Revisiting the colors of the desert landscape. I had some trouble with the distant shadows, and kept alternating darker/lighter. This photo seems to show them lighter than they appear in life. In the end, the distant shadows are probably a bit too light, because when I removed color from this image to make it black & white, the shadows and light of the hills appear the same value. It’s interesting to see how color temperature can telegraph shadows as well as value. I guess that’s where the colorists of the Henche School are coming from.
I was once asked to give a talk about “thought leadership” in media. Two creative people I spoke about where Julia Child and Bob Ross. The former revolutionalized American cooking at home by introducing us to the “mystery” of French cooking, and the later did the same for art. I think a lot of artists look down on Bob Ross, and while his painting may not be to your taste, he made art approachable by taking the stress out of it. He de-mystified painting, as Julia did cooking. What does this have to do with Colley Whisson? Two things, first, his manner is calm, re-assuring, yet precise. Second, he’s introduced me—and most people in his workshop—to Australian art as Julia introduced us to French cooking. I hope you make some discoveries, too, after reading this.
I fouund his approach to be quite similar to other tonalist painters, and in contrast to the Henche school (taught by John Ebersberger, Camille Przewodek, etc). I didn’t get great pictures of any demo start to finish (except for the video below), so the illustrative photographs below go back-and-forth between various demos. I think you’ll still get the general idea.
Materials. Good painting starts with the best materials you can afford. I’ve tried the cheap stuff, and fighting poor quality isn’t worth it, especially when you consider the many challenges you face in bringing together a painting. A couple of notes about his materials:
- Brushes. Two things drew me to Colley’s work: his dramatic sense of light, and his brushwork. Realizing that great brush work has a lot more to do with precision and sensitivity (that only comes with experience), you may want to try these brushes, but don’t expect a miracle. One book dedicated to brushwork I like is Emil Gruppe’s Brushwork for the Oil Painter. It’s out of print, but you can find used copies on Amazon.com. That said, Colley used some brushes I hadn’t seen anyone use before. They look like house painting brushes: quite wide, razer shart, short handle. He uses them both for the first wash-in (see below) as well as throughout the painting to add beautiful calligraphy. Someone told me he used Langnickel 283’s, which apparently you can buy in a three-pack for $15 (I haven’t purchased mine yet, so can’t confirm….I will update this post after I do UPDATE 12/10/2010, from Colley: “Brushes are in a pack of 3: Royal Langnickel “Large Area Brush Set” White Taklon (Medium) Item # RART-150”). He also showed us how to use a razor blade to trim back brushes that are too thick for his technique. Holding the blade with your thumb and forefinger, push the blade down from the ferrule to tip.
- Support. He paints on wood board, Mahogany, I believe. When using canvas, he tones with Yellow Ochre. The board is a good choice for his technique, because he often uses the palette knife to cut-back or trim light colored paint to review dark undertones, a techique he learned from Richard Schmid.
- Medium. He uses an Alkyd medium, but tried Turpenoid during the class and really liked it. He thought it probably dried faster than his usual medium, although he was somewhat concerned about cracking. He said in the past he painted dark undertones/accents with a cool mixture (Utramarine Blue + Alizarin Chrimson), but said that mixed cracked over time. His boards seemed a bit warped, so I wonder if he neglects to prime both sides? In any case, he now ads a Cadium Red to his darks to prevent cracking.
- Rags. Interestingly, he rarely uses paper towels, but instead rags that you can apparently buy in large bags at second hand stores in Australia. I don’t often use rags, but will try it to see if there’s a difference. I do use Viva paper towels exclusively, because they are rag-like and very absorbant. Soneone had blue shop towels with them, and he seemed to like those as well.
Concept. If art is revealing something that’s never been seen or said before, then you should start with a concept (unless you’re painting quick studies to improve skill, like value, drawing, etc). Colley said he paints the picture first in his mind, and things tend to go wrong when you forget that or stray in another direction. There are exceptions. I’m sure we’ve also started with one idea and discovered something new while painting, but I think this idea of keeping the focus on your original impression is good rule of thumb.
Design. Colley starts by marking with dots the vertical and horozontal thirds of the painting surface, and draws a mental (sometimes physical) circle connecting the dots. He believes the center of interest and closely subordinate interests should be within that area. You should also think of the circle in terms of how the eye should move within the painting. Since the subject of composition is so complex, I will refer to the many great books written about composition (eg, Edgar Payne’s Composition of Outdoor Painting is a personal favorite).
Drawing. Start with small dots indicating the boundaries of the large masses. Ensure the relative position, size and shapes are there, then start to draw them in. Like almost any artist I’ve studied with, he emphasized the importance of drawing and doing so whenever/wherever you can. He also demonstrated a nice drawing aid: he uses an thin/light frame as a horizontal and vertical maulstick.
Underpainting. Colley loves strong contrast, so he usually started his paintings with a very dark mixture, although once in a while I noticed he started with midtones, and added dark accents later. He discourages the use of thinner at this point, but rather pure medium (even to clean the brush). In general, I noticed that he tended to paint whole areas dark, even if they would later hold lights. This helps the lights “pop” against the dark background, but of course, this technique requires you give the underpainting time to dry to avoid picking up the underpainting later. I noticed that even with 20 minutes of wait time, my underpainting wasn’t completely dry. He’d often take a paper towel and remove excess underpaint to ensure the next layer could be applied cleanly. This is something I need to continue to experiment with and learn. This may be especially challenging in a “plein air” situation where time is short, so we’ll see. Please share your own experience in comments!
Masses. He’ll first place the lightest light as a small spec of a stroke to ensure it will pop against the dark underpainting. He then focuses on the large color masses, going for accurate value and color on the first stroke (rarely working back in to adjust later). At this point, he stesses an “attack and retreat” technique, ie, lay your strokes in with confidence, and step back often to check your overall color/value relationships.
Painting. He works the canvas all over, drawing the work to completion together, rather than say starting at the center of interest and working outward. He uses the large (4-5″) brushes throughout the painting process, to generate interesting caligraphic strokes and lines using the brush tip. His brush strokes follow the contour of the shape (and not gravity, as some artists like Ken Auster do). He ties the types of strokes he paints in relational to sky (should be a thin veil, like panty hose); mid-field (more texture); and foreground (shag carpet!). As he paints towards completion, he continually asks himself whether the painting is far enough along to communicate his original concept. We all risk taking paintings too far, so I think this is great advice. Let a painting sit a few days before you call it done. He’ll also photograph his work and then flip it on the horizontal axis. This new perspective helps you see mistakes.
Many thanks to The Tucson Art Academy (and their gracious hosts, Gabor and Christine Svagrik) for hosting this workshop, complete with fresh baked scones and cookies! Also, I hope to followup this post with one on the Australian artists Colley referred his students to in class.
Demo (plein air)
While this demo may be helpful, Colley has a wonderful book and DVDs available in International Artist Magazine’s store. You’ll find those much more complete: Impressionist Painting Made Easy; and his various DVDs here.
My Workshop Studies
I painted a demonstration for the East Bay Plein Air Painters last Saturday. Ikuko Boyland (Administrator of the EBPAP) was kind enough to take the time to photograph the demo and put together a PDF file. Thank you, Ikuko! The 5-page PDF should be loaded below (it’s 6MB, so may load slow depending on the speed of your connection). If you have trouble viewing, you can either click the full screen (box) icon in the top right of the viewer below, or click here to download the full PDF file (6.15MB). Be sure to view the color-corrected final painting below (the demo photos are a bit too cool).
Here’s the final painting.
Painting copies of artwork you admire is a great way to learn. Joaquín Sorolla is one of my favorite painters, so I can open “Joaquín Sorolla” (Museo Nacional Del Prado) to any page and find a work of inspiration to copy. Like this one. Funny thing is, I opened the book, and found later this is a detail of a larger painting! I had a feeling it was an odd composition (having the two people on the edge of the canvas), so it was nice to see the full composition on the next page.
Even so, copying “Sewing the Sail” (1904) was a great lesson in composition and color. I learned how Sorolla used the folds in the sail to lead directly to the figures, and even the shadows in the sand. Look how the main shadow folds in the sail lead directly to the center of interest (foreground person). I was also surprised someone how intense many of these colors were, but how adding a complement (violet to the orange) would bring down the intensity just enough (although, comparing mine to his now, I see I should have used even more violet).
This was also a great study in brushwork. The original is much larger, but I was able to adapt my brushwork to this scale (10×8) to lay down some juicy brushstrokes, particularly on the sunlit side of the sails.
It’s been a wonderful couple days here at Hearst Castle for the invitational. The artists and staff of the castle have been great. I can’t wait to see everyone’s work framed for the show June 5. Tickets are available for $175 for the Friends of Hearst Castle’s “Twilight on the Terrace” fundraiser benefiting art programs for at risk youth.
My first effort was painting “Casa del Mar”, a guest house on the South Terrace of the castle. I got to take a peak inside…wow. Opulent doesn’t begin to describe it. Hearst himself spent his final years in this house. This is just about done, I think a couple minor tweaks when I get back to my studio should do it.
My next effort was painting this white marble statue, which I imagine is Cupid (sans arrow). While in full sun is always a joy for me to paint, as white takes on so many colors and reflections of light. I’m not sure the color of reflect light is quite right, so I may make some adjustments before I call this one done.
And on my final day, again on the South Terrace outside Casa del Mar, I painted this fountain and gold statue of a princess holding a frog. I realize the princess statue on top looks like an Oscar statuette, but that’s really what it looks like! Even the shadow side on the gold had a red glow. I’m happy with this one. It’s interesting to me because it almost looks like two different painters/styles: the fountain is high-key, colorist, and the background trees and distant shore are more traditional value painting.
As you can see, all of these paintings push color a bit. With full sun available, I didn’t paint much tonally. To make sure these colors are still on track, I look at the images in black & white as well. If light and shadow read well in black/white, it almost doesn’t matter what color you choose to paint (see my 2007 post on values). I think the light/shadow patterns read in this black/white versions, so these seem to be working.
Two days of cloudy/foggy weather in Big Sur (CA) gave me chance to relax a bit. The sky cleared completely on my last day, so I was able to get a couple done on my way to the paint-out at Hearst Castle.
Getting a great block-in is really important. To me, that means a great design, division of space, interesting shapes, etc. I liked this one enough to photograph. Cool, huh?
And here’s the finished painting, or “near finished”. I think the rocks are a bit too warm/red (and actually, my camera over-saturates reds), so what you’re seeing is redder than you see here. The rocks are granite, with other reddish tones, so a blue-ish violet should improve it.
I started the day with this quick study to warm up. For small studies like these, I look for an opportunity to represent both the shadow and light side in each element. Here, was able to do light/shade for almost all elements in the painting.
I’ve recently started focusing on the figure, and am having fun with the various approaches that are possible. This little slide show shows the range of ideas I am exploring.
Here are few more recent figure studies. I continue to enjoy this new challenge–although I think I’ll sneak in a landscape soon. This figure (sans mouth!) was done in about 10 minutes with a live model in Al Tofanelli’s class (at l’Atelier aux Couleurs). I like these quick studies–they force you to react quickly and focus on the fundamentals.
I was actually quite distracted that day, but managed to get some work done (I was in the news last week as I represented Wells Fargo in social media, related to a PR fire. I’m now known as the “Male White Banker” on the Huffington Post 🙁 ).
When I got back to the studio, I painted a couple more small quick ones (although, these are about an hour) from photos.
This one (and my previous self-portrait) reminded me that I should probably talk about my influences in figurative art. I’m seeking a sculptural quality, and trying to use color temperature and inventive color (although stable values) to create this new work.
I count two of my biggest influence Lucian Freud and Ann Gale. Both are wonderful draftsman (clearly needed to paint the figure), but there’s something very modern and sculptural about their work. I look to these contemporary painters for inspiration.
While this Lucian Freud work is terribly inventive in terms of color, it’s exaggeration of value and forum is something I really admire.
You can see in Ann Gale‘s work her form is somewhat distorted, although incredibly interesting. Look almost “pixelized”, doesn’t it? I really like her general restraint with color. When she does use it, it’s incredibly vibrant. You can see here how she sets up that vibrancy with a calm stage of neutrals grays.
So, while I continue to slog through the basics (which for me, is drawing the figure accurately), this is the direction I’m headed. Hopefully, these influences will help guide me to my own path and vision.
Still feeling really challenged by learning the figure. Reminds of a quote by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, “Do something every day that scares you.” I need this. I took snap shots as I progressed so I could review with my teacher Al Tofanelli (at l’Atelier aux Couleurs), so he could advise me. It’s interesting, I think a personal style in portraiture is emerging at a faster pace than landscape. Not sure why. Enjoy!
And here’s the video on YouTube
Painted this little study in my studio the other night from a reference photo. The view is from the Rubicon Trail looking down onto Lake Tahoe, which in this part of the lake is the deepest near shore. I painted in my usual “full key” (full value range), which allowed me to use rich colors and sharp value contrasts.
I set this painting next to my most recent “high key” value painting. It was striking to see the sharp contrast, and you can really see that the photo of the previous painting wasn’t over exposed, but really quite light. Coincidentally, both paintings had trees in them, and when side by side, the curve of the land connects, as if they’re part of the same scene.
So which painting gives the best feeling of light? Perhaps that’s an individual choice. I’m still very interested in this technique, so will continue to pursue it.
“High Key” Riverbed Study
“Full Key” Tahoe Study
I took another shot at this composition, but intended to take the high-key concept further, but failed really. I like the way the painting came out, just felt I could have made it ever more “high key”. I’m going to continue to work on this. I painted a “full key” painting from a reference photo taken at Lake Tahoe this past summer. As soon as it dries, I’ll can it and post, because I think it really illustrates the dramatic difference between low and full-key painting.
I’m continuing my exploration of high-key painting, which I define as painting in a narrow range of values, in the higher key of lights. I don’t know where this is going to lead, but it’s great to practice the control in value needed to get these paintings to work. I think I’m going to paint this scene again, perhaps a few times, each time narrowing the values further. I know looking at this now I could have taken it further, and made my darkest darks much lighter. I usually paint in a more dramatic, contrast’y way, but every technique I learn builds me as an artist. What do you think?