Welcome to M.E. BAILEY ART . . . .

Here you will find adventures in painting. . . . Victories, absolute defeats, frustrations, highs, lows, lessons learned, commentary and thoughts from me and other artists.

As an art instructor, I don't wish to hide the fact that I crash and burn often. I will always be learning. So, it all gets shown here . . .good and bad. Every painting we do counts in the learning and experience process. The failures actually are much better teachers than successes. Every piece made is a teacher. That's the fun of it: the challenge to learn.


Join in and comment or email me, if you would like.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Color Harmony . . .

 "Walk to the Lighthouse"
Watercolor 15 x 22 inches

"On Chimney Rock"
Watercolor 15 x 22 inches

The words "Color Harmony" are frequently spoken, but it is my concerted opinion that many painters simply miss the meaning of the words and, moreover, how to apply them to their paintings.

On a recent trip to teach a short Plein Air painting workshop at Point Reyes National Seashore, every day was overcast and foggy . . . . .and some of the painters were disappointed in the fact that there 'was no sun or shadow.'    I understand their disappointment.   When the sun is out, there are shadows and lots of predictable color.   But there is predictable and even beautiful color when us painters are faced with overcast or foggy days.   In fact, we can achieve wonderful color harmony in painting foggy or overcast conditions.

Eh?   Whaddya mean, Mike?   Simply this:  Gray is present in EVERY color.   Rich, saturated color simply is not present, for the most part, in overcast settings.  Granted, flowers seem to be of neon in those conditions, but the overall general dominant color is of the gray family.

Harmonies have to do with relatedness.   We can really affect harmony by selecting one characteristic of color and insuring that that one characteristic is present in every color in the painting.   For example, we can establish a temperature harmony where there is a cool or warm dominance through the painting.   Or, we can set a harmony by assuring that the dominant condition of all the colors in a painting are fully saturated, high chroma colors.   Indeed, when painting in overcast conditions, the gray sky color dominates the landscape.  There is a noticeable lack of shadow, so 'things' must be connected through their relatedness of color . . . . in this case, the presence of gray in every brush load of pigment.   

Gray is a relative term, actually.   Think of "gray" as toning down a color . . . . .add its compliment . . . . . . it isn't necessary to take the mix all the way to near black or neutral . . . . . . . . .just reduce the chroma of the color so that it is noticeably neutralized.   If every color has that characteristic, there is a distinct relatedness to all the colors in the painting . . . .a harmony.

A gentleman by the name of Faber Birren made his career in color harmony.  Google him and read up about how he set different painting harmonies (I call them painting strategies!).   You will see that there is something very worth your time (if you are a serious painter) by studying his work.

And if you ever get the chance, Point Reyes, in northern California, is a must visit sort of place.   It is a desolate, wind swept and exposed section of the coast that holds an enormous wildlife population and scenery worthy of your time.   Sir Francis Drake discovered the wonderful bay there and kept his ships from the ravages of weather on that coast by hiding in that bay.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Staying In The Fight

watercolor 18 x 22 inches

There is an underlying, ever present, persistent obstacle that clobbers plein air watercolor and acrylic painters.   It is the one thing that forces the watercolor painter to be on top of his or her game at all times during the painting process.  In fact it is so persistent and so unobtrusive that it will clobber the efforts of event the most experienced and advanced studio painter.

This obstacle . . .or this challenge (you might call it that) . . . is so in the face of the painter and so omnipresent that most painters are not even conscious of it.  

Eh?  What??   

When there is such a challenge as this, it calls into action the least fun of the painting skill set so that the urgency of the fight becomes the center of the painting process.  In other words, if the painter is not prepared to deal with this challenge, the painting will most often fail.   Well, if not fail, then it will not blossom into that glorious state of miraculous, wonderful outcome that makes us painters leap with excitement and thrills for having accomplished such a piece of work.

This challenge calls into the painting process A PLAN OF ACTION.   That plan must be present in the painter's mind so that there is no . . . repeat: NONE. . . . hesitancy in the act of painting.   The painter must know how, exactly he or she is going to paint each part of the painting . . . .from color choices, to value assignments, to the order of what gets painted first, to management of edges and that plan must be executed with speed . . . .or shall I say with urgency.

Yikes!  What do you mean, Mike?   What is this ornery challenge that takes the joy away from a lingering form of meditative bliss that we studio painters enjoy so much?

In the outdoors, there are a few things that can wallop a painter before he begins . . . sunlight being one of those.   While we painters all LOVE the sun and what it does with light and shadow, being in the direct sun will spoil a painting very quickly.  It bakes the paint.   AND . . . . .it really changes how we perceive color and value . . . . especially when that paper is pure white and the light from the sun is reflecting back into our eyes and causing our vision to actually diminish from the glare.

But that isn't it.   It certainly deserves attention . . . like getting the painting into the shade . . .under a tree or umbrella or just out of the direct sun.  

What I am speaking of here is the rapid, almost imperceptible speed of evaporation that exists when painting outdoors.   Yep.  That's what I am talking about:  Drying time.

A great wash requires that the wash remain wet for a period of time so that the fluid can slide down the face of the paper and remain wet so that it dries uniformly.   If the paint dries so fast that the brush cannot complete laying down the wash before the beginning of the wash dries, then the painter is in a fight to insure that his painting isn't baked before he completes it.

When we are confronted with fast drying time there is no time to step back and make those long considered decisions that form the core of that meditative state we painters all love so much.   The painter must act so that his work is staying ahead of the paint drying too rapidly.  Otherwise, there will be hard nasty edges all over the work . . .in places that they aren't wanted.

The solution is to spend some of that meditative bliss in the preparation to paint.   Do a few good value sketches.   Become familiar with the subject.   Plan where edges need to be soft or where transitions need to occur by having the colors mingle and blur.   Know ahead of time the order in which the big shapes will be painted and when you intend to charge in another color before a wash dries.   Have the composition drawn out so that there is no room or time for retreats.   Hot dry days do not allow for these decisions to be made on the fly.   They have to be planned so that the painter is always ahead of the paint drying and is in a position to manipulate the paint while it is wet.

Mixing colors and mindlessly stirring them around in the palette is a waste of valuable time.  one must be decisive and must be willing to stand by those decisions without consideration and mental debate.   In short, the painter must act with deliberate certainty.   Serve up the color, put down the stroke and live with the result.  The only way that can happen is to have a very solid plan ahead of time.   It is sort of like knowing when to swing the bat when the pitch is delivered . . . there is no time to think . . .just react.

The painting above was done en plein air in France on a very hot day.   The only available shady place actually dictated what subjects there were to choose from.  Once in the shady place, I fiddled with different compositional alternatives in a sketch book.  Then I nailed down a few solid value studies so that I knew exactly where my lights, mediums and darks would be and when they would be painted.  It was so hot that afternoon that my plan to charge in cerulean blue into a sky wash of yellow ochre was immediately thwarted because the ochre dried before I finished laying it in.  I couldn't get cerulean blue on the brush fast enough to catch the ochre before it was dry.  Then and there, I realized that I had to act fast and execute my plan with dispatch!   I had to speed up.   The entire painting was finished in around 45 minutes (including planning time!).  And during that time I was conscious of nothing else but what was happening on the surface of the paper.   I had to stay in the fight against drying time for the duration!

Part of the charm of a great watercolor painting is that it appears to have been painted with startling urgency . . . and that it remains "fresh."   That is that the paint doesn't appear to have been fussed over and there was a clarity of purpose by the artist.   The only way to get that is to P L A N.  

I stress this too in studio painting instruction.   Planning is the center piece of excellence in watercolor painting and, in particular, in painting outside.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Never Ending Subject

Recently, I was invited to participate in a show with 75 other artists . . . .all who must provide a self portrait for the show.   The organizer kept giggling at "what fun" that show will be.   In fact, she said something to the effect of not knowing what to expect and was quite excited at that aspect.

So, off I went, knowing that my portrait wasn't due until January of 2015.   Then, while sorting through a large pile of drawing paper in my studio, I decided I would "give it a go" to see what I could do.   After all, I haven't studied the figure much, or portrait drawing or painting.   I have done a few, mind you, over the years, but never in a studied way . . . . .just one of those challenges just to see "if I could do it."

Since that day of sorting through paper, I have done nearly ten self portraits  . . . . . and the fascination with the design in a portrait has stung me!!    . . . . .

Should I push the image into a caricature?   Should I exaggerate the nose?  The glasses?   And what to do with the mouth that my loving wife points to at every turn?   And what of the color?   How many different harmonies could I play with in order to build a serious mood?  And what about the shapes of the light and shadow on the face?   My goodness!   The possibilities are endless!!!

I have even taken a chance with watercolor crayons only then washing over the drawing with clear water . . . . . the crayon marks smear and merge in a delightful way, incidentally.

I am NOT an artist who has an attitude or is full of himself (at least I try to make a point of NOT being that way) . . . . .so, self portraits have always seemed rather self absorbed   . . . .which I am not. HOWEVER!   Or should I say BUT ?   The cool thing about doing a self portrait is that one never ever runs out of subject matter . . . .Ever!!!

Imagine the possibilities that one could devise . . . . . consider just color. . . . . Skin tones have to be the hardest and the most demanding in terms of understanding the paint pigments we use, transparency and opacity suddenly mattering a lot.   And which Yellow to use as an underpainting?   What if I did a green underpainting??   Or suppose I tackled an all violet portrait?   Or better, what if I took on the challenge of painting all in tones, then using pure tints in the center of interest?   Perhaps a few heavy shades thrown in to lift the tones to appear more colorful?

As you can see, dear reader, the possibilities for just color would be enough to entertain and frustrate any artist for YEARS !   Now that I think of it, I happen to enjoy interesting use of LINE in a good painting . . . . yes, edges, too . . . . . .and . . . .Oh, Yes!   Different value schemes, too, not to mention odd poses or perspective.

As you can see, a project like this would be one of those challenges that could lock myself away in my studio for months, maybe even years, to come.

You get the idea.   It isn't about making the mouth just right.  Nor is it really about whether or not the image resembles someone.   It is really about finding out what I can do with all those variables to make an interesting outcome.

Come to think of it, this same process is precisely the sort of process I have subjected myself to over the years . . . . . it is called painting in series.   You might know, too, that this very idea of fooling around with different ways to exploit the elements of design is an incredible way to learn to paint . . . . .  .in fact, it is THE WAY most great artists perfect their work and their craft.   It is to fully understand the nuances of every aspect of making marks on a canvas or paper.   And it can be done with any single subject.   Many of the best painters in the world have turned to series work with simple objects, such as still life or portraits, or even a pond in New Mexico . . . . . .the same point of view . . . . and not worrying about if the nostrils (details) are exactly right, but focusing on making something extraordinary and unique.   Something that will halt a viewer in his or her tracks in order to truly LOOK at your painting . . . . and look carefully.

I have done this with a still life . . . .over 120 versions . . . .and counting . . . .and I find that is isn't boring at all.  In fact, it is as challenging as anything I have ever painted . . . . . .  .and more . . .  .it has given the gift of significant breakthroughs in thinking and in painting skills.

It isn't the subject that matters.  It is what you DO with it.


Monday, May 12, 2014

The Hunt

"Porch Perch"
Watercolor 22 x 30 inches

The hunt for ‘the next painting subject’ seems like an endless, frustrating task at times.

The art world is filled to overflowing with “pretty pictures” of subjects that seem to repeat themselves over and over ad nauseum.   For example, still life paintings of flowers, or Koi fish, or baskets and bunnies . . . . . . .You know what I am talking about:  The greeting card look.

I can remember that not so long ago, when I began painting, the frustrations for finding “good watercolor subjects” clung to me like an ill fitting suit.   The fact is that there is no such thing as a subject suited to a specific medium.   Most artist learn over time that it isn’t “What” you paint, but “How” you paint it that matters.   It’s true!   It seems perfectly ridiculous that people choose the same subjects over and over because they are “pretty.”   Excellent art is well designed, obviously, but it also carries an emotional mood.  It makes the viewer feel something.   “Pretty” is but one possible feeling that a painting can hold.

So, I ask . . . . . .what’s pretty got to do with it?    Just because something is pretty doesn’t mean that it is good art.   As a professional artist, I have found that it is NOT the subject that magnetically attracts the viewer / buyer.    In short, it is the pattern of light and dark (light and shadow) that arouses that odd feeling in our gut that draws us in (sorry for the pun!) to look closer  . . . .and, perhaps, be so moved so as to purchase the piece.

Painting subjects are everywhere!    They are hiding in plain sight.   If you are a neophyte to the painting world, all you need do is open your mind (and your eyes) to interesting patterns of light and shadow.   It is a developed awareness.    My friend, Mark Mehaffey, is an expert at this.   His international reputation isn’t built on painting “cute” pieces of art.   His paintings reflect his skill at spotting (and designing) very strong value abstract patterns in realistic subjects.   An example would be how the light bounces around in an old alley in Shanghai, China or Reno, Nevada.  One wouldn’t know it was China or Reno.   What is attractive about such paintings is how the darks and lights sit inside the rectangle of the painting’s picture space.

Like gold,  painting subjects are where you find them.   They pop up when you least expect it.   All that needs happen to find them is to pay attention to your surroundings as you move through your world.   Light coming through a window and reflecting off a dining room table top made for a prize winning painting at NWS a few years ago.   There were no flowers, no knick knacks, no table settings . . . . .just light and shadow created by some chairs around the table!

Another prize winner was an open refrigerator and the light streaming out of it dodging around the contents.   All one could make out was some silhouettes of various containers.   It was the light and the shadow that won the day in that painting.   The list of examples could fill a book!!   The best paintings often lie among the most mundane settings or things.   It is the artist who elevates the mundane to something extraordinary that gets the recognition.  

In other words, pay attention!!    Yep!   Awaken yourself to patterns of light and shadow around you.   Set yourself up to NOTICE  . . . . .and, therefore, see the potential offered by shadow patterns.   And, be aware that “pretty” isn’t always the best art subject.   Consider the unordinary or the worn out, over used buildings or objects and how they fit in their surroundings.

I recently gave a workshop in Oklahoma.    The first morning I stepped out of the side door of the church in which we were gathered and was immediately struck by the cast shadows on the old house across the street . . . .and how the old easy chair on the porch was illuminated in that shadow pattern.    Maybe is isn’t something you would put above your couch in the living room, but the patterns sure do capture the eye.    There are hundreds of painting subjects literally sitting and looking back at you.   You merely have to notice them.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Workshop Experience

Having just completed giving a very satisfying workshop in the middle of our vast country, some flashes of inspiration came to mind. . . . .How does one choose the workshop they should attend?    What will the instructor teach me?   Am I in it to come home with a painting just like the instructor, or am I there to learn and grow artistically?

I believe that every instructor is there to help anyone advance in their skills, but many have difficulty articulating the essentials to making good art.  

Of course, we cannot always determine what the instructor intends to teach . . . . .and THAT is precisely what my inspiration is about.   To communicate to you, the reader, what is taught in my workshops.   Naturally, as a painter, you are looking for the best possible experience for your money and your time.   So, it is essential that this information is available to you.

What happens in my workshops?   First off, I don’t demonstrate until the last few hours of the last day.   Oh!   You are surprised?   What I do NOT teach, is how to paint like me.   Nor do I teach technique.

Here is what happens . . . . . . .and I will tell you straight:   It isn’t boring in the least.   Moreover, you will find this the most challenging, the most interesting, the most informative workshop you have ever attended.   Here’s why:

Good art is not necessarily about how well you render a subject.   What’s more, good art isn’t always about what subject you paint . . . or what the instructor paints.   Truly GOOD ART comes from within you . . . . . from you intelligently assessing all of the aspects that go into making a piece of art . . . . and making the art from your heart .. . . . not from photographs . . . .at least, not very often.

That said, here is what you will learn in my “Painting Beyond the Obvious” workshop:   How to design a good painting of ANY SUBJECT.    Also, within that design, you will learn exactly how to put mood or emotion into your paintings.   We do that by doing a lot of learning about Line and Edges, Sizes, Proportion, Scale, Directions, Shape and Form, Value, Texture and Color strategies.   That is all in one week!

To sum it up, its all about making a stunning Composition of any subject . . .  .portraits, landscapes, figures, still life and, yes, even abstracts.

It is the very thing you have been searching for and have not known what questions to ask or how to put your finger on what you need to know to make extraordinary, good art.

And there is a very personal side that is also addressed.   You will be fed with lots of information, yes.   You will also receive the sort of personal guidance and suggestions that you would in a close mentor relationship with the instructor . . . . no matter what your level of skill is.

In the ending hours of the workshop, the class selects an emotional mood they want to see the instructor paint.   Then, as a group, we carefully discuss and choose the aspects of the design and specifically how it should be painted.   The instructor then uses a still life subject and executes the painting.   That preparation for the demo took all week to educate everyone about the aspects and conditions of a sound composition and design and how to set an emotional mood.

When you are trying to determine if a workshop is good for you, don’t you think you should ask about WHAT is being taught rather than what kind of pictures the instructor makes?

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Resetting Perspective

"People Perspective"
Watercolor 15 x 22 inches

Funny how some paintings / challenges / problems seem to stick in one's craw.   After painting the painting in the last post and discussing my difficulties with it, I could not wait to get to the easel . . . . . . . . . . .but even with that enthusiastic nagging in my head, my wife and I had to take a long road trip to the Northwest for a family affair.   Gone for a week, yet the nagging continued.   

Mind you, this painting isn't much better than the last except I did resolve the people perspecive difficulties I had with the last version.   Notice that as the figures recede into the background, their values become less dark and there is much less contrast.   The figures also become grayer and less colorful as they go back into the distance.

My sole purpose in making this painting was to resolve that difficulty.   I am afraid that I was so focused on that aspect of this painting, I neglected so much else.   

I have found as I have grown more into being a consistent painter, I am much less concerned with the end result of most painting and have reached a place where I have acquired a very cavalier attitude about whether or not any painting is a success.   So, I slobber on the paint rather carelessly and even draw in a haphazard manner.   I could even say that I am careless to a degree.   I am not sure if this is healthy, of if it is, in fact, a natural progression of being sooo familiar with what the paint will do that I can paint without concern.   This is a biiiig change from when I first began to paint . . . . .my knuckles were white with fear of ruining a nice, expensive piece of paper . . . . I was mostly distraught during the painting process for fear of ruining a good effort . . . . . and I was in continuous doubt about my ability or my skill.    Where is that angst when I need it?   What has become of that drive to be the master over a painting's outcome?

Is this a sign of being too familiar?   Whatever the cause, this I know:   Painting has become pure fun!   Spending a full day in the studio putzing about, slinging paint and singing to myself is common fare these days.   What could be better?? 

How did I get here?   Miles of brush strokes and acres of paper!! 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Figure Perspective

"Parisian Promenade"
watercolor 15 x 22 inches

I have found there is much to learn about putting figures into a painting . . . . .

Figures can and do put a substantial amount of perspective and depth into a painting if they are done right.   What may seem as necessary, such as various body parts and details, simply does not apply.   That's right, details and anatomical correctness doesn't matter.   The human mind does that for us.   Ratio of head size and height seems to make a bit of difference.   

There is two things I have noticed about this painting that makes me think twice (or three times) about doing the painting over again:   One is values.   Notice how the values of the scene itself diminish toward middle tones.   Yet, the figures have very stark, almost strident, value contrast with the surroundings.   I think the figures need to blend in more.  That is to say that the figures need to feel as though they belong to the value range in which part of the painting that they sit.

Color, also, plays a part.   Color saturation of the figures needs to settle in with the rest of the  surroundings, too.   In this painting, the colors certainly call attention to the figures, but that isn't the purpose of putting the figures in this painting . . . . .it should feel like a complete scene . . . not a stage on which there are action packed players.

The last thing that makes a big difference is the heads all need to be at the same level, relatively.   Notice the figures in the foreground;  they all stand on the same level ground.  It is as if the viewer is at the same eye level as those players.   Those that stand on the white surface have their heads slightly above the eye level of those figures in the foreground.   As those figures (on the upper deck) recede into space, their bodies become shorter, but the heads remain at the same level. . . . .which gives the impression of distance.

I am off to the studio to try a remake of this painting to see if I can make the necessary adjustments.

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Plain Trap . . . .

 "Natural Bridge"
Watercolor 15 x 22 inches

"The Big Lump"
Actual Photo

After spending hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of hours painting outdoors, en plein air, I have come to know the traps.

The biggest trap is the distractions, of course.   Huh?   What do you mean, Mike?

Notice the photo.   This photo seems rather pedestrian in terms of a ‘beautiful scene’ already set to paint.   I just is NOT one of those scenes.

This is what I saw when I first came onto the beach yesterday. . . . .   And noticed, immediately, the blast of light between the two “Lumps.”   Of course, I decided to explore the area more to try to find that perfect scene to paint.   I walked all over the area, spent a good 45 minutes trying to find that perfect spot, with the perfect point of view of the big rock that has a tunnel through it.  

No matter where I went, I wasn’t enthralled with what I was seeing.    That “lump,” as I call it, was nothing more than a lump with a hole through it.   It wasn’t a nice shape, it had no character, it just wasn’t what anyone would call inspiring or spectacular.

So, having exhausted the possibilities, I decided to go near where I had entered the beach and where I had seen that blast of light.   I could make a painting that emphasized that wonderful light and not worry about finding the ideal scene.   But then . . . . .look at all the pelicans on the rock!! (lump! ) . . . .what if I painted the pelicans? . . . . .and look at that shadow being cast on the sand and into the water . . . . .Oh!   There’s a wave crashing against the “lump” and making a spectacular slash of white foam . . . . and what if I painted the sky orange . . . .could I make a sunset scene?   So many possibilities came to distract me from my one idea of the blaring light between the two big rocks.
I was being tempted by the biggest trap of all:   All the other possibilities.   And, I must say, some of those possibilities were very alluring.   But I have learned . . . . .oh, yes!   My lessons have been hard won by sooooo many painting failures . . . .all of which failed because I didn’t focus on ONE IDEA.   I have made so many paintings in which there was too much included.

So . . . . .I set up my gear slowly, while I contemplated what I was going to do with this painting.   Then after the equipment was in place, out came my sketch book and pencil.   I made four different value sketches to determine how I was going to achieve my goal of telling the story of that light between the rocks.   Oh!   I almost forgot to mention that the first sketches immediately showed poor compostition.   I needed to find the right layout . . . . .the right positioning on the paper for that big shape of  the land jutting onto the beach.   What’s more, I realized that making an active water painting, or including exciting splashes and waves would be another distraction from my singular idea:   The light between the rocks.
Obviously, dear reader, you get the idea here.   The trick to making a lot of successful paintings in plein air is to ignore the distractions and stubbornly stick to your single idea that you want to emphasize.  

It seems so simple!!  Doesn’t it?   How could anything be more simple???  

Well, I am here to tell you . . . . . . .it ain’t!   But it is terrific advice for ALL paintings.   Make up your mind about what you are going to paint (that is the idea, not the all encompassing subject) and don’t be dissuaded from it.   Stick to your plan.   Commit to your plan.   Ignore the distractions . . . or save them for other paintings.