Workshop participants painting at Reef Point, Crystal Cove State Park.
This week I spent three days painting in the wind and sun with John Burton and several other outdoor painters. We were privileged to attend the first full workshop John has taught in four years and it was a great week–excellent instruction, a friendly and talented group of painters, and a beautiful location.
John’s infectious enthusiasm permeated the group and his mantras are still running through my mind. I can’t wait to work out all I’ve learned in paint on canvas, but for now I’ll just try to record some of what John taught over the course of the week.
“It’s all about relationships!”
John works hard to nail the first few strokes of his lay in: perfect value (light and dark), perfect drawing (shape), perfect color (or as perfect as he can get). Then he builds the rest of the values, drawing, and color based on relationships: value next to value (is this lighter or darker?), shape next to shape (how does this angle compare to that?), color next to color (is this warmer or cooler?).
In this demo the focal point was the bright yellow house in the distance, so he put that note in early in the lay-in.
He usually starts with the part that is most crucial to what he is communicating in the painting–the underlying abstract shadow structure, the brilliant blue of the distant ocean, or the warm tone of snow in the sunlight compared to the cool tone in shadow. If he can nail that element, he doesn’t have to worry about losing that special part of the painting he’s creating, because every other element is added in relationship to those first most important notes.
“Values, values, values!”
To emphasize the importance of seeing and painting correct values, John encouraged us to paint small studies using the three Portland greys made by Gamblin–light, medium, and dark. He recommends three value studies and five value studies (adding white and black). These studies help to train the eye to see value before seeing color and force the painter to simplify and group similar value shapes, which helps with abstract composition. He often uses these as a warm-up (like stretching before a run) before working on a larger painting.
This beautiful value study was painted by talented fellow workshop attendee, Toni Kellenberg.
“Realist painters have to be masters of abstraction.”
Speaking of the abstract, John is clear about his love of celebrating and communicating the beauty of creation through landscape painting and he really gets excited about the abstract patterns and shapes that underly nature. The artist has to be able to interpret lights and darks, combinations of shapes, and the nuanced variety of colors in a way that satisfies a universal recognition of beauty and harmony. The realist painter is not painting a tree, he or she is painting a darker shape intersecting with a light shape, or a large mass balanced by a small mass. In order to see these harmonies and patterns without the distractions of recognizable “things,” John often flips his painting over after the initial lay-in to see how the abstract patterns read.
“If everyone else is making one painting a day, you should be making four!”
John exudes a joyful commitment to hard work. He encouraged us all to paint more, pursuing the mastery of the skills of painting and drawing with diligence. I know we all left the workshop with new ideas about how to use our painting time well, and plenty of motivation to find more time to paint. He compares painting to playing the piano–it takes hours of dedicated practice and familiarity with the instrument (always set up your palette the same way!). Great painting is also like great music in its lyricism and passion.
“Never stop learning!”
Even though he is a renowned master painter, John doesn’t settle into always doing things the same way. He eschews formulas. He constantly changes his palette, is always eager to hear ideas from other painters, and doesn’t insist that the way he does things is the only way to do them. He’s recently been experimenting by using sight-size for both drawing and matching color. And he’s taken cadmium yellow lemon and alizarin crimson off his palette for a time in order to force more inventive ways of creating color relationships in his work.
John invites his students into an exciting journey of discovery and dedication to the craft of painting. I left his workshop inspired and encouraged to keep working hard to improve as a painter. Can’t wait to get back outside and get at it!
(I’ll post pictures of a few of the paintings I created during the workshop soon!)