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.

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.

Light and Color

May 19, 2009

To talk about color divorced from whatever medium in which it is suspended means necessarily taking a theoretical approach. So, a small digression here:

There are many ways in which both the painter and the scientist approach color. For the scientist, a rational model is constructed to categorize and describe it as a phenomena. At colorsystem.com there is an excellent presentation of the various scientific theories that have been created over time. At rationalpainting.com I recently discovered an online community of realistic painters who apply the Munsell Color Theory in a very practical way to their working methods. Additional to scientific theories, artistic color theories tend to be more relational, more psychological, and ultimately more visceral. The theories of Josef Albers, in ‘The Interaction of Color’ and Johannes Itten, in ‘The Art of Color’ are two such 20th century examples.

Another way to approach color involves viewing it from the standpoint of light itself, that is, additive and subtractive light.  Notebook has an interesting resource page on the topic of Light and its qualities. Thus, while the painter’s craft necessarily exists in the world of subtractive light, by manipulating mediums and pigments to experientially stimulate thoughts, emotions and sensations, it derives – as does life itself – from the world of additive light.

additive primaries

additive primaries

The primary colors for additive light are red, green and blue. Thus, if three different spotlights are focused together upon one location, and one light is covered with a filter of red, the second of green and the third blue, the location itself will reveal white light to the human eye. The technologies of television, computer screens and color separation in the printing industry are all based upon additive light theory or RGB (red, green, blue).

subtractive primaries

subtractive primaries

The primary colors of subtractractive color theory are yellow, red, and blue. Every young child learns this in kindergarden. He/she learns quickly that yellow plus red makes orange, yellow plus blue makes green, red plus blue makes purple, and all three together create black (or a very mucky brown).  I call this kindergarden primary color.

process pramaries

process pramaries

A further refinement to subtractive color theory are the primary colors of the printing industry. Rather than the yellow, red and blue of kindergarten, the printing industry uses process yellow, magenta, cyan and black. Process yellow actually contains the slightest bit of green in it – a cool, translucent, lemon yellow. Cyan is a translucent and dark turquoise kind of blue. While magenta is a cool, translucent ruby red, similar to the external fleshy covering of pomegranate seeds. These subtractive primaries, derived from additive light theory combine in different ways – principally through layering –  to create the whole gamut of visual color that we experience in 99% of our printed material.

If magazine green never comes from green ink, then why should an artist mix his or her colors so easily on the pallette? Similarly, a painter’s green created from superimposed layers of yellow and blue is qualitatively a different experience than that of a mixed green on the pallette. Since painting occurs in the world of reflective light, and subtractive color combinations are experientially clear, it’s also reasonable to ask, how much pallette mixing is truly necessary if the beauty of light itself is the goal? Any color we see in the natural world is always more beautiful in the degree to which it can transmit light. The ancient techniques for creating imagery are time tested procedures for isolating, cherishing and showcasing the spectral purity and luminosity of individual pigments. The medium of oil itself being particularly adept at transmitting light through layers.

The Fresco Pallette

May 19, 2009

Everything changes when you begin to do fresco. The whole process is a chemical reaction in the plaster itself that can take up to 6 months to a year to ‘cure’. So it’s really important to stick with known and trusted colors; the traditional pallette is mainly comprised of earth minerals.

Here is a list:
Raw umber – Natural earth – Highly Permanent – Tedancy to flour : needs a lot of binder
Burnt umber – Burnt natural earth – Highly Permanent – Mix it well before puddling the colour
Raw Sienna – Natural earth (Italy) – Highly Permanent
Burnt Sienna – Natural earth (Italy) – Highly Permanent – Mix it well with the brush before application
Cadmium red purple (genuine) – Cadmium sulfo seleniure – Highly Permanent
Venise red – Iron oxide – Highly Permanent – Very good light resistance – stable in mixture (Mars Red, Pozzuoli Red)
Cadmium red (genuine) – Cadmium sulfo seleniure (minéral) – Highly Permanent – Covering – don’t mix with leads or titanium white
Mars orange – Iron oxide – Durable
Yellow ochre – Natural earth – Highly Permanent – Many variations and shades of this exist, Italian, Greek, and French
Cadmium yellow (genuine) – Cadmium sulfide – Highly Permanent – Covering – don’t mix with white lead or with ultramarine blue
Viridian (genuine) – Hydraded chrome oxide – Durable – Very solid in mixture – use it in glazes
Chromium oxide green – Chrome oxide – Highly Permanent – Covering and coloring – very stable in mixture
Green earth (Terre Verde) – Natural earth – Highly Permanent
Ultramarine blue – Silico-aluminate of polysulfuretted sodiums – Highly Permanent – Luminous and intense – don’t mix with chrome yellow
Cerulean blue (substitute) – Barite sulfate and phtalocianine blue – Highly Permanent – High colouring capacity
Cerulean blue (genuine) – Cobalt stanate – Highly Permanent – Opaque – unvarying in mixture
Cobalt blue – Cobalt aluminate – Highly Permanent – Excellent light resistance – stable in mixture
Black and white
Titanium white – Titanium dioxide – Highly Permanent – Don’t mix with cadmiums – luminous – intense
Lime white – slaked lime – Highly Permanent – dull highlights, natural plaster tint
Lamp black – Carbon – Highly Permanent – the favored black for fresco

This blog space is for those who are actively working with these pigments and who want to exchange information about them. Thus additions and corrections are welcome.

Medium and Pigments

May 18, 2009

Pigments ground into an appropriate binding medium create paint. The medium defines the paint: the handling (brushwork and siccative qualities), viscosity, translucency, toxicity and permanency. Oil paints are pigments ground and suspended in linseed oil, as acrylics are pigments ground and suspended in acrylic resin. Watercolors are pigments suspended in gum arabic and egg tempera is pigment suspended in the yolk of a fresh egg. Encaustic uses resinated hot wax, while for fresco the setting of the fresh plaster creates the permanency of the water diluted pigment.

Quite naturally, the medium has it’s own qualities which then become a matter of personal taste, capacity or preference. Oil, acrylics and encaustic as mediums, leave a tactile residue of their own quality. Does that quality resonate within you? Find out! All mediums require a support, as for some like watercolor or fresco the support plays a critical, essential role. Do the qualities of the support resonate within you? Find out!

Most modern artists don’t need to grind their own colors to practice their art. However, for the artist working in fresco or egg tempera contact with the powdered pigment is essential. In addition, knowing which pigments to use for which medium is critical not only for successful in-the-moment-handling but also for longevity and personal health. Manuals like ‘Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques’ by Ralph Mayer or Max Doerner’s ‘The Materials of the Artist’ are time honoured general resources. Daniel Thompson’s ‘The Practice of Tempera Painting’ is probably the best comprehensive resource for the tempera painter. Each pigment has its own nuances of hue, saturation and value, also transparency and opacity. Getting to know both mediums and pigments qualitively is a real and exciting adventure. At makingpaint.com you can find extensive information from another working and experimenting artist.

Finally each medium defines its pallette. Fresco due to the chemical interactions of plaster and pigment offers perhaps the most limited choice, while oil may offer the widest. Becoming familiar with pigments and mediums up-close-and-personal is like becoming a master chef. You choose the ingredients based upon experience and a good cookbook, but it’s the attention to detail in the processing that determine a truly successful dish. And who doesn’t enjoy a well prepared meal? Should we treat our eyes with any less care?

Egg Tempera Pallette

May 9, 2009

The list of pigments available for use in egg tempera is essentially the same as that of oil with the exception of the lead based pigments of naples yellow and flake (lead) white which are highly poisonous, anyway. The lead based pigments discolor upon exposure to sulphur fumes; their discoloration can then be avoided by varnishing the final picture but why bother when so many other safer pigments are available today?

Powdered pigments can be quite exciting to see and to use – especially for the first time.  In egg tempera you must always work with powders to grind up the paint for the daily session. It is possible to pregrind up a number of common colors in distilled water and keep the paste in a small airtight jar ready for the egg yolk medium. This avoids the short time shelf life of egg spoilage.

In either case, I use a glass muller and a piece of frosted glass for grinding. Though it may sound like alot of work, in actual practice, I only use a few pigments each day so a daily session does not take alot of extra time or effort. I try to be sure to clean off the muller and glass plate directly after each grinding session.

Because you will have direct skin contact with the pigment, it is critical to inform yourself regarding its characteristics.  Poisonous pigments should naturally be avoided.  The Society of Tempera Painters has extensive experiential information relating to individual pigments and their various characteristics.  So, take my own thoughts here with a grain of salt.

Generally, I like to use earth pigments.  They grind up easily and absorb medium well, too.  Grinding your own colors allows you to get to know the pigment’s characteristics in an intimate way.  Translucency, tinting power and handling then become first hand knowledge.  Because I use egg tempera as an underpainting, I usually temper each color with zinc white to create a tint of the hue that I want.  Zinc white is somewhat transparent so I can achieve a pastel hue without adding too much water or egg to dilute the pigment.  (If I add too much water, then there is not enough binder left to hold the pigment.  If I add extra egg in order to dilute the paint, the binding mechanism works fine but it is harder for me to visibly control the dilution.)

For the color pallette itself, I use ultramarine blue, viridian green, mars red, burnt umber, burnt siena, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow, vine black and zinc white.  I tend to honor spectral purity so I don’t mix up colors on the pallette but instead paint thin layers of a yellow and red for example to achieve an orange.