Tutorials on Painting
NOTES ON PLANNING A PAINTING: WHAT TO PAINT AND GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS BEFORE STARTING
by Ann Ponce
This will focus strictly on how to decide what to paint and how to plan your strategy. (It will not address anything technical having to do with the actual application of paint.) Although some of these things are obvious, it may be helpful to organize them mentally. You probably already have a good sense of how you want to approach the decisions.
I. WHAT TO PAINT
Some artists and art students already have a strong feel for what they want to say through paint, and others are at a loss, knowing they want to paint but not sure how to go about it. Here are some guidelines:
A. Do you want to work from that which is right in front of you in space and time? A still life setup, a landscape from a place outdoors (“plein-air”), or a live model? (e.g. Robert Henri, Mary Cassatt)
B. Do you want to paint from your imagination or memory? Are you fascinated to explore subjects from your own inner psyche or dreams? (e.g. Carl Jung, John Sloan, Marc Chagall)
C. Do you want to paint from a photograph, sketch or two dimensional reference? Do you prefer to use material from others or to take your own pictures?
D. Do you want to paint abstractly, making the paint itself your subject matter? (e.g. Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock)
E. Do you want to use a combination of some or all of the above? (e.g. Elaine de Kooning)
II. HOW TO PROCEED
A. PAINTING FROM LIFE
How will you physically get situated to do this? Painting in real time from real situations can be exciting but fraught with challenges. The most wonderful thing about it is that, whether the painting works out or not, it will be a sensory reminder of the moment in time when you created it; not just the scene, but the heat or the cold or the wind or the smells or the sounds.
The outdoor situation requires quick decision-making. Plein-air painters sometimes use a viewer to narrow down their compositions. They must be adept at sketching quickly and thinking on their feet. They must understand lighting qualities and how the light will change during the process of painting the scene.
The still-life setup, by contrast, is a great way to have control over every aspect of your subject matter, particularly if you use an artificial light source; window light changes during the course of the day, with north light being the most constant.
Having a live human model is probably most artists’ favorite way to paint because there is an implicit real-time relationship between artist and subject. As with plein-air situations, the pose will always shift and the artist has to understand that these shifts can create drawing and compositional problems. Even the most professional models will make subtle shifts or lower their chins as the pose wears on, potentially changing how the drawing looks.
B. PAINTING FROM YOUR IMAGINATION
Memories, feelings, dreams, traumas and passions can all be expressed visually. Tapping into those things is very much what young children do when they paint—in addition to experimenting with the materials, they manage to convey an honest, unvarnished view of the world as they perceive it. Picasso recognized this and used childlike and imaginative imagery in his work. Imaginative expression is a strong motivation for many artists, but not for all.
Painter Hans Hofmann is a good example of an artist who made sure that his work and imagery was strictly about the effects of paint and color on the canvas. He strove for no identifiable subject matter, believing that the visual illusion of “push-pull” was the thing that made painting exciting to look at. For him, painting itself was his subject.
D. PAINTING FROM PHOTOS, DIGITAL IMAGES, OR WORK BY OTHER PAINTERS
A painting based on photo reference or a copy of another artist’s work transcends the original and becomes another thing altogether. A copy of a Vermeer is a combination of two artistic perceptions, the original and the copy.
You can think of it this way: photographs are to painting what recorded sounds of nature are to musical compositions based on them (think of Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring” as an auditory landscape.) The sources, whether visual or auditory, are translated into ART via the human brain, using technical means, whether it is a palette full of paint or the notes played by a musical instrument.
A painting done from a photo is simply color applied by hand, mixed and put onto the canvas manually. The artist’s brain, her eye/hand coordination, her visual interpretation or mis-interpretation—her subjectivity--all go into the painting. The original photograph, by contrast, is mechanically objective.
III. HOW TO CHOOSE AND USE PHOTO REFERENCE: VISUAL DISCERNMENT
It has long been acknowledged that working from photos is problematic. New digital technology has eased many issues and has also created new ones. This area deserves its own section because of the very real visual discernment needed to glean information for a painting. Photo reference is a tool, and as with any tool it must be used correctly and carefully.
A photo is of a specific thing, taken at a specific location at a specific time. If you decide to use this photo as a visual tool, there are questions to be asked: Does the photo you choose of a particular thing or particular things also convey something universal, something essential, that others can relate to? Is it about life? Will you as the artist and the viewer who will look at your work find common ground through this image? Will you be able to use this image to communicate to your viewer? Will you need to use many photos in order to convey your essential idea, or will just one suffice?
You will need to go through hundreds of photos as you pursue the ones that interest you as painting subjects. As you narrow them down, you will need to ask just what makes your photo compelling enough to be used for a painting. Define what you love about it (the colors, the subject, the feeling it evokes…) You could even put your selected photos into your order of preference. Here is a list of questions to help you eliminate some potential problems:
1. Is your photo a visual cliché or too generic? Have we seen it a million times before? Does it belong on a calendar of commercial images designed to appeal to the masses? (If so, can you interpret it in a fresh or ironic way?)
2. Does your photo have an aberration that could be confusing: hidden arms, legs or hands, foreground forms obliterating background forms, things that are at an odd tangent to one another, ambiguous cropping that leaves too much unexplained, a figure off-balance during a split second,? etc., etc.
3. Does your photo convey a mood or is it static and whitewashed? (My teacher used to call it a “so what?” image.) Can you define the mood?
4. Does your photo have a dynamic, interesting perspective, either looking up or looking down? If straight-on at eye level, does it still retain interest? Can you define the viewer’s eye level by looking at the photo? This can be crucial as you make the drawing from it. For example, a shorter forehead or lower ears in a portrait means that the viewpoint is from below.
5. If the photo is being used for a classical landscape, is there a good distance between the photographer and the foreground so that the closer objects are not distorted or too big? Is the camera angle wide enough to allow for the expansive nature of a landscape? Remember that the human eye sees at least at a 60 degree angle from the station point (where the viewer is standing.) Some of the pre-digital-age snapshots, particularly in the 1960’s and 70’s, have a very narrow camera angle.
6. In your opinion, does the photo give you adequate visual information, or is too much of it hidden in shadow? (Again, the earlier pre-digital photos tend to have opaque, dark shadows because the technology did not account for the surrounding light and color bouncing into them.) Does the camera exclude a foot or anything necessary to the planned painting, and can that be easily added in?
7. Is the photo in focus, and if not will that give you problems?
8. Is the composition in the photo pleasing to you or does it require many modifications or changes? If you are tempted to remove something, is there a valid reason to manipulate reality? Or is it that removing an element will make your job as a painter easier? Do you anticipate making a vignette of the subject, where you leave the background ambiguous or blank?
9. If you are thinking of combining the imagery from several photos into one painting, do all of the photos have the same perspective or distance from the subject? Or is one taken from straight-on and another from below? (If so you will have to address this.) Do the photos have completely different lighting situations that could confuse you and create problems as you make the painting?
10. Can you define any distortions in the photo so that you can correct them in your painting? Is the camera tilted? (If there is a horizon line on a body of water or a vertical or horizontal architectural element near the center, you can fix this.) Architecture and interior shots are always distorted toward the edges, as are group photos of people where those not in the center appear wider. Look for heads that are too large, meaning that the camera was closer to the person’s head than to their feet. If the nose looks too large, the camera was too close. These things are all red flags for the painter.
11. Will your photo translate into a painting in its own right, or is it more appropriately left as a photo?
IV. FINAL CONSIDERATIONS BEFORE STARTING A PAINTING
Artists are usually eager to start in with the paint, but time can be saved in the long run by considering the following:
A. Your style: do you intend for your painting to be imaginary, realistic, hyper-realistic, abstract, surreal, naïve or faux-naïve (where you intentionally work in a childlike way), impressionistic, or cartoonish? (There are other categories of course, and combinations.) Do you intend to have a single viewpoint or multiple ones, as in a visual collage? Your answer will be helpful to you since, if you define your stylistic goal, you will be better able to critique your work and make decisions as you proceed. (Case in point: realism requires an acknowledgement of linear and aerial perspective, whereas other styles may not. If you opt for realism, you can critique your work based on whether your choices help or hurt the illusion of three dimensions you are trying to convey on your canvas.)
Your own individual style will be derivative of all the art you have seen and admired throughout your life; past art influences future art, and no one paints in a cultural vacuum.
B. Your palette: will it be bright or dark, saturated or subdued? Warm or cool? What is the mood you want to convey, and how will color choices enhance that mood?
C. Your dominant tone: will it be light, middle-value, or dark? Will you have differing amounts of each tone in order to avoid monotony—or is monotonous tone a part of the mood?
D. Lighting situation for realism: is it high contrast as on a sunny day, or diffused as on a cloudy day? Daytime, dusk, or nighttime? Back-lit, front-lit, or side-lit?
E. Your lines and shapes: can you make a simple line drawing of your composition or a simple breakdown of all the shapes? Is each quadrant different from the others when you divide the composition into four equal rectangles? Are your lines mostly horizontal (for calm), mostly slanted (for dynamic motion), mostly vertical (for strength), mostly curved (for traditional femininity), mostly straight (for traditional masculinity), very chopped (for nervousness),? etc., etc. And finally, is there a diagonal or even a slight diagonal line from one of the four edges that can help lead your viewer’s eye into the painting?
F. Your format: does the shape of your canvas conform to how the linear drawing fits into it? Would it work better on a wider canvas, a square one, or a narrower one? (It’s easier to change formats before you begin work.)
G. Your thumbnail: Do you want to make a small color thumbnail before starting the actual painting, or can you see it in your mind?
There are so many questions to ask and to answer, and with experience the answers to them will happen naturally and instinctively.
It’s important for each of you to acknowledge that you already have a world of visual experience to tap into. You are more adept at judging imagery than you might give yourself
OK! NOW YOU ARE ON YOUR WAY! GOOD LUCK! AND REMEMBER, IT’S PERFECTLY OK TO START AND FINISH A PAINTING WITH NO PLAN AT ALL—TO DO IT COMPLETELY SPONTANEOUSLY. THE ABOVE ARE ONLY GUIDELINES THAT MAY WORK TO SAVE YOU TIME IN THE END AND TO BE MORE SATISFIED AND CONFIDENT WITH YOUR PAINTING. BUT YOU MUST BE TRUE TO YOURSELF, TO YOUR OWN TEMPERAMENT, AND TO A WAY OF WORKING THAT FULFILLS YOU. THE BEST ART IS MADE BY THOSE WHO ENJOY THE PROCESS, EVEN THOUGH IT IS WORK.
Ann Ponce Studio Copyright 11/11/2020
NOTES ON GLAZING, DIRECT PAINTING, AND GROUNDS
for my Wednesday students and many others
by Ann Ponce
Preface: Many of you have asked for a session on “glazing”—a word which, for painting students, seems to have a mystique. Here I try to put it into the larger context since glazing can’t happen in a vacuum. It works in tandem with other types of paint applications.
I’m a firm believer in classical art training which ideally starts with a foundation in drawing basics: contour drawing from life, modeling a form, measuring, observing, and placing the subject onto the paper. Since I can’t operate the physical studio during the pandemic (with all the cooking and camaraderie which I love!) I’m using the Wednesday time to walk you all through an orderly process of creating a painting and, eventually, a body of work that expresses your world-view. This process, if followed, should streamline your decisions and give you a better handle on your approach. The first “pandemic tutorial” dealt with planning a painting, or more simply WHAT TO PAINT, the many things to consider before delving in. This one is all about TECHNIQUE: how to get the painting onto the chosen surface. Future tutorials will address paint mixing, laying out the palette, uses of different brushes, and how to choose the best art supplies. There are so many possible topics, and I appreciate all your suggestions.
OVERVIEW OUTLINE FOR THIS TUTORIAL
I. TYPES OF GROUNDS
A. GROUNDS FOR WOOD, BOARD, PAPER OR OTHER HARD SURFACE
B. GROUNDS FOR STRETCHED CANVAS
II. WAYS OF MAKING INITIAL SKETCH
A. SPONTANEOUS DRAWING IN-THE-MOMENT
B. SQUARED-OFF TRANSFER
C. TRACING FROM SKETCH OR PRINTED IMAGE
III. PAINTING TECHNIQUES
A. DIRECT PAINTING
B. PAINTING INTO A GLAZE USING AN UNDERPAINTING
C. GLAZING FOR MODIFICATION
D. HOW TO DECIDE WHETHER TO GLAZE A PAINTING OR AN AREA OF A PAINTING
IV. APPLYING THESE TECHNQUES TO PASTEL, WATERCOLOR OR ACRYLIC
A painting has to be applied to a surface or a support, right? Whether it is the dry wall of a cave or a flat piece of wood or a woven canvas stretched onto a wooden or metal frame impregnated with rabbit skin glue to keep it from rotting over the years, covered with lead white pigment suspended in a drying oil, or modern acrylic gesso which does the trick easily…the fact is that paint must adhere to something so that it will not rot the surface or dry and peel off.
Painting surfaces have been made easy and affordable to acquire within the past many decades. Artists can buy them ready-to-use or not; we have the choice as to whether to make our own or buy them ready-to-use (like Trader Joe’s frozen foods, already prepared and ready to heat up.) Any art supply store has panels and stretched canvases sitting there, ready to buy and use, saving many steps.
Is a painting from a ready-to-use surface inferior to one made from scratch? Not necessarily. But it’s a good question. Ultimately, it’s what you do with it that counts.
Here is an outline of the choices and steps you would take as you proceed with a painting. You first choose your support or ground; you then add your drawing; and finally you decide how your technique will incorporate combinations of direct painting, glazing, and scumbling in order to achieve your desired effect:
I.TYPES OF GROUNDS (A “ground” is the liquid coating or coatings upon which the painting will be made.)
A. For wood or board
1. Traditional chalk-based gesso panels (“old-school”)
2. Acrylic gesso over panels, sanded
3. Ready-made panels from art supply stores
B. For canvas stretched over support or “chassis” (Note: there are four commonly used grounds for painting, listed below. The first three are most ideal for subsequent glazing.)
1. Sizing (PVA Size or rabbit skin glue) on raw cotton or linen canvas, covered with oil-based primer
2. White acrylic gesso, no sizing necessary
3. Opaque whites (either of the above) with transparent imprimatura (burnt sienna or other transparent color) applied over the dried white ground; painting is then scumbled into this dried glaze. The imprimatura uses mineral spirits as a medium, rather than oil medium, so that the painting over it will remain “fat-over-lean”---a technically sound order for overlapping paint layers.
4. Opaque tinted ground (any color or colors including black) either acrylic or oil
II.WAYS OF MAKING INITIAL SKETCH or linear compositional plan (Note: these are common ways of getting a starting image onto the canvas or panel.)
A. Spontaneous drawing or compositional line drawing in-the-moment
B. Squared-off manual transfer of sketch or photo with same aspect ratio (horizontal to vertical) using x-grid subdivided into equal rectangles
C. Tracing from sketch or printed image the same size as canvas or panel, using charcoal or pastel backing
III. PAINTING TECHNIQUES
A. Direct painting(no glazes): apply paint onto ground without medium added. You may blend colors with your brush or even your fingers, or put them down and leave them. Or you may scrape the excess paint off with a palette knife so that it leaves a ghostlike, transparent-looking layer in the weave of the canvas. You may apply layers into wet paint or over dried paint (e.g. impressionists, post-impressionists) depending on the surface effects you wish to achieve. In direct painting, the goal is to get value, color and intensity right from the get-go, OR to layer opaque colors over each other and to let the eye blend them. The possibilities are endless.
B. Painting into a glaze: classical oil painting technique over grisaille
1. Sketch with lines
2. Fill in tones: underpaint a grisaille (a pale, monochrome version of the final painting) in heavy bodied acrylic or underpainting white oil in shades of gray or earth tones. Keep this image “high key” using light values but keeping their relationships to each other correct. Because this underpainting is a set-up for glazes, it should have no dark darks.
3. With soft brushes, glaze transparent color over dried grisaille, mixing colors to match local colors or shadow values of each object in the painting. Yellow ochre, Indian yellow, raw sienna, raw umber, burnt sienna, burnt umber, alizarin, madders, ultramarines, thalos, viridian. You may brush the glazes into the painting, stipple them, or apply them heavily and blot off excess so that painting is not too runny. Think of the glazes as having the effect of a stained glass window over the painting. You may add any oil painting medium to the glaze colors, remembering that using too much medium might dilute the glaze too much or make it too runny.
4. Now it is time for your opaque mixtures: use an opaque white like titanium. (Zinc is more translucent.) Your transparent colors can all be made opaque with the addition of white; however, you may also use the opaque pigments such as the cadmiums, the red oxides such as terra rosa, the mars violets, cerulean blue, and chrome oxide green.
5. Scumble into the wet glazes with opaque color: modifying and pushing paint around to create soft edges, hard edges, and accuracy of drawing. Daubing, stippling, blotting, scraping to create desired effects. Wet-in-wet painting like this is a great way to keep surface “alive.”
C. Glazing for modification (of temperature or color) or toning down (slightly darkening) in any dried painting. Again, with a glaze, use soft brushes and blot when necessary with a dry soft cloth.
1. Create layer after layer of slightly tinted glaze, dried between applications—a slow process, ideal for painters who enjoy seeing gradual development of nuance; particularly good for detailed realistic paintings.
2. Or use just one layer of slight tint to tone down, cool down, or warm up an area of the painting. Remember that all glazes darken the area. Glazes never lighten.
3. If needed, scumble (with opaque paint) back into glazed areas to lighten or modify them. Glaze may be wet or dry. Or blot out the light or lightest areas while glaze is still wet.
D. How to decide whether to glaze a painting or an area of a painting:
If you look at your painting-in-progress and decide that an area is too light, then consider mixing a transparent glaze to darken it. If you look at your painting and decide that the entire image is too cool (such as a landscape where the leaves on the trees seem unnaturally emerald green) then consider mixing a glaze of transparent burnt sienna to help warm it up. Conversely, if you look at your painting and decide that it is too warm (such as a portrait where the face looks too pink or orange) then consider mixing a glaze of terre verte or viridian green to cool it down.
When I have suggested using a glaze to a student, it is usually because of the above reasons. With experience, your visual intuition will kick in, telling you that a painting of a black dog, for example, needs to be darker and richer since the dried paint has sunk in.
Again, glazes—which are transparent—can be used for the following purposes: darkening tones, enriching colors, changing temperatures from warmer to cooler, or from cooler to warmer, or to neutralize areas that are too bright. I had one student who painted portraits of her entire family in Elizabethan garb and then glazed them entirely with burnt umber to make them look antique.
You may also decide that it would be fun to glaze over an entire dried painting and work back into it by scumbling in wet-in-wet opaque paint mixtures. This is a technique that can enliven the working process for dried paintings-in-progress that are staring at you and making you wonder what to do next.
Painting is all about “deciding” which is why this word keeps cropping up here. The trick is to develop your own discernment, which comes with tapping into what you already know, as well as continued experience painting. Glazes are personal choices and are fascinating because they serve as a way to modify a painting very quickly. They can stay on as they are applied, dabbed off in part or wiped down, or painted back into.
IV. APPLYING THESE TECHNIQUES TO PASTEL, WATERCOLOR OR ACRYLIC MEDIUMS
Pastels use mostly the same pigments as oils, but these pigments are ground into white chalk and a gum binder. The binders used are of various softnesses.
Typical grounds for pastel are fibrous papers, granular sanded papers, or velvety coated papers.
Application is direct (with your hand holding the pastel crayon) although dry brushes or stumps can be used for blending colors.
Some pastel painters use a form of dry glazingwhere, in order to modify an area, the pastel stick is placed on its side and applied lightly to the drawing. Or it could be applied with diagonal lines, letting the underpainting show through. For example, if your portrait looks too pink or orange and you wish to add cools to these skin tones, you could “glaze” a soft blue or green over it. You would then work more color into the “glaze” as needed.
Note: Pastels are exceptional in that they will never yellow, as oils do. Fixatives can sometimes alter the values and should be used sparingly.
By definition, transparent watercolor technique is nothing but glazes. The white of the paper and a very pale initial underpainting (often done in yellow ochre) acts as the “grisaille” where subsequent washes of transparent watered down color will create the illusion of form.
Note: Watercolors generally dry a bit lighter and it’s important to keep that in mind while working.
The variety of mediums, additives, and paint thicknesses (from liquid to heavy-bodied) is vast. Liquid acrylic behaves similarly to watercolor, the difference being that, once dried, it cannot be rubbed off. Heavy-bodied acrylic is more like oil paint, applied directly in layers. The difference is that it dries within five minutes, making it impossible to blend wet-in-wet after that. (Drying retardants can help in this regard.) Glazing for modification is easily done with transparent tinted washes. Glazing mediums may also be used for heavier-bodied effects, with either matte or gloss finishes.
Note: Acrylics generally dry a bit darker, and it can be difficult to get an opaque white or light value over a dark area.
Ann Ponce Studio Copyright 12/7/2020