My Paintings, trials and inspirations….
There are numerous things in the physical world that are more difficult to paint. White on white and clear on clear are on that list. Why? looking at the other side of the spectrum may help to answer that.
What are some easier subjects to paint?
These things share color intensity that are close to “right out of the tube”.
What if color is dropped to an extremely low intensity as in white objects next to white objects or clear liquid in a clear vessel? It gets real interesting.
My recent painting “Potion” shared both of these traits, I discovered something that made this challenge easier for me.
Working from both life and a photo at the same time. We know that working from life is the real deal, accurate color, values, shapes, it’s all there. However sometimes our eyes have a hard time seeing the subtlest of subtleties, that’s when the photo comes to the rescue.
My set up above, painting on the left, real life in the middle and my image on the computer on the right.
This is the photo of the setup. Notice the glowing area, top left in the jar. In real life it was so brilliant I could not see what shape it was and how it transitioned to the dark around it. In the photo it is very clear what is happening. However the colors in that transition are not in the photo but real life.
The long fold of fabric coming down from the jar was such a subtle difference from the flat white behind it , the photo showed me there was a slight value difference and also exaggerated the color difference. So I chose to use values and colors between both bits of information.
Many other areas were made easier by referring to both. Richer colors and textures from life, values from the photo.
The finished painting “Potion” can be seen at “Plunge” a group show at, Meyer Vogl Gallery in Charleston, SC, from December 7-28.
Why did I decide to paint this subject? Was it the simple curved composition, the cool tones plus rich reds, the quiet mood…yes, all those things. So I begin by looking at my options with a couple of small value studies. How can I push what I want to say, the feelings I have for the subject?
First a little line drawing, than layout paper over it. This way I don’t have to redraw the image over and over, it’s visible through the paper, so with two pens, one black, one grey (the paper is the white), I can quickly try out different combinations.
It’s about disassembling the parts and putting it back together. In the left sketch, the foliage, skirt, top of bench and shadows underneath are the darkest value. Everything else is medium except the light falling on her right side. Hmmmmm….this could work, but that big dark foliage kind of pushes down on her, creating a heaviness.
The sketch on the right holds the darks to her hair, skirt and the under shadows. Everything else is grey except her face, body and shirt are the light tone. Without the dark behind her head she seems taller, lifted. This is definitely the directions I want to go. Either one would work, but the one on the right is what “I” want to say about this scene. This is where getting away from being too literal can be really fun. It’s all about choices.
Next on to the color study, I already have the drawing, the one I used under the value sketches. What are the variables here; this is a scene in the shade, so there are going to be lots of cool tones. Going to want to play with some warms also or this might get too cold. An underpainting wash of warm violet and red orange would work well.
If I’m thinking about doing this in my painting, I need to do it in my color sketch, or they aren’t the same thing at all.
The sketch with Quinacridone Magenta and Cadmium Red Light wash. I like to let my undertones dry completely, that way I can paint over them or scrape back to them.
The small color study. Notice I’m not trying to match the values to the previous plan but I am matching the relationship of each area next to another. Squinting will help you see that the darks are the hair, skirt and shadows under the bench, the mediums are everything else except her face arms and shirt which are the lights. There are some accent darks and lights here and there but it still holds to the original plan.
The questions that I want to get answered here;
How cold should my coolest color be, and how warm should my warmest color be?
How dark is my darkest dark going to be and how light is my light?
Which colors and values work best next to each other?
In the final painting there was lots of room to”open up” the color study, work more interest into areas. Having solved some of the bigger problems up front allowed me to have more fun and freedom in the actual painting.
When ready to paint my set-up is; have my original thumbnail value sketch on the wall infront of me, have the color study next to the painting. As the painting progresses they will become more important while the original subject becomes less.
Taping a piece of clear acetate over the study makes it easy to try out mixtures right on the little painting.
Below is my palette for the study, yes I take a picture of it. The intention is to start the larger version right away but….the air conditioning breaks down in July, or unexpected guests come to stay….all kinds of things can happen, and I don’t want to rethink everything again.
Notice how I hold the value groups together. This is how I think when painting, so my palette should reflect this. If there is chaos and discourse on the palette, so the painting follows. Note; on the larger painting, there will be three times this much paint, not different colors but the volume of it.
From left to right; Hansa Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Scarlet, White, Olive Green, Thalo Green, Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin, Burnt Sienna, Magenta, Black, and Oleopasto medium.
The numbers signify the order of the areas painted. I start with the darkest darks, it’s easy to go too dark which makes the colors dull and unreadable. Mixtures of Thalo Green plus blue or yellow ochre applied with a palette knife.
After the darkest darks on to the lightest lights, the sunlit orange area. As in the other area not being too dark, this area shouldn’t be too light, or again I lose color identity. My question ; how dark can I go and still read as light, this has been answered in the study so I take my cue from there. So the key has been set for the painting, just like the highest and lowest note in a song. Everything will fit within the established boundaries of lightest and warmest area vs. the darkest coolest area.
The area #4 is easy, just compare it in temperature and value to the two neighboring areas. This is how I paint, relationships, sometimes there is an underpainting tone, but always about one area reacting to another.
Notice how the figure is established only after the background? Because this is the world she lives in, the air she breaths. So many times a painting suffers from “stuck on figure” syndrome. The figure is taken almost to completion than a background fills in around it without a lot of thought concerning the give and take between figure and background.
This is what I call the “last look”. What can elevate this, what is taking away from the whole?. My written list of tasks is on the right. Sorry, it’s hard to read because I scratched through them as completed. Here’s what I wrote:
In the previous post I explained how I begin a painting. Selecting a subject, manipulating and enhancing it, than finally using the dynamic symmetry grid.
When it comes to painting, usually I shy away from mechanical tools but I’ve found the grid to be flexible and very helpful.
Used by the Old Masters to the Impressionists, it’s like having an artist friend with a great eye for composition.
Each space within the grid has a harmony within the whole and where multiple lines overlap “eyes” form which are prime places for important elements.
In the image above left (the one I ended up choosing), you can see how her left arm lines up, so does the top of her hat and the bottom of the tree foliage. Her straight foot ends at a line while her other leg followed the angle of another. Things can also be pushed and pulled to fall better. For instance I changed the angle of the shadow under the tree to conform more to the diagonal line of the grid.
The version in the center and right would have also worked, but with these, more information would have to be added on the left side.
The next thing I like to do is create a small color study. Up until a few years ago this seemed like a waste of time to me. Why paint a miniature version of my painting?
I’ve since realized the terrific value in these little jewels. As artists we are not copying what we see but transforming it into our vision. This takes experimental thinking.
It can be very disheartening to scrape off large areas of your painting because it doesn’t harmonize or has the wrong value. Enough changing around of things on a large painting ends up looking forced and overworked, anything but fresh.
In the color study above I set the value range, decided the temperature extremes and began to get more excited when seeing my vision in paint.
When I paint the larger version there’s still lots of room to “try some things out”, but within an established frame work it’s much more fun!
Instead of taking a piece of my painting process and blogging about it, though I’d take one painting from the start to finish.
It’s taken me many years to come up an order, a chain of events, a way to get my head in the right place to create something that feels good to me.
First comes the choice of subject. Below is what I’ll be working with. This is a very personal thing. The reason I chose this is it has several things I’m drawn to.
Now starts the problem solving . The first thing is evaluating the composition. There needs to be more space above her head, so what do I fill that space with? Going back to the original photo shoot, searching for a shot from this angle with more tree showing….bingo, found this photo.
Time to take both photos into Photoshop for some reworking. There are several easy ways to do this which I won’t go into, but knowing your way around Photoshop is a handy skill to have.
This is a little rough around the edges, you can see where I cloned some bushes to the lower right and have some hard edges at the top, but I can surely work with this in the painting. The balance of things is looking much better. The final test is to place the photo within a dynamic symmetry grid. If you’re not familiar with this, here’s one below.
In the next post I show you what I’m looking for as I place her inside the grid.
When faced with a subject rich in visual content it’s easy to get sucked into render mode. Not wanting to miss a nuance or glimmer can leave your painting scattered and weak.
Landscape artist Lori Putnam said ” it’s not what you include, but what you leave out”, which is a monumental statement for figure painters as well.
First reaction, be sure and capture:
Now for the editing, I ask myself, what can I leave out in order to make something else more important and what can I change for more impact?
These are all based on what is important to me personally, your version would be different according to what appeals to you.
Beginning with a thumbnail value sketch helps to organize the design.
Her face and right arm will be the lightest value. Hair, pillows on the sides and hand darkest (not totally sold on the hand standing out that much, have to see how it works in the actual painting), everything else will be midtone.
Next the color sketch. There is nothing more disheartening than scraping a large area off because the color doesn’t work. This small sketch makes the actual painting more fun. Having all the options in the world can be stifling, working within boundaries is actually freeing to me.
I thought it was finished at this point…..but no…….a couple things really bothered me.
The first was the hand, it was painted in a way which nothing else was, with a light and shadow side, everything else is flat. I also missed my dark shape in that position.
The other thing was the fan, it was not pulling it’s weight in the painting.
Adjustments to these area gave me what I had envisioned and a way to keep my dark shape while reworking the hand into something simpler.
In the previous post I discussed the set-up to start my limited palette painting using only Yellow Ochre, Scarlet Lake, Ivory Black and white.
The last step before the brushes come out is an important one, the value sketch. I’ve said it before; real life, a painting and a photograph are three totally different things.
Real life has no visual boundaries, a painting does. Those four edges matter to your design. The two horizontal, carry gravity, pushing down on your subject from the top and holding it in from the bottom. The two verticals, squeeze in from the sides or allow breathing room.
Real life contains a ginormous amount of value information from light to dark. Distilling it down to five or better yet, three, gives a painting strength and readability.
The sketch is a visual road map to figure these things out and will be something I refer to often to keep me on track.
Because intense red was the focus here I wanted to infuse this color into other areas. “Real life” didn’t present this phenomenon but it’s good for “the painting”.
Moving from area to area blocking in shapes – is it darker or lighter than whats next to it, cooler or warmer? These questions lead me through the color mixtures. Since I only have three colors, it forces me to be resourceful and sensitive to what I’m seeing. If there were four reds on my palette I might opt for a warmer one, but with only yellow ochre to make adjustments it consolidates my decisions, concentrating on the value relationships instead.
Time to take a cold hard look at:
Values – referring back to my sketch, I’m getting there but feel I’ve been a little conservative on the lights in the tissue, but I’m not ready to go there yet.
Composition – think I’m going to eliminate that step on the lower right, caution- lots of blank space to the left, going to think about options here.
Color – running a little too cold, warm up the background.
After more working, a good way to check my values is by comparing a grey scale image of the subject next to a grey scale of the painting. Need to push the lights now in the tissue, happy with the rest, time to put more interest toward the left.
I’ll be teaching a class- at the Scottsdale Artists’ School April 7 &14
Harmonize Your Painting with the Limited Palette