A question of balance…

August 22, 2012

Langs de Vaartdijk

Today I created the final glaze on one of my favorite views along the Vaartdijk, a canal on the outskirts of Bruges, Belgium. On a clear day by about 11:00 a.m. the light makes a nice silhouette of a distant church tower with great rooftop variations inbetween: an interesting study of light. Additionally (at least in summer), the green vegetation and red roofs create a wonderful complimentary color juxtaposition, too. I wanted to try to maximize both in a painting.

I began last year with a watercolor study. This was helpful for setting out the general composition but didn’t come close to conveying what I saw (or felt about what I saw). I knew oil was needed to set it right. After working up an underdrawing in india ink followed by an underpainting in egg tempera, I set out attempting to maximize the reds and greens as I felt them through layers of pigment – in the studio. Working en plein air is great for quick studies but it’s almost a contradiction in terms for manipulating layers of oil here in rainy and unpredictable Belgium. Additionally, I knew I needed to concentrate on my own vision and not become distracted by the changeful atmospheric conditions attendant to working in situ. Describing distance with oil paint is a huge challenge, as any hue or value too weak (or too strong) belies the intended effect: it’s a question of balance.

I ended up dancing between cadmium yellow light and cadmium yellow medium for my yellow pigments and ultramarine or thalo for my blues. So my greens would vary from an almost neon green (cadmium YL and thalo) in the foreground, to just slightly dirty in the middle (cadmium YM and ultramarine), to a warmish gray at the back (cadmium Y M and thalo plus burnt sienna). And my reds alternated between two wonderful earth pigments: an opaque mars red and a more translucent burnt sienna.

But these developing color thrusts demanded a regular rebalancing of the whole through reasserting the original statement of light. I often had to reintroduce opaque white pigment in order to reclaim a highlighted area that had become obscured. Of course, it’s always best not to lose light in the first place, but perhaps it’s just a necessary evil of the glazing process? In any case, in addition to the vibration of color, the circulation of light was an equally important factor to integrate in this piece. The image above is the final result. I quite like it.


Kruispoorte version #1, 2009, a lovely painting but perhaps the development of the greens was a little flat.

Anyone who attempts to paint landscape has to deal sooner or later with the problem of green. Of course, some might not even consider it to be a difficulty – but I do. So what’s the problem? In a nutshell: #1) the profusion of greens in the natural world contrasted to #2) the difficulty of rendering them to any degree of accuracy on the pallete/canvas/panel.

Kruispoorte version #2, 2010, blue level, I'm struggling with my differentiations here.

From a pigment point of view, there are relatively few tube greens out there in contrast to the wide arrary of tube choices for other colors. Viridian, the strongest green pigment, is widely used, otherwise if you need something different, you just mix it up from some combo of yellow and blue, or even yellow and black. However, if you attempt (as I do) to arrive at a beautiful green through color layering (for example, a blue glaze over a yellow substrate) then you might indeed create a wonderful green, but find yourself unable to modulate it very much to it’s other (very green) surroundings. Hence an indirect technique for color development is a bit too inflexible.

Kuuispoorte #2, 2010, brown glaze level, a solution of sorts.

Thus, my current approach, to painting in general, but also to green in particular, is to minimize my pigment choice, decide on an approach and then modulate my color relations to it. For painting greens, this can mean using or mixing a master green, modulating a master chartreuse, blue green and/or gray green from that. Then tints and shades from each of those. If I am painting wet into wet, then the color of my glaze will certainly have a direct (color) effect. If it is an earth glaze (umber or sienna), the effect is quite grounding (no pun intended). Nevertheless, color is absolutely relational (a la Josef Albers) and nowhere is this more true than in the attempt to render the multitudinous greens of the natural world.

I’d rather be blue…

July 14, 2010

My theory of painting is simply this: travelling has to be at least as interesting as finally arriving. It helps to have a numinal idea of what arriving should actually look like, but it wouldn’t be “art” if I already knew, would it? Thus, I always experience a certain kind of hesitancy as I approach the final levels in a painting. Do I really want the journey to end? Will this level “do” it? Or will it need more? And if so: what, where, how? Will the final image end up looking like a bored adult in comparison to its earlier youthful promise? Should I have stopped at some earlier vantage point along the way and just grabbed the ‘chute?

Additionally, imposing a chromatic structure on image development allows for lots of lateral exploration at each level of additional color. Or to put it in even simpler terms, it helps me to control chaos. Chaos of my own emotions and my emotional reactions either to the subject matter or the developing image in front of my nose. But too much control results in lifelessness, too little, and it’s just chaos.

Riding the surge of that inbetween space, of that wave, is richly rewarding: both exhilirating and terrifying. Committing myself to it involves a kind of surrender and also a kind of trust. If I imagine that the landscape I paint is essentially external to me, if I imagine that the paints I use are essentially “other”, if I imagine that the world itself is not a part of me and myself a part of it, then there is fear.

So, instead of experiencing distance to it all like some alien stranger, I’d rather be blue (thalo or ultramarine, to be exact)…

Seeing red

July 9, 2010

Well, OK. Since I started documenting this current production series with the yellow level, I thought I’d continue with the red. Usually, when I trace the development of a painting through its different stages, the thread is the image. But this time the common denominator is color. So, its a different focus, a different challenge. Comparing chromatic qualities instead of developmental ones.

The Sint AnnaKerk piece is shifting towards purple now. This seems to be due to the combination received through the massive amounts of warm gray tints that I worked into the crimson lake (red) tint. The church was a lovely yellow but I decided it needed a darker more massive tonality in order to provide enough contrast and mass for the strong highlights on its right side. I used clear glaze to eliminate the red tint from most of the green areas. The composition does not have a lot of strong color statements, so it’s interesting to attempt to pull out whatever is possible.

The Predijkherenrij Grande has a strong value composition containing a lot of colors. The red level was a marathon session of 14 hours, working the paints in before the medium dried. Applying the tint, erasing the same from the highlights and some greens and then building up the masses with (mostly) semi-opague tints of warm gray and lead white. Strong reds, yellows and oranges were restated with emulsified pigment. It feels quite hot now, doesn’t it?

The concept for the Kruispoorte Grande was simple. Could I take the process-color studio painting technique out into plen air? The yellow level had worked out great. But the red level presented challenges because the composition itself doesn’t have a lot of strong reds in it. I found myself making choices between value (warm gray tints) or hue (yellow) statements: always keeping the overall composition in mind. Still, I’m not at all sure this will be a successful approach. Time will tell.

Stay tuned for the next episode…

I am curious, yellow?

June 17, 2010

It isn’t often that I have numerous paintings completed to the same level at the same time. However, since I am preparing for an exposition and have entered into production mode on a number of pieces, right now I have four paintings drying in their yellow stage. There is something particular and special to be seen in these “monochromatic” stages which soon will be integrated into full blown colorful images.

It is a curious level, one of overall hue reduction, of lowered value contrast too, of subtle nuances and above YELLOW, contrasted against gray (which of course becomes pushed towards its complement, purple). The underpainted hues that have been developed in the egg tempera stage shine through subtly, as gentle reminders of potential futures, still yet to be heeded or ignored. Who can tell?

Even an abstract background that I know is intended to become a “blue” sky will have elements of the sun’s yellow light within it. If I state it now, it will always be there, ready to rise to the occassion by the brush’s trumpet call.

Thus, succcessive stages build back upon the basic statements made in the yellow layer. Warm reds and vibrant greens depend upon a good solid yellow. Yet sometimes, I find myself satisfied with the yellow layer just as it is. Fini. Perhaps it’s only my insatiable curiosity which keeps me wondering about what’s round the next bend, keeping me from lingering with the yellow level and just calling it “done”. So, I document it here: an interesting level, worthy of note, even if today it’s only electronic.

Recently, I surfed around to see if I could find information relating to a painting process I use which I’ve always called “the mixed technique” or “the mixed method”. I didn’t find much info (in English) using that term, but got a lot more results when I used the term “mische technique”. Although “a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”, I can see that people who want to inform themselves about this particular process of indirect painting could very well find themselves confused (which I have been), not only about the name, but more importantly about its properties. So I thought I’d try to post what I know. Maybe others will be drawn to share their knowledge?

Thus, there appears to be a very specific application of indirect painting currently called the “mische technique” or even the “mischtechnik” (from Wikipedia). It’s described as an attempt to reconstruct the methods of the early Flemish masters by using “egg tempera to build up volume which is then glazed over with oil paints mixed with resin to produce a jewel-like effect”. The contemporary painters Ernst Fuchs, his student Brigid Marlin and the Society of Art of Imagination seem to me to be the most active exponents of this particular method. Although I’m not sure that the Flemish masters used Red, Yellow and Blue for their imprimatura-undercoats (as it is described on a Brigid’s website) nevertheless, their “mische technique” process appears to be highly effective for luminous, surrealistic Dali-esque imagery. If you are drawn to both this kind of subject matter and this manner of execution, I suggest you check out their links.

Yet the super realism of the “mische technique” – as it is presented on the web – is not really my thing. I tend to be drawn to softly abstracted, beautifully modulated, luminous landscape. Think: George Inness.

George Inness

Near the village, October by George Inness

Think: Tonalism and Luminism. Thus I am deeply drawn to a method of indirect painting which takes advantage of building up an image through multiple layers of paint, allowing for transcendent effects of both light and color. And I use something I call the “mixed method” or “mixed technique” to achieve that.

The process I know, which was taught by Nicholas Wacker at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris during the nineteen sixties and seventies, is also called “the mixed technique” or “mixed method” . It, too, is touted as a reconstruction of the methods of the old masters, although I tend to think its application extends far beyond the precise realism of the Flemish school and the modern surrealists of the “mische technique”. The main aspect of this method is the mixing of an emulsion of water and oil which allows for lean, siccative image development through multiple layers of paint: the essence of an indirect technique. It also allows for soft sensuous blending (without contamination) of adjacent color areas (really luscious wet on wet effects). It demands a well considered composition with interesting value development so that you have a good idea of where you intend to go. Nevertheless, many surprising chromatic events occur during the act of painting, making each “alla prima” session an exciting, challenging process of discovery.

So is the “mixed technique” fundamentally different than the “mische technique”? No, not really, but instead of egg yolk, alcasit (a methyl cellulose glue) is used to emulsify the painting emulsion – thus there is a longer shelf life. Additionally, high quality, lean, tube oil colors can be used and mixed with the painting emulsion. This has the effect of enhancing the flow and siccative qualities of the tube paint, without forcing the laborious work of grinding each pigment into emulsion in order to create paint. The side effect of that being an extended range of quickly available colors along with the acknowledged down side of a probable reduction in the number of layers of paint that are finally possible. Thus, the rule of fat over lean always applies, yet its law can be greatly extended.

The bottom line: the term “mixed” or “mische” refers to the mixing or extending of a water based medium like that of egg tempera into the region of oils – and vice versa – that is, limiting the oily quality of an oil paint through applying resins and emulsion so that it, too, can more easily interact and receive the benefits of the leaner application of a water based paint, like that of egg tempera.

the Disadvantages/Requirements

  • long learning curve
  • patience
  • vision

the Advantages:

  • luminosity
  • surprising “in the moment” color effects
  • seductive tactile blending

If there is someone reading this who has more information or experience than I on this subject, please consider yourself more than welcome to comment or correct mine. Thanks…

OK, OK, I admit it.  I am in love with glazing.  Like non-duality, it has the capacity of unifying many disparate elements, without negating them.  (And isn’t that  wonderful???)  As ever, translucency is the key.  But the tricky thing is the application.  Too much glazing and the painting has a tendency to float off the panel; too little and the thick opaque paint just stays stuck in the mud, reflecting little or no light.  Of course, you can see the same principle reflected in people’s lives. Too little inspiration and we have the tendency to stay stuck in our comfortable grooves; too much inspiration – without a transparent application to the mundane activities of living – and that wonderful poetry, lacking substance, falls short of its mark.

Korte Sint Annastraat

Korte Sint Annastraat value study

I have admired this very colorful alley view of the Sint Anna Kerk in midday light for a number of years now.  Over time, I have made watercolor and value studies of it,  photographs, too (here is the all important value study). The light at midday creates a strikingly vertical composition. The color relationships of the tile roofs are quite exciting along with the added bonus of it being the only street in Bruges whose street is lined with bricks glazed in blue ceramic. Over time, I collected enough material for a winter studio production this year.

Korte Sint Anna black and white

Korte Sint Anna black and white

I began the piece by transposing my black and white drawing to a 30 x 60 cm. gessoed panel. I like to use silverpoint for the first level of drawing. It is very soft and can render lots of intimate details. It tends to create an ambience that invites image development. Silverpoint catches well on the toothy gesso, so the mark lands and does not require too much repetitive movement. Then using india ink, I add touches of higher contrast that push forward the gesture of the composition – but only in the foreground. The idea is to build up the visual effects of distance from the get go. Every layer will play a role. So the black and white level sets up the basics. I’ve decided to add “I Am” to the sky. (the decision occurred after I made the photograph, so Photoshop has come to my display rescue)

Korte Sint Anna Egg tempera

Korte Sint Anna Egg tempera

I use egg tempera to set out the basic color relationships. In contrast to the methods of the old masters, who used their underpainting primarily for value work, I bring color in early in order to test out the vibrations – particularly of complimentary colors. I use a limited palette and usually avoid any color mixing on the palette – with the exception of white since I add zinc white to all my colors in order to avoid an oversaturated final painting. At this stage, the colors are light and somewhat pastel-like. With this method of painting, by the time you reach the oil level, you cannot really paint white over a color to lighten it very much as each successive layer adds a layer of darkness, so to speak. You have to to rely as much as possible on the original white of the panel (that’s why I call it painting backwards). When I’m finished with egg tempera, I seal the surface with a light coat of (rabbitskin) glue size.

Korte Sint Annastraat

Korte Sint Annastraat mixed technique #1

Oil painting with the mixed technique essentially involves alternating transparent glazes with opaque pigments mixed into a painting emulsion. I start with a yellow glaze and then set out bringing the highlights back in. Yellow paint mixed in a series of tints up to white goes back into areas that will contain differing degrees of that color. Warm Gray mixed up in an array of tints is worked back in to shadow blocks, or alternatively into areas of color that will not contain much yellow. At this point, using a large brush, I try to cover most of the panel with emulsion mixed paint. The work goes quickly. In a few hours, I have set the groundwork for both hue and value development. The overall effect is harmonious and low contrast. Because emulsion has been mixed into the paint, the areas of paint blend smoothly into adjacent areas and will dry to the touch within a few days.

Korte Sint Annastraat

Korte Sint Annastraat mixed technique #2

Between the yellow and the red layer, I decided that the “I Am” text in the sky needed to be more luminous, so using turpentine and a stiff brush, I took the earlier levels of paint away (painting backwards). The text may now seem rather stark but I know that it will be softly blended by the time I am done. On the palette I mix up a series of tints in yellow, red and warm gray. There are about 15 little blobs of paint. I cover the panel with a thin glaze of Crimson Lake and begin working the colors back into the surface. Reclaiming the highlights is best done by removing the red glaze rather than painting emulsified white paint back into it (more painting backwards). Shadows and other colors receive their appropriate tint (the normal approach of painting forwards). Every area should receive some work; if glaze is not painted into, it can become unreceptive to further manipulations in successive layers.

Korte Sint Annastraat

Korte Sint Annastraat mixed technique #3

The final level is the blue level. I mix up a series of tints of yellow, red, blue and Payne’s Gray (at this stage I switch from Warm Gray to Payne’s as it is more neutral). Now I have about 20 little blobs of paint. I cover the panel with a light glaze of Cyan. This pigment is quite saturated so I am careful to dilute it well and begin painting. I “erase” the glaze from all the strongly highlighted areas. The warm colors of the underpainted tile roofs pop out and glow (very nice!). I reclaim all the neutrals by painting a gray tint back in, beginning from the background and moving forward. Additional colors arise as needed with a brushstroke of the appropriate color. For example, the strong greens of the foreground shadow, left, are aided by its underlying yellow color structure. Soon I have covered most of the panel and am working details back into the foreground. This is the last session: it takes the longest time since it combines the blue color adjustments along with the final gray balance work. I finally step back, satisfied and ready for dinner.

Comments, as usual are welcome…

After years of experimentation and study, I have come to a technique that at least allows for the possibility of fine painting, in my case landscapes. I’ll try to describe it briefly here below using illustrations from a current project, the Sint Anna Kerk here in Brughes. The value study is completed “en plen air”; the studio work is done in the atelier in successive stages, each oil session is completed “alla prima” (within a few hours). The intent is to capture as much spontneity as possible, within the long time frame that defines an indirect technique.

Sint Anna Kerk value study The start is a value study describing mid-afternoon light. It’s usually a simplified version of where I hope to finally go. I consider it invaluable for setting up both the composition and tonality of the final piece. This study here is done with pencil, white chalk and ink on standard charcoal paper. Highlights and shadows are developed to render a simple direct statement. Any addition information needed can be augmented from photographs and direct observation, since I live around the corner, though I try more and more to rely on my own pictorial memory.

Sint AnnaKerk silverpoint with india inkThe main elements of the composition are transposed to a panel using line, texture, shading and form. Traditionally, fine drawing pens loaded with india ink are used for transferring the linear, graphical part of the drawing but I have recently been experimenting with using a silverpoint stylus for my underdrawing. The final result is softer, warmer and subtler than india ink (see the grey tones). However, that descriptive subtlety is often lost in the intervening layers of paint, thus, I have begun augmenting the silver point with india ink in order to accentuate the contrasts of the foreground. Thus, distance is described from the beginning in a few ways. The decisions made now guide many aspects of the final result, so it is important to be sure and thus avoid pentimento.

Sint Anna Kerk Egg Tempera In order to minimize the amount of oil needed to achieve layers of color, I use a traditional egg tempera technique to begin the painting. Oil can be painted over egg (fat over lean), however egg cannot be painted over oil. In addition, egg tempera must be painted on a hard, firm surface, otherwise it will crack, thus the panel is prepared with a traditional gesso surface.

I use the egg tempera technique to indicate basic broad areas of local color. All objects at this point are better stated as pastel suggestions rather than full strong colors. In this version of the Sint Anna Kerk, I have been careful to keep my colors light in order to avoid an oversaturated painting in the middle and background areas. I have learned (the hard way) that control of hue, saturation and value are critical for describing distance. The vibrations of complimentary colors are hinted at but not yet fully explored. Also, I try to use single pigments only for spectral purity; no color mixing is done on the pallette. Colors (like certain greens and oranges) that might require mixing are indicated through separate layers of translucent paint. This layer will be dry to the touch almost immediately, but it should dry at least one week before attempting to work in oil.

SintAnnaKerk_IMP_web_aa Although it may seem like a sin to cover the fine egg tempera painting with a blanket of brown, the imprimatura quickly helps to establish the overall key of the piece as well as to unify any disparate elements. The previous egg tempera layer must be not only completely dried but sealed with a layer of glue size to protect it from the succeeding layers of oil based paints. The lines and colors of the previous layers continue to shine through, adding texture and interest, particularly in the mid tones and shadows. The imprimatura is a mixture of damar varnish, turpentine, and brown pigment (in this case, burnt umber). I brush it on, wait a minute or so and then wipe it off with a dry, lint free, soft clean cloth.

Since I was very interested to retain the purity of the whites in the highlight areas of the picture, I went back into the fresh imprimatura with a brush dipped in fresh turpentine to remove the brown tint from the highlight areas. My theory/concept is that even though I will be painting over these areas in white oil paint to create mass and to soften edges, whatever is underneath ultimately does matter. If I want to somehow simulate the intensity of pure light – even if it is reflective and not transmissive – then the purity of the original gessoed board is important. I let the imprimatura then dry a day or so, and begin painting in the Mixed Technique.

SintAnnaKerk_MT1_web_aa I squeeze a quantity of cadmium yellow onto the pallette and dip a thin, wide bristle brush into the clear medium (1 part Damar, 1 part Stand Oil, 1 part Turps), then scumble in a very thin coat of yellow over the whole surfce. It sets for a minute or so and then I wipe it back off with a soft, lint free cloth. The idea is to leave some translucent color tint with some tack and work the first levels of oil back into it. Because it’s a panel and not canvas, the tackiness of the oil/varnish medium catches the brush stroke well, functioning like the weave of a canvas in attracting the brushstroke yet leaving no trace of a fabric-like texture.

At this stage, I work with two basic colors, yellow and gray. I mix up a gray to match the same value of the pure cadmium yellow medium, in order to set the overall darkest value. I then mix up a series of tints (5 or 6 steps) from both the gray and the yellow to white. I begin painting in large areas trying to quickly cover the whole painting with one of these tints, using a thick bristle brush and an emulsion for the pigments (1 methyl cellulose glue, .5 oil/.5 varnish, 1 water) which hastens the drying time. The drawing and egg tempera levels have already set the stage, so to speak, and function not only as guides but also as mirror like reflections. It takes only a few strokes to bring out a form. I use a fan shaped dry brush to merge forms together.

It’s fine to be working with a limited palette now, thinking ahead by laying in a more saturated yellow for both the greens and the oranges. I use the gray for neutral tonalities, shadow and to suggest distance. The overall contrast is quite low.

SintAnnaKerk_MT2_web_aa I squeeze a small amount of a cool, translucent red pigment out onto a pallette board. In this case I use crimson lake, in the past I have used alizarin crimson. Dipping a wide, flat bristle brush into clear medium (1T,1D,1SO) and then into the pigment, I proceed to scumble a thin layer of translucent red over the entire piece. After a minute or so, I wipe this off with a clean soft cloth, taking off as much pigmented medium as possible. The remaining surface has a slight tack to the touch.

I mix up three colors this time. Red, in a series of tints up to white. Warm gray mixed in a series of tints up to white and yellow, mixed in the same way. (The value of the pure red is the same value as the pure warm gray, both being close to a pure medium gray value.) Using a big bristle brush and emulsion, I work quickly to re-establish all the values and colors of the intended piece. Occassionally I need to mix a color that requires a combination of two of the premixed tints.

But look, some strong greens are emerging although I haven’t used any green or blue pigment yet! It’s only yellow refracting back through levels of drawing, egg tempera, imprimatura and glaze. Because I use an emulsion (1 methyl cellulose glue, .5 oil/.5 varnish, 1 water) as my painting medium, the work dries quickly, the colors maintain a level of transparency, and the layers of paint are rather lean.

SintAnnaKerk_MT3_web_aa This is the blue level. I premix my intended colors: yellow in a series of 5-6 tints up to white, red, blue and Payne’s gray all mixed in the same way. There are about 20 little blobs of paint, which I may or may not use but I want to be able to work quickly and precisely in my choices.

I squeeze out a small amount of pure cyan (Thalo Blue) and dip my brush in clear medium (1T, 1V, 1 SO). Cyan is a highly saturated pigment with strong tinting power so a little goes a long way. I scumble it on and after a few moments wipe it back off, leaving a slightly tacky surface that has still more blue in it than I would actually prefer. I remind myself to use Ultramarine Blue next time…

I begin to reclaim the highlights and quarter tones, working with a big brush for starters. Any color I paint now picks up a bit of blue from the glaze. Hmmm…that’s good and it unifies the painting, but is there too much blue? A lot of unexpected colors start to happen. OK, let them emerge. I need to reintroduce the main color contrasts, like the orange for the clay tile roof, the brown bricks and the green vegetation. After the main value and hue statements are set, a few details are reintroduced with a smaller brush to help refine those shapes: window and trim, shadows and highlights. After a few hours, I’ve covered the panel. But is it done?

SintAnnaKerk_final_aaAfter the blue session, all the color statements have been made and I’m happy, sort of, but there remains a bluish tint to the whole piece. I could leave it that way, but the intended gray of the church steeple and road pavement encourage me to attempt some gray balance adjustment. So, I cover the entire piece with a clear glaze of medium and wipe it back off (as usual). I mix up a series of tints using Payne’s gray this time as it is both darker and more neutral than the lighter warm gray pigment I have been using. I squeeze out lead white but mix it 50/50 with titanium white; since the painting is moving into it’s oilier stages. I strengthen the pure whites, the gray steeple and pavement, even scumble some body back into the buildings on the shadow side of the street. I put a glaze of yellow on the buildings on the left for local color, and add the final highlights to the tree. There is not much to do, but what is done crisps up value contrasts and defines gray balance.

Eh, voila. C’est fini! The cherries on top are the final touches of gold to the church steeple.


May 26, 2009

Most books advise a beginner to begin with oils as it is more forgiving.  It is easier to correct a mistake for example, than with watercolor.  That may be true – especially if one uses opaque pigments – but oils, by nature of the medium itself, are viscously translucent, thus understanding their innate capacity to transmit light through a clear film is ultimately critical for both succesful manipulations of form without pentimento as well as transmission of light.   Eastlake noted, in referring to Jan Van Eyck, “The leading attribute of the material of oil painting, as distinguished from those of tempera and fresco, viz. its power to transmit light of an internal surface through superimposed substances more or less diaphanous…”.

Jackson Pollock

Jackson Pollock

There are two main approaches to painting in oils, alla prima and indirect.  Although much art is created as a mixture of the two approaches, in themselves they are distinct. The contemporary art world itself relies quite heavily upon directly percieved and expressed imagery, thus an “alla prima” approach tends to be emphasized. Information on the more indirect methods of painting is less available than it was hundreds of years ago, although more and more of it is cropping up on the internet. Here is one site I have found that is a fine, yet relatively dis-interested treasure trove.

Alla prima essentially means executed in one session as exemplified by Jackson Pollock in his drip paintings.  There can be no argument against this method of approach as both its demands and results can be superlative.  After all, if a painting has any chance of reflecting the evanescent truth of the moment, it needs to be created in the same spirit, with a Zen-like flair.

the Mona Lisa

the Mona Lisa

What then are the values or possibilities of a more indirect technique?  Does a laborious technique ultimately result in a tedious and heavy painting (it often does!)?  Can a painting developed indirectly still retain the freshness of the moment?  If so, then how?  Thus, for those who feel themselves drawn to an indirect method, the knowledge of ancient techniques is extremely helpful.  Indirect painting simply means developing an image through a series of manipulations over time and calculated to achieve a particular result.  A further refinement of the indirect painting technique is the mixed method.  Both indirect and mixed method techniques allow for a methodological layering which in itself creates optical effects of great beauty and luminescence.  Subject matter aside – what can be more eternal than that?

I suspect that every artist has his or her favorite pigments and colors.  It is necessary to find your own.  It can be quite challenging at first to sort one’s way through the huge selection of colors available at any art supply store.  Experience is the best guide.  But that’s hard when you don’t have it.  
Here’s what I use:

  • Two yellows (a cool and a warm one, like citron yellow and cadmium yellow medium)
  • Two reds (a cool and a warm one, like  alizarin crimson and cadmium red medium)
  • Two blues (a cool and a warm one, like thalo blue and ultramarine blue)
  • Viridian (a pure green)
  • Terre Verte (an earth green)
  • Sienna (burnt and raw)
  • Umber (burnt and raw)
  • Mars Red
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Two whites (Lead white and Titanium)
  • Two grays (Payne’s, and Warm Gray)

My thinking is that from these basic colors I can mix just about any thing I need while maintaining a clear idea of how I got there.  In addition, the spectral purity of a color can best be appreciated by employing it directly out of the tube, unmixed.  Therefore, one can try to achieve certain ‘mixed’ colors through translucent layers of paint, rather than mixing on the pallette.  Doing this means becoming familiar with the characteristics of pigments themselves (opacity, translucency and tinting power).  It also can mean using the translucency effects of the medium of oil or wax itself to create rich vibrant colors, that resonate like a sunset.