Tim Oliver graduated from Texas Tech University with a Bachelors degree in landscape architecture. He’d go on to work as a Landscape Architect and owns his own design/build landscape firm in Lubbock, Texas. Texas is not only Oliver’s home but also the subject of his paintings. He is a founding member and contributor to Urban Sketchers Lubbock and a past instructor and field painter at The Plein Air Convention and Expo. Oliver holds Signature membership in the National Watercolor Society and the Western Federation of Watercolor Societies.
How did you come to paint what you paint?
Early in my painting life I was talking to an instructor whom I really respect and was bemoaning the fact that there weren’t any grand and exciting subjects to paint where I live. I live on the semi-arid high plains of west Texas where the land is flat, landform is non-existent and bodies of water are scarce.
His advice was wise and I’ve attempted to follow it throughout my work. He said, “Go home and paint where you live, paint what you know and paint what excites you.” I love west Texas with its long horizons and its 180-degree skies. Shapes, shadows, light and the stories I know or imagine will always help me decide if it’s subject that I have to paint.
Mood of place is important in your work. What specifically about the watercolor medium helps you convey mood?
Watercolor is an incredible medium in which to convey mood. It’s transparency and ability to paint in layers while maintaining luminosity are incredibly important in capturing the mood of a place. With watercolor, I can achieve a wide value range from pure white to near black I believe this helps me establish a variety of moods in my work. Sometimes the medium itself provides the direction. I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but often I start with a plan and end up adjusting the final mood based on what the watercolor gods give or take away. You have to be flexible when working in this incredible medium!
Walk us though your plein air process. What problems are you tying to solve before you start painting? What kind of studies do you do before you begin a painting? Why?
When I look back at my successful paintings versus the failed ones, the thing that stands out is that I started the good ones with a plan.
I love to sketch in pencil and pen, so I almost always work out my composition and the value structure in black and white in my sketchbook. It’s so important to work these things out before the paint flies. I’m guilty of being impatient and undisciplined, however when I jump right in without having an initial plan, the results are usually mediocre. The failed “plein air painting” essentially becomes the study that I should have done in the first place!
Being on location can be a bit overwhelming. How do you decide where to set up and what to paint? What advice would you give painters about finding the right subjects to paint?
First and foremost, when I’m choosing a composition to paint, I look for a place to set up out of the sun and shielded from the wind! I say this only half-jokingly. Seriously, if I’m comfortable and not fighting the elements, I almost always do better work.
As I said before, I must find a subject that speaks to me. It has to tug at my heart a little. I really like to find a subject that sparks an emotion within me with the goal of conveying that emotion to others. I really get a thrill when someone compliments a painting by saying, “I think I know that place!”, or “That reminds me of…” I feel that I’ve accomplished something if my work evokes even a small amount of emotion in a few people.
I would also advise aspiring plein air painters to choose subjects that fit within your current skill level. I try to find subjects that I feel like I have a reasonable chance at being successful at capturing them in a short amount of time. Simplification and editing a scene are important skills to develop. Suggestion rather that slavish copying is also important.
I have witnessed beginning plein air painters (and even done it myself) choose a complicated or over ambitious scene and then kill themselves trying to paint every rock, tree and blade of grass. The experience usually becomes frustrating and the results are disappointing and discouraging. Simplify, edit and paint within yourself!
There certainly are times to stretch yourself also! That’s how we all grow.
How does your studio practice vary from you plein air practice? What does your studio practice give you that plein air does not? (And vice versa?)
For me, the studio is a great place to work. I have a comfortable space where I can have several things going at once. I generally have two or three things going all the time, all at various stages of completion.
Right now, for example, I have a painting leaning against the wall that I started 6 months ago and just need to think about for a while. I have a plein air piece that needs just a little minor tweaking and finishing touches. Things the great watercolorist Joseph Zbukvic would call “French polish.” I usually have plein are studies, photos and sketches laying out as I contemplate what to do with them. I love my studio and the precious time that I get to be there.
Could you talk about how you approach edges? Do you go into a painting knowing if hard or soft edge will be dominant? How do you develop edges as you paint a scene?
This is an area that I am trying to be more aware of in my painting. My tendency is to have too many hard edges. I tend to be too “literal” sometimes. Intrigue, excitement and viewer engagement rises when you can lose some edges and allow the viewer to make the connections naturally. Many times, one of my final tweaks will be to “scrub” or “wash out” some of my hard lines. I find that this is a good way to lose some edges and blur some lines, but I’m working on being more skillful with my edges throughout the painting process.
How intentional are you about your colors? Do you paint mainly what you see in local color or do you make an overall color plan before hand and go in with a more deliberate approach? Why? When you’re painting a scene, what are you thinking though in terms of color?
I try to be very intentional about my colors in terms of temperature (warm and cool) and value (dark and light). This is an area of growth and focus for me right now. I have so much to learn!
I don’t try to reproduce the local colors as they appear. I think more in terms of tonality. Are cool tones going to dominate or is it more of a warm painting? Is there a good tonal value structure? Are my dark values connected? Are my light and mid-tone values represented? Can I create atmospheric perspective using this tone?
These are the kind of questions that I’m trying to ask myself these days. I’m not so interested in matching the color of the red barn or the color of the green tree. For me, working in tonality is very liberating. It seems to suit the way my brain works.
How do the materials you choose help you paint the paintings you want to paint? Could you talk about your paints and your paper in that respect? How long did it take you to find materials that really worked for you? (I imagine that can take a while.)
Every serious watercolorist I know will advise the beginner not to economize on paper, paint or brushes. I agree. Inexpensive hobby store paper and student grade paint will simply slow your growth as an artist and frustrate the hound out of you. I speak from experience here!
The goal is to learn principles that are effective and repeatable Good quality paper and paint will allow you to develop your style in a consistent manner. Particularly when painting outside, there are so many variables that are out of your control. Drying time is affected by wind, heat and humidity, for example. Good materials minimize some, though not all, of the challenges. Familiarity with your quality materials make this elusive and unpredictable medium a little more predictable. I primarily us Saunders Waterford 140# rough paper, Daniel Smith watercolors and Escoda synthetic brushes.
What do you consider the most important fundamentals for watercolorists to learn when they are just getting started? What about learning those will make them better painters down the road? What were the fundamental that you learned that helped you advance the most as a painter?
Great question! There are many fundamentals that every aspiring watercolorist should focus on. I’ll stress my top three.
The number one fundamental would be spending time and energy learning to draw. So many of us want to dive right in and start painting without the basic skill of drawing. Every good painting begins with good drawing. It’s really hard to have a successful painting from a bad drawing. Understanding of perspective is vital. Scale and proportion are equally important. Being able to quickly and accurately sketch a scene from three-dimensional life to two-dimensional paper quickly and efficiently is a skill that will allow your painting to develop in amazing ways.
So, my advice to the beginning artist is always the same. Draw, draw and then draw some more! Fill sketchbooks. If it will sit still long enough for you to sketch it, then sketch it!
I try to spend at least as many hours sketching and drawing as I do painting. In my opinion, you simply must put in this work if you want to be a great painter.
Secondly, it is vitally important to train yourself to see value. And, not only see it but be able to execute it in a painting. You must learn to see, draw and paint in relative values rather than solely in colors. One of the most common things that I see in novice painters work is a painting full of lights and mid-tones.
There seems to be a hesitancy, particularly in watercolor, to get “darks” in a composition. Dark, rich values can be scary at first, but understanding that a good painting has a well planned and well executed value range and structure is very important in a finished work. Preliminary value sketches are very useful as you design your composition. I have found an app for my I-phone that will translate my work-in-progress to simple black and white values. I find this very helpful.
Lastly, I would stress learning to “see” in a different way. This skill is a little tougher to acquire. It takes intentionality and persistence, but the pay off is enormous. “Seeing” like an artist not only involves your eyes, but it involves your hand, heart, mind and soul.
As artists, we are not simply painting pretty pictures. We are viewing and reacting to our subject. Then we are trying to communicate the feeling and the passion of the place. As artists we must “see” our subject deeply, differently and more intensely. We must dig deeply into the shapes, colors, values, and stories of the place. Understanding how these elements combine to create a compelling narrative is what good artists do. Learn to “see” like an artist. Sorry to get so heavy!
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