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)…

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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.

With the advent of the digital revolution, the “giclée” or digitally produced ink-jet art print is an upscale and promising venue of digital imaging technology.  Images can be easily created, shared and printed the world over.  It is clear that inks, paper and techology will consistently improve to offer high resolution, archival prints which can qualitatively equal or even surpass traditional lithography for only a fraction of the cost.  As a new medium it promises to be an art in itself, because the tools are back in the hands of the artist. 

But as a new medium, it is also important to distinguish a few basic elements of the larger printing world to which it belongs.  Printing, be it digital or lithographic, occurs in the world of CMYK, or subtractive light and refers to multiple identical reproductions.  It is to be differentiated from the world of painting which usually (but not always) occurs in the world of subtractive light and whose pallette is greatly expanded beyond four basic colors.  Additionally, the act of painting refers to a unique product.

What can be confusing for consumers/collectors is the term “limited edition print”.  Traditionally this term referred to a run of prints which were created from a means that became dissipated through the action of printing.  For example, etching plates whose fine lines grew softer after repeated use.  More often, the term “limited edition print” simply referred to the amount of prints generated at any one particular time for economic reasons, not necessarily technical.

In the current world of printing, whether lithographic or digital, the term “limited edition print” refers to economic factors and not physical dissipation, that is the number of copies generated at any one time is determined by how much the artist can spend to produce the images he/she hopes to sell rather than the dissipation of digital pixels (which is absurd) or lithographic plates, which do in fact dissipate in extremely large runs.

In this regard, the Giclée print is directly advantageous to the artist:  no huge lithographic print run to manage, pay for and inventory.  Artists can now “print on demand” and even sign their work, completely bypassing the “limited edition print” run event, potentially rendering the term altogether meaningless  (buyer beware). 

Technically, the Giclée print may also be superior to traditional lithography since the ink jets do not require the intervention of tiny lithographic dots to hold the ink.  Finer gradations and subtler details can be rendered.  For example, the current top range digital printers includes two levels of jets for the cyan and magenta inks (one for the normal range of values and one particularly sensitized to reproduce highlight detail).   The archival qualities of the inks are consistently being improved (but still do not retain the longevity of a well executed oil painting) while the substrate is whatever quality technology or ecomomics allow.

The drawback of the Giclée print is the same as it ever was for lithography: CMYK cannot reproduce certain secondary colors, as well as even certain pigments of yellow, red and blue; what is visible on the LED monitor in RGB may not be reproducible in CMYK.  Additionally, importantly, and in contrast to painting, a print surface offers extremely little refraction of light through its micro millimetered surface-depth.  So the play of light through its surface remains predictably (mechanically) stable, unlike the subtle differences that can be experienced when viewing an original painting.  So although the Giclée or digiprint offers many possibilities, a print is still a print…

Oils

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.

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.

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.