The subject made me do it!

October 15th, 2019

Despite my recent resolution to stick with watercolor for a while, first thing this month the subject and atmosphere simply cried out for pastel.  So I heaved a sigh, collected the few pieces I’d set aside “just in case,” and some precut papers (ditto), and set out on a brief jaunt before the humid atmosphere should clear in the Florida heat and talk me out of working en plein air.

"Orange River Etude," by Charlotte Mertz (5"x7" pastel, #191001-sp)

“Orange River Etude,” by Charlotte Mertz (5″x7″ pastel, #191001-sp)

I suppose it could be justified as a study, not intended to be displayed.  And it could serve eventually as the basis for a watercolor studio painting.  (I’ve long avoided using pastel in my studio, due to the dust it creates.)  But after all, drawing on the claim of “artistic license,” I shouldn’t really need to justify it at all, should I!

It was fun to use pastels again, just for a change.  But they still don’t call to me full time, as watercolors do.

Under the umber-ella of experimentation

October 1st, 2019

Last time I showed a couple of my early experimentation with raw umber, using it for the basic dark tone on my palette, in lieu of the colder black.  Those paintings were done over a pre-applied imprimatura to lend an undercoat of color to the three-primary-color palette (plus raw umber and white) that I had limited myself to.

My third study was on a white-gessoed but unpainted canvas.  I sketched in my areas of darks using the raw umber and allowed it to dry overnight as I evaluated any changes I thought it might need. I realized that I should have given the entire canvas a light coat of the alkyd medium to make it easier to adjust the sketch.  Fortunately, there was little that needed adjustment!

The next day I covered the entire surface with a light coat of the medium and began the work in earnest.  Once again, the pre-applied dark areas guided me through the design, helping me to adhere to the original notan structure.  I altered details somewhat as I proceeded, identifying features I wanted to take advantage of or eliminate, and recognizing that some of my earlier ideas could be improved to enhance the focal concept or the overall design.

“The Rim Trail,” by Charlotte Mertz  (7”x7” oil, #190903-o)

“The Rim Trail,” by Charlotte Mertz
(7”x7” oil, #190903-o)

This composition was suggested by a scene I had enjoyed at Yellowstone, but as I worked with it, the “music” in my mind began to shift into another season, a variation on the theme, so I took some artistic license as it developed.

 

From umber beginnings

September 15th, 2019

This summer I have been working primarily in watercolor and oils.  However, the oils I have at my summer studio are made with slow-drying linseed oil and remain tacky after several weeks of drying time.  I realized that if I want to have them dry before we return home, I would need to use a faster-drying medium.  So I set aside the old paints, reserving only my three basic primary colors, which I supplemented with alkyd medium (since alkyd works well with oils but dries much more rapidly than the more widely used linseed oil-based paints), alkyd titanium white (to replace my slow-drying titanium white), and a raw umber, with which I had been wanting to experiment.

So my new palette for September would now consist solely of raw umber, the original primary yellow, red, and blue paints, and all the value variations available by incorporating the alkyd white.  The alkyd medium would serve as my thinner and only medium.  It was time to play!

I dug out some small pieces of canvas on which I had already applied and dried a monochromatic imprimatura (with leftover paint from previous palette scrapings) to seal the surface.  Then, referring to old photo files, I found a few images that I thought would work with two of the underpaintings—one green, the other a muted rose.

The first, “Lakefront Morning,” shown below, was worked over a green imprimatura.  Although the base color, in its original hue and chroma, does not appear anywhere in the finished painting, it contributed to the atmosphere when modified with the palette colors.

"Lakefront Morning" by Charlotte Mertz (5"x7" oil, #190901-o)

“Lakefront Morning” by Charlotte Mertz
(5″x7″ oil, #190901-o)

Focusing on the umber-and-white combination in various values, and incorporating the primaries to provide appropriate variations in temperature and hue, I was astonished at how much easier it was to create and maintain a strong notan structure.  It was also easy to maintain a sense of color harmony in both my paintings.

I realized that the reason for this new sense of ease was that my focus was on value first, since the raw umber (warmer and more transparent and lively than black) provided the necessary dark tones, while the white produced the lighter values.  Hue was of much less concern and required little more than a suggestion from any of my primary tubes to provide the necessary temperature bias and warm or cool variation from that provided by the underpainting.  A few spots of lightly blended or entirely un-diluted tube color were all that was required to provide some chromatic contrast, as well.

"Niagara" by Charlotte Mertz  (5"x7" oil, #190902-o)

“Niagara” by Charlotte Mertz
(5″x7″ oil, #190902-o)

“Niagara” was painted over a rose-toned imprimatura.  Once again, although little of the base color actually appears in the finished painting, it definitely contributed to the rich lighting effects of the low-angled sunlight, while the umber provided the critical range of value needed to suggest atmospheric perspective.

Value key vs. value dominance

September 1st, 2019

I have noticed some confusion about the difference between the concepts of “value keys” and “value dominance.”  It is easy for beginning artists to confuse the two.

Value dominance means that most (usually more than half) of a painting is within a designated (high, middle, or low) value range.  A full-value-range painting may have high-, low-, or middle-value dominance.  But when a painting shifts from a full range of values to either high or low key, the values are compacted into a narrower range, usually at either the high or low end of the value scale.

That means that in a high key painting virtually all the lowest values will be in the middle or low-middle range, with very few exceptions because even  “black” objects and dark shadows will be influenced by the atmospheric effect of so much apparent ambient light.

Bato Dugarzhapov, beach scene

Bato Dugarzhapov, beach scene

This beach scene by the Russian Impressionist Bato Dugarzhapov is high key but shows a wide range of value within the high- and middle-value levels.  Even the lowest values in this composition, however, are strongly influenced by the ambient light so remain in the mid-value range, which keeps this dominantly high-value composition in the high-value key.

In a low-key painting, virtually all the highest values will fall into the middle or upper-middle range (with the exception, perhaps, of a “pure” light source such as the sun or a lit light bulb, which begs the question of why the artist tried to establish the scene in the lower key to begin with).  The rare high value appearing in a low-value image is more common in a photograph than in a painting, and even then, the points of light, like stars in a nighttime sky, normally appear quite small and neither obtrusive nor very influential to its immediate surroundings.

Van Gogh, "Starry Night"

Van Gogh, “Starry Night”

Vincent VanGogh’s “Starry Night,” shown above, shows low-value dominance rather than low key because the points of light in the sky are crucial to the concept: Their brilliance is exaggerated rather than subdued within the otherwise low-value field.  If, on the other hand, the composition had been limited to the lower right corner, showing only the village, with minor and subdued points of light in the windows of the buildings (see detail below), it could have been described as being low key.

Van Gogh, "Starry Night" (detail)

Van Gogh, “Starry Night” (detail)

Alternatively, mid-key paintings rely only on the middle range of the value scale, with very little in either the upper or lower range, which limits value contrast.

Loren MacIver’s “Morning Cart,” below, is an example of a mid-key painting.  The lowest values are no lower than mid-value and there is very little in a higher value range (compare it to Dugarzhapov’s high-key painting above.  The narrow value range severely limits the value contrast available.  In this case, the low contrast served the artist’s purpose to suggest atmospheric effects.

Loren MacIver, "Morning Cart"

Loren MacIver, “Morning Cart”

On the other hand, Winslow Homer’s “Fog Warning,” below, has middle-value dominance.  The mid-value grays and browns and overall low saturation are critical to convey the concept of the threatening fog, but the low value of the shadows and the high value of the fish and whitecaps provide a contrast to the scene that help to express the narrative by not only suggesting greater detail but also emphasizing the important overall grayness of the atmosphere.

Winslow Homer, "Fog Warning"

Winslow Homer, “Fog Warning”

The viewer’s (often unconscious) desire for value contrast is probably the main reason that full-range paintings are generally more appealing than strictly mid-key compositions.   But, as illustrated here, any key or value dominance can be applied effectively when used with planning and forethought to serve the purposes of the artist’s concept.

It’s not easy painting green

August 15th, 2019

To paraphrase Kermit the Frog, “It’s not easy painting green.”  Not because it’s a boring color but because there are so many permutations of it, and most green paint pigments do not simulate the most common variations found in nature.  But greens are also difficult to avoid because they are so prevalent in most landscapes.

Unfortunately, the most common (single) green pigments, such as terre verte, viridian, and the phthalocyanine greens may mislead us into thinking that, because they are “green,” they are automatically right for the job.  That is rarely the case.  So what’s an artist to do?

Phthalo green (PG7, the somewhat bluer version, or PG36, the slightly yellower version) is an extremely strong stain, with a cool bias, and a hue not normally found in natural foliage, though it could prove useful in depicting the strong, deep greens of stones like malachite or emeralds.  Because the staining power is so strong, very little is needed to blend with most other colors. But because of that, it can be difficult to control, especially for inexperienced artists.

Viridian (PG18) is also a cool green, with a similar hue, but it has a weaker strength so is easier to control.  It can prove useful for some blue-green foliage or for sky-lit reflections off warmer foliage greens.  (Be careful–paints labeled “viridian” or “viridian hue” are sometimes actually made with the less expensive PG7, phthalo green. Check the pigment number on the packaging.)

Terre verte (PG23, also called green earth) is one of the weakest green pigments, with a somewhat warmer temperature bias than viridian.  Because it is an earth pigment rather than a stain, it is one of the few green pigments that can easily be lifted off a painted surface.  But it may be difficult to obtain a dark value with this pigment.

Additional single green pigments include the cool cobalt green (PG19) and the warmer but dull chromium oxide green (PG17).  Fortunately, any of these pigments may be mixed with other hues to vary the color.  And they frequently are, to create more usable “convenience” green paints, such as Sap green, Emerald green, and Hookers green.  But why limit ourselves to those?

It will help if we recognize that “green” is a secondary hue, derived from a combination of some variation of the primary hues yellow and blue.  So if we begin with those primary pigments instead of with a single green pigment, we may have better success finding a version of green that we really want.  Or we can blend one of the green pigments we already have with one of those primary pigments to change its temperature bias, making the green appear either warmer (yellower) or cooler (bluer) than the original green pigment, and moderating the chroma as well.  (It’s usually easier to dull a color down than to brighten it up.)

I will not attempt to reproduce a color wheel here because the colors may not show accurately on every screen anyway.  I recommend obtaining a color wheel if you don’t already have one to refer to (preferably a Munsell-based color wheel as the color positioning is more accurate for color mixing than on the more familiar triadic color wheel).  Although printed wheels might show hues as discrete blocks of balanced color, the color wheel is actually a continuum of hues, flowing from one into another, each balanced hue also having both warmer and cooler variations.

Hues close to each other are called “analogous.”  Hues across from each other on the wheel are called “complementary.”  The more analogous two hues are, the less radically they will change each other when they are mixed.  The more complementary (distant on the wheel) they are, the more the color will change and the grayer or more muted they will become.

The amount you use of each hue will depend on the degree to which you want to adjust the colors.  If you want just a little change in temperature bias, look for an analogous hue.  If you don’t want to change the temperature at all but do want to mute it, choose a little of the complementary hue.  If you want to change both the temperature bias and lower the chroma (gray it down), select a hue that’s analogous to the complement.

The method is to find the wheel location of the hue with which you’re beginning the mixture, decide whether you want to warm it or cool it, and how much you may want to gray it down.  Then locate a hue you think might be appropriate to mix it with to create the desired color.  Test it and see.  If it’s too warm or cool, or too gray or not grayed enough, try again.  It may take several tries before you find the variation you want, but don’t get discouraged.  With practice, you’ll soon develop a knack for being able to guess more accurately the first time.

However, you will need to be aware that blending is not a question of the amounts of the colors but balancing the strengths of the colors being blended.  For instance, you would need a LOT of yellow (which tends to be weak) to change a LITTLE phthalo green (which is extremely strong).  Try to start with the weaker color and add the stronger color to it, a little at a time, to find the desired balance.  (If you start with the stronger color and add the weaker one to find the desired variation, you could waste a lot of paint, winding up with a lake instead of a puddle before you achieve the color you want!)

Try blending each of your green paints with small amounts of your other colors to see what results you get.  Then try blending all your yellows and blues (yes, all the variations of them) in various proportions to see even more results.

Chart-of-yellow-blue-blends

Here’s part of a chart I made to explore some of the greens available to me in my existing watercolor palette, using just various blues and yellows.  But the technique isn’t limited to watercolors, nor to those hues alone.

You, too, can create reference charts using the colors in your own palette.  Be sure to make note of the name of each pigment so you can recreate the blend as needed in the future. Don’t forget to experiment with combinations of your existing green pigments with browns, oranges, reds, and purples as well as with yellows and blues.  You may be surprised at the usable outcome.