Armand Cabrera

(all images by Armand Cabrera)

I believe curiosity to be a cornerstone for success—in any field. More than anything else, it’s the fuel that drives us to know new things—the necessary requirement for the achievement of a goal. Stop for a moment to think about the question—“How do you do that?” Then ask —“Can I do that?” These are the thoughts that spark creativity.

All the artists I admire have a strong sense of curiosity about how things work. They tend to be voracious readers, seeking out knowledge wherever they can find it. They are not afraid to ask for help to solve a problem. Great artists experiment, they analyze, they question how and what they are doing—always refining or working to improve something about their art.
Curiosity can take you down dead ends, too. However, curious people seem to pull more knowledge from the experience than others would. They use the information, learning from their mistakes and incorporating that experience into their library of knowledge to avoid similar situations in the future.

The famous science fiction writer, Theodore Sturgeon, signed his name, followed by a letter “Q” with an arrow through it. His symbol meant—“ask the next question”.
Want to be more successful at what you do?

Be curious. Ask the next question!

Talent Verses Tenacity

Armand Cabrera

“Every loneliness is a pinnacle.”
Ayn Rand from “The Fountainhead”

I don’t believe in talent. I believe in tenacity. I believe what people often site as “talent” is actually desire and perseverance. I know plenty of people with talent…and they do little or nothing with it. Tenacity is never giving up until you’ve attained your goal. The level you attain is limited only by your work ethic.

While I was working as a production artist, I took a workshop from Thomas Blackshear at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. I was in awe of his ability. He is still, in my opinion one of the best illustrators in the country.

Blackshear asked everyone in class what we wanted to learn that week. Most people wanted to learn how to copy someone else’s technique like Bernie Fuchs, Mark English, David Grove or Drew Struzan. I asked him to show us his process for one of his illustrations.

Blackshear had just finished a painting of a pirate with a cutlass over his shoulder. He said he would bring in his preparatory work. I thought—cool! I’ll see his preliminary drawings and a color comp, too.

The next day we walked into the class and the entire wall of the room was covered with his preliminaries, thumbnail compositions, value patterns, color comps, photo reference, rough sketches and the finished painting. There were probably 20 or 30 unique images for every stage of his painting. Good enough wasn’t good enough for Blackshear. He was at the top of his field and in all probability could have coasted—but he didn’t. It was a great lesson in perseverance and how much hard work separates the best from the mediocre.

In his book, My Adventures as an Illustrator, Norman Rockwell talks about classmates at the Art Students League chiding him for being focused and working so hard. They would say things to him like, If I worked as hard as you, I would be as great as Velasquez. His response was, Why don’t you? — but they never did. In the end, he became one of the greatest illustrators in America.

People say they want something and they declare they are willing to work hard for it. But really, they want something the way a two year old wants it—they want someone to give it to them. People decide they have worked hard enough and then they quit. They are not willing to sacrifice their comfort, a family life or money to achieve the goal ahead of them. They unwittingly (or knowingly) take on too many interests and other commitments that render them incapable of continuing to pursue their dream.

There you have it—Feel free to agree or disagree.

( First two paintings byThomas Blackshear, Copyright Thomas Blackshear)
Last two paintings by Norman Rockwell, Copyright Rockwell Estate)

The Superiority of Simplicity


Armand Cabrera
(Images from top to bottom
Emile Calsen, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, Anders Zorn, Dennis Miller Bunker, Peder Severin Kroyer)

While I think everyone must follow their own voice and style, I prefer a broader handling of effect and I think this way of painting is superior to too much rendering. In my view the best realist and impressionist paintings are handled with a facile economy of effort. There is no effort towards trompe l’oeil finish; rather the effort is placed in leaving the appearance of a painting intact while simultaneously making it believable.

My old calculus teacher gave extra points to people who could solve their problems in fewer steps not more. His reason being the smaller equation was the more elegant solution to a problem as long as the answer was correct. I think the same applies to painting.

Paintings are meant to be viewed indoors at a reasonable distance. If you are putting in brushwork that effectively disappears at two feet from the canvas I would say you are over rendering the passages of your painting. Rendering takes time and many times the detail is an attempt to cover a weakness in drawing, color and tone. Design requires a point of view It is always easier to copy things as they are than it is to design. When good paintings do have detail it reflects the personality of the painter not a lack of good painting structure.

There is much talk about what is simplification in painting. I am not advocating for the slap dash approach where sensitivity and subtlety are thrown out for a sloppy artistic short hand. Those types of paintings may have interest to the artist painting them as studies but will never stand the test of time as art.

There is a broad area between the two extremes I just mentioned that allows for great personal expression and sensitivity to subject. It is the art of controlled simplification as a means of expression. It can contain alla prima painting but does not require single sitting impressions to be effective. Instead its power comes from acute observation and understanding of the character of the things depicted, edited for the most amount of emotional impact and delivered in the most economical way possible visually. This is the heart of all great painting.

The Clarity of Concept

Armand Cabrera

(All Paintings by Armand Cabrera)

Good paintings are conceptual. A center of interest must dominate in the painting. Everything else should be subordinated to this idea.

Painting is the expression of an experience lived or felt by the artist and captured for the world to see. The incident can be anything the artist is capable of sharing. To do this an artist must have a clear understanding of his materials and a mastery of their use.

They must also have a Concept for the thing depicted. Your concept contains the aesthetic decisions you make before you start to paint. It is the ‘Why’ that drives the design and composition and it is the most creative part of the process. Concept is the inward engine that guides your decisions of how you react to your environment through your chosen medium. It is essential to understand its importance. The concept strengthens the impact of your work. The conceptual idea allows you to transcend the mundane and depict what you paint as a personal vision, not as it is in reality but as you wish it to be.

It is more than just composing the picture in a certain way. It is infusing the picture with a single idea clearly conceived and executed. Brushwork, value, edges, color; all must come together in support of the impression felt by the artist at the time they experienced the scene. Nothing must detract from the focus. Drawing must not weaken the depiction. Color must not overly distract from the whole.

This is where good visualization is indispensable. It keeps you on track while still allowing you to take advantage of moments that might improve the overall idea. At the start of a painting I am constantly looking at the scene or model for visual information, but only in support of my idea. Once the idea is established you should spend most of your time looking at the painting and only occasionally checking areas against what is in the scene. The last minutes spent on a painting should be about preserving the concept and making a great painting and ignoring everything else.

Studio Lighting

Armand Cabrera

Quite a few artists have asked me to write about studio lighting. This is an area that is like the Mac vs. PC debates. I will offer the information I have and also my opinion about what I feel is important. After that—you’re on your own!

If you don’t have a studio with north light, you need artificial lighting. Period. You can’t properly paint your canvas without accurate light.

Remember—the light you use in the studio is not the light the painting will ultimately be viewed in. Your gallery, an exhibition space and any potential buyer will have a unique set of lighting conditions. Your painting is going to look different in all those situations.

You should have light that isn’t too cool or too warm so you can accurately judge color. Otherwise, you’ll be mixing orange when you think you are mixing green. As a painter, I have used incandescent, fluorescent and halogen lights. Let me break down the various lights without getting too technical.

Incandescent Bulbs
The worst solution for your paintings because the light is so warm you will actually paint things cooler than you want.

Full Spectrum Halogen Bulbs
These lights can be a great solution as long as you paint small. The problem is area coverage. They don’t emit a very large covering surface, so you have a spot effect. The light around the spot drops off quickly, giving you an uneven illuminated surface. They also emit a lot of heat, so just adding lots of bulbs for an area isn’t a solution. Not all halogens are the same and again check the temperature of the light they emit. Solux bulbs are the best halogens on the market, but they are expensive compared to lifespan/ cost ratio of fluorescent bulbs.

Full Spectrum Fluorescent Bulbs
These bulbs are probably the next best thing indoors to north light for most artists. They are relatively cheap and efficient and have good but not great color indexes. They tend to spike in the blue green range of the spectrum and drop off too dramatically in the red violet range so do your homework.

Some terms you will run into when looking for lights

K: stands for Kelvin, which for our purposes is referring to color temperature
CRI: Color Rendering Index
CCT: Correlated Color Temperature
CIE: Comission Internationale de l’Eclairage (International Commission on Illumination) They designed #51-A which is a “Method for Assessing the Qualityof Daylight Simulators for Colorimetry “

You will see a lot of back and forth discussion in forums about K, CRI, CCT and the CIE ratings.

Get a bulb that has the highest ratings you can find;
Generally 91 CRI or above is good
CCT range between 5000K and 6500K is usually considered acceptable although this is a matter of personal preference
CIE is the quality grade rating of the light, a CIE #51 determined rating for A or B is what you want. They go down to E with A being the best and E the worst.

Some other things to consider:
Carpet and wall colors affect the light on your canvas. Even the housing the lights are in will affect the light. Stick to neutral colors for your walls and floor. Gray with a reflectivity of no more than 60% is best.

Consider other aspects for your situation like unit cost, energy efficiency and bulb life. I always buy the best I can afford and make do until I’m in a position to upgrade.
When looking at ratings, remember picking your bulbs based on any one rating will not give you as good of an outcome as looking for a combination of higher ratings for the type of bulb you choose.

Chromaticity, color temperature and the quality grade, as determined with CIE 51, is a much better procedure for finding a light close to daylight.