Anatomy of an Indirect Painting II

In a previous post, I discussed how an indirect painting was built up in layers of glazes and scumbles. In this post I will do the same, but concentrate on the earliest steps- underpainting and first layers of glazes and scumbles.

One of the things I really love about indirect painting as a landscape painter is the opportunity it affords to mimic the atmospheric effects we see in Nature. But, its appeal goes much deeper than that. On one level, it just all about the paint. Although we often think of thick paint when we think of the sensuous qualities of paint, the visual quality of layers of paint- some thin and transparent and others thicker and juicer- delight the eye with variety and a riot of optical experience. We can retain the illusionistic qualities of traditional painting but combine them with a modern celebration of the surface of the canvas.

On another level, the act of creating that surface and the act of looking at it, can bind the artist and the viewer together in an exploration of both time and space. The artist builds the surface over time. The viewer experiences it by visually peeling back the layers, excavating the process and intent of the artist.

Here are the images showing how I start a painting and the first few layers as I begin to build up the surface. These are cell phone shots I took in the studio, so apologies for the variations in lighting, etc.

The first image is the completed underpainting. I use Vasari Shale and Gamblin Transparent Yellow Earth. These photos were taken during the first four or five working sessions on the painting. Because this is a larger painting, (36 x 48) the underpainting took two sessions to complete.  In the distant trees I used a very thin mixture of Shale and Liquin.  It was applied with a rag rather than a brush . The brushwork in the foreground establishes the initial forms of grasses, deadfall and earth. Because some of this area will remain transparent in the final painting, it is important to establish that information at this stage.

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Here I have put a thin coat of opaque paint in the sky, added sky holes in the distant trees and put a first glaze on the foreground.

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Second glaze on the ground plane.

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Third glaze on the groundplane and scumbles over the distant trees with another layer of Shale but this time with just a little white in it. First glaze  on ground plane was Natural Pigments Antica Green Earth. Subsequent glazes were in mixtures of the Antica and Nicosia Green Earth to cool and heighten the chroma a little. Darks are restated where needed to build up the forms.

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Detail of the pine tree trunks on the left with opaque paint added and scumbles and sky in the distance.

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At this point the painting was perhaps at most 40 % complete. Many more layers and adjustments to come.

 

P.S. Our online class Painting the Luminous Landscape- Introduction to Indirect Painting Methods for Landscape Painters starts on July 8. Join us !

Anatomy of an Indirect Painting

In previous posts, I described the history of indirect painting and also some of the techniques. In this post, I plan to show you how an indirectly painted landscape can mimic the light effects in nature and create both an interesting and varied surface quality and multiple optical effects. Indirect painting using the Venetian tradition gives the landscape painter a wonderful assortment of techniques to use. There isn’t any one way or a set series of steps which one follows in every instance.  Planning, knowledge of subject, and intuition play a role.

The final “look” of the surface requires numerous layers of varying kinds. So, thinking ahead to the next step is crucial. What I see most often is that students want to rush the process, “going for the finish” too soon by either pulling out the opaque paint or leaving the surface looking unfinished with just a few glazes. The way a painting looks when it is truly finished depends as much on what the top layer looks like as it does on all the layers underneath. The beauty and special quality of an indirectly painted work depends upon the variety of optical experiences it offers the viewer.

So, a big part of my thinking when I start to paint (actually when I start to think about an idea) is how and where I will leave things transparent, use translucent paint over transparent, use opaque paint, finish with a glaze on top, etc. My best paintings are ones where I have done all those things or at least several of them. At least I think so. That variety of surface is what will keep the viewer looking at your work long after that initial glance.

How to decide? Well, some things are obvious. Shadows need to look transparent so using transparent paint there works well. But, generally I use several layers of glaze, maybe up to four or five, before I start in with other techniques. Why? Because those transparent areas give the finished painting a richness and depth, even when large parts of it are covered with translucent or opaque paint. I try to keep as much of it uncovered as I can.

Scumbles are a great tool for creating atmosphere and “air”, softening edges and generally building up layers of sympathetic color. I also like to think about building something from the ground up, or, put another way, like Nature would make it. So, the dark warm earth (transparent ) goes on before the grass or leaves on top and the warmer, darker tree interior goes on before the lighter cooler outer layers of light and mid tone.

But, every painting starts with a transparent underpainting which is about two value steps lighter than it will be in the finished painting. Subsequent glazing will darken the value, so one must compensate by starting out a bit lighter. It is just the first of many decisions that have to be made while thinking ahead. You have to have your next moves in mind before you pick up the brush. There is no straight line between the start and finish, but rather lots of zig zags. Here is what a typical underpainting might look like. Although the values overall are lighter, the value relationships should be correct.

Morning Light 2430 underpainting 72 dpi-3

This next painting is called Farm Pond Morning (16 x 20). Here are a few images which unfortunately have some glare but I think still serve to address some of this. I kept the images large so more detail could be seen. In these I have fast forwarded to the finished painting.

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First, is a detail of that lit up area between the trees. I think you can see the transparent edge right next to the opaque light paint which represents the sun. putting those two things together mimics Nature- light bounces off the opaque paint back into the eyes of the viewer (like the sun) while the light passes through the transparent edge giving it a glow and lighting it up in the same way we perceive it in real life. But, also look at the surrounding areas of foliage. If you click on the image, you will be able to see the layers underneath the translucent paint on top. So in this one area there are three different optical experiences.

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This next closeup is the far left edge at the juncture of the grass and water. The tree reflections are transparent with opaque paint on top for the pond scum and opaque reflections for the sky. The grasses are painted very thinly (as compared to the more robust little bits of opaque paint on the pond), barely a whisper of opaque paint dragged over the underpainting. To the right, an area that is just getting a little light has been lightly glazed with a warmer color on top of that. Just above that is an area where the trees meet the grass which was under painted, glazed, then translucent paint put on top, then a glaze on just that underneath lower area to create warmth and vibration with the greens above.

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Here’s a detail of the area just above the previous one where you can see the grasses and trees a bit better.

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Here’s another detail of the water, this one including the reflection of the sun. Again, from the bottom up, it is transparent underpainting, numerous glazes – first darker (just like I would do if I were painting the tree itself), then the lighter warmer colors on top of that, juxtaposed with the opaque reflections which are also glazed over, and finally the cooler opaque bits floating on top of the water.

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Using indirect techniques offers the landscape painter endless combinations of techniques to create a varied and beautiful visual experience for the viewer.

P.S. Our annual Magic Hours online class, an exploration of indirect painting techniques and painting transitional times of day, starts October 9.  Join us! For those interested in a more comprehensive program of study, we are accepting students for the January trimester of the Atelier programs. Click here for more information.

What is Indirect Painting? Part II

In Part I on this topic we explored the history of indirect painting. In this post, we’ll look at why indirect painting is different from direct painting – why it creates a different “look” and how it can be used to create an extraordinary range of optical effects.

First, let’s talk about transparent paint. During my training as a landscape painter, I was not really given any information about transparent paints and what, if anything, they might be used for. In fact, I tended to think of them as a nuisance and to avoid them, because generally their tinting strength is lower. Like most direct painters, I vaguely understood that it was a good thing to keep the darks thin and the lights thicker.

Eventually, as I began to explore indirect painting techniques, understanding the properties of transparent paint and how they can be used opened up a a whole new way of looking at the surface of a painting.

Here is a diagram showing what happens when light strikes the surface of a directly painted work.  The light strikes the surface of the painting and then bounces off. This mimics how light reaches our eyes on lit up form and is why opaque paint works so well to depict bright sunlight for example.

Direct Painting Illustration
Direct Painting Illustration

 

 

Indirectly painted works, on the other hand, are composed of distinct layers of paint, some passages applied transparently as glazes, others applied translucently as scumbles or velaturas and others in opaque paint. All of these layers may be visible when one looks at the surface of the painting. So what happens when light strikes an indirectly painted work? Here’s a diagram.

 

Indirect Painting Illustration
Indirect Painting Illustration

Essentially what happens is that light passes through the surface of the painting (rather than reflecting back as it does off an opaque paint surface) , strikes the ground or other opaque layer, and bounces back out, creating that “glow from within” look.  So, when you combine different surfaces – all transparent, transparent glaze over an opaque layer, scumble over transparent, etc- you get all sorts of different effects because the light is entering and reflecting and refracting back in different ways on different parts of the painting surface.

This creates an optically complex look that just cannot be gotten any other way. Because the light travels back through the layers, it enters the eye in a more diffused state and creates both a glow and luminosity that enhances the atmospheric look of the work. Shadows look deep, transparent and mysterious, scumbles create air and atmosphere, softly covering forms,  and opaque passages look even more brilliant.  In a way, looking at an indirectly painted work is a bit like an archaeological excavation – the viewer peers through layers of paint and time. The surface invites a long, lingering look.

Autumn Sunrise, Lennox Woods Deborah Paris
Autumn Sunrise, Lennox Woods
Deborah Paris

 

Farm Pond Morning Deborah Paris
Farm Pond Morning
Deborah Paris

 

Winter Morning Deborah Paris
Winter Morning
Deborah Paris

P.S. Our annual online class Painting the Luminous Landscape- Introduction to Indirect Painting for Landscape Painters- starts July 10th. Come see what all the fuss is about! Join us!

What is Indirect Painting? Part I

Most of you are direct painters. This is the primary way that oil painting has been taught for the last century or so, although indirect painting held sway prior to that. I was trained to work in a direct, alla prima way as many of you have been. When I decided to explore indirect painting techniques, there wasn’t a lot of information out there, especially for landscape painters. So, it took years of research- study of past masters, as well as art history, and texts on methods and materials- to figure out a bit about this way of working. Even today, there are just a handful of landscape painters who are using these methods.

Indirect painting simply means that the surface of the painting is built up in layers rather than all in one go. There are many different ways to do this. All of them rely on creating distinct layers of paint which will create a different optical effect, a different “look” than a work painted directly in opaque paint. This is achieved by using transparent, translucent and opaque passages and building up the painting in layers.

 

Before we explore the technical side of indirect painting, let’s look at a little art history.  Prior to the late 14th century, the medium of egg tempera was used for painting. The earliest oil painting technique was developed in Flanders in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. As a result this method is referred to as the Flemish technique. Using a wood panel, artists transferred a highly refined drawing onto the panel. The drawing was then restated in ink or thin paint and sealed with varnish. Once that was dry, the artist would commence painting transparent glazes into the shadows and applying layers of thin translucent or opaque paint into other areas. Each layer of paint was allowed to dry before continuing work and the painting was finished by adding subsequent glazes and building up the lights with opaque paint. Highlights were finally added with thicker opaque paint. This produced a highly realistic, more linear image, usually with fairly hard edges.

Here is a painting by Jan van Eyck  (Flemish, 139-1441) executed in the Flemish technique.

 

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The new innovations of oil painting spread like wildfire throughout Europe. Italian artists in particular adopted the new medium although resistance by some (including Michelangelo) remained.  By the late 15th and early 16th centuries Venetian artists, particularly Titian (1488-1576) and Giorgione (c.1477-1510) began to invent further innovations to the Flemish technique. The limitations of working on wood panels and the difficulty of making alterations to a work in progress sparked a shift to the use of a canvas support and a more painterly process for execution which is called the Venetian technique.

The innovations of the Venetian technique involved the use of canvas, stiff brushes and an underpainting rather than a drawing. As a result, the edges in paintings produced this way tend to be softer and the resulting work more atmospheric and painterly. Generally the underpainting was executed either partially or completely in opaque paint and was called a grisaille when executed in neutral greys. After the grisaille dried, glazes would be applied to the shadows and the light areas built up with thin opaque paints. Titian is generally credited with “inventing” the scumble (light opaque paint applied as a translucent layer) and the velatura or semi-glaze which can be transparent or translucent.

Man in a Red Cap Titian
Man in a Red Cap
Titian
Christ Carrying the Cross Titian
Christ Carrying the Cross
Titian

Eventually use of the Venetian method and its many variations became widespread all over Europe and was used for centuries by masters such as Rubens, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Poussin, and Ingres.

Self Portrait Rembrandt
Self Portrait
Rembrandt

Indirect painting, using the Venetian method or its many manifestations, offers the artist the widest range of options for both application of paint and optical effects which can be achieved.  In Part II we’ll find how how and why!

 

P.S. Our annual online class Painting the Luminous Landscape- Introduction to Indirect Painting for Landscape Painters- starts July 10th. Come see what all the fuss is about! Join us!