Painting what you see, Not what you think you see*

barn wood painting hamptons

“East Hamptons Shop” acrylic_painting on canvas_16″ x 20″

by Robert Conway

*I have been told that some of the subject matter included in this post might reach into “Drawing for the Right Side of the Brain” territory, since I have never read that book ,this is my (I am sure) less eloquent version of the subject matter. honestly I really don’t know my right from my left anyway.

When using a reference source like a picture or a layout for your painting the act of visually translating that image to your canvas can be can be quite a challenging one, there can be this inner struggle in your mind between the analytic side and the sentimental side of your brain. I always find it helpful to try to block out that sentimental side of your mind, the part with all the stored memory of all things you know and embrace that logical side of your mind since this is going to aide you in visually breaking down the elements such as for example which colors to mix, which brush to use or how much paint to apply.

There is sometimes a tendency to want to rendered favored areas into something greater than what you have in front of your eyes and this can lead to a hot mess of confusion, for example if you are painting say a leaf, there is going to be that part of your brain coaxing you to depict the leaf from your collective memory of all the zillions of leaves you have seen in your lifetime, it would be more productive to block out these urges since you are dealing with a new challenge and you should be focusing on the present and depicting what is actually sitting right in front of you. This sentimental part of your brain is going to tell you that a leaf is usually green, it has a stem, it has these veins in the middle and it has pointy edges, now this is all useless information for the task at hand, you want to tap into that part of your mind that tells you “this object is just a mixture of black and green that gradates to green and white and has some yellow highlights thrown in.” It is like you have to take a step back and detach yourself from a lot of the things that you are comfortable with, it is like a very sterile, scientific approach, maybe it would be good to pretend that you have never even seen a leaf before, in this way you can focus on a non-bias, analytical approach that should yield positive results. You can even take it a step further and not think of the leaf as an object at all, it may be better to just think of it as just another part of the composition
another brushstroke, another dab of paint and just move on from there.

Being a self-taught painter, I find this clinical method of visualization really helps especially when I am working on difficult, complex areas of a painting, much in the way that I would imagine a fire walker psyches himself up to walk over the coals, I want to get into a zone of detachment where i do not panic. In the past I have had a history of crashing and burning while working on difficlut areas of a canvas, but with this method of visualization I no longer feel like I am totally going to screw up, it is a good safety net to have.

March 2, 2014

Acrylic Painting in Progress: tree branch with fresh snow

snow branch winter painting

this painting is starting to grow on me

By Robert Conway

Well wasn’t I just saying in my last post I don’t paint winter scenes in winter because it was double depressing? I guess I do now, I am finding that breaking long standing rules is kind of fun and as an evolving artist you have to be tweaking the way you go about things all the time in order to keep your noble craft of painting interesting and entertaining. The latest thing I have been doing is taking a lot pictures with my new iphone on my daily commute into Manhattan to find new images for my paintings because this is the only time I can find any interesting subject matter now that I don’t have the koi pond anymore and I work all the time. In one of my previous posts I was babbling on about what is going on in your life runs parallel with what is going on with your life? well baby it has been snow, snow, snow for quite a while now and that is what you are going to get. I like that it was still snowing when I took the shot, fresh snow is the best snow to paint and I am looking forward to getting the texture of the snow just right as it sits on the branches. There was a traffic light that was lit red near this branch and I love the way the color reflects off the snow, and of course I had to enhance these highlights in photoshop for a little for just the right effect.

The most important thing about this artwork is that it is coming along quickly. You know how I am always going on about how slow I am, but in this case I am just whipping through it with careless abandon, I am not worrying at all because this is not one of my ‘major’ works so the pressure is off. I am just going to have a little fun until my next project. And since I don’t have any clear vision on how the end result is going to look like, I have a lot of more leeway, maybe that has been my trouble from the beginning, I think it is time to let go of some of these strict old rules that I have been keeping that have been slowing me down.

March 7, 2014

Spreading the paint: Painting the whole canvas evenly

aquarium fish group painting

Some day I will have to stop tweaking this one.

by Robert Conway

Like I had mentioned in a previous post, I have to have everything worked out in a layout before I take the brush to canvas. Being a self-taught painter, I have had to come up with a few unconventional methods in order to get final results in a painting and this is the only way I can do it, this is my safety net against failure, I need to have a clear idea that this is going to be a good painting when it is finished, I really do not want to spend all that time working on a piece and just hoping that it will look good in the end, I have to know it from the start. By basically making yourself this map you are eliminating a lot of ifs, whens and buts out of the equation, this way you will feel more comfortable with your subject and more confident with your work as you proceed down the road further. I have to mention at this point that I am discussing rendering representational art, this does not apply to painting anything abstract, a subject I have yet to delve into.

There are always certain elements inside of your composition that you will favor over others and this can lead to a tendency to give them more attention than the other elements of your painting. Each element in your artwork is going to effect the others around it in some way and if there is an imbalance, the entire composition is going to suffer. I don’t want to sound like a tree hugger or anything, but I like to think of a composition as a fragile ecosystem, all of your elements have to live together on your canvas and if there is a lack of balance, the whole arrangement is just not going to work and there is going to be a lack of a feeling of control, tension and uncertainty. I find it best to work over the whole composition evenly, this way when you take a few paces back to view your painting, you will better evaluate your progress because you have minimizing distractions this way and it will give you a clearer path to the finish line. It makes it more difficult to visualize an entire painting when it is uneven because you are asking your brain to do extra work by having to mentally to fill in the gaps for yourself and this can lead to uncertainty and doubt about the final outcome of your artwork. Doing it this way will give you a more focused vision as to what you are to expect with your artwork down the road and there will be less drama, less surprises and more order in your execution.

Since you are never going to nail these areas down on perfect on your first pass, it is better to work it a little then move on and revisit it later, because as you are painting the objects around a certain area it is going to change the way you see it as your painting evolves. This works out well for those areas that you are having trouble with because it gives you more time to think it over as you travel around and tighten up your composition.

February 15, 2014

Getting off the Grid and Painting


Yellow Carp in the Morning _ oil painting on canvas _ 48 x36 _ 2002

by Robert Conway

There is no lying in painting, it is the absolute truth as to where you are in this world and who you are, no matter how many likes you get on Facebook, or recommendations on Linkedin, at the end of the day is that really going to float your boat? You just want more the next day, it is all so fleeting, is that are how we are measuring our self worth these days? Is checking our status or studying our website traffic patterns the measure in you are having a bad day or a good one? If someone ever knocked out our power grid, everyone’s sense of purpose would be scattered to the four winds. Taking a little time away from the cyber assault and painting is a good way of keeping your eye on the ball. the ball that I am referring to is reality. It is a great way to fashion an identity for yourself while others are just clicking and scrolling all the live long day.

What you are working on your canvas mimics your own existence on a small scale, you are mapping out part of your life when you take up the brush. It runs parallel to what is going on with your life. Organizing the elements in your composition is just like arranging parts of your life together so everything functions, it is the same exercise. Now having said that, I think painting is a lot easier in comparison because other people are not involved and you can just make up all your own rules to your heart’s delight. So unlike real life, things are all stacked in your favor when you are painting.

Painting is one of the few things in life that you can be absolutely sure about. I mean other people can deceive you, even your family and friends may embellish the truth a little as to not hurt your feelings. If you are a religious person, well there are a lot of religions in this world, how can you be so absolutely sure that you have thrown your hat in with the winner? if there is one? Images, movies, videos can all be manipulated, we are living in an age now where you truly cannot believe your own eyes. Your painting is something that you have total control over. I see it as a barometer for who you really are, in a world getting crazier by the day, it is something pointing you in a positive direction. A firm foundation to function from. A little bit of control in a world slipping out of control. Just the simple act of sitting down and whipping off a few brushstrokes on your next masterpiece can give you the feeling that in some way you are on top of things. It is something of permanence that will probably still be around after you are gone, and the Internet is past history.

March 9, 2014

Trying to emulate other artists can spoil your painting journey


The Portal” _ oil painting on canvas _ 2004 _ sold

by Robert Conway

Once I have my finished my layout for my next painting its a done deal, i’m sticking with the plan. I am going to try my best to not only recreate that image into a painting, but make it better. If you have already started your painting and say go to a museum and get inspired with the way a certain artist renders clouds for example, maybe this is something you might want to experiment with down the road, but not with the project you are currently working on.

The post modern notion that everything has been done already can be a blight on your creativity. In this culture of continuously recycled ideas, I refuse to adhere to this notion, vehemently. As someone who grew up at the during the tail end of this country’s golden age, where there seemed to an abundance fresh ideas and this thing called ‘optimism’, it pains me to see how America has panned out. Even the stupid people are saying the movies are stupid. This focus group mentality that permeates our society is the enemy of individual expression and all that is special and fun and spontaneous. I am tired of everything being a remake, so as a rule, I never study anyone else’s art when I’m developing an oil painting, never want to emulate anyone else. All those great artists of the past, the Florentines, the Venetians, close the book on those guys, that is all so intimidating it will make your head spin right off your shoulders. This is a journey you will be walking alone, so why follow someone else’s path, when you can make your own? You really don’t want anyone describing your paintings to someone else as “Oh yeah his work is a lot like Miro’s, but with day-glow” or “Her stuff is kind of Gauguin-esque”. Anytime you get that suffix ‘esque” describing your work, its like the Scarlet Letter.

Reasons why you should not to emulate other artists:

1) They did it first and better, it’s a battle you will never win
2) Make up your own rules and you won’t have to answer to anyone.

I learned to let go of a lot of these ‘tricks’ in my technique, that I used to obsess over, that would always lead me to the same brick wall, where I would end up eventually destroying the piece. Getting hung up on technique can lead you away from the emotional quality of your work, and it is this quality that separates you from everyone else in this land of remakes. One thing that you should understand is the fact that there is always going to be people out there with better technical skills than you, why fuss over it? Some of these photo realists out there have unbelievable skills, that should be marveled over, but as far as an emotional impact they can be a lot of the time quite sterile, and where is the fun in that?

I used to cling to my detailing trick, because I knew going into one of those ‘critiques’ in college, I always had the detail going on my side and no matter how much a professor ripped into one of my works, I would get a star for detail. Well, I was on my way to taking my first painting classes the next semester with some of the same professors, I mean it was intimidating knowing that I was going to be learning this serious craft from these judgmental people who only saw things their way and no one elses. Don’t get me wrong, these were good teachers and I did learn quiet a bit from them, but everything changed when I went to the faculty art show at the college and saw what those guys painted, I was really taken back at how bad their work was. I mean one professor’s work was all blatant rip-offs of Mark Rothko’s, even the titles of the paintings were not his. And there was this other professor’s paintings that were exaggerated, cartoon-like pictures of himself in his underwear with his tongue hanging out, chasing young under dressed women around this room. I mean this guy gets paid to teach young girls all day! red flag! I’m sure the tuition-paying parents might have been a little concerned about this good time charlie. The third professor’s paintings were so all so boring they were hard to look at, he would paint a wall, a plant, a window, a wall socket, some wall molding all very flat and shockingly uninteresting. I overheard him talking about one of his works, “Aren’t you interested to know that the wall socket is exactly 8 inches from the houseplant and the wall moulding is only 4 inches from the same plant? . . . .” maybe if I was at Home Depot this would have some relevancy to me, but at that moment I was deciding on what to change my major to.

Anyway, what I am saying here is that people can lead you astray sometimes, and you will pick up on this more and more as you get older. Especially in the art world where everything is so subjective, its all up in the air really. there is no way to ‘measure’ it, or have statistics printed out about it, it deals with individual tastes. So nobody is really right and nobody is really wrong, and in this type of environment a lot of ‘experts’ can thrive. I am not saying bad people necessarily, but people who may not have your best interests at heart, every one has their own agenda now, don’t they?

February 15, 2014

Acrylic Painting “The Fifth of July” is nearly finished


just a few more things to work out with this one

by Robert Conway

Well here we are again, I’m getting down to the real nitty gritty with this painting and as I have said before this one is way out of my comfort zone because it has a person’s face in it which I have never painted before. This has always been my white whale. It also has to be perfect because it is a picture of my son which means it really has to look like him, the gravity of this matter is hitting me right now because I am still working on the face and there is still some delicate detailing that I have to do. For family reason’s it has to look exactly like him, I wouldn’t want this artwork hanging up somewhere and having one of my relatives asking me who is that kid in the painting? As Jerry Seinfield would say “That would be a big matzah ball hanging out there”. Anyhow, if I could get the nose looking just right I think I would win the battle, I have had a few goes at this area already and it still doesn’t look quite right, I don’t want to obsess about this, if worst comes to worst, I will put this painting aside for a bit and think about it.

In my zealousness to accurately depict the face part of the artwork I have been bending one of my most important, unchangeable rules, Work the entire composition out evenly, which means that I have been avoiding certain areas of the acrylic painting, namely the four corners, I have to give them extra attention from now on, even though all the action is happening in the middle of the painting, the corners are the foundation of the composition and they have to convincingly depict that flatness of the surface of the water, or else the whole this is just going to be chaos.

Also, I have to work out the entire thing a little tighter, smooth everything out to so all the elements are working with each other and of course I have to throw a few more details in the mix and I think that will be the ball game.

One lesson that this old fish painter is learning from jumping out of his comfort zone is to take advantage of the big brushes when it comes to painting water, most importantly because it is going to save you more time in the end because you are covering more surface area. I have always had this compulsion to bring out the smaller brushes early because I like to get down and do some detailing right away, which I think comes from insecurity, now I have forced myself to use the big, wide brushes as for as long as possible with a painting, any kind of time saver is most welcome.

March 8, 2014