Sunday, September 27, 2009

Writing pt 4: Don't make your reader work

The very first workshop I ever attended at my local RWA chapter (go, Heart of Carolina RWs!) was one that taught about writing to the proper grade level.

Well, duh. Almost all romance readers would be high school graduates, and a large percentage would have had some college. Why then did this speaker tell us we should be writing on a 4th-6th grade level?

I turned to the woman beside me. "She's not serious, is she?" I whispered.

"You bet she is," she replied. "We all check this stuff."

Well actually only a few do. But it is true enough: readability matters. This one particular speaker went through various favorite authors and gave the reading levels that they wrote to. It was all at an elementary level, or just a hair above. Through the years I've read more articles about this, including ones in which folks took all the NYT best-sellers for a particular week and analyzed their writing.

4th to 6th grade, with just a couple straying into 3rd and 7th grade territory.

Hunh. Lessee... Stephen King writes 4th grade level... He makes a bajillion dollars on his books... He has gazillions of fans... Maybe I should be writing 4th grade level too?

But how the heck do I discover what my levels are? How does this stuff work?

If you're trying to write professionally, you're using some version of Word. I'm on a Mac, so what I tell you may not be the exact order of how to get to this particular screen on a PC, but if you look on your menu you'll see a "help" button. Use it and key in: "Flesch." That's "flesh" with a "c." It will bring up "readability scores." Check out that section.

On a Mac you want to go under Preferences > Spelling & Grammar > click on "Check Grammar with Spelling" and make sure "Show readability statistics" is checked. You can't get this final box to check unless you've got the grammar turned on. Then you highlight whatever copy you want to check and run it through spell-check. Just keep hitting "ignore" until the piece is through, and your scores will come up. Yes, it's idiotic that you can't just say, "check readability" and it does it. You've got to jump through hoops.

So what do your scores mean? The Flesch Reading Ease score counts the length of your sentences and your average syllable usage. For fiction you want to stay in the 60-70 range. The higher you go, the simpler your language is. The grade level score also counts syllables and sentence length but uses a different formula. Word says you want to be about Grade 7 or 8.

Yet think of all those best-selling authors. James V. Smith Jr. wrote Fiction Writer's Brainstormer, which is a truly anal-retentive book that you need for those too-many times when you've got to get down n' dirty anal-retentive. On this subject he uses charts for NYT best-selling authors' work.

The Flesch Reading Ease scale? Steven King's an 84. John Grisham is 72. Danielle Steel is 83. His "pro-average" writer is 83. His "amateur" writer is 71. And I do love this: the US government writes at a 36 level.

Let's switch over to the grade levels. King is Grade 4. Grisham, 6. Steel, 5. Pro-average, 4. Amateur, 6. US government: 12.

This past week over on the Wonder Woman board at Comic Book Resources, some people complained that a column sounded "a little stuffy." This particular column was a literary examination of a comic book, so it was not fiction. It was written at a Grade 10 level for an audience of comic book readers. It was this that reminded me of the two scales available in Word, and hurriedly I checked my own column (AFTER I'd sent it off, duh!) for its level. Mine was 7th grade.

But like I said, these two columns are NON-FICTION. For such, check your expectations of audience. Are you writing for collegiates or a more general population?

As for fiction, your scores should vary from scene to scene. Action scenes should grade very, very low. Why? Because grade scores are based on sentence length and syllables. For action scenes your sentences should run shorter than usual, to increase the pace of things. Your word choice should skew to brisk, low-syllable words. Passages where you're plugging in back story (subtly, of course), delving into character, describing the landscape, and such will have longer, more leisurely sentences so your grade level will go up. Just make sure the two types of writing aren't radically different. Your readers shouldn't feel they're reading two different books pasted together.

Another trick: One of the first things I learned with my romance writer friends concerned paragraphs. I'd always been proud of my high school papers. I'd write my topic sentence, then three sentences to clarify things, then a summary sentence. Ta dah! A perfect paragraph!

That's not how real life works, especially real life fiction. If you don't have an ebook reader (horrors!), thumb through some best-selling or genre book you have lying around and look at the paragraphs.

They're short. I mean, really short.

Two back-to-back paragraphs can seem as if they should have been combined into one, but they haven't. Why is that?

White space. Readers like white space. They don't want to be confronted with a solid page of type. That's hard to read! So break up your paragraphs into breezy bits. (I once read a book 50% of whose paragraphs were single, short sentences. Obviously the author thought she was doing High Style and increasing the drama. Instead, she was irritating the heck out of this reader at least, who determined never to read another of her books.) Single sentence paragraphs (see above for one or two) do have drama and snap when saved for the proper moment.

And of course one of the final things you do to every book is this: read it out loud. That's right, each and every word. Sure, it seems redundant and time-consuming, but you'll be surprised at how things sound and how many small changes you'll make because of it. Your prose will flow much better.

Which will increase the readability of your book.

END NOTE: This column had a Flesch reading ease score of 76.6 and a Flesch-Kincade grade level of 5. Also, 3% of my sentences were passive, which is a subject we might cover in a future column.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Art School #4: Know your colors

Awright! You're ready to begin painting. You've got that photo of dear young Edwin that you've been dying to paint a portrait from.

First thing: Put Edwin down. Wait until perhaps your third painting to try your first portrait. You should be comfortable with your materials and the way they work before you try a portrait.

So you've probably got a landscape you want to paint. Isn't this a perfect time of year to go out and paint en plein air! (Then why am I painting inside this weekend?) Terrific! But first... Or since we've already dealt with the first thing up there, secondly...

Know your colors.

The two things you can do before you paint the first stroke that will improve what you're about to do 100%, are:

• Do a preliminary thumbnail, or small sketch, of what you're going to paint. Make it the same ratio as your canvas. Divide things up into four values so you can see the simple pattern of eye movement and composition involved. You may want to make another thumbnail, try your values a different way. Or even (gasp) a third.

EACH TAKES ONE MINUTE TO DO. Most students miss doing this entirely and then wonder what went so terribly wrong?

• Look at the paints you've got squirted out onto your palette. Okay, this step is probably best done BEFORE you start to paint a subject, so look at the paint you've bought, the paints you're usually going to use.

Play with them.

No, I don't mean to smudge them all over yourself! Cheez! Okay, okay, let me explain.

When I was in high school and my high school wouldn't let me take art because college-bound students Didn't Take Art (and girls couldn't take auto repair or tennis), my parents let me take art lessons for a few Saturdays from a local lady. We worked in her garage.

(A few months after lessons ended, she walked into a 7-11 down the road from my house and was killed by a punk robber. I hope they caught him and that he fried painfully somewhere.)

Anyway, when we first started, she handed out index cards blank except for a pattern of circles on them. We were supposed to take them home and fill them in with color, seeing how the colors mixed. She had cards for just about every "opposites" combination she could think of.

And yeah, I think I did about six. Bad, bad me. Yet those six cards increased my knowledge of color enormously.

So this is what you do, and if you want to use blank index cards, that's just peachy. You've only got a few colors, so it won't be that bad. Each card will take you TWO MINUTES to do. You will keep these cards. You will take them to the grave with you, they'll be so handy.

What you do is pick out two opposite colors. What are opposite colors? These are colors that are placed opposite each other on a color wheel. Now, WHY is this?

Because when they combine they can cancel each other out. They will make a gray or neutral. A lot of times this "gray" will be brownish. The trick is that you won't be able to see either color in the mix when you get it right.

It's magic. And even better, you'll find it INCREDIBLY useful as you paint.

So go ahead. You may have to mix up a secondary color from your primaries to do this. You'll want to look at combinations for red and green; blue and orange; yellow and violet.

We did these things by sticking our thumbs in the color and mooshing them onto the card. You can use a brush. Start with pure color. Put a dab of red on one end of your card, centering it vertically, and a dab of green on the other end. Now on your palette begin to play with your color, combining them until you can't see either a red or green in your mixture. Put that in the middle.

Now if you really want to do this right, you'll add in a couple stations between these so you'll get a reddish-gray mixture on the red side of your gray and a green-gray one on the green side.

Now add white to the whole lot and place that result above your little spectrum. These are TINTS. You can make even lighter ones if you want.

Add some black if you've got it to the mixtures you did from the pure colors (the stuff that doesn't have white in it) and arrange those on the bottom half of the card. You can add even darker mixtures. These are SHADES.

And voila! You know what two of your colors can do. Isn't it amazing the amount of lovely color you can get out of a mere two starting colors!

NOTE: I know you only have so much money as you begin in art. You've only bought a few colors. As I said in an earlier lesson, the target is to have a cool version of yellow, red and blue and a warm version of the same. Cool means they lean to the blue side; warm means they lean to the yellow side. There is no way to produce a "pure" primary color in paint, so all the primaries you find will be "tainted" in some way.

So as not to end up with mud, you'll want to mix warm with warm and cool with cool. (And sometimes you WANT mud.)

Stephen Quiller ( is a GOD of color. I was just watching one of his videos this morning and noticed that he not only gives exact names for what he wants in each position of his palette (he lays down primaries, secondaries and tertiary color straight out of the tube), but he's got a Violet named after himself. He had a company formulate it so it precisely neutralized Cadmium Yellow Light, which he uses as his yellow.

So FYI, his ACRYLIC primaries and secondaries are: cadmium yellow light, pyrrole orange, quinacridone red, Quiller violet (available from Jack Richeson), thalo blue (green shade) (as opposed to thalo blue [red shade]; this is one of those warm and cool things we talked about), and thalo green. Before you start jumping up and down in dismay, let me remind you that these are just his personal choices for colors. I know a couple of very famous artists who swear that a ruby red is the one, the only, true red in the entire manufactured-pigment universe. Others say cadmium red is the only way to go.

If you bought your paints as a set, that's likely JUST FINE.

Use the colors that work for you. Use colors that will neutralize each other so you can get a great range of color on your painting.

ARTEEST NOTE: It is very okay, even chic, to refer to the cadmiums as "cad" this and "cad" that. Quinacridone? "Quin" this and "quin" that. You'll impress everyone with your artistic savoir-faire!

Th-th-that's all for now. Feel free to ask questions! What subjects would you like me to cover? If I don't know the answer I'll track down someone who does.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Writing, pt. 3: Conflict

The success of a book rests upon its characters. Are they interesting? Great. But… What do they do during the course of your book?

They could skip about and yak and tra-la, but most readers would find that dreadfully boring. So your characters must act toward a purpose. They must have a goal.

Say your heroine wants to save the house she grew up in, slated for demolition. That’s faboo! This is what we call an EXTERNAL goal, something that the character wants outside of themselves. But the more meaningful goal is usually the INTERNAL one. Sally wants to save the house because she was mean to her mother before she died, and her mother always loved that house. Saving it is a way to soothe her guilt about how she treated her mother.

But wait! The current owners are behind in payments to the bank and the people there want their money. They aren’t going to sell to Sally but rather to the developer who wants the house merely for the land it’s on so he can build a brothel that also stocks illegal drugs which they plan to sell to the kids in the kindergarten next door. The bank and developer are now the ANTAGONISTs, the entities that push against the efforts of the PROTAGONIST (Sally) in order to try to stop her from achieving her goal.


If you’ve structured things really well, the Protagonist and Antagonist’s quests to fulfill their different goals will make them run smack up against each other time and again. Drama! Things are going to get worse and worse and worse for poor Sally until she figures a way to best that nasty ol’ bank and get her house… If that’s what she really wants by the last chapter of the book. Goals often change over time.

There are four major turning points in a book: the first, just a little ways into the beginning, is the "invitation to adventure," where a problem first appears and your protagonist has to make the decision to DO something. At the end of your first act, once everything is proceeding apace and you're about a quarter of the way in, you have another turning point into the second act. Then there’s one at the midpoint, which is at the middle of your book and the second act. This is a biggie, with something good usually happening to Our Hero/ine, but right afterward everything reverses into giant uh oh! Then there’s another turning point at the end of the second act, which is about 3/4 of the way through. (After that comes your third act which will be the concluding one.)

The great Jenny Crusie says that at every turning point you have to ask: “What does my character want?” At the turning point after that, you have to ask, “No, what does my character REALLY want?” and so on. See? You’re peeling back onion layers of personality, as Shrek's Donkey would say.

As we get deeper and deeper discovering Sally’s internal goals, we might find her external goal changing as well. She wants to save the house. Then she wants to save something inside the house. Then she just wants to save some precious keepsake of her mother’s that’s been left inside. (By now she doesn’t want to assuage her guilt; rather, she wants to show her mother’s spirit that she loves her.) Maybe something might spur her to create a huge campaign that will save not only the entire house, but the neighborhood as well.

Or not. The final goal doesn’t have to be big but it does have to be DEEP. There should be some kind of progression with at least a slight changing of goals that mirrors how your character changes from the start to the end of the book. (The character arc.) As your character learns about life and how to handle it in different ways, their view toward their internal and external goals will change.

What, your character doesn’t change? Hm. Are you sure you have a solid story? If you do, something’s changing. Look again. Is there someone who changes a lot during the course of your story who isn't your current Hero? Maybe they're the real protagonist. (I've used the wrong protagonist twice in my proto-novels. It's not that big a deal to focus in on them instead of your previous Hero as things begin to fit EVER so much better!) Exaggerate the change if you must. I think you’ll be pleased with the result. You want drama! You don't want just to grab your reader; you want to grab and SHAKE them!

If you’re writing a romance you’ve got both Hero and Heroine. They will PROBABLY (not always) be acting as antagonist to the other while they’re their own protagonist, and their quest for their individual goals will clash terribly. Perhaps there’ll be another antagonist, worse than either of them individually, so that the H/H will have to combine forces to overcome the problem the Big Bad brings.

That’s how conflict works for the entire book. Now look at your individual scenes. Each scene is going to have conflict within it as well. It’s a book in miniature. If you can’t find the conflict in your scene, maybe you can live without it.

Don’t get scenes mixed up with “sequels.” A scene is a unit of your book in which action takes place. The result of it is NEVER EVER a “whew! I got it all done!” (“yes”) unless you are on the final chapter of your book. A scene will always end with some kind of disaster. If you read Scene & Structure, by Jack M. Bickham (and you should!), you’ll discover that your protagonist will try to accomplish their goal despite an antagonist (who doesn't have to be the book's antagonist, but rather the antagonist only for that scene) during a scene. They can wind up getting a “yes, but” conclusion with some kind of condition applied to obtaining the goal. OR, amping that up is a “no, but” which gives the protagonist some small hope of getting that goal. Then there’s “no, and further more,” which is a hard slap that sets them farther back from their goal than they were to begin with. Cool!

A “sequel” in this sense is not Star Wars V but rather a unit of fiction-telling in which the protagonist has to emotionally react to what they’ve just been through in the preceding scene (that slap-down!) and then make plans for what they’re going to do in their next scene. Sequels can be long pages of planning and angsting, or they can be one line long. Or even glossed over and revealed in a line or two or suggestion in the next scene that shows the reader that our protagonist planned whatever it is they’re doing now. That’s why Sally has put on a man’s suit and fake beard and has just entered the bank; the sequel is now implied within the scene that she's planned a masquerade for some purpose.

So you should have conflict at every level in your novel. Otherwise, it’s just a tea party with people congratulating themselves about how wonderful they are.

I have a saying posted on the bulletin board behind me: “In fiction, the best times for the writer—and the reader—are when the story’s main character is in the worst trouble." Don’t coddle your characters! I know you love ‘em to pieces. But if you really love them, you’ll cause them trouble. Big ol’ handfuls of nasty-wasty Trouble!

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Inside Poop: What They Won't Tell You About Colonoscopies

Okay, I know you're supposed to get a colonoscopy when you hit the big 5-0. I said, "I'll do it real soon." Three years later, I actually asked my doctor (with whom I'd finally made an appointment for my decadinal [as opposed to annual] physical) to schedule me for one.

Everyone I knew always shuddered at the mere mention of "colonoscopy." They must be awful!

Two weeks before my appointment I called Dook Hospital, where the procedure would be done (otherwise, say, if it had been done in my doctor's clinic, my insurance would have paid for it. This way they didn't have to do that), and asked, wasn't there some kind of meds I had to be getting?

I was supposed to have gotten an informational packet along with a prescription at least a month previously. Dook assured me that they'd fax the whole shebang to Wally World, and they did. I picked it up along with a box labeled "MoviPrep," and took it home.

According to the directions, I couldn't take a taxi to Dook. I called them. Turns out they don't want a possibly irresponsible person taking charge of a woozy patient. So I asked if Dook, one of the largest and most respected hospitals in the entire freaking WORLD, had some kind of service that would provide transportation, or perhaps put patients up overnight until they were deemed awake enough to drive themselves home.


Well then, did Dook know of any organizations in the area that provided such services?


I had to reschedule, but assured them that if the rules still stood as such I'd just have to reschedule and reschedule and reschedule because I didn't have anyone who could take off an entire afternoon from work just to accompany me to a doctor's appointment. By September school would be in session. Maybe I could hire some irresponsible college student to do the job.

Luckily, I happened to see a sign for "Home Helpers" one day in downtown Hillsborough. I gave them a call. Sure, they did this kind of thing all the time. Their people were drug-tested and investigated so as to keep out the loons. I went over and signed a bunch of legal papers, discovered that they also CLEAN HOUSES!!! (oh! I am SO going to clean my house enough so I can get some pros in to clean it properly) and do all kinds of things for folks.

So now all I had to worry about was the appointment. Some kind people at work emailed me Dave Barry's column on his first colonoscopy (url at the end of this), which didn't quite make some of the worst prospects look so good, but made others look a lot better. One of my coworkers told me she'd been awake during the procedure. Uh oh.

I checked the instructions on the MoviPrep and followed them. The day before the procedure I was on a clear liquid diet, no red or purple items. To assure that I would be as little hungry as possible, I stocked up with about $50 of drinks: Gatorade (the low-cal version), strained fruit juices, ginger ale, broths. I think I may have drunk about $10 of it. I only got a minor hunger pang once, just before lunchtime on the first day. I had chicken broth for that lunch. You'd be surprised how GOOD chicken broth tastes! I mean: yummy!

(A part of me wondered if I was drinking too much. There've been so many news stories about people who have died after drinking X amount of water...)

For dinner I gorged on lemon-lime and orange Jello. Fabulous!

At 6 PM it was time to begin drinking the first round of MoviPrep, which I'd prepared that morning. People had told me how AWFUL that stuff was. I took a sip at 6:05. Man, they must be wimps! Tasted like I recalled Mountain Dew tasting. Granted, I've only had MD about twice in my life, but this had a lemon-lime twang to it (one of the main ingredients was ascorbic acid). Okay, so far so good.

You're supposed to drink the stuff so you've got it all down in an hour. It took me an hour and a half because by the third glass it wasn't tasting so great. Maybe like moldy Mountain Dew. Perhaps I'd just been drinking too much that day and my body was rejecting the idea of liquids.

But after you get it all down you've got to drink 16 oz. more of clear liquids. I opted for water--the best water EVER!!! So yummy after the Prep. Glug, glug, no prob.

So the MoviPrep was injested by 7:30. The instructions said that things might begin to happen after the second glassful. I waited. "Anybody there?" I asked the lower part of my body.

At about 7:55 it answered and I settled in to reading a novel in my Reading Room. It wasn't that bad. (A coworker had told me to get aloe-infused TP, which was a good idea once everything was over.) By 9:45... Oh, 10:15 at the most, it was all over and, unlike what a few of my co-workers had told me, I got a good night's sleep, no probs. The second round of MoviPrep would start first thing in the morning.

My main worry was the drive in to Dook. I would be in a stranger's car. Would I have to sit on a garbage bag? I mean, you know, in case... something happened? Now I thought perhaps that might not be too much of a problem.

I set my alarm for 5:00. Yes! I can get up then! If I did, it would all be SO over by the time I got in the car to leave!

But three rounds of snooze later, I finally dragged myself up to a sitting position. Fed the cats, almost got breakfast. Oh, right. No solids. Decided to tackle the MoviPrep right away. Started at 6:00, estimated a leisurely finish at 7:15.

Finished at 8:00. It wasn't that the MoviPrep was foul or anything, it was just that you took a sip and your body refused to swallow. This is the part of the procedure that takes GUTS, my friends! Chugging that MoviPrep! It was sheer fear of the ride to Dook that got me to finish it off.

It was also glass #2 of this round that things got moving. But by 9:45, pretty much, the process was over. My ride was due at 10:30. He showed up at 10:10 and by golly, I was ready.

Got to Dook, zipped through check-in, went back into the put-on-this-gown area and answered medical questions. "My doctor is part of the Dook system," I told the medic. "Shouldn't this information already be in my records?" She assured me that the systems weren't quite coordinated yet, but now that she was inputting everything we wouldn't have to worry about it any more.

Fifteen minutes later another person asked me the same questions and inputted them on a keyboard five feet away from the previous one. Guess communications weren't that good within the boundaries of Dook. And ten minutes after that, thirty feet down the hall, yet another medic keyed in the same answers on yet another computer. Then another appeared on the other side of my gurney with a clipboard, and I answered the same questions yet again. Ah, modern technology!

One of the medics told me that I'd have amnesia for the entire day. "But I'm reading a novel!" I exclaimed. "I'm twenty pages from the end!"

"You'll have to read it again."

Thank goodness I'd made four short notes about what I wanted to include in my first column for CBR. But had I stated them clearly? I'd been thinking long and hard about that column. Darn! It'd all be gone.

They started the IV. I was a little POd that I not only heard the doctor say, "Okay, we're beginning now," but I distinctly felt three oofy bits that made me say, "Ow." They'd explained how a little stretching might occur as they went around the bends of my innards (to use the scientific term). I wondered if I'd be able to make it. I mean, it wasn't a real ow-y kind of ow, it was just the kind of ow you make to get your dentist's attention to stay away from that particular corner of your tooth, that there's still a nerve ending in the general neighborhood that's semi-awake.

But that was the last I remembered of the procedure. I woke up and Jay, the kind gentleman from the Home Helpers place, was just sitting down to get briefed by the doctor as to my state. I remembered him. I remembered that Joanne was in deep doo-doo in the novel I was reading. I remembered everything I'd planned for my column.

"Are you releasing gas?" a medic asked me. Apparently they pump you full of air during the process. I assured her that as a lady I don't release gas ever, thank you very much. I got dressed and was dizzy enough that they zipped me through Dook in a wheelchair as Jay brought his car around.

I burped a few times. Very subtly, quite ladylike.

Got home fine. We stopped at Wendy's first and I got a semi-healthy dinner as take-out. Ate. Took a long nap. Left a message at work that, surprise, you can't drive for 24 hours after the procedure (some places say 36), but that I'd shave a couple of hours off that and come in around lunch the next day. That night I listened to all the gas in my innards regale me with an organ recital as things shifted around in there.

I'd lost 9 pounds during the entire process. Yay!

And that was that. What a huge worry over a big bunch of nothing! I'm glad to say the checkup showed I was fine.

I think the best thing about it was that I found out that one of my co-workers is going in in 2 weeks to have HIS first colonoscopy. I sat there and razzed him about it along with everyone else who'd been through one. I was part of the Colonoscopy Gang now, one of those In The Know.

Don't know how much it's going to cost me yet. I just closed my eyes and said it had to be done. Good thing I have an HSA with some $$ left in it. Mr. Obama: some better health insurance options, please!

So now you know. And if you need another opinion about it, just read Dave Barry:

And don't put off your colonoscopy because you're afraid of it. Nothin' to it. Just have a good book standing by in your personal Reading Room.

LATE NOTE: According to my insurance rep, if the procedure is preventative it'll cost me nothing, just like a mammogram. However, if they'd have found something during the procedure, I'd have had to have paid full price for it. Isn't our insurance system wonderful! :^(

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Art School #3: Value

Oy, is this late! What can I say, it's been a ka-razy week plus two! But let's get to this lesson, especially since it's shorter than the preceeding lessons have been (a habit I hope to continue).

I attended a week-long painting workshop put on by watercolorist Tony Couch. Midweek he put away his paints for the morning and gave a lecture to those who wanted to hear. He packed more into that lecture than I'd gotten with four years studying art at Carolina.

One of the things he did was to list all the things an artist had to keep in mind while they were painting. It went on and on: edges (soft and hard), composition, eye movement within canvas, brushstrokes, etc etc etc, seemingly ad infinitum. While we groaned, he told us that learning to paint was like learning to drive: you mastered one or two things, then moved on to the next thing. You don't learn everything all at once. As you practiced, what you had learned became second-nature and you could move along to the next item.

In other words: don't sweat it.

But of all the things he listed, the most important was VALUE. Value is the relative lightness or darkness of something. Light = "high" value; dark = "low" value. Many times you'll see a gray scale, labeled from 1 to 10. 1 will be white and 10 will be black.

Value in painting is like characterization in novels. You can do the work without paying much attention to these things, but what you produce won't be very enjoyable. Both are the most important element in their art form. If you get the values in your painting right, you can slab on just about any color you want and it'll still make an acceptable painting. Paint with lovely colors but ignore value? You get a mess.

Observe the above. On the left we have our oranges done in tones of only black. You can see a complete range of values here. On the right I've tried to take out as much of the value as I could and was 75% successful. We are left with hue, or color.

Which is the clearer picture?

Even without orange, our black-and-white value oranges are clearly recognizable as such.

Values can give a painting emotion. High-value paintings, or those that don't use the darkest darks, can be cheery. Low-value paintings, or those that don't use the lightest lights, can be mysterious. You don't have to use the entire range, either. You can settle on the mid-tones only, which might give you a bit of a dull painting without the "umph" of extremes, or you can lop off one end or the other of the range.

I own an art book that has you begin by painting a mid-tone color all over your canvas. The author uses red. (After last spring's plein air experience, I'll never do that again!) Then he paints a pattern of black showing the darkest parts of his subject. Then he puts in the lightest tones by painting a pattern of white. When he gets a pattern he likes, he starts to paint for "real," knowing that he's got a solid painting under way.

This pattern is one in which your eye will remain wandering your canvas. It should start in at your focal point (which has the greatest contrast in values within it), the main target of whatever you're painting, and then wander about over the canvas (don't let the eye travel off the canvas!), having a good experience in doing so, and returning to the focal point to begin again. A painting is supposed to be entertainment, like a good book or movie. You've got an audience, even if it's just yourself you want to please. You keep it entertained and rapt by providing this gazing journey and along the way you paint in surprises and calm spots, keeping everything varied and interesting.

But the basic way, the starting point, for all this is VALUE.

Notes to ponder: Many landscape painters begin with small sketches ("thumbnails") of their subject rendered in just four values. They take the 1-10 value scale and reduce it to a range of four values. This helps them simplify their subject. I like to use three increasingly gray markers plus the white of the paper I'm sketching on to provide my 4-step scale. Try it with different subjects and see how it works for you.

Also note: North Light Books puts out a little plastic value scale for artists to refer to. (Believe me, value scales come in very handy at times!) The only thing is, they print it on a medium-gray plastic. That means that in the slot for value #1, which should be white, you get the gray that is the plastic. The gray ground contaminates every value on the scale except for #10, which is black, because the gray makes it much darker than it should be.

This value scale is a best-seller at North Light, a truly WTF (pardon my French) idea! Don't use this kind of scale. Use one that's printed on white so that #1 is white, #10 is black, and the other slots on the scale are evenly graded between.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Painting update

I think I've finally finished that painting that I started last... May? at the Raleigh Plein Air Paint out. Let's look at what I brought home that day after a few hours of hard work on location:

Well, I thought it was pretty much a disaster. I was working on that roof on the right asking myself, "Why did I pick this scene? Why did I zero in on this big, blank roof?"

When I got home and looked at the photos I'd taken, I realized why: because when I'd started there was a great shadow on that roof. The sun had moved a LOT during the course of the painting and I hadn't made enough sketches before I began to show where the light should be. So the painting ended up as an afternoon picture instead of a morning one.

So I've been working on it:

And it seems fairly much "there" now, though I may do a little more work on it. Notice how I changed the shape of the tree so it's not a big vertical stick, just like the stick houses behind it, but rather has some curve to it and variance in width.

Now the eye can enter at that red tree on the right, travel up the bright roof following that great shadow, jump over to the other roof and travel down, latch onto the tree and curve around back to the red tree. The eye stays within the painting.

I also had fun simplifying the background trees. Think I'll be working on simplification this year. I'm trying to get away from strict implementation of what's on the picture/what's in front of me, and back away at the half-way point to start to worry about what works for the PICTURE and not how to best mimic the actual scene.

Thus the red bushes on the left, which I'd been so excited about with their fiery red tips. Instead now they're blurred and blued up to push them off into the distance, away from our central interest points.

I wish I'd rearranged the houses more. That porch roof ends right where the sides of the background house turn into shadow, creating a natural focal point. I had to blur that down and adjust values so it wouldn't stand out so much.

Anyway, that's it on this picture for now (maybe a few minor brushstrokes needed here and there) except that I need to paint the sides of the canvas still. I needed to get it done today to include it in a portfolio I'm putting together that has a deadline of next week.

Hope you enjoy!