Sunday, August 31, 2014

Choosing a colour scheme

Warm on Cool
15 x 30
"How did you choose those colours" is something I'm often asked, and I struggle with the answer each time. It seems to me that colour choice is only partially conscious and deliberate - generally for the first 10% of the painting - and then colour and all other choices become reactions to those first few marks. One thing leads to another.

That's why the first marks are always the hardest.  I spend a lot of time studying my reference, live or photographic, for ideas about the initial toning colour, the colour of the drawing/block-in, and any elements that will be singled out for special colours notes (in this case, that was the bum).

This painting was done from a photo and the colours were very cool and neutral overall, mostly yellow greys with the warmer flesh tones being orangey-red.  The reference suffered from lack of contrast and colour variety with the background drape being almost the same colour as the majority of the torso.  So I stood in front of the white canvas for a ridiculously long time, trying to figure out an interesting colour range.  There were, of course, an infinite number of options that presented themselves to me, the most obvious being complimentary colours: blue and orange, yellow and purple, and green and red.  

I decided on green and red because they seemed to suit the mysterious, secretive quality of the pose, and they would allow me to use rose in the rump.  Then I chose which type of green I wanted: warm or cool.  I chose a cool, bluish green rather than a warm yellow green, feeling that cool better suited the mood of the pose.  Pthalo green seemed right, though the weaker viridian was in the running.

For the shadows on the torso, I used alizarin, a cool red, to make them recede in space and importance while still showing warm flesh.  The rump got cad red light to bring it forward and to suggest greater warmth.

For yellow, I used mainly warm choices- cad yellow pale and Indian yellow - and to achieve darks, I added raw umber to my palette.  Powerful darks could also be had by mixing pthalo green and alizarin, but sometimes they are too rich and overwhelming.  Raw umber is a nice weak option.

I toned the canvas with a warm olive colour to avoid an unpleasantly chilly painting, and then roughed the drawing and all darks in with a warm mixture of raw umber and cad yellow pale.

Next I placed colour notes: warm bum, cool drape, warm transition areas, and waited for the painting to begin to suggest its next requirements.  After all that careful and rational planning, it was time to relinquish some control and listen to what the painting was suggesting.

Suddenly got airy-fairy, didn't I?  But there's no other way to describe it, and many of you know what I mean.  If you're relaxed and attentive, the painting shows you the way; often by showing you when a mark or colour isn't right.  So you have to paint slowly, noting the effect of each mark as you place it and adjusting the ones that seem "off" before they get woven into the fabric of the painting and lead to a whole bunch of compensatory "off" marks.  Marks that seem right get enhanced.  They form the basis for extended colour riffs on a theme.  You just have to watch for them and follow where they lead, pushing gently to test how far you can go in that theme, backing up when you realize you've pushed too far.

Well, at least I told you the concretes of the first part of the process.  The rest is mysterious and wonderful. I hope you experience it in your studios, too.

Happy painting!







Sunday, August 17, 2014

Layering and abstraction

Orange Pail
40 x 30
An experiment in abstraction and layers, this painting pleases me.

I use a lot of construction lines when I begin a figure painting; they help me to place the figure and get decent proportion and they also make the big, empty canvas feel less like virgin territory and more like a painting.  In this piece, I decided to leave and emphasize those initial marks.  I liked the way they broke up the space and emphasized the triangular nature of the child's pose.

The layers were applied over several sessions, each one a translucent mixture of greyed colour, often complementary to the one beneath it.  When each area had achieved a sense of complexity and depth from this application method, the overall effect was one of subtle and luminous neutrals.  I liked it, but I also really like colour, so then it was time to revisit the painting and selectively add hits of colour, creating the life and spark that satisfied me.

I saved the most intense chroma for the lower left quadrant: the bucket, the blue line on the swim trunks, and the child's arm.  In all of those greys, these high chroma elements really leapt out and drew the eye.  It was interesting to see just how far I could push these areas without losing the overall harmony of the painting. This piece was an adventure.

Happy painting!  

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Simple,strong, and wrong

Little Dancer
12 x 5.75
This little figurine is a teaching tool; not for my students, but for me.  She`s a replica of Degas` `Little 14 year old dancer` and she`s caused me no end of mischief as I`ve struggled to interpret her in simple terms despite her complexity. The fewer marks that I make, the happier I am with a painting, and this figure invites me to overwork every time.

Yesterday was no exception as I found myself rendering the folds of her dress and the features of her tiny face.  Luckily, I managed to avoid the usual pitfalls by switching to a larger brush and simplifying everything that I could.  The multiple folds became 3 or 4 large ones and her face, thanks to the clumsy inaccuracy of the brush, became a suggestion without being precious.

My biggest struggle was with the legs which I`d slapped on with confidence in an almost-correct position. They weren`t right, but they were `good`.  Robert Genn in his blog `The Painter`s Keys`once referred to it as `wrong and strong`, and it caused a real dilemma.  My option was to repaint the legs entirely and, inevitably, lose the freshness of the marks.  I decided to let them remain as they were.  If it had been an error in the focal area of the upper torso, I`d have made a different choice, but I decided that, for their level of importance, they legs could stay as they were.

I think it was the right decision. My overall aim of rendering her in a simple, strong statement was best served by letting it slide.

Happy painting!


Saturday, August 2, 2014

Limited palette

Tending the Beach
14 x 11
This study was done in a limited palette of perylene black, cad yellow deep and alizarin permanent plus titanium white.  Unlike the Zorn palette (yellow ochre, vermillion, ivory black and white), this palette uses high chroma versions of black, yellow and red.  The black, though it has a definite green bias, acts as a blue.

Our brains like complimentary colours and will create them for us given a bit of encouragement.  The orange in the sand and on the boy's torso and cheek are enough to allow the viewer to interpret the black and white mixture as blue, the compliment of orange.  If an actual blue were placed into this picture it would relegate this mixture to plain old cool grey.  Here's a piece of paint cropped inexpertly from the child's hoe.  Out of context, it looks less like something that you'd call blue, although, if asked to mix it, you'd probably start with a blue and diminish its chroma with complimentary orange and some white.


Limited palette work sharpens my painting skills; I do it when I feel I've become too colour dependent. Since value and temperature are the most important elements of these paintings, I always go back to the full palette refreshed; grateful for all those lovely colours, but aware that I can be quite content with much less.

Happy painting!