Archive for the ‘The School of Oops’ Category

From umber beginnings

Sunday, 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.

It’s not easy painting green

Thursday, 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.


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.

Casting light on the subject … and on the palette

Wednesday, May 1st, 2019

One of my recent plein air outings taught me a valuable lesson.  I had gone with a plein air group to a local livestock ranch.  The morning was bright, sunny, and promised to become uncomfortably warm by mid-day.

As I wandered around, looking for a promising vista, I entered an open barn and, from the dim interior, was taken by the view out the open doorway.  I set up my easel to capture both the frame of the barn’s entrance and the view to the pastures beyond.

Setup in the barn.

Setup in the barn.

But as my eyes struggled with the intense contrast between the inside and the outside lighting, I discovered that they couldn’t adjust sufficiently to compensate for the low ambient lighting where I stood inside the barn.

By location, I knew which pile of paint was which on my palette, but the balances of the various paint mixtures were not so clear.  And though the value differences were somewhat easier to judge, the chroma was not.  Polyisochromes all appeared neutral, as indeed they were all leaning increasingly toward a neutral gray the more I worked with them.

I knew I was in trouble but, rather than finishing with the interior aspects and then repositioning my easel into better light, I struggled to continue in the original position.  That was a mistake.

After closing down and putting away my equipment, I checked the painting in the sunlight and was appalled at the outcome.  I later made some revisions to it in a well-lit studio, which helped.

"View from the Barn" - original version

“View from the Barn” – original version

“View-from-the-Barn,” with studio revisions, by Charlotte Mertz (6″x8″ oil, #190401-o)

Lesson learned:  Be sure there’s enough light on the palette to discern and judge the colors clearly.

Busy, busy, … but on the right busy-ness?

Monday, April 1st, 2019

Hmm!  Did someone pull an early April Fool joke on me?  How did that happen?

It seems I got roped into working on some community projects these past few weeks, which are taking up an incredible amount of time … and unfortunately sidetracking me from much of the painting that I’d really rather be doing.  Sure, these projects are important and appreciated, but they seem to multiply, leading from one project to another, and requiring that I learn new computer programs to support what needs to get done, thereby utterly devouring my time.

I know that these are jobs that do need doing.  And we have a scarcity of volunteers.  (Perhaps because any potential volunteers know that, as in my case, once the job is “owned,” others don’t feel a need–nor may dare–to take it on.)  So it seems that, like the US Supreme Court judges, once you’re in position, the job is yours for life.

What to do?   How to get back to what’s important to me?  I’m sure I’m not the first person to get caught up on this merry-go-round.  What do you do when you find your time usurped in the wrong directions?  How do you reclaim control?

For me, it has meant scheduling more conscientiously to keep my priorities in place … and sticking as closely to that schedule as possible; carving out painting and personal time, cutting out some R&R time, and strictly limiting acquiescence to others’ demands and sense of priorities.  It hasn’t been easy.

I learned a long time ago the need to say “no.”  But occasionally there’s also a need to pull our own weight and contribute to society.  So then we need to say “yes!”  Where’s the balance?  Have you found it?  I welcome feedback.

An epic failure revisited

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

In my previous blog I referred to learning from our unsuccessful efforts.  Obviously, I had gone through the process of doing exactly that. You may be asking to what painting I was referring in my previous blog, regarding learning from flubs.

I hate to admit it, but I had jumped into too large-sized a painting when I undertook to paint “Dawning Light,” at 30”x40” after having ignored any canvases larger than 8”x10” for several years.  Though I had fun painting it and learned a lot in the process, the final result deserves the sorry status of “starving artist” work.  It was definitely not one of my better efforts, and certainly not one I should have signed off on.

So what exactly went wrong? … Aside from a weak compositional design, multiple focal areas, lack of dominant value, and trite color harmony?  Well, not too much, I suppose, … after I addressed some problems with perspective, brushwork, edges, optical color mixing, halation, and a few other issues.  (A more specific  critique of the painting appeared in my November newsletter, “Around and About.”)

Lessons learned include a reminder to preplan the notan structure, color harmony, and overall composition carefully before beginning (and not changing my mind in mid-project).  It also served as a reminder of the value of optical color mixing, use of halation, practice in creating a sense of iridescence, observing the behavior of bounced light, the importance of observation of such natural phenomena as skies and ocean waves, being generous with paint, maintaining discrete values on my palette, … and being content to take smaller steps to get where I want to go.

(What?  You don’t really think I’d post an image of such a disaster here, do you?)

But it wasn’t a total loss.  It was a wake-up call to review early lessons and continue striving to reach a consistently higher standard.  And that’s never a bad thing.