How To Mat and Frame a Painting, specifically using the “floating style”

This post is about my take on framing and matting paintings.

I am not a professional by any means, but I wanted to share what I have learned so hopefully others may be able to learn something too. With a little practice it is really not difficult at all.

There is lots of info on the internet about framing and matting, of course, but this post is going to focus specifically on matting with the “floating” style; i.e. when the edges of the painting are not cover by the mat board. If you look closely at the photo above you can see the white space around the edge of the painting. That’s what I am talking about.

Though it doesn’t seem to be as common as the overlap method, I find this way of matting to work better with the way that I paint.

I like to paint right up to the edge of the paper, and sometimes if even a quarter inch or so of the edge of the painting is covered up by matting, it changes the composition. Or if it doesn’t change the composition, it makes the matting look scrunched.

Of course I could tape the edge of my paper like many water colorists, but I find it simpler to not mess around with taping. And painting right up to the edge also gives I distinct energy to the painting in my opinion.

Start with a frame first. And a painting.

This particular painting is one of my favorites– I did it last year in India, and has been sitting around the house since then. Prints of this painting and others, by the way, are available on my Etsy account.

Any ways, I would love to get this painting in a frame, ’cause it will look good and be protected, too, and then I can hang it up somewhere.


Figuring out what size of frame goes with what size painting is a little tricky. The painting above is on a quarter sheet, so about 11.25 inches by 15. This size I have found to fit almost perfectly in a 16 x 20 frame – more on that later. For now, we can say that it will leave around a 2 inch section of matting around the entire painting.

As a general rule, 11 x 15 or so works well with 2 inch “margins” for the matting and 22 x 30 or so goes well with 3 inch “margins” or so, at least that has been my experience.

In the past I had a 22 x 30 painting with real dramatic colors and I gave it 5 or 6 inch margins in the matting and I liked how it came out. So there is some wiggle room there.

So, as far as cutting things up, I like to use one of those mat cutters they sell on the internet for pretty cheap. Some people talk about how to frame and mat without a mat cutter, but it my opinion it just makes sense to have a mat cutter. If I am going to spend a bunch of time on my painting, I want my matting to look nice too. I also have some official “framing and matting” tape to use, though probably masking tape would work fine too.


The first step is to cut a “backing” for the painting. This will be the same size as the frame and  it is what the matting will attach too.

I usually use just plain white mat board for the backing. There is a place where I live where I can get a big sheet of it for 8 dollars or so, which means it is the cheapest way to do it.


So I am using a 16 by 20 frame, so I have to cut this mat board down to that size. Using the mat cutter, it is pretty easy.


There, just like that. Actually, I messed up a little. I cut it a little too close to 16 by 20 so it didn’t fit very cleanly in the frame. So I trimmed off a little more, making the overall dimensions just under 16 by 20. It is hard sometimes to cut off “just a little” using a mat cutter, as evident in the picture with those curly cues, so be careful! As usual, it is best to get it right the first time.


Next, it is time to cut the front part, the actual matting. First ya gotta pick out a color. This is fun but also challenging. I won’t go into that mess here. I decided to use that dark brown color below for this particular painting.


The matting you have to cut to 16 by 20 or whatever the dimensions of your frame are. IMPORTANT DETAIL: when you cut the mat board, put the nice side down so the cutter doesn’t scuff the top. (Note: I make this mistake sometimes)

So now I have two pieces of mat board that are about 16 by 20 or a little bit under.


Now comes the tricky part: figuring out what size of “window” to cut in the matting.

It is best to make a diagram and write out all the math. Really Otherwise it just gets confusing. Here are some pictures of my math and diagrams for your viewing pleasure.


The upshot of it all is something like this. I have a 16 by 20 frame. And my picture is 11.25 by 15. I add a 1/4 inch to the dimensions of my picture. Add. That part is important. Add. ‘Cause remember this is the “floating style” matting. If it was the “overlapping style” I could subtract. But in this case I add.

So now I have 11.75 by 15.5. Because I added a quarter of an inch on the left side and the right side, the top and the bottom. So it really adds a half inch to my height and width (cause .25 plus .25 is .5).

Okay. Still with me? (It is really easier to do it than to describe it in words.) So now I can subtract 11.75 by 15.5 from 16 by 20.

And I get two numbers: 4.25 (width) and 4.5 (height).

And I divide those by two (because I want half of that space on one side of the painting and half on the other).

So I get 2.125 (2 1/8) and 2.25.

Before going any farther, there is one thing to mention.

Sometimes it is a nice touch to add a quarter inch extra on the bottom margin of the matting. It makes the bottom section slightly thicker. And apparently it is one of those optical illusion sort of things that we can’t really notice but somehow makes the painting look nicer.

In this particular situation, if I add an eighth of an inch to the bottom of my dimensions, (and subtract that eighth of an inch from the top) it works out nicely.

2.25 minus 1/8 equals 2.125 or 2 and 1/8.

And 2.25 plus 1/8 equals 2.375 or 2 and 3/8.

So, in summary, three sides of my sides are 2 1/8 and the bottom is 2 3/8.

That’s why 16 by 20 frames work so nicely in this situation. Of course for other framing situations you’ll have to experiment and see what you can come up with.

So now we have to mark these dimensions onto the mat board. The back of the mat board. Not the front.  The mat cutter makes it very easy to make these lines.

IMG_0811      IMG_0812IMG_0813

So I’ll set it for 2 1/8 for three sides and make a mark. All the way across the mat board. On the back, remember.


And then for the bottom I’ll set it at 2 3/8. Then I’m ready to cut.

Using this little guy, the bevel mat cutter (as is printed on it). It cuts at an angle, i.e. a bevel (obviously).









And I’ll line it up exactly with the line I made on the mat board.




And then I’ll press the blade into the mat board and cut. The hardest part is stopping right on the line on the opposite side. But that’s the idea. Start on the line. And stop on the line. It’s really simple.



And stop. (Yeah I know I made a mistake, as seen below, and made three lines, but I figured it out). And do this for the four sides of the “window” you’re trying to cut out.


When you’re done take a look at how the corners turned out. Mine wasn’t exactly perfect this time, as you can see in this picture below. Like I said, the hard part is stopping at the right point, and I might have gone over a little too far. But I’ll call it good enough, especially since I am just using this frame for myself.


So now I have my mat board cut out!


So this next bit has to do with making the painting “float.” I need to make a slit in the “back” part of the matting. (In this case the white part). The slit needs to be around three quarters of the way up. I can use the painting itself as reference.

And an important note. When I make the mark, I can’t make it all the way to the edge. Because otherwise my mark might show through, in the gap between the matting and the painting. So I have to make it more towards the center.


Then I can use the mat cutter to draw a straight line. Remember it has to be square with the rest of the board. I made the length of the line less then the width of the painting. That way the line won’t show through, like I mentioned above.


Now I can use the bevel cutter again. I want the angle of the bevel to go upwards, toward the top of the painting. Because that is the direction that my tape is going to go.


Now I have the slit cut. The slit has to be less than the width of the painting, otherwise it will show through next to the matting.


Next I am going to tape the front part to the back part. I’ll tape it at the top (remember there is the 1/4 thicker margin at the bottom of the matting. Mark it if necessary.)


So now the front and the back fold together, as seen below.


Okay, now were moving along, as the picture below shows. Almost there!

IMG_0842This next part is a little hard to describe, but really not that complicated. I am going to make two “tabs” using tape. I’ll pull out about around 8 to 16 inches of tape, as seen below. The exact length doesn’t matter too much, but if you make it too short it is hard to work with.


And then fold it back on itself.

IMG_0845But I’ll leave the last one to two inches exposed, so that I can stick it to the back of the painting.

IMG_0846There, now I have my tab, around 4 to 8 inches long. I stick it on to the back of my painting. The exact length doesn’t really matter, like I said, but you don’t want it too short.


And I’ll make two of them, see?


Then the trick is to thread them through that slit in the back of the mat board.

IMG_0849It is a little awkward.



There, now I have the two tabs, poking out through the back. Now I have to adjust the painting so it fits in the matting right.

NOTE: it is easiest to adjust the painting if you primary pull on these tabs, rather than touching the painting itself. It is a little bit of a pain to be honest. This is probably the hardest part of the whole process.

Basically you have to adjust the painting using these tabs, then stick the painting plus mat board assembly into the frame and see if the painting lines up with the matting (when you look at the painting through the glass). If it doesn’t, you have to take it out and adjust. This is the “floating style” that we’re trying to go for.

IMG_0851Eventually you are going to get it so it sits in there properly.  Then you just tape the “tabs” down. As seen below, hopefully, in this (rather poor) photo.


Ta-da! At last. Below you can see how there is a slight margin around the painting. (A quarter inch to be exact).

IMG_0855See, here is a close up to show that floating “space” that I am talking about between the mat board and the painting. It is possible for the back slit or the pen/pencil mark to show through here but since I did the measurements right, it didn’t happen.


I hope that makes sense!  And find me on Etsy if you are looking for a print to practice framing!

Solar Eclipse in Oregon

The total eclipse on August 21st 2017 was worth the hype. 99 percent coverage just isn’t the same. I got to see it in Salem Oregon, in Bush’s Pasture Park, right near downtown.

Photos, of course, don’t do the event justice.

With the watercolor sketch below, I tried to capture some of the strange, ethereal colors that happened during the eclipse.  The sky turned a strange dark blue, the blue of dusk, of the sunset. And the huge corona was visible, at least three or four times the diameter of the sun itself. It appeared wispy and white against the dark blue of the sky, with soft edges (softer than in this painting).

I thought I could see, with my naked eyes, bits of reddish orange around the edge of the moon. Were they solar flares? Imaginary spots? I don’t know.


More than the appearance of the sun during the eclipse, however, I thought it was the physical sensations that were the strangest part of the experience, and the most powerful.  It got so cold! Weird! And the light changed so dramatically. Until the light disappeared!

It is the sort of experience one would never expect to have on this earth.

It all happened so fast. It was supposed to be two minutes or so but it seemed much quicker than that. Almost like the blink of an eye. A heart beat. Perhaps without the sun, my sensation of time was distorted.

Watching the disc of the moon slowly slide across the sun–using the momentarily ubiquitous ‘eclipse glasses’ — was also a strange, fascinating experience. But very different from the actual eclipse. They are like two different events, in a way. The interesting thing about using the eclipse glasses was the possibility of seeing the movement of the moon. The eclipse itself is more like a moment in time.

You don’t see the moon at all, before it moves across the sun. (This makes sense of course now that I think about it but that day, waiting for the eclipse, I half expected to see the familiar white moon hanging out near the sun.) This helps explain why a solar eclipse was such a calamitous event for ancient people: you wouldn’t really know that that is the moon moving across the sun unless some one told you. Even then, it is still a little hard to imagine. The moon takes on many shapes and forms in the sky. But never is it black. A black disc, a black void. There is certainly something sinister about it.


Over all, I wasn’t quite sure what the hype was, exactly, about the solar eclipse. But I figured I should check it out, as long as it was going to be so close to where I live (an hour’s drive). Now I know why people get so excited about it. If you ever have the chance to see a solar eclipse, you should go and see for yourself. That’s really the only way to do it.

102 degrees and a chance of haze

It has been over 100 the last couple of days in Eugene-Springfield, and the addition of some smokey forest fires made for some pretty spectacular atmospheric conditions. I went up a little north of Coburg to paint.



I wanted to catch the sense of a big sky filled with a dense sort of haze so I put that little tiny house way down in the corner as far as I could put it.

The main thing I learned with this one is to really push the value, not with thick paint, but multiple layers. The blue in the sky is at least two layers and the haze is at least two additional layers. I put down the layer, let it dry completely, then wetted everything, literally the whole page, with a combination of big brush and spray bottle. Then repeated.

I was a little nervous about accidentally taking off the layers underneath, but I tried to be gentle.  Overall the layers gave a nice thick look to the haze. I put a layer of haze over the mountain in the distance, which I think was particularly effective.

I got a little creative with the composition and “erased” some of the houses and trees on the horizon, just leaving one tree and one house. Also made the haze a little more colorful than in real life.

IMG_0684              IMG_0685

Which is better, acrylic paint or watercolor?

After exploring watercolor for several years, I recently gave acrylic painting a try for the first time.

Watercolor is more fun! However, there are some characteristics of acrylic that make possible some things that just aren’t with watercolor.

Here are some of my initial thoughts and comparisons.

  1. Set up. Watercolor is way easier in this regard. You just take the paper and start painting. With acrylic, often it is necessary to use gesso to treat the canvas before you use it. I have been using something called a canvas panel, kind of like a piece of cardboard with a canvas-like texture on the front, so gesso is not necessary. In addition, traditionally, people lay down an imprimatura before doing oil paintings (or acrylic), an initial layer of semi transparent paint more or less the color of tea, though this doesn’t seem to be strictly necessary.
  2. Mixing colors. This is where things start to get different. The biggest difference between watercolor and acrylic is with acrylic you use white paint. This makes for some interesting colors. Traditionally in watercolor, they say, white is provided by the whiteness of the paper, and since watercolor is transparent, the paper will show through to varying degrees depending on how thick the paint is. In practice though, this means that it is sometimes hard to get certain kind of colors, kind of those more pastel kind of colors, bright yet pale. Often with watercolor, a thin wash that shows through lots of paper can look washed out. With acrylic, you mix in that white painting, And it is lots of fun.
  3. Mixing colors 2. The other thing I still have to experiment a little bit more with but watercolor paintings just seem to be more sensitive to mixing. I.e. a little bit of color added to another color makes a big difference. I’m not sure if this is because of the nature of the paint or the fact that water color often involves very thin mixtures with lots of water, so adding a bit of another color easily changes the whole thing.
  4. Composing. The task of figuring out what to paint and how to fit it onto the canvas/paper is the same no matter what. Tricky of course, but really no different, whether it is watercolor or acrylic. So this part transfers over easily.
  5. Layering. Watercolor is all about layering but this thing is you have to be sure it is dry before you add another layer, otherwise you won’t have distinct layers — or of course very strategically add in paint to the drying paint and see what happens. This is where the headache and the wonder of watercolor comes in. With acrylic there is layering, in the literal sense of adding something on top of something else. But it is not nearly so dynamic. You can let the acrylic paint dry, and it will make it easier to add new paint on top, but even if it is not totally dry, it is pretty forgiving and you won’t make a mess if you add new paint at the wrong time.
  6. Building value. This is the most talked about difference. And it was also the hardest transition to make for me. Simply put, with water color you work from light value to dark value and it is the opposite for acrylic. But light to dark is so ingrained in me at this point that I even do my value sketches this way using a pencil. It takes some getting used to, that’s for sure, it is a different way of thinking. Apply the darks. Then build up the lights. Sometimes it seems easier to apply darks against the lights. Like for example in the painting I did with orange sky, the sky is lighter value than the trees, but since the trees are more intricate than the sky, it is easier to build the trees out into the sky than to imagine the “negative space” of the leaves and build the sky into the leaves. It was really easy to add “sky holes at the very end rather than preserving them from the first layer.

I know that watercolor has this reputation for being very challenging. After doing some work with acrylic, I’m really not sure that reputation is deserved. The thing that really makes or breaks a painting, as far as I’m concerned, is composition, and that stays the same. Acrylic painting isn’t easy. There is no easy way.


I still felt that familiar feeling, in the middle of the painting, of sort of wresting with the painting, of feeling like the painting wants to collapse into itself, to have no form. Perhaps this is simply the challenge of transferring an idea and an image in the mind into reality.

This isn’t to say that acrylic or watercolor are equally easy. The problem with watercolor is the way that it can turn into a mess if certain parts of the painting aren’t dry at certain times. It turns into a mess in a very subtle way, leaving the artist thinking, “What just happened?” So it seems that acrylic is a little more encouraging for the absolute beginner. But once you move past some of those initial road blocks, the challenge is still there, of making my imagination link up with the paper.

So ultimately, from my perspective, nothing beats the range of colors and textures possible in watercolor. And the water rolling around on the page is just so fun! And so disappointing when it goes wrong!

So I will stick with my preferred medium, but continue to try acrylic to see what it might have to teach.


The color of snow

I did a quick pair of paintings on my recent bicycle trip up Mckenzie Pass. And while I wasn’t particularly excited about the results, I found the idea that I was trying to explore interesting.

If you look up at these peaks long enough, you see that the snow isn’t only white, but stained with browns and reds from the surrounding rock.


Both of these paintings were  based off of that basic insight that snow is not white, but tinged in placed with shades of browns and grays and reds.

That red color is particularly exciting to me. It is the color of blood, the color of the earth’s blood, so to speak.

I couldn’t get close enough to see if those colorful stains on the snow were caused by materials that resemble those cinder rocks used in landscaping, as in the picture to below.


Although it wouldn’t’ be too surprising if they looked just like that.

I continue to be fascinated by that utterly raw and elemental feeling that pervades Mckenzie Pass. The volcanic-rock-strewn vistas on the pass are the closest one can get to seeing geology in action, apart from being near an actual erupting volcano, of course (or maybe being in an earthquake if we get really precise.) This is how rocks form, this is how the planet earth formed, it is how human beings formed, that is, if we are conceived of as beings made from the same elements as the rest of the planet.

Off the coast, the Juan de Fuca Plate collides with the North American Plate, and is forced down, into the earth, around 50 to 100 miles underground. Heat forces fluids out of the Juan de Fuca Plate, and these fluids rise up, percolating through the crust above, creating mountains like the Cascades, and the Three Sisters.

From 35 million years ago until around 7 million, the western Cascades formed, back when the Willamette Valley was still under water, part of the Pacific Ocean. These so called Western Cascades consist of the more heavily eroded hills that stand in front of the snow capped peaks.

Then as the Juan de Fuca Plate move farther east, the source of the volcanoes shifted to the east as well, and the newer peaks of the High Cascades were gradually formed. You can see it pedaling east on 242, heading gradually up through the trees, a long u-shaped valley, so long and wide (with the trees so big) it is hard to see that it was formed by a glacier. Then the road abruptly hits a series of sharp switchbacks, this is the beginning of the more recent lava flows that characterize the High Cascades. These switchbacks traverse lava flows that were produced by Sims Butte and Collier Cone. But it is Belknap Crater, Little Belknap and Yapoah Crater that produced the really spectacular lava flows at the top of Mckenzie Pass. Lava flowed from Yapoah Crater around 2000 years ago, and the hardened lava seems frozen in time, like a river that suddenly became still.

A painting, of course, cannot capture the drama of this place, its magnitude. It is absurd, it is surreal.

But I think the dramatic colors of those two paintings above are a way to at least approach it, to put a frame around what cannot be framed.





Mckenzie Pass sketching adventure: knowing when to keep going, and when to stop

Last weekend I had the opportunity to bicycle over Mckenzie Pass, while it was only open for bicycles. I also took the opportunity to watercolor.

It was a beautiful day on the summit, 5,325 feet, warm, cool breeze blowing. At one point the weather almost seemed to turn, the temperature dropped noticeably and the breeze picked up a little. The clouds started growing, slamming into the Three Sisters, getting caught on their summits.

I feel like I was able to capture some of this raw, exposed feel of the summit of the pass, in the watercolor below.  I am pleased with the spontaneity, the fluidity of the painting. It was the third painting I did that afternoon, so perhaps it helped that I was already warmed up. Sometimes it is easy to sit down, do a painting, realize it is not very good, and loose inspiration. Perhaps it is only after the second or third that we are really ready to go.


This vantage point isn’t actually quite at Mckenzie Pass summit, but I followed the Pacific Crest Trail for 100 feet or so to a nice spot, just out of sight of the road.

I feel like I was able to capture some of the energy of the place, with the lines of the mountains contrasting with the lines of the foreground and the lines of the clouds in the sky. The lines are at odds with each other, so it seems to give some tension.

I tried to repeat the shape of the mountain/s in the clouds above, and it seems that this is one of the more successful aspects of the painting. That clouds in the upper right really becomes the focus of the painting, setting up a nice “triangle” of interest, from the cloud to the mountain to the foreground.

Below is a ink study I did of the mountain, as well as a photo taken from that spot, (though the photo capture not that partly cloudy day when I painted, but the next afternoon, which had an absolutely clear sky)



Some drawbacks with the painting:

The brushwork in the foreground wasn’t as light and spontaneous as I would I have liked, I should have switched to the rigger brush right away.

There is a little “puddle” of slightly darker value in the sky next to the highest cloud. That helps add to the value contrast but also I think it could have been more even with the rest of the sky.

I had trouble with the middle ground, in front of the mountain but behind the trees. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with that space.

In the foreground, the hardest part was all those lava rocks. I darkened that space up when I got home and added some more texture but I still wasn’t quite happy with it. Needless to say, simplifying lava flows is pretty challenging.

The composition is good, for the most part, I like the low horizon and the dominance of the sky. I think that there might be a little extra strip of blue at the very top that is unnecessary. At the same time though, part of the effectiveness of this painting seems to be the way the eye goes to the cloud first, and then comes down to the tops of the mountain, a disorienting moment.

Just for the record, here is one of the throw-aways from that day. I was feeling inspired with a nice cadmium yellow-burnt sienna wash to underlie the whole thing, but somehow I ended up with values way too light and my composition is pretty uninspired too.


After sketching on the Pacific Crest Trail, I crossed over the summit and headed downhill to Sisters. Right outside of town is one of my favorite sketching spots, looking up at the three sisters, the sky always huge and blue during the summer. It is just absolutely beautiful.

I did two sessions there, once in the evening, and once in the morning.  For the evening session, the first one I came up with was extremely disappointing. I mean it is not necessarily bad. But my composition wasn’t focused enough and things sort of “spread out” to be equal on the page and nothing has any dominance. I made a nice value sketch to prepare for this one but somehow it didn’t quite stick and my composition was kinda out of control once I got it on the page.


I still had some energy so I started another painting immediately.


This one I was much more pleased with. The mountains loom over the houses below — I probably exaggerated their size at least a little bit from real life, but it achieves the feeling I was looking for. The space between the houses and the mountains is pretty narrow, but there are some lines sandwiched in there helping to give the sense of distance. I even got a little backwash going in the sky.

Here’s the reference photo.


The clouds were changing pretty quickly so I decided just to keep it simple.

My biggest accomplishment with this painting was that I stopped before I thought I was finished. That is my problem sometimes: an urge to finish the painting, or at least to keep going, while I am on site. But I had been painting for a while (an old couple in a Subaru even stopped and asked if I was okay, I guess they had left home, done an errand, and then went back home and I was in the same spot). So somehow I found the presence of mind to stop and pack up and finish it later (in this case with my headlamp in my tent).

I was glad I did. That bank of trees right behind the houses was off to a rather bad start, but somehow I was able to save it, only after taking a look at it later though.

The next morning I did it again, from a slightly different vantage point. I smooshed the Three Sisters together a little bit to make room for Broken Top over on the left.

No clouds on this day! And this was my biggest acccomplishment, the shimmering sky in this painting. I put down a very faint wash, uniform, from the top of the paper to the tops of the mountains. I let it dry completely, then wet that area again, let it dry slighly, and then put on the second layer starting at the top. I had to move the paint around quite a bit with the brush, rather than the water itself — but too much water in this situation ruins that (more or less) even gradient.

The sky really shimmers in this one, a way that a photo doesn’t quite capture to be honest. I’m not quite sure what made that effect possible. It is either the layer of fine wash under a thicker but still transparent layer; or the way I applied paint to a partially wet surface; or the way that the value difference between sky and mountain is very slight, and the value of the exposed “rock” areas is much darker in comparison.


Here’s a reference photo of this scene:


The biggest problem I had is that I tried to “finish up.” And I blotted on a real thick value for those green trees in the center of the painting. I should have left it more unfinished! With less value, that would have been fine. Or even no trees at all. I was able to rescue it a little bit, when I worked on it later.

The thing is, I wasn’t really pleased with this painting at all until I looked at it later. That is the thing about watercolor, you need to withhold judgement while the thing is coming together and don’t get too hung up outcomes. Sometimes I find myself just burning with an emotion when I am working on these things (sometimes positive usually negative) but I need to work more on just letting things unfold.

There was a composition flaw in this one that I didn’t notice until later, when I garbled up the bottom with too much grass and felt like I just needed to cut it off.


It is not a big difference, but I feel like There is a little too much open space on the very bottom of the page and cutting a bit off gives more emphasis to the sky. Should have thought about dominance more when I was composing the scene. I probably could have compressed the land even more to give more dominance to the sky.

And to finish it off, below is a painting I did in 2015 based on this same scene (lying as it does, right next to a great bicycling route).


I feel encouraged by my progress, when I compare my latest work to this. I didn’t feel confident enough with watercolor at that point to even take them along with me, I only brought pen and a watercolor pad, to fill in with colors later. And my sense of composition, color, and value were clearly just beginning. So it is exciting to look back!


Why Use Complementary Colors in a Painting?

Color is one of those things that seems fairly straightforward, but turns out to be really complicated.

For me, lately I have been exploring using complementary colors as a way to highlight the focus or center of interest of my painting.

Everyone is familiar of course with the color wheel. It dates back to Newton’s experiments with light, though the idea of color and theory of relationships between colors have gone through various revisions, and the concept of RGB color codes makes the colors on this page and other happen.

The French chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul (below) seems to get seems to get some of the credit for systematically describing the idea of complementary colors, which he did in his 1839 book The Laws of Contrast of Color. PSM_V27_D450_Michel_Eugene_Chevreul Chevreul’s problem had to do with dyes and tapestry making at the Royal Tapestry Manufactury at Les Gobelins in Paris. The thing was that certain colors of dye looked different depending what other dyes they were near in the finished tapestry, and the tapestry business was all about having bold, consistent colors.

Chevreul found out, among other things, that when two colors touch, the edge where they touch seems to be slightly brighter. Since this was a tapestry, it clearly wasn’t the result of blending colors. It was an optical illusion. And it was a clue that colors aren’t simply properties of nature, that they are not inherent in an object of a particular hue, but that our perceptions of color are formed in our brains, in our process of perceiving color.

Anyways, the important thing is that colors interact in crazy ways in our brains, and sometimes it takes a lot of work and close observation to even be able to tell what is happening.

colourwheel01Complementary colors, of course, are those colors that are directly opposite of each other on the color wheel. So purple complements yellow, blue complements orange, and red complements green.

The word “complementary” to describe this relationship is a little odd, because these color pairings seem to clash together, if anything. For the eye to move from one to the other is a big leap, a leap all the way across the color wheel. They’re garish in a way. Shocking. The combinations leap out at you.

Below are some examples from the internet, and for me these bold combinations of orange and blue really set me on edge. I have a visceral reaction. The combination is electric. It “flashes” so to speak.

Of course this is only the most dramatic use of complementary colors. More subtle uses of complementary colors can have powerful effects too.

On the recent sketch trip I took up Upper Camp Creek road, I focused in particular on using complementary colors to highlight the focus or center of interest of my painting. It was a green green spring day, so the easiest complementary color to use was red, like below.

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Of course the image of the red barn is somewhat cliche, but it is true that the red is a striking contrast to the green of the farmland and hills. (As a side note, because I couldn’t help but google this, farmers used to use linseed oil to paint their barns and they would add rust to the linseed oil, to help kill moss and that sort of thing, which also happened to turn the linseed oil mixture red).

The red of the barn clearly stands out as the most eye catching part of this sketch, which combined with the value contrast set up by the areas of white, help to draw the eye in. (Having the barn more or less at the center of the painting like that probably wasn’t the greatest idea, but that’s another story.)

This painting below, which I did at home based on sketches from that day, was another easy one to set up using red to contrast the green vegetation. Again, the complementary colors paired with the value contrast makes for a pretty powerful tool. (Is the perspective off on the barn? I think maybe a little. But sometimes I look at these things too long and just can’t tell anymore.)

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I tried a similar approach with the painting below (also from the same series of paintings from Upper Camp Creek).

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I feel a little uncertain about how this one turned out. I was trying to push the burnt sienna of the background trees towards red (using alizarin crimson), to contrast withe the green roof. I also added alizarin to the tree trunk color.  I’m not sure it was successful. Did it get a little too washed out? Was the red not concentrated enough? I added a dash of alizarin to the bush in the lower right corner, which I like from a technical point of view (i.e. I added the color at the right time with the right amount of water on the paper) but not sure how much it contributes to what I was going for.

Another thing is that maybe my value contrasts were a little bit off, and the contrast between the green trees in the background and the brown trees in front of them is too strong, while the value differences between the shadowed side of the building and the tree and the edge of the roof, those value differences aren’t strong enough and so can’t compete with the value differences in the background….

I also managed to get a yellow/purple complement between the purpleish shadow of the building and the yellowish vegetation to the left. So there is the green-red combo of the roof and the purple-yellow combo of the side of the building. Maybe with the addition of this second set of complements, there was just too much going on? I’m not sure.

Figure drawing composition

I tried something new recently at the figure drawing session: being more aggressive about my composition. And I was somewhat pleased with the result:

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Usually, I focus on trying to capture the whole figure, like below:
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The task of composition is relatively brief here, simply focusing on fitting the figure on the page, and not making the figure too small, so as to avoid leaving a bunch of white space on the paper around the figure. Often I get a little complacent in this regard: it is possible to more or less allow the model to “set the composition” so to speak, for the particular pose, and either it will be more effective composition from my perspective in the room, or it won’t be, but there is always the next pose to move on to, so a badly composed painting doesn’t matter too much.

But with this particular study, I was really interested in capturing her face. On that day, I had a seat way over in the corner, actually I was sitting on the floor, at the very edge of the half circle that the artists sit in around the model. I could just barely see the model’s face. And I really wanted to make sure that edge of her facial profile was in view. I even made a quick ink sketch to get a sense for whether such a view was even possible.

IMG_0249And I didn’t necessarily set up to “crop” the painting so tightly, but I had focused so closely getting the details of the face that that is just how it ended up. As usual this quick, near disasters seem to produce the best results.

I liked how this extreme sense of closure makes the painting seem more dynamic, more intimate. I also liked how the dark blue value between the face and the edge of the page is 1. fairly small and focused and 2. creates a more interesting shape. Sometimes with the whole figure compositions, all that extra background space is a little bit of a chore to figure out what to do with.

Whole figure compositions can always be powerful, of course, but what I learned is that sometimes experimenting with more “cropping” in composition and a focusing on particular areas of the model can also be interesting and instructive as well.

Figure Session

Figuring drawing session went well on Saturday. It was a great model — as I do this more often, I find myself more sensitive to that vague thing called “a person’s energy.” Being in such intimate proximity to another person (nude in this case) I find the “energy” to be almost palpable.

It started out with one minute poses — this first pose with arms raised was one of my favorites…


And then two minute poses — the model was pregnant by the way


This five minute pose turned out to be another one of my favorites…


As well as this one that was ten or fifteen minutes.


To be honest I find that I do my best right in this ten to fifteen minute range and the 20 to 25 minute poses I find myself getting bogged down in details — at least that is how it has been lately.

This week I tried a little something new with the figure drawing. I put down a quick line drawing with my paint brush (i.e. a representation of the figure using lines). And this is on dry paper. Then I wait briefly for the lines to dry (doesn’t take too long because it is on dry paper) and then I wet the whole paper and add shading. Toilet paper helps to guide the watercolor a little bit more on the wet paper. I was pleased with the results — it gave the watercolor a little bit more movement/blurriness while the lines still keep the figure crisp. I would like to experiment more in this vein, possibly putting down shading/value as a first layer and then adding line.

Willamette Valley Study

Saturday was clear but windy in the southern Willamette valley, coming in briskly from the north as it often does this time of year. I rode my bicycle north, past Coburg on north Coburg road, the wind steady and fierce against my face. I crossed over I-5 on Coleman Road, before heading back south. On the bridge crossing back over I-5, I paused, taking in the view to the east. I did a quick sketch, took a photo, and then kept going. Pedaling of course was much easier going with the wind, almost a sense of silence and stillness as I moved in harmony with the movement of the wind.

Here is the photo that I took, lots of glare because of the low sun.


And here is the sketch:


And here is the water color that I did later at home:


It is always funny how the eye picks out what is most interesting in a scene, and then when you take a picture you get all this stuff that you weren’t really paying attention to. That’s what happened in the this situation: the whole field in the foreground of the photo I was more or less ignoring, yet it dominates the photo. It is almost like there is a composition machine inside of the eye, that works automatically to highlight what is most interesting or beautiful about a scene and ignore the rest. And then when we make paintings we have to try to reproduce in a more systematic and explicit way what the eye already does automatically. It is a frustrating humbling experience, always relearning how to see.

One thing that bothers me about this sketch is how the shadows don’t line up. The ones in the foreground are closer to vertical and the one off of the barn/building is more closer to horizontal. I think that if the barn shadow was closer to vertical, that that would have opened up the middle ground of the painting a little bit too much and taken away some of the illusion of depth.

I also wish I had added a few more layers to the “green grass” section because it seems a little empty and static.

I like how the sky turned out but the orange against the blue mountains (complementary colors) stands out perhaps a little too much, competing with the barn and the high value contrasts there. Perhaps if I had brought a little more orange into the grassy area, it would have balanced things out a little bit more.