Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The problem with dark passages

Morning Glow
12 x 12
It's easy to build the lights in a painting: thick, luscious, white-laden paint; and it's somewhat easy to develop mid tones: warm and cool, colour changes without big value changes; but it's very hard to figure out what to do with shadows.  It's the darks that stymie me in a lot of my paintings.

Many painters start with an earth toned underpainting in which they knock in all of the shadows and darks in a monochromatic grisaille (the current favourite is transparent red oxide, though traditionally I believe it was umber).  Then, as they build the painting, they leave the TRO to show through, often creating the shadows in the finished piece.  I used to do a lot of that.

But I've been using progressively thicker paint over the past year and those thin passages don't integrate as they used to; they look raw and unfinished in my eyes and I'm forced to deal with them.

Sargent said once that you should paint the shadows with as much paint as the lights, you just have to make the shadows look transparent.  Well, he would say that. So I spend a great deal of time figuring out how to create shadows that don't feel heavy and unpleasant, but have more paint than that first fresh layer.

This painting is a case in point.  The figure came together relatively quickly, but the shadow on the left had a lot of work done to it before I felt it integrated and lost its rawness.  Left as an initial, transparent dark underpainting, it seemed to weigh the painting down.  The figure didn't glow and her environment seemed menacing and harsh.  So I kept adding layers of paint, progressively lightening while keeping it cool.  I was very surprised by how light I had to go before the sensation of the painting lifted into something inviting.  It still reads as a dark, but nowhere near as dark as the small shape under the woman's chin, which was the initial value that I used.

There's something wonderful about the time spent figuring out problems like this in the studio.  It's rational and also intuitive; I try something because there's nothing to lose since I'm not satisfied with the painting anyway, and, when a painting suddenly works, I feel like I've made a huge discovery.  It wouldn't be nearly so much fun if everything worked right away.

Happy painting!


mary maxam said...

what a fabulous painting! I'm intrigued by your discussion of darks. I tend to rely on the transparents and now see this as a new way to think about them.

Ingrid Christensen said...

Thanks for commenting, Mary! I'm pleased that my post was thought provoking. In truth, I miss my Transparent Red days; they were so much easier than this new phase of opaque darks, but I have to continue on my path and see where it goes.