Friday, November 26, 2010

Portrait of a Redhead

The online art 'community',, has a forum on portraits that I visit on and off.  With the rain and cold weather, it's beginning to be more on than off.  There is a monthly 'challenge' in the portrait forum where someone posts several photos and everyone is invited to paint one or more in their favorite medium and style.  I haven't done many portraits this year and I felt the urge to get back to it.  This month featured an unusual looking redhead and I decided to give it a try.

establishing "landmarks"
I had a stretched 20" x 16" canvas of fairly smooth texture and I had toned it with a raw sienna previously.  I started out in the usual way with a direct sketch using a small brush and a reddish brown mix slightly darker that the canvas tone.  I sometimes use a gray for sketching, but more and more I like a warm tone closer to the colors of the subject.

I sketched carefully, trying to get the 'landmarks' in the right places. This is such a critical step in a portrait.  I try not to rush it, but I am an impatient painter and it's always a struggle to resist plunging into the 'good stuff' too soon.  As I write this, I realize that I didn't do much measuring during the early sketch, and, predictably, this lead to some problems later.   Portrait painting is a process with definite steps.  The earliest sketch is a critical early step.  Rush it and you'll struggle to find a likeness for the rest of the painting.  I did.  

Developing forms and establishing darks
My favorite part of any painting, portrait or landscape, is the drawing.  I love to draw with a brush and often I am tempted to quit at that point!  With landmarks established (incorrectly in several places) I begin to draw in the shapes more fully, still using the reddish brown mix.  I added shadow areas as if sketching with a pencil.  It would probably be more 'correct' to just begin to add the darks and halftones in color rather than shading with the sketch color and brush, but more and more I've begun to take this extra step in the sketch.  Because getting a likeness and accurate drawing is dependent on the spaces between landmarks - hairline to eyebrow, eye to hairline at temple, bottom of nose to upper lip, and so on - putting in the shadows and halftones this way helps find any areas that are badly drawn or that have missed the likeness significantly. 

Adding lights

Now I begin to add color, starting with the darkest darks.  Since these are primarily in the hair, I mix a burnt sienna, cad orange and add ultramarine for the darkest areas. Although I shouldn't have, I couldn't resist adding some lights in the hair to begin to give it body.  The darks in the face should have been added next - the left side of the face, under the nose and lower lip - but with the shading from the sketch defining these areas and giving them shape, I ship right to some of the lightest lights.  Once again, in hindsight, this is 'out-of-order' in the process.  The correct approach would have been to paint the darks in the face, follow with the mid-tones and finally add the lights, but being a bit out of shape painting portraits, I wander haphazardly.  I know better, but sometimes it's easy to deviate from what we know and instead, do what we want.

At this point I am conscious that the shape of the face in not correct and that the head seems slightly wider than the model's.  It's inevitable that this will happen when the sketch phase isn't done with patience and accuracy.  I decide that I can correct that by moving the ear in from the right and by continuing to work on the shape of the forehead, cheek and jaw by negative painting with the dark passages of the hair in shadow.   At several points in this painting, I wipe out whole sections with a paper towel dipped in OMS.  The smooth canvas makes this much easier, thankfully. 

Finally, I add a simple background after adding in the midtones and lights in the face.  I really don't like the blue after I put it in.  I think the warmer background was better, but I'm committed at this point, and since it's just a study, I'll probably leave it as is.....

"Mairen"  Oil on Canvas  20" x 16"

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Rainy Day in the Studio

A plein air trip planned for Sloughhouse was rained out today, so I retreated to the studio for a couple of hours while the rain came down.  I used a photo generously posted in one of the "Monthly Challenges" on  I liked the light coming from the single source to the right.  The rest of the painting was very dark.  I tried to stay loose and throughout the painting.  The canvas panel that I had handy already had a tone of raw umber, so it was quite light.  I started by making a quick sketch with a brush and burnt sienna.  As I went along, I wished I had spent a little more time on the sketch.  It might have made what followed easier.  I blocked in dark areas with burnt sienna and a bit of ultramarine blue.  I did a lot of negative painting in this one, painting around shapes such as the stirrup and belt. I also tried to add thick darks in spots...and that's where a more accurate sketch would have been helpful.  During most of this painting, I kept thinking about carving the saddle out of the dark background. 

The photo has a little light reflection in was photographed with only overhead florescent light which washed out the top portion somewhat.  In particular, the rope appears much lighter that it is in the painting. Total time, about 1 1/2 hours

Saddle  12" x 9" Oil on canvas panel

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Struggling with Green!

On a recent day with artist friends Ruth Andre and Howard Rees, I painted in the Gold Country near Sutter Creek, Drytown and Amador City.  I posted my plein art paintings earlier.  I was very disappointed with the results that day.  Both paintings were very mediocre, and the first one was just plain bad.   From the emerald green of the gold country in winter and spring to the dark muted green of the valley oaks, I've always struggled with green in landscapes. 

I've decided to study greens in landscape painting, and although I've just started, I'm beginning to understand the issue a bit.  I found a very nice, if a little bit technical, article on line about seeing and  mixing greens.  It was aimed at the watercolor painter, but I think the challenges are somewhat the same.  I'll find the link and post it here later. 

First, I bought a couple of additional colors to experiment with.  I've started to make some color charts and I wanted to have a bit more variety for mixes and added colors.  In addition to the colors I already have, Sap Green, Cad. Yellow Lt., Cad Orange, Ultramarine Blue, Yellow Ochre, Cerulean Blue and Hansa Yellow, I bought Thalo Blue, Thalo Green, and Ivory Black.  I haven't used black before, but in reading about mixing greens, I have come across a number of references that recommend it for a neutralizing color.  In fact, when mixed with yellow in the right proportions, it's possible to make a muted and useful green.

After playing with the mixes for awhile I decided to take another try at the barn scene I had attempted in plein air.  I set up my EasyL in the studio, but the photo of the scene on the computer monitor and took a shot.

The original scene was strongly lit from the left with mid morning sunlight.  The tops of the trees and shrubs were raked by the light, while the left side and bottoms were in deep shadow.  On site, I allowed the entire painting to become very high key and I lost any contrast.  The shadows were just a mid shade of green.  There was so much bright sunlight that I think I was a bit overwhelmed by it.  To top it off, I was standing in the sun without an umbrella.  To shade my canvas, I more or less faced the sun. I've made that mistake before, but this time it resulted in the painting being too light.  The usual outcome of painting in bright light is a painting that tends to be too dark. 
The original plein air study. 
  Anyway, whatever the cause, the painting was a mess.....

In the studio, there were several things I wanted to accomplish with the new painting.  First I wanted to work with the greens.  I wanted much more contrast in the entire painting, and I wanted the barn to be the clear center of interest.  I wanted to darken the entire color key of the painting as well.  For the greens, I went much darker, using thalo blue in mix.  I also used black sparingly to lower the color intensity while staying on the dark side.  It was only when I was nearly done with the painting that I realized that I had used almost no white in any of the mixes.  The exceptions were the tin roof of the barn and the hill top on the left.  There's no white in any of the green mixes.  Most were lightened with Hansa Yellow (I didn't use my old faithful Cad Yellow Lt., either.)  I think leaving out the white and using a less intense yellow throughout the painting was an improvement...and an eye  opener too.  I am over using white in all of my paintings, and I'm going to try to cut down.  I was amazed at how little I used in this painting.

I like the second attempt much better.  Although it was done in the studio, I did it very much as though I was in the field...using my EasyL and glancing at the computer monitor for reference.  I actually spent less time on the studio version than I did working on location...just about an hour total.  That may be another improvement.  I've also noticed how much the feeling of the painting is changed by simply extending the background hills past the top of the painting, eliminating most of the sky.  Suddenly, the countryside seems much larger and the barn seems smaller, even though it's virtually the same size in both paintings.  That simple change in composition made such a difference. The  second painting captures the vast scale of the foothills.  I feel like I've learned something here.  Now back to my green mixing charts.

And just for the heck of it, I grabbed my new watercolors and dashed out this 'sketch'.  I added an oak from another photo to fill up the left side and strengthen a very weak effort.  I'm aware that I'm painting watercolors like an oil painter!  Oh well, more to learn!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A Fall Day in the Gold Country

With the change from Daylight Savings time to Standard Pacific time only one day away, the threat of winter loomed.  My artist friends Ruth Andre and Howard Rees and I decided to try to catch a final paint out opportunity and we couldn't have been luckier.  The day was gorgeous and after the morning coolness passed, it was shirt sleeves and sun hats all day.  Both Howard and Ruth live in this beautiful country, scene of the California Gold Rush, and although I only live 40 minutes or so away, I don't visit often enough.  Each time I do, I'm impressed all over again. 

We drove down some narrow paved roads used mostly by local residents and found countless places to paint.  I neglected to bring my camera, unfortunately, so I don't have pictures of Ruth and Howard, but Ruth took these two of me and was kind enough to share them.

I'm using my new EasyL plein air easel for only the second time.  I broke it in on the trip to Bodega Bay and I'm really enjoying it.  So easy to set up and use with the colors right below the canvas and everything right at eye level.  This is a well crafted easel with the outdoors in mind.  I recommend it and plan to do a 'review' on it soon.  As you can see, the day was warm and sunny. 

I wish I had pictures of the others hard at work, but I have only this one of Howard's set up.  He got a very good painting of this scene..

I did two paintings, both unexceptional.  I've become a bit discouraged with my plein air I believe I'm mentioned in other posts.  Ordinary is the kindest thing I can think to say about most of them. 

I'm hard pressed to find any redeeming qualities in the first painting I did.  The barn in a small valley with morning light coming from the left was a very appealing subject.  Yet the painting missed everything that made the me want to paint it.  Worst of all are the greens in the painting.  Before this effort, I had already realized that I don't understand green, how to see it, how to mix it, how to vary it with the light.  After this poor effort, I am resolved to begin a small study on green in painting. 

This small 9 x 12 painting was marginally more successful.  If nothing else, I got a bit of atmosphere and space in it.  The greens are a bit better asl well, although I am aware that the tree on the left wasn't even remotely the color in the painting. 

But mediocure results or not, it was a great day...good friends and spectacular countryside were wonderful...and as my talented friend Ruth Andre would say ..they made for a painting day.