Tuesday, November 2, 2010

One Fine Workshop

This is a long blog post. It’s about a 3-day workshop I took, 10/25-27, 2010…

It was absolutely outstanding... three years of art school packed into three days.

It’s never that fitting to openly fawn over a new hero, but I’m getting old and it’s time to shed a lifetime of vacillation over who or what to back, by coming out in the open: I have a growing admiration for one of the workshop presenters, North Carolina painter Mike Rooney.

The admiration began almost a year ago with, first, some free art lessons videos at Jerry’s Artarama, a discount art supply house in Raleigh, North Carolina.

In those videos, Mike had relevant and clear things to say in lesson after lesson. About simplifying. About color in general and how to gray out color in shadows. About drawing in preparation for painting. About values, light and dark.

Even about how to pack a book bag for painting outside.

That led to my purchase of my first Rooney DVD, “Impressionist Beachscapes: Topsail Homes,” part of the World of Art DVDs sold by Jerry’s.

I bought it because (a) his little free lessons had revealed a damn fine teacher and (b) I wanted desperately to learn how to paint Sanity’s Anchor, a beach house in Duck, North Carolina, where good family times happened and for many reasons could never happen again.

The DVD turned out to be about color and light, not beach houses, and rather than disappointed, I was astonished. For well over an hour, he took a canvas panel from blank to finished work along an amazing path that went from nearly abstract shapes of pure color down to (relatively) fine detail in realistic colors.

For the first time, time and age were driven home to me. Time might tackle and disable me, long before I could master this process -- see the abstract shapes, see the underlying bright color, work the palette to bring those colors down to a bright, compelling scene.

I recovered a bit and decided to push on. Maybe I could learn some of it, anyway.

After All This, a Chance to See the Man at Work
All this long-distance admiration for Rooney was cemented in person, at a 3-day workshop at the Portsmouth (Rhode Island) Arts Guild (PAG), October 25-27, 2010, “Painting Loose and Colorful.”

Mike taught two days of the class, with Rumford, Rhode Island artist Kathy Weber taking the last day. (A few days later, a Rooney demo in a little gallery in Orleans, Mass., further cemented my hero worship, but that will be another blog post).

The first day, mostly sunny and definitely warm and pleasant, was spent indoors at the Guild’s digs. The PAG home is in what appears to be an 1880-ish one-story building, all dark wood and art-background-gray walls inside, with a largish central room that had been turned into a little gallery.

It all began pleasantly enough, with Mike giving a little preamble that made values (dark, light and in between) absolutely, unmistakeably clear – tempting to say ‘in black and white,’ but the whole purpose was to see not just black or white, but several grays in between.

He gave us a memorable shower analogy: just as a shower head delivers more water to horizontal surfaces and less to oblique or vertical ones, so too the sun bestows more light on the horizontal. 

I found myself hoping that the Chinese kids who assembled these reflectors were paying attention to good UL manufacturing processes, that they hadn’t left some loose wires to short out across the metal....

Mixing 5 Different Shades of Gray
The next step was ours: create shades of gray from white to dark, and put some value studies down on canvas -- or, rather, practice paper.

We seven students, six women and I, burned our little brains – at least I did – trying to come up with five reliably different shades of dark color on our palettes.

The sixth, white, was easy, since we all had a tube of that. The first, darkest dark was easy -- just mix ultramarine blue and orange.

But the others! Add some white... too light... add some color... too dark.... add some white... too light....

A second challenge was to loosen up and squeeze out ample piles of color as raw material. I really learned that one by the end of the day – it being too hard to stop and try one more damn time to come up with five reliably different shades of dark…

Then we burned our brains further by looking at colored blocks and trying to determine were the darkest darks lurked, where the lightest lights, and what in between were the right values. I set my digital camera on B&W and did a bit of cheating:

Meanwhile, squinting into the sunlight outside whenever I came up for air, I inwardly seethed. The Weather Channel was quite clear that tomorrow was going to be foul and on Wednesday, we were going to be inundated with drenching rain. I wanted to do some painting outside with expert guidance.

The Red Plastic Look
At one point, we broke out our bits of red plastic (a tool that, looked through, strips color from scenes and helps reveal values) and subjected some of the PAG work hanging on the walls around us to an on-the-spot value study. There was quite a bit of good stuff.

But, the real work was ours. Below is my setup, complete with one of my monotone block studies. You can see my much-modified, ultra-cheap sketch box in its mostly finished form. The dark color (“black”) was a mix of the ultramarine blue and the orange that you see at 11 and 11:30 o'clock on the palette.
Four o'clock rolled in, it seemed, instantly, and we packed up for the day.

Day Two: Sunny - Forget The Weather Channel
And, of course, Tuesday arrived. There were a few clouds, but the day was in fact mainly filled with warm October New English sunshine and blue sky. And these conditions carried clear through until the last hour of the painting day.

So much for the Weather Channel (and my Monday frustration).

More dark / gray / white studies filled the morning as we lined up along the bay at Portsmouth’s Island Park. (The "island" is Aquidneck, nestled in Narragansett Bay. It hosts down-to-earth Portsmouth on the north; giddy and posh Newport on the south; and Middletown, just north of Newport, neither giddy nor posh).

The sun, by the way, coming up right at us straight across the water, was a darn near unbearable shower head of light, especially glinting off the bay waters.

Luckily, there were cool things to see along the left and right shores: homes and cottages, jetties and docks, good old New England summer-scene backdrops that quietly radiated back to us the necessary really-dark, gray1, gray2, gray3, gray4, and white.

Mike began sketching a scene to our right.

As Mike pounded into us, really-dark, gray1 and gray2 were reserved for shadows. That left white, gray4 and gray3 to be used for things in the light. “Everything in reality is somewhere in between, so your job is to
decide which value out there can be shoehorned into one of the six values available to you,” he said. "Think of it this way -- I'm giving you only six values to work with. It's as though I gave you a hundred dollars for lunch all week. You have to figure out how to spend that money so you can get something every day. Same thing here -- you have to decide just which values to place where, so you can tell things apart and give the story of the painting."

The exercise helped drive home the reality of oil painting: everything depends on intelligent decisions around simplification.

The First 'Aha!'
At some time during this second morning, I had my first moment of aha! It came in the middle of Mike’s demo. Right around here:

As he was putting in the white ultra-highlights (which he held off till the last moments of sketching), it finally dawned on me that good paintings were the result of a carefully orchestrated range of values. Oh, I had known that, in my head, but his finishing highlights for some reason made it all completely clear.

Rooney - Value Comparison, Photo > Sketch
Here’s most of the scene he sketched, taken in black & white:

And here’s Mike’s value sketch (note how he edits out several houses to the left):

The First Promise of Color
The sun held for most of the afternoon as we moved to a fishing spot close to the northern bridge off the island. Below, Mike talks again of values. He’ll do a value sketch, he says, then he’ll begin to lay in color. It’s the first we had seen color in the workshop and it promised to be a big moment.

Below, the value sketch is just about finished:

A few moments later, as the wind was rising, he began to add color. At this point, Mike pointed out that colors have values, but not always in relation to their ability to be discerned by the human eye. That is, you can and should get the value of a color right, but two colors of the same value (say, one blue and one red) can appear distinctly different by the eye.

Note the light blue especially in the following two pictures—also the blue and the orange:

In black and white, many of the values merge together -- add color, and you can keep the right value, but make strong differentiations at the same time.

Enter the Clouds
A few minutes later the wind brought in storm clouds, and the Weather Channel was partially vindicated… but, it never rained until a tiny drizzle began an hour or so after we broke.

Below is my take on the same scene (after Mike – twice – urged me to lighten the sky… I finally took his advice. The dark spots in the sky are not attack helicopters, but bits of the Providence Journal that stuck to the painting on the way home):

Day 3 - Kathy Weber Handles Bad Weather and Jurors Jurying
Kathy Weber’s day, Wednesday, dawned -- or rather didn’t dawn -- with heavy cold drizzle and very dark clouds. But, once again the Weather Channel was knocked off kilter by our New England coastal forces. It was supposed to dump 2 inches of rain, but it never progressed beyond windy, irritating, heavy drizzle and cold.

The darkness of the day is reflected in the blurring in the following photos, where the shutter speed is too slow for either my subject or my hand. I didn’t want to use flash... too disruptive.... but should have.

The weather itself was enough to give Kathy pause – we all were hoping to paint outside again. On top of that, with us incarcerated, several PAG members appeared, intent on judging submitted work for an upcoming major exhibition at the Guild. Kathy soldiered on above the constant voting and sotto voce discussions muttering in the background. I don't know about the others, but it wasn't long before Kathy's presentation and the act of concentration on painting had me tuning the jury out completely.

Palette Expo
First, she gave demos of various types of restricted palettes (minimalist colors, yet capable of many mixed colors from those available).

She began with that of Anders Zorn (1860-1920), consisting of yellow ochre (an earth color), cadmium red light, ivory black (really, a very dark blue), and white. The result is a subdued palette, very reminiscent of the old Dutch masters.

She then demonstrated more traditional limited palettes, culminating in one with a cool yellow, warm yellow, cool red, warm red, cool blue, warm blue and white.Respectively, that's lemon yellow, cad yellow light (or medium cad yellow, more orange-y), alizarin crimson, cad red light, Prussian (or thalo) blue, and ultramarine blue.

The range of colors she drew from these limited hues plus white was amazing:

The Second 'Aha!' - How a Master Makes the Most of Limited Resources
That triggered my second Aha! moment - to see what a master could do with extremely subtle shades and hues, all drawn from minimal resources.

We then sweated out some still life setups designed to exercise us completely on the mixing of more or less subtle color and value shifts -- all from only a few basic tubes of paint. My banana-and-bowl turned out good, for me, though the green bottle ain’t so hot: The next one, cruelly involving a Victorian white pitcher, eluded me (but scroll down to see another student's brilliant take on the pitcher).

The Wrap: Mini-Critiques
We wrapped with a mini-critique. Kathy took the lead and presented a clean balance of praise for the praiseworthy and suggestions for passages that needed more work. I didn’t capture everyone’s candidates - by now it was very dark - but a few representative ones (even though blurry) made it through, and they will tell you how effective the workshop was.

My own critique-able painting was based on photos I took last summer, at one of the few working farms in Framingham, on the Balch land.

An amazing time, with great things learned - thanks Mike and Kathy!

A footnote on Mike's approach
Later, I asked Mike how he managed the eight of us. A couple were accomplished artists, gallery-represented and highly experienced. Others had mastered different media and were experimenting with oils. Some were beginners -- my category.

"If you had a twelve year old and a five year old," he said, "and you wanted them to set the table, you'd expect more out of the twelve year old. You can't expect a five year old to set the table as well as you would a twelve year old.  you'd be happy to see the five yr old put the plate in the right place and get some silverware down.

"But if that's all the twelve year old did, you'd be very disappointed. They're both setting the table but you set your expectations appropriate to the age and/or skill level. It  helps me keep in mind that some aren' going to be able to 'set a very good table' and to try to show them how to, while gently pushing the more experienced to go farther and expect more out of themselves, to get better."

And it worked, thanks to one-on-one time
In part, it all worked because both Mike and Kathy made the rounds as we were laboring to complete exercises. Everyone got one-on-one advice -- and challenges and pushes -- and everyone went away feeling that a whole lot had gone on in three days.


  1. Hello Dave! So great to hear from you and read your very through review of what transpired during those magical 3 days (2 for me!). What an incredible experience to have the opportunity to work with such talented and kind people whom I am now blessed to consider friends! I wish I were still there in RI painting with all of you. I am forever grateful to Mike & Cathy for their invaluable instruction, tips, encouragement, etc. I will upload my pix eventually and will make sure to send copies your way. Keep up the great work and tell your wife I said you deserve a raise in your painting allowance. With your talent, you will earn it all back and then some!

    Take good care & keep in touch.


  2. Thanks, Melissa, your comment's much appreciated.

  3. Yes, thanks Dave! I didn't realize you were keeping such careful notes! And I still think you did a fab job on that barn!

  4. Thanks for your absorbing post on this workshop.I was sorry to miss it myself, as I spent several sessions with Kathy plein air in Bristol and Providence this summer/fall.It sounds like you learned alot...thanks so much for sharing it with the rest of us!

  5. Many thanks, Kathy (and it wasn't so much notes as photos - George Eastman would be proud: so many Kodak moments).

    Anne -- must be great to go on site with Kathy. Thanks for your comment, and while I'm impressed with your work, I'm in awe of Collins Park, your September 19th post. Pure essence of Noreast coastal...