Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Unify, Simplify, Amplify

Greetings again from the land of Zed.

Yesterday I said I'd talk about the other note on my easel in my studio.

That Note says: "Unify, Simplify, Amplify" I borrow the term from Ken Carbone over at Co Design. He uses  it for marketing advice but I think it applies very well to landscape painting also.

When we create a landscape painting it has no reason to exist other than it pleases the eye of the beholder. If it does not accomplish this there is nothing else that it can be used for other than to possibly re-use the canvas for another painting.

"Spring Light" (Final)  8x10 by M Francis McCarthy

So how does this motto this help us create beautiful pictures that deserve to be beheld? 

Let's beak it down with some bullets:
  • Unify - This mean that every part of the painting should work with every other part. Some aspects dominant while others supportive but all parts must reflect and coordinate with each other to create a unified whole.
  • Simplify - This directs us to look for and represent in our painting a simplified pattern of pleasing large shapes subdivided by smaller pleasing shapes. Simplifying the scene is vital to create unity and amplification. It is difficult to create unity from immense amounts of detail all vying for the eyes attention.
  • Amplify - Much of what I said yesterday about "More Light, More Dark, More Color", falls into this area. Adding contrast and amping up the color create more interest and attraction for the viewer. However to sucessfully amplify a picture it must be clear before it is amplified. Otherwise you just get a loud mess. 

"Spring Light" (First Revision)  8x10 by M Francis McCarthy

Together these three ideas add up to better paintings. It's taken me awhile to apply these concepts to my landscape painting. But I always tried for a similar result when I worked as an illustrator. 

It's only recently that I've become aware of the core differences between illustrating and landscape painting. I will expound on this more in a future post as it's definitely something I thought I knew all about. In reality I had it Wrong with a capital "W".

"Spring Light" (Original Painting)  8x10 by M Francis McCarthy

Okay, Lets talk about what I did to "Spring Light". 

This painting has actually been revised twice. The original was painted last year and I repainted it around February. 

I had the original up on my studio wall for quite awhile and though I liked the atmospheric quality I was bothered by elements of the picture. Heres how I addressed those bothersome areas.

First revision:
  • Removed the hill from the background. This was creating an unpleasant downward arrow where the tree and hill met.
  • Softened the diagonal band of clouds in the sky.
  • Simplified the background and the sky.
  • In the foreground I painted in a path or river coming in from the right. This only sorta was an improvement. Still, I was happy to be abandoning my photo reference and be creating with just imagination.
  • Added a clump of trees to the right side where the previous hill had crested.
  • Closed off the left side clump of trees. This helps direct the viewer's eye in a more pleasing manner and creates intimacy in the scene as well.
The revised "Spring Path" sat on my wall for another few months. I was happier but still not satisfied. Heres what I did to reach the final version.

Second Revision:
  • Lowered the hills and indicated the horizon with a streak of distant foliage.
  • Reworked the sky losing the diagonal completely.
  • Increased the lightness at the base of the sky.
  • Painted away my previous path from the left adding a pool or puddle of water in the center instead.
  • Made the meadow behind the trees brighter.
  • Softened the tops of the trees in the clump on the right.
All in all I am pleased with the result. I feel that "Spring Light" now has a feeling of intimacy, space and a peaceful quality that rewards the viewer. 

"Spring Light" is currently on display at my studio in the Quarry Arts Center' Whangarei, New Zealand. Feel free to come and check it out.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

More Light, More Dark, More Color

Howdy folks,

Back from my extended stay in the studio, amongst other worthwhile pursuits.

I'm still busily reworking paintings I've done over the last year. Not all of them but far more than I thought I would when I began this revision process a few months ago.

Generally speaking for most of my artistic life, I've been hesitant to revise my work.

However since I made a quantum leap in my understanding of painting a few months back. What painting is. What it can be and what I want it to be for me as an artist. I've had to change my way of working in light of this greater capacity to see and address the shortcomings of my paintings.

"Clearing Up Revised"  8x8 by M Francis McCarthy

One of the major insights I gained from my of my leap in understanding painting, was realizing that I can change anything I see that rings as false or that fails to create unity in my work, at any time and to whatever degree is necessary to bring the painting into a harmonious and unified state. Regardless of time already spent on the painting or it's fealty to to source material.

A painting must be a painting not just a reproduction of a scene in nature or referenced from a photo.

"Clearing Up"  8x8 by M Francis McCarthy

Todays image " Clearing up" was revised considerably by me just recently. 

I'm showing the previous version here below and the revised version at the top. I have used this image before on my blog and also had it up in a gallery here in New Zealand. 

The previous version isn't really that bad but there were things that bothered me like the tree trunk in the foreground and the mass of trees to the left felt too solid. Also, I liked the atmosphere of the sky but the strong diagonals there bothered me.

So, given these misgivings, why did I proudly display the image here and in a gallery?

I did it because I felt at the time I'd "finished" the piece that there was nothing else I could do to it. The reasons for this attitude are too extensive for the blog format. Suffice it to say I'm a believer in finishing things and then moving on.

This leads onto todays topic More Light, More Dark, More Color.

I have this statement taped to the easel in my studio. It is one of two mottos taped there. The other will be explored in another blog post later.

More Light, More Dark, More Color means that a painting can be dark even very dark and succeed as long as there is strong light as well. In fact there must be one to have the other and I want those strong contrasts in my work as they create stronger feeling in the painting.

More color means just that. I'm not afraid to ramp those colors up to extreme levels of saturation if necessary.  No longer will I hold back that aspect in my work, for the same reason as kicking up the lights and darks. More color combined with stronger darks and brighter lights equals even more feeling and emotive content.

Here's what I did to "Clearing Up":
  • Painted another foreground tree to cover that annoying trunk from the previous version. 
  • Created a sloping arc for the foreground hill, softening the previous slashing diagonal there. 
  • Established  the horizon more clearly with less clutter. 
  • In the sky I went with a strong twilight coloration.  
  • Broke up the strong diagonals there and introduced more contrast.

In the lower left portion of the painting
  • I placed a brook that followed the same compositional diagonal that was in the previous version . 
  • Opened up the distant field and simplified it also amping up the color to a golden grass color. 
  • The clump of trees on the left I made smaller. 
  • Softened the harsh edges against the sky for all the trees breaking the horizon line.

Note: I used a revised painting of the original 5x5 oil sketch as an aid in repainting the larger 8x8. I did not refer to any photo reference. I'm learning more and more that working in this way creates far more depth in my paintings as well as creatinbg a sort of magical quality that I'm very happy with.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Landscape Painting - Narrative

It's autumn here in New Zealand. Getting colder and darker everyday now. 

I'm still getting used to the season flip from the US and the fact that theres not going to be a halloween in two weeks.

Today I want to chat about "narrative" in art. I am not an expert on art terms or art history being self taught. So my ideas about narrative may be different from the orthodox view. To define the term narrative as it relates to landscape painting, I mean, contextualized artifacts that create stories.

I avoid narrative in my painting. That means I do not put people in my landscapes or even things like houses, fences, fence posts, cows, sheep etc.

My Studio "just painted" area

I've no issue with artists that use these elements in their work. In fact I know first hand that they're handy for solving many compositional problems. For me, those benefits are outweighed by the attention these focal points draw and more importantly the narrative that is generated when they are present.

For example, if I paint a young girl with a basket into a scene of a field. Many questions about her and her situation are created. Where is she going? Is she happy? What's in the basket? Do her parent's own the field? 

Or if I paint an old barn in that field, you could ask, who works there? Is there anybody in that barn now? When was the last time anyone used that barn and so on.

On the other hand if I just paint a field with some trees and maybe a brook and an interesting sky. I've created a space that can be filled by the viewer of the painting without creating context. There is nothing between them and the emotive space that I've created for them to occupy. They are free to expand their consciousness into it and in so doing, relax and feel good.

Thats my goal and intention as a landscape painter if the truth be told. 

I wish for the viewers of my paintings to feel good but thats just the beginning of what I'm after. As they go deeper into the painting they might begin to wonder why we are all alive anyway and why is life so beautiful? 

Or they could begin to experience that feeling of stillness one has at that moment after the sun's just passed over the horizon and you find yourself deep in the seeming timelessness of the gloaming. A space between light and darkness and between life and death.

I should mention that my idol George Inness often painted figures into his works. Not only was he able to do this without the sort of repercussions I've mentioned, but his best painting easily achieve all the things that I wish for my paintings to do as well. 

All I can say is that Inness was a genius and that the rest of us must just do the best we can.


A bit about todays picture. This was taken today with my iphone at my studio in the Quarry Arts Center Whangarei, New Zealand. The area of my studio pictured is to the right of where I paint and I set things there to dry and also keep recent things there to look at. 

Looking at one's work is nearly as important as painting it. I generally feel close to the work I've just painted. The word "enamored" comes to mind. However, more and more thats been replaced with a more critical mindset.

 I'm determined now more than ever to push each painting to the limit of what I can accomplish at this time. That means, more color, more contrast, more light, more darkness and no muddy half hearted scenes will be tolerated.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The work you do..

Hey all.

Been awhile since we've blogged together. 

I've been painting my ass off and the insights and inspirations are coming on intensely these days. So I've not as much energy for blogging. 

Fear not though as I will never completely cease this blog. As long as I am breathing anyway.

Onto todays topic. 

The work you do as an artist is vital to the health and well being of our culture and the universe at large. It is more than a commodity of whatever value it is ascribed. It is an expression of the universe that must occur.

"Along the Path" by M Francis McCarthy

I'm aware that this may strike some as airy fairy but none of us has all the answers. This blog is one place you can find a few that I've gleaned and hopefully they'll resonate if not, no worries. 

The identified self (often referred to as "ego) has a multitude of valuable uses for us as people. Without it we could not exist. 

However the ego makes poor art.

And yet even poor art needs to be created. And destroyed as well. As cliche as it sounds both are equally accurate statements.

If thats true, why should we try to create "good" art?

We should because it feels like the right thing to do at a core level of our beings. If your attitude as an artist is in alignment with the will of the universe, great art will be the by product. 

It is the individuated self that blocks this process in an attempt to do a job it was not created to do. That job is to CREATE and that is the work of the actual self not the ego.

We get in our own way. 

Often we are our own worst critics as well. As we paint we kill the baby as it's being born in our attempt to control the result or conform to misguided internal expectations.

This is why I'm reminding you that your job as an artist is valuable and important work. Even if you must struggle to let the great art come out. Rest assured that it's important or at least connected to something important.


A bit about "Along the Path". This is one of the high points of my old way of working and actually the culmination of many years of perfecting my old painting method. 

The reference was a photo I'd taken out here in Northland New Zealand. I've cleaved quite close to it too. There is a lot of imagination in the colors and fracture though and it's straddling my old and new way of working for that reason.

Lately I've been reworking canvas' from imagination. I'm freely improving or enhancing many paintings I've done that had issues usually related to using photo reference. I've blogged about this process and it's unfolding still as self imposed restrictions are abandoned in favor of Art.

"Along the Path has a few of those issues but I'm letting it be as it's a nice painting as is and also represents the end and the peak of an old way of working.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Painting - Holding the Brush

I was working with a student today and we were doing a painting together. She has a good eye and is good with color so her painting resembled mine except in one important way.

Her brush strokes were all swishy and going the same direction. I said to her " hey look at your strokes, they're boring".

"Mooonlit Meadow" by M Francis McCarthy

She'd fallen into the robot mode of applying paint.

Often this is the biggest giveaway that a painting is the work of an armature artist but it's easy to avoid.

For one don't paint like a robot, you're not a human inkjet printer, your a human being and you should paint the way you feel. Not mechanically.

Also, stop and hold that brush another way. Change it up. Don't lick at the painting with it like a kitty cleaning itself. Use every part of the brush to create strokes.


A bit about "Moonlit Meadow" I'm trying to do a "blue" painting here. Not sure I succeeded at my goal but I find this painting pleasant anyway. It went through a major revision although I've no photo of the original state.

It was blue also but the sky in the original was doing nothing special. This was another case of something that looked good in my reference photo but was too subtle and blah when painted. 

And it was too subtle, as I'd resorted to rice grain like strokes in the sky in my effort to get the desired effect. 

Also bothersome; the main bunch of trees was topped by a point, something that I found challenging visually. I was never happy with it and walked by day after day gritting my teeth a bit in displeasure. 

Until one day it made it's way back onto my easel. 

I'm actually fairly happy with this piece now. I redid the sky with one that had a hidden moon element that created strong light in the clouds and more contrast overall. I reconfigured the trees a bit and softened their edges. I also amped up the pink and aqua tones on the ground as well as pumping up the highlights on the stream.

"Moonlit Meadow" can be viewed live at my studio in the Quarry Arts Center in Whangarei New Zealand

Saturday, March 16, 2013


The art we create is the sum total of all of the assumptions that we have made our own.

This affects our work in positive and negative ways.

On the positive side, we need assumptions so that we are not forced to reinvent drawing or painting every time we sit down to work. We all have a collection of techniques, formulas and stuff we recall other artists saying that we bring to bear in our work all the time.

"Baz on Bass" by M Francis McCarthy

On the negative side, those assumptions often create blind spots that we are unaware of. 

If you think you know something it's both natural and easy to ignore any information that might conflict with your assumption. This is a big part of being an artist as well as a human being. 

Trying to create work that is more than formulaic rehashing of our old work and that of our influences is a real challenge. It requires questioning our core assumptions at the same time we are using them to support what we are doing.

Is there a way to see that which we cannot see?

One good way is to seek out a teacher that can point things out to us. If no teacher is available then I recommend studying a few books that go deeply into the type of art you want to do well. 

Even if you've been doing your art a long time and have some mastery. Relearning your area of expertise or trying a different approach can definitely reveal blind spots in your way of seeing that you were not aware of.

Also we must have an attitude of humility and a reverence for the mastery of great artists that have fought the good fight before us as well as respecting and learning  from fellow artists. 

Every artist to improve and move forward has to actively engage with their own assumptions. Constantly be reevaluating them, and tossing out those that no longer serve, embracing better assumptions based on real insight and hard won experience.

Do this and watch your art prosper.


A bit about "Baz on Bass". This is an illustration I did recently of my friend Barry. I used a Wacom tablet to do the inkwork and manipulated the reference photo extensively to provide a framework for the tones. 

This is fast and clean illustration and took me about 90 minutes to do. I like to keep my digital illustration chops sharp and I enjoy using the skills I developed after 13 years of illustrating in an art department everyday.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Landscape Painting - Revisions 2

Keeping up with our recent theme of revising art today.

I've been writing a lot about this topic. One reason is that I feel it's vital information. Painting actually requires less technical knowledge than you would think. The truth is that "seeing itself" is the real thing with painting.

After a period of study it's fairly simple to apply paint to the canvas in the desired colors and areas. The real challenge is in what we putting on the canvas. If we cannot see it first in either nature, a photo or in our minds eye, it will be nearly impossible to paint a great picture.

"Autumn Twilight" Final  (8x10) by M Francis McCarthy

Onto today's painting "Autumn Twilight". I had a bad feeling about this one from the get go. Still, I believed that I could power through my inner misgivings and do something cool. 

Well I tried, and failed horribly. So much so that I had this painting turned to the wall in my studio for awhile. I'm going to cover what exactly was wrong with it as I tell you what I did to revise the painting below. 

First let me say that main thing wrong was my reference photo. Though I had adjusted it quite a lot in Photoshop. I had not really noticed the huge composition issues inherent in the scene itself.  

BTW my subconscious did see those problems and tried to signal me through intuition that something was wrong, many times.  As you can see below, I ignored my intuition and payed for it dearly.

"Autumn Twilight" Previous Version  (8x10) by M Francis McCarthy

The revised version is at the top of this post. It would have made sense to post the early version first and the correct down here but I could not bear to have it leading off a post so please just scroll up to check out what I've done.

Here's what I did:

  • Closed off the left side so there was a clear focal area. As is the picture had a sort of two face composition, with each side of the painting fighting for the viewers attention. This was the biggest issue with the painting by far.
  • Created a better sky that "payed" off. I've written before about payoff sky's here. Funny enough, I thought I'd set up a good sky but it suffers from "tube syndrome" and was not working at all.
  • Reshaped and reformed the trees. I also lightened them where they meet the sky. The darkness against the light was too intense and this is something that is very common in photographs that made it into this painting.
  • Lightened the grasses below the trees creating more interest there.
  • Darkened the lower right hand corner. I'm still a vignette fan. I did it here to help steer the eye towards the main  focal point (the field behind the trees).
  • Lightened the area where the background foliage/hills meet the sky. This creates more atmosphere and also lessons the harshness of that distant edge.

That's about it. This was the second surgery I did on a recent painting and it payed off hugely. I'm really happy with the painting now. It's not perfect but it does have a nice feeling to it that I think rewards the viewer, whereas before there was only an almost good painting.

I'm going to be doing more posts along this line coming up. 

I'm hopeful that seeing my struggles will help you to overcome obstacles to doing better paintings that you may be having. 

Landscape painting is not easy to do well even for an experienced illustrator like myself but its great fun and a challenge that is welcome.