Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Setting up an Outdoor Easel

As you know, the plein air painting season is in full swing. Outdoors I usually sit in a low beach chair with my paper clipped to gaterboard in my lap and my watercolor paint and water on the ground. This is OK, but standing up with the paper in front of my face works better because I can see what I'm doing more easily. However, although I've been looking for good outdoor easel for several years, none of them were ever "just right." Recently though, at her Yakima Canyon workshop, I saw Catherine Gill's easel, adapted from a camera tripod. It looked perfect, and so I decided to try setting my own up the same way.

To show you what I did, I'll start with the finished product and work my way backwards through the process:
Here's the finished easel. Gaterboard and paper, attached to the  tripod head, is completely adjustable for level and angle. I could even lay it down flat if I wanted, as if it were on a table. BTW, if you don't already have a tripod, you can buy the complete setup rather than baking your own. But that wouldn't be as fun doing it yourself, would it?
Side view. 
I bought the tray already made. It's plastic, lightweight to carry around, and has channels that the tripod legs fit into.  The legs can be spread farther apart if necessary.  You can see the different size holes for brushes and a water cup. The shelf is called a Traveler Series Watercolor Tripod Shelf and cost about $46 with shipping. Catherine's tray was made by a friend out of wood.
Here's where the tripod head attaches to the gaterboard. It attaches by using both parts of a tripod head quick-release attachment, a piece of plywood, and some velcro. It isn't necessary to decorate your gaterboard as nicely as mine.
Here's the female part of the camera attachment. I'm going to connect the gaterboard to it by using the male part of the camera attachment, as you'll see in the next photo.
Here's the male part of the camera attachment, called a quick release plate. I ordered one from B&H Photo so I wouldn't ruin the one that attaches to my camera. This plate usually clips onto the bottom of the camera. Instead, Bill screwed it into a square piece of plywood for me, which my neighbor Pete had kindly cut from a scrap left over from building his new kitchen cabinets. I had to get a particular screw from the hardware store that would work with the quick release plate. After looking at the plate, the hardware store guy knew just what I needed. 
On the other side of the plywood, I stuck some industrial strength velcro.
Here's the other side of the velcro stuck to the back of the gaterboard. Voila! All set!

 I've already used this ensemble a few times and just love it!

Monday, May 7, 2012

What's the What and So What?

I recently attended a painting workshop given by Catherine Gill, a wonderful artist and teacher from Seattle. You may be familiar with her recent book, Powerful Watercolor Landscapes, which is one of the very best books of its kind that I've ever read, and simply loaded with jewels of wisdom based on Cathe's 30 years as painting instructor.

Cathe Gill demonstrating
If you've read her book, or even heard her talk, you'll know that one of Cathe's signature expressions is "What's the what?" Before this workshop, I'd never taken a class with Cathe, but I'd certainly heard this phrase plenty from my studio mate, Mara Bohman, who's taken more than one. Mara would look at my work and exclaim, "What's the what? What IS the what??!"

Simply stated, the "what" in a painting is the thing that draws the viewer's eye first -- the most important thing in the picture. Without a clear "what" the viewer is likely to skim over the painting and move on. As I often didn't have an answer to Mara's question, I decided to really focus on this "what" business during the workshop and learn more about how it can help improve my artwork. It turns out there are various methods artists use to draw the viewer's eye, including:
  • Value contrast-- The lightest light and the darkest dark placed next to each other, or at least near each other, draw the eye. The less the value contrast in an area, the less the eye is attracted to it.
  • Shape - A big or complex shape can help define the "what."
  • Color contrast -- Complementary colors placed near each other attract the eye. Complementary colors are those on opposite sides of the color wheel, for example red and green, blue and orange, purple and yellow.
  • Edges -- Rough edges. These attract the most attention in a watercolor, so should be placed where you want the most attention. Next are the hard edges, and finally the blurry edges, which should be placed in the parts of the painting that are less important.
  • Details -- Small marks also draw attention, so details should be reserved for the "what" part of the painting.
Cathe says that using just two or three of these elements is plenty to define the painting's what. The artist can reserve the others for the parts of the painting where the viewer's eye can travel after it visits the "what."
Cathe's reference photo
Here's Cathe's demo painting. Where is her "what"? Can you tell which of the methods listed above she used to attract your eye to it?