Meet this month’s Artist of the Month, Robin Cheers ("Brushwork Secrets Unleashed"). Robin is an artist working in the impressionist tradition with a contemporary style focused on representing the figure and everyday life. She is a consummate observer, and Robin’s oil paintings celebrate the overlooked or ordinary scenes of modern life. Whether she’s working on site from direct observation or with sketches and photos, Robin’s use of open brushwork and layering textures creates light paintings full of color and life.
Art Notes: Could you walk us through your process? What problems are you solving at each step?
When I begin a new painting, the first part of the process is inspiration. I find it’s best if I follow the first spark of inspiration – and that frequently has to do with the way light is hitting something. If I keep looking around, I will lose that inspiration or get visual fatigue, so it’s best for me to go with my first idea.
I create a notan or maybe a three- to five-value sketch to plan my big shapes. Sometimes I may want to choose a color scheme that is not necessarily true to the subject, so I might make some color notes and test a palette that pleases me more. Then I go straight into the painting — first starting to draw with the brush to find my lines, but I quickly start to scrub in masses as I define the big shapes.
I work large to small. I always try to think about the big shapes first and keep the value structure correct in those big shapes. As I continue, I add variety in color and strokes and start to work smaller shapes and bring more definition to elements in the scene. I always try to think shape, though, not object! Keeping my focus soft and moving all around the canvas helps me avoid trying to define things too soon and getting into details.
I like to get most of the canvas covered quickly and then take a step back to see how the overall composition is working. Then I go back to work more slowly and begin to develop and refine areas that need it. I work from dark to light in value, saving my lightest lights for last. At each stage, I am constantly comparing values and colors and reminding myself to add variety in the direction of my brushwork and in the edges.
Art Notes: For people wanting to loosen up, why is planning important? What sort of planning should an artist do if they want to paint more loosely? Why?
It may seem counterintuitive toplan to paint loosely, but if you spend some time in the design phase, it will set you up with a strong foundation for exploring color and texture. When I design my paintings, I start with a notan and look for interesting ways to divide the big shapes. With just the two values, I have to choose where the middle values will fall — which means there will not be an equal division of shapes. One will be larger than the other, and I can choose which I like. Thinking in this abstract way also helps me control the values while I'm working. If I'm working in my big dark shape and get too light, it will be obvious.
During thedesign phase I can also exaggerate shapes, play with cropping, or use unusual perspective — like many of the early impressionists, especially Degas, Cezanne, and, later, van Gogh. With the big questions solved before I start to work, I can paint more confidently and spontaneously.
Art Notes: How important is drawing? Why?
Drawing well means the artist has keenly observed their subject and the relationships within it. As artists, we look more closely at the world around us and see with a special level of interest that many don’t or won’t try to see. When teaching beginning painters, I start with a few simple drawing exercises because it trains them to relate objects, spaces, and lines. Every time we approach the easel, these skills come into play.
Art Notes: What do you take from a reference photo, and what do you know you’ll take out or adjust?
When I am working with reference photos, there might be some that I’ve composed through the camera lens, knowing that I was planning a painting. But more often I am using shots that are cluttered with traffic cones or parked cars. I like to play around with cropping because oftentimes, the most interesting design isn't the whole image. I think about the “rule of thirds” a lot when I'm planning. I try to place my center of interest in one of the thirds and find ways to lead the eye to it.
When the background is cluttered or uninteresting, the impressionist approach helps me fill the area with interesting color or shape without defining everything. Sometimes I play with photo-editing software to blur the background or combine images. I'll also reduce the image to grayscale to help when I want to try a different color harmony. Photo reference is a starting block — something that helped me freeze a moment in time. But I do not rely on the photo to make all my decisions during the process. I use photos for the drawing, but not the painting.
Art Notes: Could you talk about color keys: What are they and how might someone use them in painting?
Color is one of the most essential tools of our visual language. Color keys are a way of harmonizing paintings and allowing me more expression as an artist. I spent many years trying to capture things exactly as they were, but recently I've thought more about how to make paintings that are more visually expressive and tell the story I want to tell.
There are a number of ways to play with color harmony — using complements or analogous schemes, for example, or changing the value scale by painting in a high key or lower key to change the mood. Darker scenes will be more moody and dramatic, while lighter colors are gentle and soothing. Deciding how to key your paintings and choosing colors also simplifies and organizes a scene and makes it more of a personal expression. It also means you are making the art personal. Impressionism is all about an artist's interpretation.
Art Notes: There’s a lot going on in your paintings, but they never feel busy. How do you accomplish that on a visual level?
I think my paintings tend to have a variety of textures, which adds to the actual surface interest, but my focal point is clear and everything supports it. I tend toward rather simple compositions, really, with one main figure or one vanishing point, but the surface texture ranges from thin transparent passages to heavy opaque brushstrokes with variety in the edges. I am careful to not introduce a color that is nowhere else in the painting unless it's a special part of the focal point (phthalo green can sneak in anywhere!). And I am careful to keep the correct values in the correct shapes and simplify so the viewer isn’t pulled in too many directions. That goes back to that notan stage.
Art Notes: In your video, you paint a figure as part of a scene. What’s important to remember about painting figures in their environment from a composition standpoint?
A lot of people freeze up when they think about painting people or putting them into their scenes, but the figure is just an element like any other. There are light sides and shadow sides to model form, and they should be painted along with the rest of the painting, not added later. I've had students paint a whole scene and then add the people in last. The figure will always look separate that way. When blocking in, the figure needs to be organically part of the whole. Using reference points around them, you can determine how large the figure is, where the heads line up among multiple figures, how they recede into the distance along a path, and their gesture.
There are some things I figured out to make including figures easier. First, I try to approach the figure like a gesture drawing and just block in the whole shape in one thin wash to later model form over. For a whole group of people or animals, for example, I block in a big shape in the “middle value,” say, and then “cut in” the background around heads or between legs. Add a few highlights and color changes and you have a busy sidewalk, restaurant, or pasture full of cows!
To capture gesture or motion and make the figure more lifelike, I exaggerate their pose, because I always end up adjusting and correcting and oftentimes make them more static and unnatural-looking as I continue to work. These tools came about as a way for me to capture groups of people when I did live event paintings. That was a crash course in painting quickly and capturing the impression!
Learn more about how Robin Cheers works by checking out her video, "Brushwork Secrets Unleashed."