Thursday, December 20, 2007

Color--A Natural History of the Palette

"Canyon View (Study)" 8x8 inches, Oil on Panel
Jerry Lebo, 2007

Greetings. I hope everyone is having happy Holiday season. I am looking forward to getting some extra studio time, as I have started to work on a series of landscapes that I have been thinking about for at least three months. It has taken me that long to get the concept together in my mind. The above study is the first of the series, which I am hoping over the next few months will come together as a cohesive statement on Southwestern landscapes. I will be doing some larger paintings over the period, as well as many of these smaller studies, and will post them as they come off the easel. Stay tuned.

Anyway, I am reading a book that I wanted to make recommendation about--in case you are looking for a last minute present for the artist in your life or looking for something to read over the Holidays. The book is called "Color: A natural history of the palette" , by Victoria Findlay. In a roundabout way, this book speaks to one of the issues I have been mentioning in my blog--the (over) abundant availability of pigments for artists. The book does a good job of putting this modern phenomenon in context--and clearly makes the point that for most of modern history, access to color and pigments has been a struggle for artists--including rug makers, textile makers, and painters. Today, however, the problem of access to color is largely solved by the invention of chemical and man-made substitutes for previously natural sources. For example, I was just in the art store and noticed that Winsor & Newton sells 12 different yellows alone. I can imagine JMW Turner falling to his knees at the sheer sight of the W&N rack!

As I have said in past posts, it is my experience that the wide availability of artist paints is in fact a detriment to the beginning artist. The natural inclination is to buy a wide range of these colors and to start painting with them right out of the tube--putting in some white or black to adjust the value. The results will not be pleasing. Most of the modern paints you buy at the art store are so overloaded with pigments--that it is a wonder that anyone can get them to work in a painting. Personally, I find that I spend most of the time mixing a paint not to get it the color "up" (in chroma)--but to get it "down" so that it doesn't jump off the canvas or ruin the whole harmony of the painting.

To me there is a question if we need all these modern colors. My normal palette for almost all paintings, including the one above--is simple: cadmium yellow, cadmium red, sap green, ultramarine blue, and titanium white. Sorry, but the lack of "Bismuth Yellow" has never stopped me from making a decent painting. On the other hand, it would be very easy to ruin one if I had a tube of it sitting around or a bit squeezed out on the palette. You have to have a really good reason to squeeze Prussian Blue out on your palette--it is like setting off a hydrogen bomb.

So, back to the book. What I like about this book is that it reads as both a travel journal and history lesson on the sources and use of various artist's pigments. Each of the chapters focuses on a particular color--such as red, white, yellow. etc. , and examines the history and cultural context of its production, sale, and use by various artists. Some of what is in the book I had learned from various other sources, such as the source for ochre paints. Or the reason, sienna and burnt sienna got their names. However, there is so much more that I didn't know, I have enjoyed reading each and every page.

Here are some tidbits to tempt you:
  • Michelangelo’s unfinished painting "Entombment (1501)" was probably left that way as he was waiting for his valuable shipment of ultramarine blue paint to arrive from Afghanistan--where it is still made today;
  • Turner was a big fan of the paint "carmine", a red which is considered "fugitive" and thus would have faded in color quickly. As a result, many of his paintings do not look anything like they would have when he painted them. Turner used some pigments that faded very quickly, even during the period of his own lifetime, but he refused requests from his patrons to "fix them" even though he knew that his choice of pigments was the cause. In later years, he used "iodine scarlet" which was known to fade very quickly--even within 6 months from first painting.
  • For most of the last two centuries, the main source of red pigment has been an insect. Even today, some of the products you consume use an acid produced by this insect as a natural food coloring--including Cherry Coke. It is also commonly still used in makeup, so you may be rubbing it on your face.
Anyway, I hope that is enough to consider getting a copy of the book. I think you will enjoy it. And, since you can't paint 24 hours a day--it will give you something to do during breaks from the easel.

All the best, sixtyminuteartist.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

"Relative" Value and Color

"Red Licorice Laces", Oil on Panel 6x6 inches
Jerry Lebo, 2007

Okay, I know what you’re saying "red licorice laces", why would someone do a painting of such a thing? Well, the answer is for two reasons. First, it was a commission from a collector--and you know how I feel about turning down commissions. If not, you can read my post on this issue. Second, I really like painting unusual things--I also did a post on that sometime back. I find that painting something unusual can free up your painting process. Painting unusual things also seems to make people paint more loosely--I guess because they can take it a bit less seriously. Finally, it is good every once in a while to paint something different, since it is easy to get into a rut with your paintings--pretty soon all those trees start looking the same. Painting something unusual also forces you you to do (and possibly) learn something new. Try it,

The “Red Licorice Laces” painting is a good example of what I want to talk about today, which is "relative" value and color. That is, when you go to mix a certain value or color, you have to understand that the color or value will change depending on what you put next to it. This is a point I cannot emphasize enough, so let me say it again in another way. The value or color you are mixing on your palette is not the color you will see on your painting--as it will change depending on what is already in your painting. Here is a diagram that demonstrates this well.

In this diagram there are two different colors/values that are very close to one another placed across three different backgrounds. The top set of values from left to right are all the same value and color, as are the bottom set. It think everyone will be able to see that the same value/color appears darkest when on the lightest background and darkest when on the lightest background. The color also changes slightly. In the middle box, you can also clearly see the slight variation in the small change in value from the top and bottom set. This is because the background value is between the two values, which has the affect of accentuating their difference.

So what does this have to do with the "Red Licorice Laces". Well, the above principle of relativity not only applies to hue (color) and value, but to the intensity of a color. When I set out to paint "Red Licorice Laces", it was clear to me that the laces were relatively dark in value--even where the light was hitting them. Thus, the challenge was going to be how to get a sense of light into the laces without putting white into the red paint--which would have just dulled it down and made a horrid pinkish color. The answer, which I had learned over years of painting, was to raise the chorma of the color, not the value.

How did I do that? First, as I started the painting, my main focus was getting the values correct. I first focused on the relationship between the background, foreground, and larger shapes in the mass of licorice. Overall, I could see that the highest value in the licorice was around the value of the background--but it was much more intense. So I kept the background rather neutral and around the mid-value range--and painted the rest of the licorice in various tones in the lower range of red. When I was ready to "pop" the light into the licorice, I went for a straight cadmium red--which has the highest chroma (intensity) of any red. The nice thing about cadmium red is that I know that it is right in the middle of the value scale (here, the same as the background)--and since I had painted the rest of the licorice in either lower values and/or chroma, it reads as light to the eye. In fact, here is a picture of the painting in black and white. You can see that it is the intensity of red (chroma) that reads as light--not the value.

I wanted to show you this effect so that you would understand not only is every color or value relative to what you already have put down on the canvas--but there are times when you can use the fact that the eye sees chroma as light to your advantage. For example, if you look up at the sun it appears to be a very high value. A setting sun, glows a bright orange that is intense. Most beginning painters want to put white into orange to make this effect--but this approach will never work--since white just reduces the chroma value of orange. If you take out your white paint and hold it up in comparison to a setting sun, it will appear to be darker--so not only are you reducing the chroma of the orange by adding white--but you are moving it towards a value that is lower that what you are after. Artists have for centuries painted setting suns--so how do they do it? The answer is that they exploit the natural tendencies of the eye--which is to see everything relative to what is next to it--and mistake chorma for light. For example, you may already know that putting a very slight bit of cadmium yellow into white paint makes white "luminese" (appear to go up in value). So white is in fact not the highest potential value on your palette in relative terms--it is white with a bit of yellow. Try it. Put some white on your canvas next to white with a touch of yellow--and the latter will appear brighter. Now, add a neutral gray around the yellowed white--say of a mid range value of gray--and it will really start to glow. Get the picture?

So what does this "theory of relativity" mean for your art. How can you apply this in your art right away? I have three suggestions to think about next time you are painting:

1. Think of more than one option --when mixing a value or color, the tendency is to focus on only the color/value at hand. That is, you imagine the color you need and try to mix the the color/value directly. But, this is not the only option. For example, if you want to increase the value of a certain area of your painting, you can also lower the value of what is around it. If your value is already high (say, near white or slightly under), then the option of raising the value will not work in any case. So, try increasing the chroma--not only the value. Raising the chroma works particularly work well in shadows to give a sense of reflected light. For example, put a color with the same value as the shadow--but a bit of color/chroma in it--and it will read as reflected light.

2. Know your Materials. Most tube paints are at their highest chroma straight from the tube, and will diminish in chorma if any color is added--even white. So learn the value and chroma values of the paints you are using. Here is a link to a chart that gives you both the value and chroma relationship of most tube paints.

3. Keep a Reserve. Never mix a color that is close to your darkest dark or lightest light early in the painting process. If you do, you will have nowhere to move up or down later--and you will find yourself painting all you other values in relative terms. If you are painting in a 9 interval value scale, for example, paint between values 2-8 for most of the painting--and at the end come back and add accents of your darkest dark or lightest values. You will see, it is the highest values and darkest darks that give a painting its sense of light (of course, also reflected lights, to a lesser extent). You will see that a few strategically placed darks and lights will really give your paintings a sense of light.

Well, that is it for today. I just wanted to give you some ideas as you head into the weekend painting period. Get out some of your art books and see if you can find a case where another artist has used chroma to portray light (hint: Sargent and Sickert were masters of this approach). Then try to do it in your paintings.

All the best, sixtyminuteartist.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

How to Paint Loosely

"Two Pears (monochromatic study)", Oil on Panel, 6x6 inches
Jerry Lebo, 2007

"A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people."
Edgar Degas

People often ask me how I keep my paintings “loose”. I think what they mean by "loose" is that my paintings look like they were done spontaneously—and do not appear overworked or over-polished. However, my wife will tell you that they don’t always come out this way. She often comes into my studio and tries to stop me from continue to work on a painting when she sees it is going well. Many times I have ruined a painting trying to "improve" it—an experience that I am sure you have had yourself. It is very easy to do the wrong thing to an otherwise good painting thinking you are going to improve it—only to find that it has become dull or drab. As Degas says, you have to keep some vagueness and mystery in you paintings—even if your gut reaction is to paint it away in the name of making it look more refined. Degas also always said that "no art was less spontaneous than his"—and that the final output as the result of “reflection and study of the great masters.” Appearing spontaneous takes a lot of work!

One of my students has asked me to help her paint more loosely, so I have been working to design some exercises to assist her development in this regard. In my mind there are two parts to get a spontaneous feeling in your paintings. First, you have to paint with clarity and conviction—and not be afraid to let the process take over a bit. Second, you need to understand what is important to making a painting work. That is, what is essential to a painting so that it can hang by itself on a wall and draw people’s attention?

One can talk about what makes a painting good or bad for hours (and people do), but I wanted to design a practical exercise to help my student discover it herself. So I thought I would share with you what I have come up with.

You will see that I am going to undertake the demonstration as a monochrome painting. One reason is to show you that making your paintings appear spontaneous does not require you to splash colors all over the canvas haphazardly--which I see a lot of out there. In fact, it is more likely to ruin your painting—than make it better. Also, I want to show you that, regardless of how spontaneous your paintings look, good value relationships are important. The student I am working with has a good sense of how to see value relationships—which I think the beginning painter needs to spend a lot of time focusing on before moving to the next step. If you cannot see values clearly—it is going to be difficult to loosen up your style and keep in all under control. So work on values first if you are just starting out—you can see my previous post for some ideas on how to do this.

In my mind, the key to painting “loosely” is rapid and confident decision making. When you move your brush from the palette to the canvas—you need to think of the stroke you are about to make as an indication of a shape and value, not the actual shape or value. If you have laid out your palette correctly, with your values clearly set out, then once you have loaded the brush with paint--the value decision is done. Thus, moving to the canvas to put down a stroke is your shape decision. What I mean by "indication of shape" is that you don't want to try and match exactly what you see so much--so much as what you feel is there or what you want to say about that shape. Simplify what you are seeing to its most basic form.

Here is an exercise you might try to better understand what I mean--a timed painting which limits in the amount of time that you spend at each phase. Get yourself an egg timer or kitchen timer and do the following exercise with whatever subject matter you feel most comfortable. A small still life or landscape study is fine--but I would suggest using a smaller canvas. Before starting, set out your palette in a seven or nine value scale with black and white at the ends.

1. The sketch (five minutes)--give yourself five minutes to put a sketch down using your next to darkest value. Don't block in any values--just focus on the silhouette and making out the major shapes and shadows. You can correct the drawing as much as you want during the five minutes--but when the timer stops---you have to work from what is there. I did this last night--the following sketch took 41/2 minutes.

2. Large Masses (10 minutes)--working from dark to light, give yourself 10 minutes to block in the major value changes in the painting mainly using your middle value ranges--stay away as much as possible from the darkest darks and whites during this period--you will need these later. You should be looking all over the painting to make sure the relationship between the various objects and background make sense. Do not paint any details--or go for perfection. Get the canvas covered and make corrections to the largest masses until you have something that sits well on the canvas. Here is my demonstration painting at 10 minutes.

3. Dimension and Light (10-15 minutes)--focus on getting a sense of mass and light into the picture. If you have done the second step correctly--the objects will be there in roughly the right relationship--but lack a strong sense of light or mass. Focus on two areas of work for 10 minutes. First, transitional values, look for areas where two values are coming together--but the change is too abrupt so that it draws the eye too much. Put a value between the two values down as a transitional value--don't make them up--look for them in what you are painting. They are there--but a bit harder to see. Avoid putting too many transitions in the area you think will be the final focal point--you want to keep at least 1-2 sharp transition here. Once you have a few nice transitions down--move to your lighter values and darks and begin to work the highlights and shadows. Look for places where a bit of your darkest dark or lightening of a high value in a certain area will bring up the sense of light. This is basically subdividing the larger masses into a darker dark and lighter light--but you want to think about how this effect light. Don' t do it everywhere--only where you think it will bring up the overall sense of light in the painting. once you feel the sense of dimension and light is going well--take the last 5 minutes of this part of the exercise to really develop and draw the viewer to the focal point/area. This is where it is okay to add some details to the painting and sharpen transitions. If you are adding detail--do this with small one-value, or less, changes within a value area you are working. If it is place where light is hitting the object--go for increasing the value change--for instance--see if there is a place to but a black to white transition (or similar) in the focal area, for instance, where a dark shadow and lighted area met near a shadow. You should only have one large value change (black to white) in the painting--so if there is another part of the painting where you have such a variation--this is the time to revise that one, for instance--rather than white to black. In the secondary area, try taking the white and black up and down one value in the scale--they will still read as light--but not compete with the focal point.

5. The evaluation. Step back and give yourself five minutes to consider the painting and make final changes. This is the last chance--but if the first phases have gone well--there should only be minor changes needed. A good way to see what the painting needs at this point--which should be small strokes or adjustments,--is to step far away and look at the painting from 10-15 feet away. Or leave the studio and reenter as if the painting was there and you were looking at it for the first time. Look at it quickly and make the first change that comes to your mind with either a brush or finger. You are looking for small tweaks at this point that will improve the painting--not perfection.

In total, this exercise should take 30-45 minutes--but not more than an hour in any case.

Try it out--let me know if the results are more satisfying to you. Let go of your fear of making a bad painting. Also, remember that whatever you come out with--there will be people who cannot see what you were after and would liked if if you had done it differently. It should satisfy you--and say something about what you were trying to acheive.

All the best, sixtyminuteartist.