and makes a preset for your camera. Save the preset. Remove the calibration card and put a gray card next to the painting.

Image of the screen for an X-Rite ColorChecker Passport

X-Rite ColorChecker Passport software screen.

Photograph the painting by first putting the camera in mirror-up mode (or set the remote connection to use mirror-up mode). Set ISO to the lowest number, usually 100, and operational mode should be aperture priority or manual (program mode will work too if you can change the aperture setting). Set image type to RAW. Set the lens to manual focus mode. Turn the polarizer on the lens until the glare on the painting is gone.

Next turn on live-view monitoring in the tethering software on your computer, put the tethered image in full-screen mode, zoom in to the maximum and manually focus the shot by hand. If your tethering software can take the photo in mirror-up mode, shoot from the computer screen, otherwise use a shutter-release cable or remote. Do not use the shutter-release button on the camera as it can move slightly and blur the shot. Experiment with various f-stops to find the sharpest for your lens, normally with a macro lens the middle range from f/4 to f/11 will be best.

Import the photo into your editing software and apply the calibration preset (click the eyedropper on the grey card if the white balance is off). Make any other corrections, i.e. rotation, crop, lens profile adjustment, etc… I then tag the paintings with the year, location and subject, so I can find them easily later. I’ve also made export presets for all the possible uses I’ll have for the photos. It makes preparing images trivial.

Tina Under the Olive Tree close up.

Some tips for larger paintings: If you don’t have polarizing sheets, the lights can be at angles greater than 45 degrees to reduce glare. If there are problems with getting an even light across a large painting, find an area with even lighting and take multiple photographs, moving the painting on a flat plane at the same distance from the camera until you have photographs of sections of the whole painting. Then use stitching software such as Adobe Photoshop,  PTGui or the free Microsoft ICE to put the individual images together. This method can also be used to get ultra-high resolution images of larger paintings while using a low-megapixel camera. With a bit of work you can capture an amount of detail which would give medium format cameras a run for their money. Subtle HDR is another idea if the value range is too great for the camera.

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Williamsburg in Florence

Williamsburg Paint Image

Williamsburg makes some of the best tube paints (in my opinion). And finally, after years of my badgering, Zecchi in Florence is selling some of Williamsburg’s better colors.

Their cadmium colors are as good as anything I ever ground myself. Their cadmium red light, for example, is the best warm vermilion substitute I’ve found. It reminds me of the older, real vermilion pigments I learned to grind paint with. Their other cadmiums (red medium, yellow light and medium, and orange) are all staples on my palette. They have beautiful hues and, because of their great tinting strength, one tube will last a long time. Cheaper paints usually have a lot of filler in them, so you go through the tubes much quicker as changing a color will require much more paint.

Their cerulean is beautiful -not Old Holland beautiful, but half the price. Their cobalt blue is also good, though it seems hard to botch a cobalt blue, I’ve never used a bad one.

Not all of their colors are great. For ochres I prefer Old Holland’s golden ochre or Zecchi’s own Roman ocher.  I also find the Williamsburg ultramarine totally unusable, Old Holland’s ultramarine dark is much, much better.

Williamsburg’s ivory black is the closest to hand-ground that I have found, though it is still a touch lighter. They sell a flake white too, but hand-ground lead white is really essential to good studio painting.

In 2010 Williamsburg was bought by Golden, the acrylic paint company, hopefully nothing will change.

Il Meteo (.it)

Knowing what the weather will do is always very important for the plein air painter, so I thought I would throw out a quick plug for my favorite meteorology website: Il meteo.

I don’t know where they get their data from, but it has worked great for me in Italy, Croatia, Holland, Ireland and California over the past few years. I check it always before deciding what and where to paint.
il meteo weather forecasting

They say little children who lie grow up to be meteorologists, but twice I’ve won bets when fellow painters didn’t believe my weather prediction source could be so accurate.

It can be set to various languages, and clicking on the times on the left will give an hour by hour prediction, which can be very useful.

I’d be curious what other websites artists use as well.

Traveling with Wet Paintings Using a Wine Cork

This is the lightweight, and dirt cheap method I use for traveling with wet oil paintings on panel. I find the specifically designed wet-painting carriers add too much weight, especially if you have 20 or more freshly painted panels to pack, plus no one in Europe makes them for panels cut in centimeters. Like my cigar-box, it’s not my idea, and I can’t remember where I learned it.
traveling with wet paintings

You’ll need a wine cork, a knife or x-acto blade, masking or sellotape, and two or more panels of the same size. (Sometimes finding a wine cork isn’t as easy as it sounds. In Myanmar for example it took us forever to find decent wine, luckily there is a German producing some great stuff in the hills north of Inle lake).

traveling with wet oil paintings

First, I cut the cork into slices about the width of a toothpick, then cut those into halves (if I don’t have a lot of cork, slicing into quarters will work too). I put those into the corners of one wet panel, then put a second panel on top, with the two wet paintings facing each other. If the panels are flexible or I’m worried they’ll get pushed together, I’ll put another small piece of cork in the middle of the paintings – trying to make sure it wont ruin something important. Cork works great as it’s soft enough to not damage the board, but hard enough to keep the panels separate. Metal objects (coins or metal washers) can leave an indent in the panel.

cork with paintings
I then tape the corners of the panels together as tightly as possible so the cork doesn’t slide around. If I have an odd number of boards, three can be taped together as the last group.

Obviously for this system I need multiple boards of the same size. I also have to repaint the corners after the cork is removed, but there shouldn’t be anything important painted in the corners anyways.

At any rate it’s a cheap and easy way to move around with wet paintings without adding weight to your set-up.

Backpacks and Jackets

Two things plein air painters use a lot are a backpack and a good jacket. I personally get very attached to my few possessions, and I like it when they last a long time.

plein air landscape painting in Telemark, Norway.

My set-up in Telemark, Norway

Reload Bags.

The backpacks and messenger bags I’ve been using over the years have fallen apart pretty quickly, so after the last one went I decided to spend a bit more for a brand recommended on reddit’s ‘buy-it-for-life’ subreddit. I went with the Small Flight Pack from Reload Bags in Philadelphia. They are expensive, but as someone who also creates hand-made works of art to be sold at a premium, I don’t mind paying for quality.

Reload bag for plein air landscape painting.

My cigar box in the outside pocket.

It’s a beautiful bag to look at. By far the nicest one I’ve ever used. If anyone out there uses a Partagás cigar box for their palette as I do, the box fits perfectly in the outside pocket. One side pocket works great for my brushes, held at the top by a strap for a yoga mat. The other side pocket holds my medium and turpentine bottles, as well as pencils and palette knives. I like having it all open and easy to reach when it’s hung from my easel. A metal tripod easel can also be held with the strap from the side with the bottles if I’m hiking.

Plein air landscape painting in Telemark, Norway.

Another plein air location in Norway.

Overall it’s a great bag so far. My only complaint is the inside pocket could be a bit bigger. It will barely hold my small moleskin sketchbook. I assume it’s for a cellphone?

Next I need to make a wet-painting holder to put inside. Something with foam – cheap and simple. I saw Marc Hanson had a clever looking one he posted to Facebook earlier this year.

Patagonia Jackets.

Plein air painting in a Patagonia jacket in London.

Painting in the rain in London.

Fourteen years ago I bought a Patagonia jacket in New York. I’ve worn it pretty much every day in the Spring and Fall ever since. It’s been a fantastic jacket for traveling as it breaths beautifully when it’s hot out, but keeps me really warm when it cools down, and I’ve slept comfortably in it on a few occasions. Once in India we had to take a night train in a windowless third class compartment through the desert in Northern Rajasthan at night. I slept like a baby in the wind and cold while my painting companions were freezing.

Plein air landscape painting in a Patagonia jacket, Big Sur, California.

Painting in the sun and wind in Big Sur, California.

Patagonia Jackets also have a lifetime guarantee. This year when I went into a store and asked about getting the worn collar replaced they said they no longer had that material but they would give me the full 1999 retail value of my jacket off of anything in the store. Pretty good deal.

It’s a company that takes it’s commitment to environmental issues seriously, and I try to support that when I can.