Archive for May, 2016

Casting Light on Lights

Sunday, May 15th, 2016

When striving to get our lightest values light enough, the temptation is to substitute white for a more accurate color.  Although this practice is both expected and acceptable in watercolor, since the lightest tones are actually taking advantage of the brilliant white of the underlying paper.

But in oils, the practice of using white, straight from a tube, isn’t so successful.  For one thing, tube white (usually titanium white these days, since zinc white tends to yellow with age and become brittle) has a cool cast, which doesn’t ring true as a highlight for warm colors.  For another thing, unless the subject color is intentionally white, pure white paint seems to glare and stand out unattractively from the rest of the composition.

The only unmodified white in the painting below is in the highlights on the paper towel roll (behind the canvas on the easel), and the highlights on the blue-white gloves, shoes, and turps can.  All other “whites” have been modified.

160409o---En-Plein-Air (original)

So what’s the answer?  As with mixing any other color, it’s a question of blending the appropriate hues to achieve the desired value.  And when that desired value is almost white, the mixture may require only the tiniest quantity of pigment to modify the tube white.

As I’ve been familiarizing myself with oils, I’ve found that my lights don’t always get quite light enough.  What I think will be a light tone, like the highlights on the hair in the painting above, proves to still be close enough to the middle tones to undermine my intention.  In this case, the highlight on the woman’s hair was so similar in hue, value, and saturation to those of the canvas that her head (which should have been a secondary focal area) and the canvas appear to merge into a single shape, which in turn disappears into the foliage behind them.

A few slight modifications to “En Plein Air” (#160409-o), below, made a big difference.  I lightened the hair highlights a bit, and both slightly lowered the value and increased the saturation of the canvas, which served to separate the two shapes, bringing greater attention to the head and allowing the canvas to appropriately replicate the colors of the background.

160409o---En-Plein-Air (revised)

The difference such subtle changes in contrast can make demonstrate for me again how important it is to really understand value control, even in the highest range, and to practice monitoring those values closely as I prepare the colors on my palette.  I didn’t have to worry about the lights so much when using watercolor.  I’ve been learning that it’s much more critical when working with oils.

Artist’s Blocks

Sunday, May 1st, 2016

Have you ever suffered from artist’s block? It may be that you can’t seem to get motivated to paint or draw, or maybe you want to, but you can’t face that blank page or empty canvas. You’re afraid that it won’t be any good, or that it won’t be as good as your last success. Or maybe even that it will be so good that you’ll never again be able to live up to your own or your friends’ expectations.  Whatever the problem, whatever the cause, it can be just as enervating.

Try painting some studies of children’s simple toy blocks to get back on track.

That’s what I did when my momentum slacked off for a while this spring and I couldn’t seem to get rolling again. Block studies don’t involve any major undertaking. You can do as many or as few as time and energy permit. Give yourself permission to create a flop.  You’ll know from the very beginning that it will be a “throw-away job,” so there’s no pressure to get it perfect (or even “finished”).  Of course it’s also fine to do it well, if it comes to that!

Block study - warm colors under daylight bulb

Block study – warm colors under daylight bulb

Ostensibly, the primary purpose is to practice seeing colors and their variations in light and shadow and how they are influenced by reflected colors from nearby objects. But these studies have additional benefits, too. Those include providing practice in drawing and in using a particular medium (in my case, oil paint), practice in manipulating the brush or other tool such as a palette knife, and practice in mixing colors accurately.

Another side benefit, by some odd quirk of nature, is that it gets us painting again, which is often all we really need to get ourselves back into a creative mode.  Inertia can be a wonderful thing … once our bodies are back in motion so momentum can take over.

In the past, I have used both watercolor and acrylics to paint block studies, but as I delve more into oil painting, I’m finding that the practice I get through block studies is contributing to my confidence with this “new” medium I’ve set out to learn. Other exercises help familiarize me with oils, too. But I expect that practicing regularly on block studies will help promote more rapid progress than any other single exercise could.

And, arguably the best result of all, the simple paintings of all those little blocks got me past the biggest one — that dratted (and dreaded) artist’s block!