Recently, my chiropractor was asking about my artwork, so I pointed him to this blog. The next time I saw him, we continued the conversation about art. He asked if I’d ever followed along with Bob Ross videos while painting. I laughed and responded that everything I know about oil I learned from my grandmother and a wonderful college professor, Rod Crossman (whose artwork you can view by clicking this link). As it happens, Rod Crossman had his own local TV show. I remember watching a few episodes of Crossman’s show back in college…which is probably 2-3 more episodes than I ever watched of Bob Ross. The iconic artist whose afro can still be seen on art supplies in Hobby Lobbies across the U.S., would talk in his lullaby voice about “Happy Trees.” Eventually, the phrase and the voice imbedded into America’s subconscious. We’d all love to paint easily and effortlessly. We’d love to place a touch of light here and a dab of tree there and have everything pull together into the perfect landscape we picture in our mind’s eye.
But the reality is that as artists we often struggle to capture perfection. In fact, we end up over-working areas of the canvas (especially in oil paint) and creating mud…colors smudged and running together to the point that we must wipe it all clean with turpentine and begin again. I remember Crossman saying, “Lay it down and leave it! Don’t overwork the brush stroke.”
Perhaps that struggle to perfect oil is the reason my very first oil painting is one of my favorites. Grandma had a tradition that the summer each grandchild turned 7, she would sit down with them and help them paint their first oil painting. To this day, I can picture us in her studio. Me in the tall artist’s chair that swiveled when you turned. An empty canvas in front of me. Palette, brushes, and knife nearby. The scent of turpentine in an old coffee can, ready to clean off our brushes. And, Grandma next to me, telling me which brush to use and how to mix my colors. Any time I smell oil paints now, it takes me back to that studio space.
Bob Ross talked about “Happy Trees.” For me, it’s “Happy Clouds.” Those circular cotton balls floating above the mountains were probably swiped onto the canvas using a rag. They are extremely childlike in their simplicity. One section of mountains looks flat and unfinished. But, for the most part, those mountains are a lesson in the FUN of a palette knife. Color laid down, scraped at an angle, pastel yellow highlights on top like a smear of butter on toast. Dark green bushes stand shoulder to shoulder, each its own peculiar shape and size. Then, the fan brush! You can tell I got a little too excited, dabbing clusters of wild flowers across the ground. Finally, the lake, a cheerful periwinkle blue, reflecting hints of the yellow soil around its banks. And, no less important than the landscape itself, my name – signed with the bold, awkward lettering of a 7-year-old.
When was the last time you let yourself play as an artist? Experimenting with brushes, trying out new tools, dabbing flowers across a field for the fun of it? My chiropractor mentioned that Bob Ross had been a drill sergeant before becoming famous. However, once discharged from the military, he was determined never to raise his voice again. Instead, he learned to paint for fun. Remember the title of his show? – The Joy of Painting! You’ve got to hand it to the guy for not only loving the act of creation but instilling a love of painting into the lives and mindsets of generations of TV viewers. Next time you (or I) begin to feel that painting is more of a burden than a therapeutic creative outlet, maybe we should take a break from the desire for perfection and return to the simplicity of “Happy Trees” and “Happy Clouds.”
As a teacher, I tell my students what my professors told me: “Don’t be a slave to your reference!” As an illustrator, I tell myself the same thing. We learn early on to take strong reference photos; how to use and even manipulate lighting to get desired effects; and to play with perspective (bird’s-eye, worm’s eye, macro, etc.) for more dynamic compositions. Top-notch illustrators like Bill Thompson and Dennis Nolan go so far as to build models of animals or architecture if the real subjects aren’t readily available to photograph. During our master’s program, they taught us to do the same thing. Strong reference imagery can make or break your resulting illustration. However, even the best reference is merely that – something to refer to while working. Use your photos as tools, paying attention to the details you need without feeling that you must copy an image in its entirety. There may be foreshortening issues created by the camera lens that you need to adjust in your painting. Background elements, props, clothing patterns may (and perhaps should) be simplified or left out altogether. Colors can be changed or adjusted to better fit your design.
The photo above was taken several years ago for an illustration of the Dionne quintuplets. My best friend’s baby posed for the five body positions. I then found photos of the quints’ faces, and photos of an antique Donald Duck doll, to finish off my reference imagery. You can see the resulting illustration in my post Christmas 1934. Recently, I pulled out the old reference photos, wanting to do a portrait of my friend’s daughter. While the outfit and toys didn’t fit what I wanted to paint, the baby’s expression grabbed my attention. It was a moment of innocent concentration caught on camera, as Claire, distracted from the toy in-hand, was more interested in trying to pull off her knitted sock. It was a moment between the lines of action, between moments of play. Those are the visual stories I like to tell.
For the sake of design and composition, I veered from the reference in several areas. First off, I needed an element to divide ground from “sky.” I moved the blanket beneath her, creating soft abstract shadows to give her a feeling of being grounded. The pink knitted sock and shorts became blue to simplify color scheme. As for props/toys, odd numbers are preferable in design. There are three toy balls in the original photo, but I’ve made them solid red instead of clear plastic. And I moved their positions to form a triangular balance. All other props were eliminated. I’d originally painted a pale yellow background. During critique it was suggested that I brighten and deepen the color to a yellow-orange. This brought life to the piece, creating a complementary contrast to the blues. The underpainting layers were completed at school last spring as an oil demo for my Painting 2 class. The painting then traveled to Virginia with me, where I worked on it over vacation in my grandmother’s oil painting studio. A few weeks later, the finished piece flew with me to California for delivery to my best friend. Let’s just say it’s a well-traveled portrait!
Note: oils can take weeks or months to dry. To speed the drying process, I placed the wet painting near a fan, blowing several hours for a couple of days. Once it was almost dry, I placed it outside in the sunshine for a few hours, where the sun’s heat could basically bake it, finishing the process. If doing this, watch out for bugs! Mosquitos or gnats could become a permanent part of the painting, if you place it outside while still too wet. And, of course forgetting to bring the piece in before evening dew or rain would also spell trouble.
This oil painting was started last year as a demo for my Painting 2 students. I compiled several reference images in Photoshop and based the painting off of that composition. Parts of the painting were blocked in with palette knife. Most of the work was done with a variety of brush sizes. The canvas size is 10″x20″. When I started teaching painting at Waubonsie I didn’t want to mess with the chemicals and fumes of turpentine in a classroom setting. So, I investigated water-mixable oil sets and found the Reeves brand to be solid quality for a student-grade supply price. This painting was my first attempt with water-mixable oils. By the way, they sell water-mixable linseed oil to thin out the paints. I found that they handle very much like regular oil paints. You can still come back days later and rework an area. The paint consistency feels like oil, but clean-up is MUCH faster! The paint basically disintegrates in water. Then I keep a tub of Original B&J “The Masters” Brush Cleaner and Preserver on-hand to really clean out my brushes when done for the day. If you are sensitive to the chemicals used with regular oil paints, I’d encourage you to try these out.
Lighthouses are a regular theme when I paint oils. I’ve done 3-4 over the years, and this is perhaps my favorite so far. Growing up near the ocean, I’ve always loved lighthouses. I can feel the salt breeze on my face…can taste the spray and smell the approaching storm when I look at this painting.