Art ~ Writing ~ Life

From Handprints To Footprints

Painting with Knives

December 21, 2014
Steve Campbell

Another old art piece of mine. This article was first published in an art newsletter dated 1998. The photos of my artwork that I’ve shared for this post range from the same year to 2001.

While oil painting this month, I’ve been having fun painting with knives. Frosting the cake is what I call it when I spread thick paints of color on my canvases, and then add flicks and swirls like a jolly decorator in a bakery.

Using a painting knife on canvas board.

Using a painting knife on canvas board.

Anyone who hasn’t tried painting with knives should give it a go. All you need is either a painting knife or a palette knife of your choice and several rags to clean your knife. I prefer using one knife to keep my painting area uncluttered. And the knife I prefer most is the painting knife. I enjoy the painting knife’s flexibility over the palette knife’s rigidness.

Just like brushes, knives come in a lot of shapes and sizes that lend themselves to various uses. The Dick Blick Company, where I buy my art supplies, explains the differences between painting knives and palette knives.

  • Painting knives are blunt with a slightly flexible steel blade and no sharpened cutting edge. They are used in place of a brush for applying paint colors, paste, pigments, and so forth directly onto the canvas or painting surface.
  • Palette knives are blunt with a very flexible steel blade and no sharpened cutting edge. They are primarily used for mixing paint colors, mediums, additives, paste, pigments, and so forth directly on the palette before applying them to a surface. Palette knives are symmetric, like a kitchen spatula.

I prefer using a large painting knife simply because it allows me to be freer when I apply paint to my canvas, leaving a variety of edges in the finished work, giving the artwork life and engaging the viewer with the painting.

Hard and soft edges and color contrasts.

Hard and soft edges and color contrasts.

Although I prefer painting on canvas, there are various kinds of surfaces to paint on. Stretched canvas allows me to dance the knife across the surface and create a variety of irregular shapes. This is why I use the less flexible painting knives because I prefer some control when I paint. Canvas board and Masonite let me control both knives better, but my pictures sometimes look motionless when I use a painting knife on them. I recommend using the more flexible palette knives on hard surfaces.

More hard and soft edges with color contrasts.

More hard and soft edges with color contrasts.

Whichever knife you choose, painting with knives gives your pictures abrupt color changes, making edges in the paint appear razor-sharp, which is nice when contrasting areas of your major focal points. But when an unimportant edge looks too sharp, a zigzag of the tip of the knife through the paint breaks any edge and puts it in its proper place.

Edges can be hard, soft, and lost. Using a variety of edges engages the viewer’s attention by preventing the picture from looking monotonous. I like to alter the edges in my paintings to enhance the rhythm and composition.

Lost edges look good in snow scenes.

Lost edges look good in snow scenes.

When hard edges are placed horizontally, they accelerate the movement of the viewer’s eye. When placed vertically, the eye of the viewer comes to a sudden stop.

Soft edges slow down horizontal lines and allow passage through vertical ones. Creating soft edges with a brush is easy; with a knife, not so much. That’s where the flicks and swirls I mentioned earlier come in play.

A mixture of hard and soft edges creates a type of movement like a driver operating a car with both the accelerator and brake at the same time. These stop and go edges are called  broken edges and are sometimes described as a Morse Code type of painting.

Lost edges are in water and atmosphere.

Lost edges are in water and atmosphere.

Lost edges are almost invisible edges and help keep the viewer’s attention focused on where the hard edges are. Lost edges play a major role of supporting hard edges, which, as I mentioned earlier, are often found in the main subject. You can see lost edges in the shadow areas of my paintings as well as in the main subjects. Using lost edges with hard edges lets the main subject look as though it is truly part of the scene, and not like it was cut out and pasted on. And equally important, lost edges keep the viewer’s eye flowing evenly from one area to another.

When painting lost edges, I find it’s important to use colors equal to or close to one another in value to keep contrasting values from creating hard value edges. Plus, to avoid hard chromatic edges, I use colors in the same temperature range. This unifies the elements of a painting and creates pathways, like light flowing from one room into another.

The paint dances across the field grass.

The paint dances across the field grass.

I recommend that every artist try doing an entire painting strictly with palette knives. Go ahead and give it a go. And most of all, have fun.

Drawings

September 24, 2014
Steve Campbell

I like to draw. Figure drawing, cartooning, doodling … you name it. Graphite pencils, pen and ink, inked brushes, wax color pencils, crayons, charcoal, chalk, pastels, various kinds of erasers, markers, styluses. Line drawing, shading, hatching, cross-hatching, broken hatching, stippling, entopic graphomania (you make a dot at the location of each imperfection in the drawing paper, then connect the dots using straight or curved lines) — the list could go on if I had more time.

Drawings 01

I have no favorite medium, drawing instrument, or even subject matter. I like to draw … period. As artist Grayson Perry said, “Until we can insert a USB into our ear and download our thoughts, drawing remains the best way of getting visual information on to the page.” But I don’t draw haphazardly unless I’m doodling ideas. And even then I’m aware of what I’m doing, which is usually observing size and viewpoint. The drawings can look childish, but I never toss out any childlike drawing. Most children instinctively draw objects from the viewpoint that gives the most information. So they draw a house from the front, but a truck from the side — because it’s from there that you can see the truck’s cab, trailer and wheels. I still draw that way today; whichever drawing has a viewpoint that gives the viewer the most information is going to be the easiest to understand. That’s what I look for in my artwork (and my writing).

Drawings 02

Everyone has their own ways of expression, and finding ways to say it can be a battle. The power of any kind of art is keeping it simple and understandable. Anyone who can do that can make the uninteresting things in life look complex, advanced, and largely exciting. That’s the true power of art.

Painting Alla Prima, Part 2 of 2

July 22, 2014
Steve Campbell

Many years ago, I taught wildlife and landscape painting classes. This is a lesson plan from those classes.

Understanding and controlling values should be one of your first goals as a painter. When I began painting landscapes from life, I realized that the objects in my finished paintings lacked convincing form. When I understood how light reveals form and began looking at the world with this in mind, my work began to improve. So will yours when you learn to see light and understand what it does to show an object’s form.

Recognize value in color. An object’s form is made of valued tones of color. It’s imperative while painting to be able to see a color in your subject and translate its value into paint.

Think about the picture and its center of interest. Think in terms of composition first. Plan where the center of interest will be located and how you will emphasize that area. Make your center of interest stand out with color and value contrasts and an interesting shape.

Inside, Looking Out

Inside, Looking Out, Oil Painting

When painting a center of interest, keep your eyes on that area of landscape (or model or still life) and nowhere else. Use your peripheral vision for the rest of the subject, but keep your eyes on the focal point as you finish the rest of the painting. This will help you make the rest of your painting harmonious with the focal point.

What can you cut? Are you saying too much and cluttering the picture space with too many details? Is there anything extraneous that you can remove from the picture? Can you cut detracting background by moving in closer or by cropping the subject with a viewfinder?

The overall design. When composing your painting, do not think “up and down” or “side to side.”  Rather, consider the depth you can create within the “cube” I’ve talked about in class—that three dimensional rectangular space that will be your painting. Then work with the overlapping forms within your vision’s periphery as part of the overall design.

A Brief Pause in an Apple Orchard

A Brief Pause in an Apple Orchard, Oil Painting

Put it on and leave it alone. This rule is often mentioned to oil painters, but I’m suggesting it to painters using acrylics, too. Fussing with passages of acrylic paint can be more damaging than reworking the slower-drying oil paints.

When putting in the lights mix up thick, opaque color and put it down with simple strokes. The amount of paint on the brush and proper brush pressure is vital when applying your paint. Putting thick paint down boldly forces you to make definite decisions. Believe your first impression. Paint quickly; if you look too long, your perception may change. Be decisive. A boldly applied stroke looks right because the artist made a decision and stuck with it. Putting down a stroke and then restating it once or twice pushes the paint into the underlayer, making the color muddy. If the underpainting is too thick, scrape it off. You can lay paint over a thick area by painting the next layer even thicker.

Oil on canvas board

Oil on canvas board

Criticize your work from afar. Step away a good distance from the canvas and decide whether some shapes and edges need more emphasis. Judge artfully from a distance, not critically with your nose against the canvas. From Leonardo da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting we learn that from a distance “…the work appears smaller, and more of it is taken in at a glance, and [any] lack of harmony or proportion in the various parts … is more readily seen.” Remember to emphasize major areas—do not stray far from your painting’s focal point.  Add detail, or sharp edges at the end of the process.

Sketches in the Sun

Sketches in the Sun, Oil Painting, circa 2002

Impressionist Claude Monet described painting alla prima as this: “When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have in front of you, a tree, a field. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene.”

Painting Alla Prima, Part 1 of 2

July 14, 2014
Steve Campbell

Many years ago, I taught wildlife and landscape painting classes. This is a lesson plan from those classes.

Alla prima is an Italian expression that translates into “at the first try.” The technique of alla prima is a wet-on-wet direct method of painting that completes the painting in a single session, without previous preparation or later stages. TV artist Bob Ross paints alla prima.

The Impressionists introduced the technique of direct painting; however, Rubens used an alla prima style when he mixed his colors directly on the canvas itself without waiting for the paints to dry. The Impressionists painted their landscapes in a single session taking only three or four hours to begin and finish a picture. They tried to capture the impression of the moment by painting directly. They did not allow themselves to go back over what had already been done.

As when using any painting method, ask “Why am I painting this picture?” as you prepare to paint alla prima. If you have no answer, then you’re not ready to paint that picture. When you are ready, sketch in the drawing with a round bristle brush loaded with a mixture of blue and umber thinned with turpentine. If you’re using water-based oils or acrylics, thin your colors with water. Simplify the scene’s complexity by sketching in the main elements. Once the initial drawing is done, it’s now a question of filling in the spaces with color.

Oak Sketch Oil on canvas board

Oak Sketch
Oil on canvas board

Establish the mood first, before worrying about creating depth. The mood is determined by light, so observe the color of light, then consider how to alter that color to create elements in deep space.

What color is the lightest light? A white shirt drenched in warm lamplight may be pink, orange or slightly yellow—not pure white, as you might think. Never use pure white, but white with a small amount of color in it.

Waterfall Study Oil on canvas board

Waterfall Study
Oil on canvas board

What is the darkest dark? What color is it? How dark is it? Darks have light in them, so double-check your first impression. Put the lights in later.

Pick the easiest color to get right without a lot of mixing. If an object is the same color as Cerulean Blue straight from the tube, that is easy. To check a rich, bright color in nature, hold up a pure color, such as Cadmium Red Light, on the brush. Compare how lighter or less brilliant that color may actually be. When it looks right, put it on your canvas.

Establish shadow patterns. It’s easier to control light colors by first placing in all the shadow shapes accurately. When they’re in the right place, this step is done. Laying in the shadows first guarantees clean color throughout.

Cow and landscape study, 1990; oil on canvas board

Cow and landscape study, 1990; oil on canvas board

Lay in the lights. Keep all the colors of the light family lighter than the shadow shapes. Lay them down flatly and simply. Cover the whole canvas while thinking about shapes. Step away and recheck your color choices. Don’t hurry to produce a finished painting.

See objects in terms of simple shapes. Focus on shapes, not things. Think of your paintings as mosaics of interlocking shapes, some larger, some smaller, but all related. Make all shapes interesting, and pay special attention to negative shapes. Start with flat silhouettes of color.

Describe the effect of light on forms. Use hard and soft edges to convey the character and solidity of objects. Start your painting by keeping edges soft.  Hard edges attract the eye, so keep shapes and edges loose and fluid in the early stages.

All surfaces reflect color on any surfaces facing the light’s reflection. This is called reflected light and reflected color, and we see it when the blue sky reflects off water and snow, as well as when green grass reflects from the base of a white house.

A study from the 1990s; oil on canvas board

A study from the 1990s; oil on canvas board

Tiny Watercolor

November 16, 2013
Steve Campbell

Tiny watercolor

A little sketch in watercolor when I should have been writing.
Sometimes the mind needs to switch gears.

Now, I have a book to finish writing.

Evolution of a Painting

September 26, 2012
Steve Campbell

This is a re-post from my Facebook page, March 1, 2010.

In 1988, black bear weren’t a common sight around Corry, PA. I had caught a glimpse of one during the spring while I was on one of my many field hikes into the swamps in and around Corry. I was sketching a beaver dam when I saw the big bear ramble through less than 50 yards away. I stayed as still as possible for several minutes after it disappeared into the underbrush, then I disappeared in the opposite direction.

The sighting stayed with me throughout the summer; I purposely scanned the woods and waterways for another glimpse of the bear. I planned to photograph it, but we never crossed paths, although it may have been out there, nearby, out of sight, watching me. Swamps have a plethora of hiding places. That’s why deer take refuge in them during hunting season.

From this near encounter came the idea for my next painting.

The hardest thing for me as a painter is getting my signature right.

Although the painting looks done, I wasn’t happy with it. I changed my signature again and got rid of the halo around the front of the bear.

As you can see in the above photo, I glazed the water with Ultramarine Blue. I decided that it looked too “vivid” so I changed it back (see photo below). Now I had a finished painting. Here it is at the gallery, April 1989.

Allow Mistakes

August 17, 2012
Steve Campbell

The three paintings shown below are from 1986 when I wanted to show a deer running through a winter landscape. They are painting sketches filled with mistakes I made while learning about deer and the art of painting. Each painting sketch gets better, but they all contain obvious errors that detract from each picture. Fortunately, I was never afraid to make mistakes while I painted, which helped me grow as an artist. After all, making art is a lifelong process of making mistakes.

"Deer Running, Sketch 1"

Deer Running, Sketch 1, Acrylic

"Deer Running, Sketch 2"

Deer Running, Sketch 2, Acrylic

"Deer Running, Sketch 3"

Deer Running, Sketch 3, Acrylic

While mistakes are often blows to the ego, they’re also beautiful learning lessons. And learning art is achieving the knowledge of which mistakes to correct and which ones to keep. Did you know that good paintings are full of wonderful accidents that the artist refused to fix?

TV painter Bob Ross called his mistakes “happy accidents” because they sparked his creativity and urged him to try new methods. As you study your subject and the painting process, you must not worry about the results or be afraid to paint something “ugly.” As you grow, you will learn how to spot errors and mistakes and problems in your art and find solutions for correcting them. There are many how-to books and Internet sites that will teach you. Just look for their banner headlines:

MISTAKES THAT ARTISTS MAKE & SOLUTIONS FOR CORRECTING THEM

While you paint, learn not to think too much about the result. Set yourself a goal, but don’t force the painting along. When you’re painting, lose yourself in the act of applying a variety of dark and light and big and small brushstrokes of color that tell different stories within the big picture. Painting, like writing or making music, is about emotions and the landscape they create. The result won’t be perfect, but it will be true.

"People Reading Stock Exchange"

People Reading Stock Exchange, Norman Rockwell

No matter what, allow yourself to make mistakes and learn from them, like Norman Rockwell did when he mistakenly painted the three-legged boy in this picture of an illustration he did for The Saturday Evening Post. Yes, the boy in the red shirt has three legs. Two with their knees locked, and a third with the knee bent so that he can rest his hand on it. Rockwell was embarrassed, naturally, when the error was printed for the multitude of Post subscribers to see, but he never repeated this mistake in any of his 4,000-plus paintings.

Never stop learning.

Giving

July 24, 2012
Steve Campbell

"Road Traveler"

Road Traveler, Watercolor/Gouache on paper, 1985

My first job was selling the Grit newspaper on weekends. I was 9. During that time I began selling greeting cards for a company that advertised on the back pages of my favorite comic books. I made enough money to buy a bicycle and a pair of roller skates. I used the bike to help me deliver newspapers faster. The skates were shared with my younger brothers; they had no income other than their weekly 25 cents allowance.

I sold enough cards to purchase some colored pencils and drawing paper. Then I made my own greeting cards—Merry Christmas, Happy Easter, Get Well Soon, etc.—and gave them out for free to my newspaper customers. Later I learned my handcrafted cards were treasured by many customers for the artwork.

I gave away a lot of my art as gifts, even when I became an adult. “That’s not a good business venture,” an acquaintance told me when I started my career as an artist. He asked how I thought giving away my art could be profitable.

All my gifts are given with love, and my profit is the smile on people’s faces when I give them my art as gifts. Being an artist isn’t always about making money.

On the other hand, the painting I’ve included in this post is one I gave to a brother for his birthday. That was 1985; I was 28. Twenty-seven years later it is proudly displayed in his home with the other paintings he has received from me. During that time his friends told their friends about my artwork, word got around and I made money selling my art to them and their friends, and then to their friends, and so on.

Not profitable? I suppose it’s how you define the word.

A Brief Pause in an Apple Orchard

May 21, 2012
Steve Campbell

Apple Orchard

Apple Orchard, Oil Painting

In small acreage on a hilly clearing,
Sunny morning shines golden on chalky-pink blossoms;
I pause and prolong my hike to watch sunbeams lick away dewdrops
Soaking in shaded greenery of an apple orchard.

Craggy, crabby branches nod jaggedly at a breeze dashing across the way;
Wasps complain from gray papery hives swaying above me;
A hummingbird pauses and peeks inside a blossom—
Perhaps she smells the jellies, pies and cider clearly on my mind.

I head away on journey once more,
Longing to return and sample ripe fruit from the trees.

© 2006
signature

Canada Geese, Swamp Geese

May 5, 2012
Steve Campbell

Canada Geese

Canada Geese, Swamp Geese, Oil Painting

Autumn Woods Sketch

December 5, 2011
Steve Campbell

A study from the 1990s; oil on canvas board

Cow

October 18, 2011
Steve Campbell

Cow and landscape study, 1990; oil on canvas board

Church and Field Study, 1989

July 30, 2011
Steve Campbell

Copy of a painting I saw in a magazine photo, Oil on canvas board

Creek and Rocks

June 28, 2011
Steve Campbell

Creek and rocks study, watercolor

Acrylic Skyscape Painting

June 12, 2011
Steve Campbell

Country Sky

Country Sky, Acrylic Painting, circa 1990

1999: Artist at Work

June 4, 2011
Steve Campbell

Artist at Work

1999: Artist at Work

Waterfall Study

April 17, 2011
Steve Campbell

Waterfall Study
Oil on canvas board

Barn

April 9, 2011
Steve Campbell

Barn
Watercolor on paper

Clouds Study

April 1, 2011
Steve Campbell

Clouds Study – Storm clouds, sunset
Oil on canvas board

Oak Sketch

March 24, 2011
Steve Campbell

Oak Sketch
Oil on canvas board

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