One way to start off a mixed media painting (or any painting, if you want) is to create an interesting underpainting. In this case, I used four successive layers of the same color. Each layer deepens the color and obscures the white of the canvas more. You can try layering over different colors, too, including layering over a solid color underpainting on the surface.
Depending on the effect you want under your painting, you can stop at any point. Any of these surfaces would have worked as a good underpainting — it's all a matter of your individual choice.
One of the many wonderful features of acrylics is their quick drying time, which allows for layering like this, both to create an interesting underpainting and to create an interesting surface of the developing and finished paintings.
The last few weeks have been Mixed Media Weeks for me. This really is how I play with paint. When I have a nice stretch of time for this kind of creative work, everything goes into mixed media mode. My living room becomes my mixed media studio, with my painting set-up and drying table in one corner. I set up another table for collage work. And it's lovely to sit on the sofa and comb through my papers and photo images and old magazines and quotation files to find the things I want to incorporate into my paintings.
These two paintings include two of my favorite quotations by Nikos Kazantzakis, the author most well known for writing Zorba the Greek. Long ago, I studied Zakzantzakis's work with Thanasis Maskaleris at San Francisco State, and was able to meet his wife, Eleni Kazantzakis, so I feel a double connection to them (I love what they mean, too, obviously). I've been long wanting them on my walls, and decided that finally this was the time for it.
This kind of work is a layering process. You just keep adding things until it feels right — and the layers make the work more and more interesting. I like to think of it as reverse archeology — the discovery process happens as you add layers, rather than as you dig down through them. Because you can't predict how things will look, you learn to go with the flow in a way that is harder for many people when they try to paint realistically. That's why I love teaching this kind of painting — it helps people tap into their deepest creative selves without critical interference. And, after all, that is when you really feel the joy of creativity.
This year I was asked to demonstrate mixed media painting again at the Napa County Fair, on the Fourth of July. To make the experience a little different from last year, I thought I'd have fairgoers contribute to collaborative paintings — a touch of paint here, a bit of paint there — using a little collage, and a little in the way of stencils, but mostly just acrylic paint with various options as to how you apply it.
Most, though not all, of my participants turned out to be under thirteen — and a lot of them were six and under. I'd ask them, "What's your favorite color?" and then give them the color, or colors they needed to create their favorite. Then I asked, "Would you like to use a brush, or would you like to do texture?" It was especially fun to see their eyes light up as they tried painting with bubble wrap or plastic wrap or styrofoam, or something else they never would have thought of using.
The paintings began as mostly-blank canvases, but progressed throughout the day. Each person contributed a little or a lot, as they chose. The youngest children seemed to enjoy the tactile experience of moving the paint around the most, and experimented with applying it in different ways to the greatest extent. Older children and adults (with the exception of a professional artist who also came by and added her touches) mostly wanted to paint something identifiable — a picture, a word, or a pattern of some kind.
It was an opportunity for everyone to just play with the paint, and have fun. At one point, a grandfather brought his little granddaughter over to paint. She couldn't have been much more than two, and had quiet, unflappable concentration as she painted, even though her grandfather tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to get her to smile at his camera as he took photos of her.
Later in the evening, they came by as I was cleaning up, and he thanked me. Then, as they walked away, she turned back to me, and in a loud, clear, chipper voice, with a big smile on her face, said,"That was FUN!"
That's what doing this is all about.
The methods people tried out on these paintings are some of what we'll be doing in my August 8th workshop, Adventures in Mixed Media: Paint, Paper, Stencils, Collage, and Relief Printing. My favorite thing about doing this kind of artwork is that it allows adults to step back in time and get into that child-like creative space — the state of mind that gets into the process, enjoys the experience, and says, "That was FUN!"
As we get older, and our critical mind gets stronger, we sometimes forget to play. Or we approach a creative project with expectations — which is the death knell for true creativity. This kind of painting helps get us back in that state of discovery, of beginner's mind. You have no idea how something will evolve and change. But look what comes out of it... and it's FUN.
I may add a little more to these paintings, in their evolved state — including quotations I'd originally attached to each one. Or not. We'll see. But the finished pieces will be up for auction at the Calistoga Art Center's big fundraiser, The Soup-er Bowl, this autumn. Stay tuned!
Every now and then, I get ideas for new workshops... new approaches to painting, new media, revisiting techniques for media I've taught before, new approaches to the material I've taught before and new ways of understanding it. If I'm in a busy time, as I have been the last few months — with shows, workshops already scheduled, and private workshops — all an absolute pleasure for me, the ideas have to wait. They kind of pile up like schoolchildren at a door waiting for recess. They're ready... they're just waiting for the door to open....
And when that door opens, oh the joy! That's what things feel like right now. I've had a whole lot of ideas percolating, and this week and next are my time to test the new ideas out, create samples, and work out the bugs. The November workshop I've scheduled, Create Your Own Mixed Media Holiday Cards, is one of the ideas bursting out to play. I can hardly wait to begin sharing the images that come out of this time... it is my work, but it's recess, too, and time to play!
My thanks to my students who came for this last weekend's Acrylic Painting 101 workshop at the Calistoga Art Center! They were delightful. And it is my idea of fun to spend a weekend sharing the joys of painting with acrylics, to start with.
I didn't get any photos taken during the workshop, but you might get a little idea of some of what we did, from working with colors and color mixing, to trying all kinds of ways of applying paint to a surface, to abstract painting, to the painting of a simple still life.
Here's the demonstration painting I did during the workshop, from a little apple. We had such lovely and cooperative models! (Apples and pears.) We wound up only spending a little time on creating watercolor-like effects with acrylics, since everyone wanted to spend more time on their still life paintings (on which, by the way, they did a great job).
That was a good lesson for me... I always want to pack a lot into the time, maybe more than there is really time to take in. I knew that a second day would allow people to process what they'd been learning more thoroughly, and apply it, and it worked well. The next time I teach this, I'll keep the final watercolor-like technique as an option. I learned that it may not be an option my students need or want to take.
Do you have to use "The Rule of Thirds" to make a good painting?
In talking to a couple of friends recently about composition, each of them (in separate conversations) said something like, "Oh, I know... The Rule of Thirds and all that...." And one added, "There are just too many rules. I want to break the rules!"
With the latter, I agree.
And no, composition is not all about The Rule of Thirds. It's about what works in a painting. It's a much more practical matter.
The Rule of Thirds is generally understood to mean that, if you divide your painting into equal thirds, both vertically and horizontally, the image that is your center of focus should fall along one of the intersections of the grid you've established.
In the painting above, though, notice that the tree that is the center of interest doesn't quite line up right. It's off to the right of the right vertical line, and the horizon pretty much bisects the middle of the painting, horizontally. Hmmm. Does that mean it doesn't work as a painting? Look at the original painting below to compare.
According the The Rule, this painting shouldn't work. But it works just fine. The Rule is used to teach people not to plop subjects into the middle of their paintings, which can be helpful. It kind-of-approximates the Golden Mean (more about that in another post one of these days), though its dimensions are not the same as that of the Golden Mean. But it isn't the only way — or necessarily the best way — to create a composition, and it can be a straitjacket.
If this painting were cropped to align nicely along one-third lines, one way of doing it might look something like this, below.
Notice how the center of the tree lines up nicely along the line on the right, and its base, and the horizon line, is centered around the bottom horizontal line now. The lines intersect as the tree begins to branch out. It fits The Rule. But is it as interesting a painting? Or does it kind of miss the point?
The intention of this painter (me) was to create a painting of an oak tree in a meadow at sunset. This composition takes out the "Sunset Meadow" part of it. So The Rule really doesn't work here. Not that the cropped version isn't interesting... it just kind of misses the point.
Now, let's say we wanted to line up the upper right lines of the grid through the center of the tree, in its upper part, and recropped the painting's image accordingly. The tree is, after all, the center of interest of the painting.
Now the upper left lines cross in the upper part of the tree — or, technically, square in the middle of the tree as a whole. If the tree is the center of interest, this is where the Rule of Thirds tells us we would need to line it up. But now it misses another part of the point of the painting — which is the sunset. It's not a bad composition — but it misses the intention of the painter (in this case, me).
And here's another example. (Note: although these are landscape paintings, it applies to every other genre as well.) The painting doesn't fit The Rule. Its horizon does line up roughly along the bottom third line. But painting is about the two trees, and the relationship between them (and the heavenly color of the dusk sky), and none of that lines up on an intersection of the grid. But the painting works!
So, what can you take away from this? Rules can be helpful, up to a point. But using them as absolutes can keep you from really seeing — and art is all about seeing. In this case, The Rule of Thirds is an artificial structure — and stricture — that just isn't necessarily the best thing to go by. It's good to learn what IS necessary to make a painting work — and the proof is in what works. If you stick to what actually works, no matter the "rules," you'll be okay. And you just might have more interesting paintings.
Let me amend that — you will have more interesting paintings. And here's to more of those!
So... just what is it that makes one painting work, and another one fall flat on its face (so to speak)?
You know what I mean about that, don't you? You have the best of intentions, and it seemed like a good idea when you started, but the painting just isn't coming together, and you can't figure out why the heck not. Feels pretty frustrating, doesn't it?
Chances are the painting has got a problem with its composition. And if a painting's composition isn't working, it doesn't matter how beautifully parts of it are painted. Those parts are like lipstick on a pig... no matter how nice the lipstick, underneath it's still a pig. (No offense meant to pigs. Really. Especially the little cute babies....)
So here's one example of a composition study that isn't working. Can you see why? And, if you were to sum up its issues, could you sum it up in one word?
Is it easier to identify why it isn't working when you look at it upside down?
There are so many variables to take into consideration when you paint — there's line, there's color (although the study above isn't a color study), there's value, there are the relationships between the shapes in the painting, there are questions about drawing and whether the drawing works, and more.... Composition incorporates all of them.
That's what we'll be focusing on in the workshop I'm teaching on October 25th and 26th, Create Compositions That Work, at the Calistoga Art Center, in Calistoga, California. Because if the composition ain't happy, ain't nobody happy....
And that's why we'll be looking at — to start with — the painter's intention; the two kinds of paintings, compositionally speaking, no matter what the subject matter, and how to identify and manage the elements of both kinds of paintings, and make them work.
The same principles apply, whether you're looking at landscape paintings, still lifes, portraits, abstract work, or work in pretty much any other kind of genre.
If you come, you'll go home with specific, practical tools and know-how that you can use to get out of, and avoid, those painting predicaments from here on out. Join us, and learn how to create compositions that work!
Here's the link to the workshop info: Create Compositions That Work.
So, how would you sum up what isn't working in the composition study above — or why it's not working, if you only had one word to do it in?
Here's the word I would choose to explain why it doesn't work: confusion. The painter hasn't decided what's important about the painting-to-be. Is it the sheep? The trees on the hill? The pattern of the rows? The painter hasn't decided. It's a decision that is absolutely basic for the painting, and determines how the painter needs to handle everything as a result. Its lack causes confusion.
Does that make sense? We'll talk more about it at the workshop.
"Does anyone worry about not being excellent?"
I came across the question tonight on an online art forum. It's a question that generally comes up for people who make art, at some point, usually earlier on, maybe a few years into really working at it, and it's a worry that can be devastating.
Many understanding artists (because, yes, we've all had to deal with this) responded with encouragement and great advice.
Here's a slightly edited excerpt of what I wrote....
The tricky thing is to get out of judgement-mode (or critical-mode). It does NOT help you. Your inner critic will chip away and chip away until you stop drawing and painting altogether, because you find yourself in the middle of a creative block. (Ask me how I know.)
So, in order to keep making art, you have to learn how to get out of critical-mode.
When I was in school, my art teachers would say, "You have to do a thousand bad drawings before you can expect to do one good one." The wonderful thing about this was that it got us working, and we didn't lay those awful expectations on every darn thing we worked on. We were students. We were learning. We hadn't done 1,000 drawings yet, so no problem....
If you can get into that mindset — what you do is learn as much as you can about making good art, and then you just work at it. Consider it research & development.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, said it takes about 10,000 hours of practice before people become really good at something. So if your inner critic pops up, ask yourself, "Have I done my 10,000 hours yet?" If the answer is no, tell your critical voice you're still learning, and it can come back after you've done your 10,000 hours of practice.
Then you have 10,000 (or however many) hours to learn how to make art without your critical voice popping up. Make the most of it! Working from your creative side, rather than your critical side, will become a wonderful habit, and you will be able to make art. And the more you do, the better you get.
It's like the old joke about how you get to Carnegie Hall... practice, practice, practice....
Acrylics, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.... Seriously — I know I'm biased, but for good reason — acrylic paints are the most versatile paint medium today.
You can use them using traditional painting methods; you can create washes and stains with them; you can make glazes; you can make them look like watercolors or oil paints; you can add mediums that create a variety of kinds of special effects, including textures, drips, and pours; you can use them in collage and mixed media; you can make them look like encaustics; you can apply them with palette knives or spray cans; you can use them on any number of different kinds of surfaces... well, you get the idea?
Two very different paintings created with acrylic paints — on the left, a mixed media painting with collage — Do It on Purpose • Acrylics and collage on canvas • 10" x 10" • © 2014 Karen Lynn Ingalls (AKA Karin Johansson-Bolin - my alter-ego mixed media self). On the right, a landscape painting — Autumn Celebration • Acrylics on canvas • 12" x 16" • © 2014 Karen Lynn Ingalls
And acrylics are forgiving! Don't beat yourself up if something isn't turning out in a way you like! (You should NEVER do that anyway.) You want to change it? Just let it dry a little, and paint over it. No problem.
They dry faster (oh so much faster!) than oil paints — but you can extend the drying time if you like blending and mixing your paints on the canvas. They dry permanent, unlike watercolors, but you can give them the appearance of watercolors.
In short, it's the perfect medium. (Well, yes, I'm biased — but, as you see, I have good reasons for it.)
This Saturday I'll be teaching Acrylic Painting 101, my introductory workshop to painting with acrylics.
If you're new to acrylics — or new to painting in general — this is a good way to get started. We'll begin by exploring many of the ways you can apply acrylic paint to a surface, and practice mixing colors.
Then everyone will create two paintings. The first is an abstract painting — you'll receive open-ended, guided instructions to get you started, so there's no feeling of being intimidated by looking at a blank canvas. And although everyone hears the same guided instructions, because they are open to individual interpretation, each person's painting will be completely unique and unlike anyone else's.
The second painting is a simple still life, so that you'll get some practice in working from an object. You'll learn how to start your painting, and how to approach it each step of the way until you have a finished painting.
One of the things I love most about this workshop is that we approach painting with an attitude of experimentation. There is no judgement here! This is all about diving in and exploring the medium in a way that will give you a strong basic foundation. Then you take what you learn and go on whatever direction appeals to you most....
I'll be teaching Acrylic Painting 101 is at the Calistoga Art Center, 1435 North Oak Street in Calistoga, California — and the time is this Saturday, June 28th, from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Bring a lunch! The registration deadline ends soon — you can find out more on my Acrylic Painting 101 page, here on this website.
You can also learn more tips and basics about acrylic paints on my new Acrylic Painting 101 website. I'll be adding to it over time, but there are some very helpful tips there now.
Last week, I gave a private lesson at Bardessono, in Yountville. When I emerged, night had fallen, and the trees were magical. Here's a glimpse of the view....
Karen Lynn Ingalls
I am a working artist in Napa and Sonoma Counties, in northern California. I paint colorist landscapes of rural California, teach art classes, workshops, and private lessons, and live in Calistoga, California.