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.

Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 3.08.27 AM

 

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.

Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 3.08.46 AM

 

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.

Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 3.08.56 AM

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

Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 3.09.20 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 3.09.33 AM

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.

Why “Paint What You See” Is Not Good Advice

“In every object there is inexhaustible meaning; the eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing.”

Goethe

“Paint what you see.”  Has anyone ever told you that? The other day I was reading something online and ran across a discussion where several artists were offering advice to another artist about how to tackle a particular subject. “Paint what you see.” was the recurring theme of the conversation. I have heard that before, of course. You have too, right? Instructors often give this advice to students in workshops and classes. But before you can paint what you see, you have to learn to see.  The vast majority of landscape painting problems are a result of a failure of seeing.

Emil Carlsen
Emil Carlsen

First, we cannot see what we are not prepared to see. We literally don’t know what we don’t know! For example, unless someone has explained the concept of value and its importance, perhaps relating that to how values can be organized by the planes in the landscape, the beginner won’t see that. He or she won’t know what or how to even look for it. Unless someone explains the concept of color temperature, the intermediate painter won’t see it or even know that he or she isn’t seeing it! Once we understand fundamental concepts like value and color temperature, then we see it because we know what to look for and why it is important. We are then prepared to see it, and we do! Learning to draw and paint is first a matter of learning to see.

Emil Carlsen
Emil Carlsen

Second, once we can see, it is no longer our job to simply “report” on what we see, but rather to “translate” what we see into a work of art. Once we have the technical skills and understanding to truthfully represent nature, it is time to create a work of art. Nature rarely arranges herself into a perfect pattern or design. We take the raw material provided by Nature and make a painting of it. The painting becomes its own thing, separate and apart from the Nature which inspired it. It must stand on its own.

P.S. Our upcoming online class The Painted Sky starts August 7th! Take a look at our previous posts on painting big, atmospheric skies and join us!

Registration is here.

Where To Look for Shifts in Color Temperature

So, now we know that color temperature is an important attribute of color, and that seeing and painting those shifts will add quality to our paintings. But, where do we look for them?

Over the many years that I studied with Ned Jacob, he rarely answered my questions directly. Usually, he would say enigmatic things like “know where the violet lives”.  Catchy, huh? But, not helpful. So, I plan to tell you exactly where to look for color temperature changes.

Color temperature in landscape painting is most often a product of the color of the light and/or surrounding local color. The light is either warm (directly affected by sunlight) or cool (directly affected by the cool sky color). Both of these things will occur in the same scene. So your job is to know where the light is warm and where it is cool.

One simple thing to remember is “it’s warm in there”, meaning that the interiors of things and the undersides of things – under trees, interiors of foliage masses, cracks and crevices in rocks, and things like that will typically hold some warm reflected light.

Here is a dramatic example of that. This painting by the Spanish impressionist Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923) shows how the warm light of the sand is reflected up onto the belly  and the inside of the leg of the white horse. The cool light of the sky cools the temperature of the boy’s chest in shadow, and also cools the color on the horse’s back in light. A masterful orchestration of color temperature! Click for larger view.

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Just for fun, here is a photo of the man himself painting that huge canvas on a beach in Spain.

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But, we don’t need to have a big white horse in our painting to see and paint color temperature changes. Here is a beautiful painting by Russian painter Isaac Levitan which also demonstrates these ideas, albeit with more subtlety. Click for larger view.

levitan tree 72 dpi

Here the sun strikes the tree from the front left. The foliage in the upper areas of the tree is cooler, influenced by the cool light of the sky. The light struck areas are of course warm. But, so is the lower foliage and interior areas behind the tree, as a result of warm light bouncing up from the ground plane.

Here is another example from Ivan Shishkin, my other favorite Russian. The interior of this wood is warm! You might be tempted to paint that cooler, to make it go back, but you would be wrong. It would come charging toward you. But, with that nice warm color in there it recedes. The trees on the exterior of the woods are cooler, affected by the cool light of the sky, especially on the right side.

covert-1874

Another place to look for temperature changes is in shadows. Form shadows tend to be warmer and cast shadows cooler. In a cast shadow you will find more warmth closer to the object casting the shadow and cooler as it moves away and is more affected by the cool light of the sky.

Here is an example by Maynard Dixon, iconic painter of the American West. Click for larger view. See that shadow on the ground cast by the horse? There is warm reflected light in the shadow from the horse and cool reflected light from the sky.

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So be on the lookout for places in the landscape that hold color temperature shifts. See them and paint them!

P.S. Last call for our online class Practical Color Mixing for Landscape Painters I which starts this Friday February 27. Crack the secrets of value, hue, chroma and color temperature! Join us!

Let it Snow!

Many of us are facing bitter winter weather just now. So, it seemed an appropriate time to talk about…painting snow!

Two of the main concepts to keep in mind when painting snow are value and color temperature. When painting a light, highly reflective surface like snow we are hampered by the value limitations of our materials. Our white paint is the lightest light we can muster. In order to effectively represent snow and its surroundings, we must darken its value just a little, as well as the other planes in the landscape likes trees, hills and sky.

Because of its reflective surface, the color of snow is affected by the colors around it, most particularly the sky. That is why on a bright sunny day when the ground is covered with snow, you will see those intense blue shadows. That’s the zenith of the sky reflecting into the shadows. Recognizing the source of that color and maximizing it helps to describe the snow. In this painting you can see contemporary American landscape painter Stapleton Kearns doing just that. He has used a warm white for the sunlit portion of the snow and cooler whites to depict the planes turning from the light and the shadows. This is a great example of how one might model the snow on a sunny day.  Notice too how the value of the sky has been lowered just a bit and the rest of the scene brought into that range as well. The warn notes in the foreground logs provide a temperature counterpoint to the overall cool cast of the painting. Finding opportunities to include a warm note in a snow painting adds variety and richness to the snow filled world.

Stapleton Kearns
Stapleton Kearns

But, often when we paint snow, it’s not a sunny day. Here is a lovely tonal homage to snow by American painter John Carlson American ,1875-1947), author of Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting. The color of the snow reflects the muted sky color, and the close values of grey, brown and violet in the near and distant trees evoke a quiet winter day in the woods. Subtle warm notes in the trees and plants sticking out of the snow provide the needed variety in temperature.

Carlson snow
John Carlson

Here’s one of my favorite snow paintings by Frederick Mulhaupt (American, 1871-1938 ). Mulhaupt has used value masterfully here. The counterchange between the light tree trunks and darker confers behind is echoed by the small triangle of dark water on the left. The violet sky is darker than the snow which helps to set it off and appear luminous. Subtle temperature and value changes within the snow describe the ground plane underneath, and the dark bits of earth peaking through lead the eye to the central arrangement of trees. The remaining foliage on the trees provides a warm counterpoint against the violet sky. Quite an orchestration!

Mulhapt snow
Frederick Mulhaupt

In this painting, I wanted to evoke the memory of a day in snow filled woods. The quiet muffled quality of sound, the intimacy of the deep woods, and my part in it were all on my mind. I used subtle value and temperature changes to depict the foreground snow and describe how it began to pile up on top of grasses, plants and tree trunks. Warm notes in the foreground provided a counterpoint to the violets, greys and browns.

Winter Woods Deborah Paris
Winter Woods
Deborah Paris

Finally, here is a painting by Marc Dalessio (American, contemporary) which he posted recently on his blog. He helpfully included a photo of the scene he was painting. This provides a great example of how he has manipulated value and temperature to create an effective design. Note how the snow value has been lowered and its temperature cast shifted to a very light blue green. Notice also the warm note of pink on the edge of the shadow underneath the main tree on the right and a similar note on the other side of the road. He has also darkened the value of the trees in the distance just slightly and the main tree as well, providing needed darker notes (along with the tire tracks).

Dalessio snow photo
Dalessio snow photo
Marc Dalessio
Marc Dalessio

Orchestration of value and color temperature is the key to success in snow paintings. So, go out and paint some snow!

P.S. Our Values II online class and Color Mixing  online classes are a great place to learn how to “key” the landscape and to understand the concept of color temperature. Join us!

Why Draw?

Ivan Shishkin
Ivan Shishkin

Why Draw?

Often  landscape painters don’t think drawing is important. I am always amazed in my workshops and classes at the number of students who do not regularly use a sketchbook or include drawing as part of their art making process.

 

Isaac Levitan
Isaac Levitan

I was fortunate that the first artist I seriously studied with- Ned Jacob- is a fine draughtsman of figures, animals and the landscape. He is passionate about the importance of drawing. One of the most important things he said to me over the many years I studied with him was: Drawing will set you free. He never really explained what that meant, but over time I figured it out. So, now I am telling you: Drawing will set you free.

OK, that may sound like hyperbole, but it’s true. And, it’s true for several different reasons. Here they are.
First, drawing encourages observation- not casual looking, but concentrated, analytical observation. It slows you down. Its economy of means and materials allow for this to occur at almost any time and when time is short and effects fleeting.

When drawing, we are more likely to zero in on the one thing that first caught our notice, and less likely to try to capture everything out there (which often happens when painting).

Drawing, particularly mass drawing, is a bridge to painting- forcing us to focus on shape and value, without having to tackle color.

Deborah Paris Stream Study
Deborah Paris
Stream Study

Drawing, specifically, thumbnail sketches, can be an enormous aid to not only learning to compose but to trying out different compositional solutions before investing lots of time and painting materials in a bad one.

Drawing encourages intimate understanding of the structure of objects in the landscape as well as their surface appearance.  This knowledge will inform your efforts and make your work more authentic.

 

Tree Study Deborah Paris
Tree Study
Deborah Paris

But, perhaps the most important reason is that you cannot ever become a good landscape painter without being able to edit the raw material nature provides. If you are dependent on either what’s in front of you or a photographic reference, your options are always limited.

Deborah Paris
Deborah Paris

Editing means not only leaving things out, but moving them around, redesigning how they are shaped, in what part of the picture plane they are found, moving the viewer’s location, adding elements that support your visual idea but are not actually in the scene before you, and painting from memory and imagination. Drawing can give you the skills to do those things- the freedom to take the raw material nature provides and design works of art.
And, a long the way, you find that drawing itself is a great pleasure.  Drawing sets you free.

 

P.S. Our six week online class Drawing the Landscape is designed to introduce students to methods, materials, concepts (like linear perspective and comparative measurement), and strategies for successfully completing drawings from Nature both for their own sake and as invaluable reference for painting, reducing dependency on photography. There will be some art history thrown in to demonstrate the long and glorious tradition of drawing from Nature and some video demos to supplement the thorough written materials, illustrations and examples. Join us!