Thursday, June 29, 2017

Delving into colour

"With colour, one obtains an energy that seems to stem from witchcraft." Matisse

Having seen a lot of historical works over the past few months on trips to London and New York, I was struck by how paintings that were created centuries ago can still give the sensation of being colourful and vibrant today, despite the fact that their creators had only a tiny fraction of the pigment range that we now have.  It made me realize that I needed to educate myself about the subtler, older colours; the ones that painters have used for ages to great effect.  So I'm working on some small, limited palette paintings in the studio right now, trying to get a handle on colour. Actually, I don't believe that goal is truly attainable, but I am trying to learn more than I currently know.  

The paintings above contain 3 to 5 colours plus white and most of the pigments are weak ones like yellow ochre or raw sienna.  There are no blues because for some reason I'm loathe to use them right now.  Blue is a very prominent colour in a painting and I'm leaving it off my palette on occasion so that I'm forced to discover alternatives.  This is the kind of thing I do in the week after buying a 200ml tube of ultramarine.

By keeping the number of pigments small, I'm forced to be more creative in how I make the painting look lively and colourful.  It's easy to make something pop when it's already high chroma in the tube, but much more interesting and challenging to make a low chroma pigment sing.  And, increasingly, I find myself admiring works that are mostly made up of complex greyed mixtures whose components I can only guess at.  Being able to look at a painting and name every pigment that it's made of has begun to bother me a lot.  Museums have a way of changing my standards overnight.

There are some interesting, old colours on the market produced by companies like Rublev, and I may delve into them someday and buy some verona green or mummy brown, but currently I'm getting to know some paints that I already own: yellow ochre, raw sienna, burnt sienna, raw umber, ivory black, alizarin,  cobalt and an excessive number of tubes of venetian red and terra rosa by different manufacturers.  (I blame the sale bins at the art store.)  They're quite a change from my regular chromatic palette which is full of cadmiums and even contains the incredibly powerful pthalo blue.

So far, my charting is of single pigments with white, but I expect I'll have to splash out and begin charting the results of mixing them with other colours.  It could be a long road.  Here's the first pass at my earth colours and I've already identified some colours that will bear further exploration.   Why this feels more interesting to me than looking at colour charts beside paint tubes in the shop, I don't know, but it does.  Knowing that I already own these tubes makes me look at their properties more closely, and seeing them in my studio is very different than seeing them under commercial fluorescent lighting.

I'm excited to be doing this because I felt that I was becoming far too familiar with my daily palette. It wasn't surprising me anymore, and I'm hoping to find a new colour or two that will startle and amaze me in mixtures.  I'll keep you posted!

Happy painting!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Different brushes for different purposes

Brushes used: well loaded hogs bristle flats and filberts with thick, tube consistency paint.  Smaller, dense, light marks in the waves in the middle of the image were synthetic filberts.  Thin lines are made with a crisp, long flat used on its edge.  If the line had more modulation across its length, I'd have said it was an egbert.
Brushes used: Hogs bristle flats and filberts for most for most of the work.  Notice the broken edge at the end of the stroke of the figure on the body board.  That shows it was a hogs bristle.  The start of the stroke is very straight suggesting it was a flat brush.  Synthetic flats for dense, full coverage passages such as the orange light on the pail.  Synthetic egbert for the drawing elements such as the reddish, drawn underpainting of the body boards on the left and for the clouds (pushing motion for those)

Brushes used: mostly round hogs bristle though, in the blue area lower left, you can see the addition of a smallish filbert (it left its distinctive, oval shape).  Its size means that several marks make a patch where a larger brush could do it in one big mark.

There are so many brushes on the shelves of art stores and it can be truly baffling to choose the right one, so I thought I'd do a post that touches on the basics of brushes and their uses.

Choosing a brush comes down to what you want to do with it; what effect you hold in your mind that you're trying to replicate on the canvas.  That, actually, is the biggest consideration when picking a brush: know what you want it to do.

I like to layer paint, wet in wet, and I don't like a picky, small-detail look, so I need large brushes with long bristles.  They have to be long because short, stiff bristles tend to remove more than they apply when placing wet paint over a wet layer.  So long filberts or flats are my choice for layering.  They also need to be springy, not wet noodly, so that they can hold a lot of paint and don't require me to press them onto the canvas to release that paint.  I should be able to gently stroke a well loaded brush over a wet layer, and leave behind a relatively clean layer on top of it.

The worst brush to buy if you want to layer alla prima is the bright.  This is a short, stiff-bristled flat that's great for laying a crisp, firm mark, but won't let you layer any better than a stick would.  Brights remove the wet layer rather than adding to it.  If you work in single layers or let the paint dry between layers, this brush would be fine.

The next consideration is the type of bristle that you choose.  From natural bristle to synthetic, stiff to soft, there are a lot of options to choose from.  My preference is hog bristle (which is a springy, natural bristle) because they also help me to layer.  When I lay a coat of paint over a wet layer, hog bristle separates slightly, allowing the underlayer to show through like strands of different coloured hair interlaced with each other.  The show through is livelier than a single colour painted like house paint: densely closed and with full coverage.

The only other natural bristle that I've tried is mongoose, and it can do the same thing as hog bristle, but, because it's such a soft bristle, it can't be as heavily loaded and your oil paint must be diluted.  You'll end up with a thinner paint surface and greater delicacy in the final look.  Hog bristle will create a chunkier, rougher final work.

When it comes to synthetic brushes, there are also a lot of different types to choose from.  Some are meant to mimic hog bristle, or sable,  and others are entirely their own, unique thing.  I haven't yet found a mimic that actually acts just like my hog bristle, though.  Synthetics generally hold their shape much better during a mark, meaning that they don't spread apart in the random manner of natural bristle, and the resulting marks can be more dense and closed because of this.  It takes an extremely light touch to create the "break" in the mark if you're using synthetics, and I tend to use them only in passages where a want a single layer that looks fairly uniform, or to place an obliterating mark over a lower layer.   Synthetics are great for making thick, showy marks towards the end of a painting because springy synthetics tend to hold a lot of paint and can place it very cleanly and distinctly on top of other paint.

Other useful brushes are rounds and egberts, both of which I use fairly often.  Rounds will give a linear mark (think Van Gogh), but can also be used in a side-to-side, scribbling fashion to create patches of colour.  And, when they're pushed, rather than pulled, you can get interesting effects that don't clearly show the shape of the brush that made them.  Up until the invention of the metal ferrule in the 18th century, all brushes in the western world were round, and you can see from historical paintings that there was no shortage of varied and interesting brushwork to be had from this shape.

Egberts are filberts with double-length bristles.  Like Chinese calligraphy brushes, they bend gracefully and are capable of a variety of thicknesses in their marks depending on the pressure or twist applied to them during the mark making.  They can be quite calligraphic and a bit random because their length makes them hard to use with great precision.   Used in a side-to-side fashion, egberts can make a rather irregularly filled patch, especially if they're made of natural material. Synthetic egberts will hold together better than natural bristle and not look as random in the final paint patch.  They allow greater control (not always a good thing).

Of course, you can overcome any shape's limitations by using the brush in a variety of ways.  Many painters just use the tip of their brushes, but if they use the edge they can create quite different marks, and if they push or wiggle or scribble the brush, it can increase its mark making range considerably, as can varying the paint quantity and consistency.

And, lastly, some stuff about cleaning and maintenance.  Synthetics can take a final soap and water wash (and should get one as they tend to get stiff without it), but natural bristles don't like it.  I've used my students' brushes on occasion, and I can always tell if they've been in water because the hog bristle is soft and splayed and has lost its springiness as water was absorbed into the bristles.  Since reading about this effect a couple of years ago in an article on the Utrecht site, I've both cut down on brush cleaning time and extended the crisp, useful state of my natural bristle brushes significantly.  They get a thorough wipe, then solvent, then another wipe, and that's it.  This will help your brushes last longer, but they're not indestructible.  All brushes wear down and become blunt and less precise.  That's when you should designate them for a different purpose in your painting and buy new ones.

At the moment I'm enjoying a big order of Rosemary & Co brushes and trying to be kind to them. My old, worn brushes are reserved for scrubbing on tones while the Rosemarys are used for the crisper, more precise work that makes up the upper layers of a painting.  My current favourite is the Ultimate Bristle (hog bristle) in filbert and flat, but I'm also loving the synthetic Ivory egbert.  I'm finding that I don't use the Ivory in other shapes as often as the hog bristle because it keeps the mark too closed for my purposes.  I need marks to break apart a bit.

There's much more to explore about brushes but this should give you some insight into how I approach choosing a brush.  I'd be interested to hear about your favourite brushes and what they're good at.  Images of the marks they make a would make my day!

Happy painting!