Optical Blending: Hands Off for More Vibrant Color!

January 30, 2012

Detail from urban landscape study in pastel, look at all the colors in that tiny little shadow!

Manhattan Rooftops, pastel study, 5x7 in.

I am fascinated by the amount of color in the tiny little square at the top. This urban landscape study is only 5×7 in., yet every one of those inches is packed with pure, vibrant color. You can see every stroke I put down because none of them are blended. To me, blending kills the freshness, particularly with pastels, but also with oils and acrylic. I prefer to let one color sit next or on top of another (by scumbling) to create the illusion of blending at a distance. This technique was widely used by the Impressionists, it works because our eyes blend the colors at a distance, but up close they are just little bits of vibrant, pure colors.

I’m always surprised when I hear students say “mine just looks like blobs of color up close”, ummm okay, so do mine, that’s how they are supposed to look. It’s when you get them placed in just the right spot, in the correct value and the correct temperature that they will join together to form an image at a distance. I never get tired of the magic of looking at a painting created this way up close and then at a distance.

If you have problems with your colors looking muddy, odds are that you are over blending. Over blending is a sure way to kill contrast and push everything toward a middle value range. For example, if you lay down a layer of deep red and put a transparent stroke of bright green on top, the red will show through the scumbled green and create a beautiful shadow color full of color variation. If instead you rub the two colors together with your finger, you are likely to get a muddy brown.

Optical blending also creates a much softer, less hard edged appearance. You can still get defined edges by placing contrasting values next to one another, but the overall appearance will be more painterly rather than photographic. While one style is not better than the other, they are very different in both process and end result.

If you are more interested in a photo realistic look, the way to achieve it is by working in layers and using stumps to blend more gradually. (Or working in oils or acrylics and sanding between layers, using transparent glazes to build up color gradually).  The most important thing is to know what appeals to YOU as the artist–in terms of BOTH the process and the end result. Both are equally important in order to gain the most satisfaction from your efforts!



Efficient Painting

January 23, 2012

Red Apple, pastel demo - say it with as few strokes as possible!

How many brush strokes does it take to make a good painting? How many colors? While there is no definitive answer, the fewer the better if you want to keep your painting looking fresh and alive. There is nothing worse than an overworked painting, one that looks like it was hard to paint. A painting that jumps off the page with freshness and vitality is bound to grab the viewer’s attention.

To achieve this, practice painting efficiently. How? One exercise that might be very helpful is to take a limited number of colors (if working in oil or acrylic no more than 3 primaries plus white, if pastel, use no more than 10 sticks in total).  Use a 1/4″ flat or angled brush, or the side of the stick if you are working in pastel ( break your pastels into 1″ sticks). Block in your darks in a neutral color or in the complement to the predominant color of whatever you are painting. For a green apple, you  might use a red under painting, etc., or just use a neutral such as burnt sienna or umber.

Block in the values, and then beginning with your darks, begin blocking in color on top of the under painting. Be sure to think before you stroke–put down the right value of the right color in the right place the first time, and then leave it alone! Resist the urge to over blend. I don’t blend at all, I let colors overlap slightly where they meet to create a subtle transition, rather than a flat, over blending appearance. You are painting a painting, not creating a photograph–there is no need to blend everything into a gradually rendered transition. If you do choose to do some blending, make sure you don’t overdo it to the degree that everything ends up in the same value, this is a sure way to create muddy colors and flat forms!

Be sure to keep variations in color and temperature throughout the painting. Just as contrasting values create depth, contrasting temperatures create  believable lighting and make objects recede and come forward with atmospheric perspective.

Don’t automatically reach for the white when you need to add highlights or show turned form. Many times light and bright are confused, adding a brighter color will increase vibrancy, adding white will likely dull things down and make them chalky. White should be used carefully and sparingly.

To ensure that you don’t go overboard with overworking your paintings, try giving yourself a time limit for some studies. Force yourself to paint quickly and confidently, when the time is up, you’re done. Do these on a practice surface before a studio session with a real piece, it will help to prevent over working and get you used to knowing when to stop so that you don’t lose the freshness and vitality in your work.

Still Life from the Pantry

January 16, 2012
Still life demo of pantry items, acrylic on canvas, 10x7 in.

Still life demo of pantry items, acrylic on canvas, 10x7 in.

A still life does not need to contain elaborate items to be interesting. In fact, items from around the house can often be used to create dynamic, colorful still life compositions. I particularly like using items from the pantry, commercial packaging typically contains vibrant graphics and recognizable brand labels that can make an interesting, playful design.

The objects themselves are great for practicing your drawing skills: cylinders (cans), rectangular cubes (bread, boxes) and a variety of surface textures (metal, plastic and glass) are all represented in the goods stocked in the average pantry. Want to practice drawing ellipses? Do a still life of cans! The plastic on a bread bag contains wonderful contrasts and bright highlights. Glass and metal on jars and cans is always a challenge, painting them from life is the best way to improve your observational skills.

The geometric forms of the packaging also lend themselves to interesting, contemporary compositions. Use the geometrics to break up the space in a balanced manner.  Repeating shapes, colors and graphics are a great way to keep the eye moving and to prevent the viewer from becoming stuck or bored.

A still life does not always need to contain fruit and flowers! Be creative, there are items all around you that can make a unique and compelling set up.

The Food Pyramid for Painters

January 9, 2012

Most of us are familiar with the pyramid used to show the 4 basic food groups and their nutritional roles. I’ve done the same thing with the components of successful painting in the diagram above. The process of painting can be broken down into 4 components: drawing, composition, color and creativity. Each of these components is needed to produce an end result that is likely to be successful in terms of technical proficiency and expression–you have to have both of these in order to have a piece of “art”.

Drawing – the drawing is the structure of the painting, it must accurately depict what the artist is trying to represent, whether that is something that actually exists in real life, or an abstract concept that comes from the imagination. The artist must have a command of proportion, perspective, form and value in order to create the structure. Drawing can be done in any media–pencil, charcoal, or paint. Get the drawing right, and you have a good foundation to build upon, think of drawing as the bottom layer in the pyramid, the grains in the food pyramid. If you have good drawing skills, YOU are in control of how realistic you want to be, not the other way around.

Composition – the composition is what will keep viewers engaged in the painting. It needs to be balanced and dynamic to keep the eye exploring the piece without getting bored or stuck in one spot. It should support the mood of the painting, it can be busy or calm, containing resting areas for the eye as well as connecting points to keep the eye moving. Composition is key, therefore it is  also at the base of the pyramid, just above drawing–the subject needs to be depicted accurately and placed in the painting in a way that keeps the viewer engaged. In some respects, these first two layers are of equal weight and importance and the process of getting them on the canvas takes place in the first stages of the painting process. It is best to not go beyond the under painting stage until the composition and the drawing have been worked out to the artist’s satisfaction–in food terms, eat your grains and veggies first.. All the color and creativity in the world will not make a poorly drawn or poorly composed image successful.

Color – Color is a tool to be used for expression, it is not a necessity. I place color toward the top of the pyramid because I think of it as something that a painting should be able to exist without (think of all the great works done monochromatically). It would be like the meat, fish and dairy group, ok for some but you can live without it if you are a vegan. If an artist chooses to work in color, the color must be harmonious. Mud and garish contrasts should be avoided through a thorough understanding of color theory. If you are planning to work in color, take the time to understand color theory, make yourself a color wheel, know how individual pigments will mix with one another. If you are a beginner, start working with only the primaries and mixing all of your secondary colors. I RARELY use secondaries out of the tube, I prefer to mix all of my greens, oranges and purples. I find I get a much more natural looking color, as well as a more harmonious overall feeling to the painting.

Creativity – This is what will set your painting apart! It’s like dessert, the reward you’ve earned by doing all the hard work. In this case, dessert is something we can’t live without, because in order for your painting to be more than just an example of technical proficiency, it has to have that unique spark of creativity. The problem with just having the creativity and not the skills is that while you might have  great ideas and concepts, you won’t have the ability to successfully execute and communicate them. Logical understanding and hands on practice of the first three components is needed in order for the fourth component to come to fruition.

To get into top form with your painting:

  • practice your drawing skills from life whenever possible
  • think of objects purely as shapes and forms to divide up your composition in a balanced and dynamic manner
  • understand color theory and how to work with color to create harmony and cohesiveness in your paintings
  • don’t be afraid to be creative! break rules and experiment, that’s what it’s all about!

First Painting of the New Year

January 2, 2012
Into the Park - oil on board, done in studio based on pastel sketch, 18x12 in.

Into the Park - oil on board, done in studio based on pastel sketch, 18x12 in.

This is the first post in my new plan of posting weekly. I’m hoping that putting myself on a blogging schedule will help to build consistency in posting, we’ll see.

The painting above is my first to be completed in 2012. It’s a bit different for me in terms of subject matter. I’ve always been resistant to painting carriage horses, because the subject has been done many times before and also because I think it can get a bit sentimental.  However, I decided to challenge myself to take the subject and treat it the way I treat all my other urban landscapes. Simply as shapes that break up the space.

The title of the piece (Into the Park) is a bit more than just descriptive. I did some research about the carriage horses in Central Park and the surrounding area. There is a group that advocates that the horses not walk on the streets surrounding the park because they are a hazard to traffic and at risk of being injured. The group believes that the carriage rides should be restricted to the boundaries of Central Park. I totally support this idea. Just gathering reference material for the painting was a bit scary, dodging taxis and other traffic on Central Park South and 6th Avenue. Imagine how scary it must be for these horses? They really are beautiful animals, and part of a historic tradition, but in this day and age, they really don’t belong in the streets of midtown!

There is a group on Facebook that you can join if you support the idea of keeping the horses in the park and off the road. Here is a link to the group which is called NYC Horses Belong IN Central Park.