Sunday, January 24, 2010

Laurie's Farmhouse

Oil on Canvas

This was a very ambitious picture for me. I have never painted something this large, (16x20) and I tried the technique that I learned from the Susan Sarback workshop. However, she said never to use a photograph, but that’s what I did.

The photo was taken from far away, so I had to crop it, and enlarge it, and photoshop it a bit to perk up the colors through all the haze.

I tried sketching it freehand on the canvas, but even though I understand perspective, it is not my strong suit, and it was coming out wrong. So I took the photo to Kinko’s, and had it blown up (in black and white) to fit the canvas exactly. I measured it exactly and used a proportion wheel. I put charcoal on the back of the enlargement, and then placed it on top of the canvas, and traced on it like carbon paper. To make the lines permanent, I painted them on with a thin brush and diluted India ink. (In the photo, I am working on another picture. I was doing two canvases at the same time.) After inking, the lines were TOO dark, so I whitewashed the whole canvas with one coat of white acrylic primer. I know it takes at least two coats when I am trying to cover a bad painting, so one coat did the trick. I was so happy with the results, that I think I am going to do this from now on.

Susan’s technique “forbids” you to mix any colors on the pallet. She says to use only the pure colors as they come from the tube, plus white. This way, all the colors are fully saturated, which is why the painting comes out so bright and gaudy. (By the way, I asked her directly is she claims to be a Henry Hensche purist, and she said no. She studied under him, but this is the system that she worked out for herself. She teaches a lot of classes, so she has boiled it down to a formula so that everyone can get it.) I really wanted to implement what I learned from her, so I stuck pretty close to what she taught.

First I did the underpainting. Susan says to use a knife for that, but I used a brush. Otherwise, it would have used up way too much paint. I want to say, I read a lot of Michael McGuire’s blog to also learn from him. He says he uses a brush for the first two layers, then he lets it dry for two weeks, and then uses the knife. I thought I would try that. It worked well for me.

I laid in cool colors for parts that were in shadow, and warm colors for parts that were in light, as Susan teaches. I only used pure colors from the tube, plus white to get them close to the proper value. Susan says not to put down the local colors first, so I chose other colors. If you put down the local colors first, then you can’t build up to them.

After the first layer, I put on a second layer to bring the colors closer to where I want them to end up. Then I let it dry completely for two weeks.

When it was dry, I worked on one section at a time, from the top down. I had painted the sky a warm yellow (lemon hue plus white). In the photo, it was just a flat, washed out white. So I improvised and put some cerulean in the top of the sky, and scattered some pale rose throughout the sky too to give it subtle interest. I put some white towards the mountains, since I knew the photo was taken early in the morning and the sun was low. I did use a brush and I layered it on very lightly and gently, because I wanted the warm, yellow sky to show through.

When the sky was done, I just wanted to stop there. It looked good to me, and I didn’t want to ruin the rest of the painting, but of course I had to move on. Next, I did the far mountain on the right. In the real photo, both mountains were the same color (blah-cool-gray), but I “know” that farther away mountains are cooler, so I made the farthest mountain bluish. I used at least two colors in every section, but oftentimes more. I used the knife from this point on. At first, I was not happy with the blue mountain: it looked like a cutout. So I got some “sky” color (pale yellow), and layered it on top of the blue, and THAT looked good. It looked like sunlight was filling up the air, so I made more sunlight towards the sun. I decided to put the sun between the mountains, even though in real life, the sun was off the canvas off to the left. You can tell by the shadows. (I tried to adjust the shadows a bit as I went along.) I took the time to make the edge of the mountain soft against the sky to give it more distance and glare effect.

I find that when using a knife, I can put lots of colors down on top of each other. With a brush, you have to put it down and leave it. But with a knife, I can fuss around a lot more. If I put the wrong color down, I just put the right color on top of it, and the “wrong” color just adds interest.

When I made the second mountain, I decided to make it more purple-y, to make it look closer. I put sky-pale-yellow on top of that too. I went back over the sky where the sun was and put in some white. I spent a lot of time softening the edges where the sunlight shines over the mountains. I made it all up. The far left of the left mountain looked plain, so I made up some blue and pink areas, but I kept the values the same.

I wanted to quit there too. I was very happy with the mountains and I didn’t want to try anything else. But, I had to finish it. I worked on the distant landscaping next – just working from the top down and keeping all the values consistent. I just fussed around with the colors until I was happy with them. I discovered that cobalt blue plus white makes a good atmospheric perspective for me. I did not move on to the next section until I was completely happy with the one I was working on.

Then I worked on the background landscaping and the buildings. I used a tiny knife for the houses, and for the windows and fine details, I did use a tiny sable brush, like an eyeliner brush. I put the brushstrokes down broken, so they would look like knife strokes.

By this time, I was feeling more confident, and just kept working my way forward and downward, one section at a time. If something was not shaping up the right way, I just layered on some more of the right colors.

It all came out pretty bright, but I see now it is because all the colors I used were bright and “pure”, because I did not dull them down by mixing them on the pallet. I realized that if I painted a painting using only “day-glo” colors, it would come out pretty bright too. Dulling down colors is okay, I just did not want to do it here, because I was trying to capture the bright glow of the morning sun.

I think I have a reasonable grasp on this technique now. Now I need to learn how to tone it down in some places so that I can have a good balance of bright and dull.