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.

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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:
Browns
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
Purples
Cadmium red purple (genuine) – Cadmium sulfo seleniure – Highly Permanent
Reds
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
Oranges
Mars orange – Iron oxide – Durable
Yellows
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
Greens
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
Blues
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.

Mixed Technique

May 7, 2009

Jan van Eyck mixed technique

Jan van Eyck mixed technique

The term mixed method or mische technique is generally used to refer to the painting technique of Jan Van Eyck, and the Flemish Masters.  The mixed part quite literally refers to the method of intermixing  the usage of both water based and oil based mediums to create a pictorial image.  It requires both patience and sufficient knowledge in order to achieve an attractive result.  Traditionally the resulting image was super realistic, but it certainly does not have to be.  The mixed method contains the possibility of multiple superimposed layers of paint which in themselves create beautiful effects of both light and color: the essence of abstraction.  My own “mische technique” is a bit of a hybrid using the traditional recipes with elements of both alla prima and indirect painting.

Nicolas Wacker
The originator of the modern adaptation of the so called mische technique, is a Russian man named Nicholas Wacker, who taught at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris in the early 80’s.  I’ve received it from a friend who studied there at that time, thus here below are her class notes:

  It is useful for brushability, quickness of drying and glaze layering.  Using this technique one can maximize the use of glaze while simultaneously painting opaque areas into the fresh medium.  The dry brush can be used to blend and unify the surface.  Strong areas can sink into the background while lighter tones can be emphasized.  It seems possible that the yolk of an egg could be substituted for the alcasit, though I have never tried it.

Emulsion:

  • 1- volume alcasit (methyl cellulose glue)
  • 1- volume half of which is pure linseed oil with 1/5 eburit dryer (or sun thickened linseed) and half damar varnish 2:1
  • 1- volume water
  • Put liquids in a jar in the order written ( alcasit first) and with each addition cover the jar and shake it in well. I heard water could be as much as 3 volumes but never tried it. The result looks like mayonaise.

Medium:

  • 1 part damar varnish
  • 1 part turpentine
  • 1 part stand oil (sun thickened is also fine)

Coat panel or canvas with a light coat of glue size.  For canvas, use a recipe for good lean priming (commercial lead white in oil, 1 pound thick paint, diluted with 3 fluid ounces of turpentine).  Add at least 3 coats brushed on in opposite directions, lightly sanded in between.  For gesso grounds on panels it is best to apply at least 10 thin coats painted in alternating directions, always sanding in between coats.

The Design
Find an image from which you wish to work. It can be a reproduction of a painting you admire, or a drawing of your own. You should be able to render it in black and white value studies as well as forsee the addition of color. Transfer the drawing to the primed canvas or prepared panel.  Render it in waterproof india ink. Be sure to erase all pencil lines after the drawing is transposed into ink.  A final glue size is applied on all surfaces after the preliminary drawing but before the imprimatura.

Paints
It is best to mix fresh white for every session.  Use white powdered pigments and emulsion.  Take a glass muller or spatula, pressing, dragging and blending the two together until a consistent texture is achieved.  This helps considerably with quick drying. Pour a small amount of emulsion into a small cup or bowl. Use this to increase the brushability of your oil colors. Remember to always honor the fat over lean principle. If you are able grind up your own colors, you will be able to avoid buttery, oily colors from the manufacturer. In additon, you will learn first hand which pigments require more oil to achieve a workable consistency or in contrast which grind up easily and are therefore ‘lean’.

Imprimatura
The white ground is covered with a translucent middle tone.  I usually use damar varnish diluted with turpentine 3(T):1(D) mixed with Burnt Umber.  Using a wide bristle brush apply over the whole panel to achieve a common medium value for the beginning of the image. Take a clean, dry cotton lint free cloth to wipe off the excess. The surface should be tacky and glistening.  To test for correct dryness, lightly touch the surface with the ball of the palm of your hand . When it is dried enough, it should pull a little on the skin when you lift the hand.  

The imprimatura can also function as the first level of glaze.  Work into this slightly tacky surface white mixed with emulsion for strong light areas and drag them into the background with a dry brush. This produces a soft way to suggest future values. After that come in with the darkest tones, to establish the shadows.  This quickly establishes the values of the painting and you can step back and assess how your idea is working and correct where necessary at an early stage.

Session 1
It is best to to let the imprimatura dry.  A few days to a week.  Touch will tell.  Now cover the entire painting with a fresh coat of clear medium.  Take a clean, dust free cloth and wipe the surface of excess medium.  The surface should be tacky and receptive.  One can begin to work in large blocks of color, alternating glaze or emulsion for transparent or opaque effects.  Values can slowly be adjusted. One proceedes from coarse to fine detail.  Highlights and shadows can be further refined by moving away from the midtones of the imprimatura while still remaining ‘unfocussed’. Later sessions can define fine highlights and precise shadows. Let the image slowly emerge. Don’t fall into the details – yet. 
One lovely advantage of the mixed technique is brushability. You can paint one color next to another area of color, then using a dry brush gently blend one area into the other. The colors softly merge without contaminating each other. Good sable brushes are invaluable for manipulating paint; fine bristle brushes can be used for painting larger areas and dry merging. Each painter needs to find his/her own taste. Remember to keep your colors pure. Unintentional mud is – mud.

The painting needs to dry thoroughly in between sessions. By using the Mixed Technique and one’s own ground up lean colors, drying time can be greatly reduced.  A week is usually enough. In the beginning stage when the painting is less saturated, the drying time can be even a few days. Techniques to insure a lean and thirsty ground are useful to know. For example, using lead white in one’s ground can help, but remember it is poisinous so use it with caution. I prefer 10 to 20 thin coats of chalk gesso on a plywood panel (Masonite, for example, is not as thirsty).

Session 2
Cover the whole painting (or the section on which you intend to work that day) with Medium. Take a clean dry cotton rag and wipe it back off. The surface should remain tacky and glistening. The surface is now ready for fresh paint manipulations. Finer details can begin to be applied using paint mixed with Emulsion for brushability. Remember the dry brush can be used to blend one area into the next. You will quickly see when an area can receive no more paint.

How many sessions does it take to complete an image?  This is best answered by experience. In general, don’t be impatient. This is not a fast results technique. However, it can create lovely possibilites for translucent color effects enhanced in layers of glaze, yet contrasted by areas of solid color. Try it out for yourself.