Monday, 31 January 2011

Tea time

Tea time - Oil on canvas panel (8" x 6") by Benoit Philippe

Friday, 28 January 2011

Weiss beer, please!

On a recent trip to Munich, I had a Weiss beer over dinner. But before I drank it, I thought I would do a quick sketch. As there was nothing to make a good sketch in the restaurant conservatory, I ended-up drawing what was in front of me, on the table.

I had with me my Moleskine sketchbook and a newly purchased set of four Sanguine PITT artist pens (Small, Fine, Medium and Brush). This set is more limited that the grey set (see my post Working on tones and values with felt pens) because they are all the same shade of sanguine ink. So if you want shading, you have to criss cross the surface.

I like the colour of the ink and I look forward to see how it will do with colour washes. As the pigmented drawing ink is waterproof, these pens would be ideal.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

How Picasso showed his works in the studio

This article was first published in my newsletter "Notes From My French Easel" – November / December 2010. Follow the link to subscribe to the newsletter.

Picasso had an unusual way to show his paintings to visitors in his studio. It seems natural, when showing a work, to isolate it so that it can get all the attention of the public without any competition from its surroundings. Picasso’s method was more “organic”. Here is Brassaï’s description in his book “Conversations avec Picasso”:

“The ceremonial of this operation has not changed since probably the Bateau-Lavoir... It consists of making with his paintings a kind of pyramidal construction, assembling them - usually around an easel that has already one or more paintings on it - to superimpose small to large formats, in order to enhance their affinity or contrast.”

Brassaï explains that Picasso liked the chance element in getting two works next to each other. This method was for him a perfect way to show in one go works from the same period.

Monday, 24 January 2011

The lamb

The lamb - Oil on canvas panel (8" x 6") by Benoit Philippe

Monday, 17 January 2011

How to use white in paintings

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine" – December 2010.

White is a tricky colour when it comes to paint.

Ambroise Vollard, in his book “Recollection of an Art dealer”, remembered what Renoir told him about white on white effects: “- It is pretty difficult, he said, but nothing is more exciting to paint nor provides a nicer effect.” Renoir was right: because whiteness emerges from simultaneous contrasts, how can a white object standout over a white background? The prime difficulty is to make the object look white while expressing the volume with appropriate shadows. Tinted whites (with blue, pink, yellow, etc.) offer endless possibilities to make your white areas more interesting.

In nature, white is not often white. White surfaces reflect colours coming from the source of light (or the ambient light from the sky) and objects close by. Depending on the circumstances, white surfaces will be on the warm or cool side. If you take a photograph on an overcast day of a white piece of paper placed outside, the paper will appear light blue. If you do the same at the end of a sunny day, the white paper will glow with a warm yellow. This means that, when you are painting, you won’t use much white as it comes out of the tube.

To discuss the role of white, it is necessary to distinguish between watercolour and oil painting techniques.

In watercolour, white is in general the colour of the paper. Purists do not use white paint in tube, although it is unclear why this would be wrong if used in small quantities. When you want a white area, you reserve it or mask it with masking gum (a liquid latex gum that you apply on the paper and that can be removed after the paint dried). You also take advantage of the whiteness of the paper to obtain luminous colours. Watercolour paints are, for most colours, transparent and the light will go through the thin layer of pigment, and bounce back on the white paper to make the colour shine.

Although oil painting calls for different techniques, it is possible to achieve a luminosity and transparency close to watercolour with a combination of white and glazes. The best example is given by the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who relied on the power of white. They used white grounds for their works and developed a technique called “wet-white”. William Holman Hunt explained that after the initial pencil drawing, he would spread with a painting knife a thin layer of wet white mixed with a small drop of varnish on the part he wanted to work on the day. Then he would add the colours on top with light sable brushes, as thin glazes of transparent and semi-transparent colours. The process was painstaking as the artist had to avoid disturbing the fresh white background when he laid the glaze on top of it.

It is possible to take advantage of the Pre-Raphaelite technique. You can create texture using white and, after the white application is dry, glaze a colour over it. This way, the glazed colour will appear luminous.

What about using white to obtain a lighter shade of a given colour? It works well for opaque colours but not so well with transparent colours. Titanium white will turn transparent colours into opaque colours and will also make the mixed colour cooler. Trying to make an Alizarin Crimson lighter by mixing it with white will result in a pink colour with a hint of blue, very far from the brilliance of the original colour. White will most of the time “deaden” transparent colours. You should try the technique already suggested above: apply the white first and let is dry. Then glaze the transparent colour on top of this white base.

You can also try the reverse technique to bring depth to your painting: apply the colours first and, when the painting is dry or semi-dry, glaze some Zinc White diluted with a thick painting medium on the parts you want to make recede in the background. Zinc White is the most transparent white and suitable for glazing, scumbling and alla prima painting.

If I had only one piece of advice to give regarding white in oil painting, it would be: don’t use white too soon. This practical step will save you from having a painting with washed-out colours. It is easier to lighten a painting than it is to get the darker tones back after you have mixed your colours with white all over the canvas.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Initial drawing for oil painting

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine" – October 2010.

There are a number of options and tools when it comes to preliminary drawing for an oil painting. I have used most of the methods I describe in this article, depending on the circumstances and the type of subjects I was painting.

Regarding the tools, although ordinary pencils are commonly used, their main disadvantage is that graphite can bleed into light colours. To avoid this, I go over the pencil lines with a brush loaded with highly thinned paint. The turpentine or odourless thinner evaporates within minutes, acts as a fixative, and I can carry on painting. A sharp pencil is ideal if the scene is complicated and required a detailed drawing.

An alternative to graphite is sepia pencils. The earth colour is lighter and will not create murky colours. This is one of my preferred options.

Charcoal works well for preliminary drawings and painters have used it for centuries. It is easy to apply and to erase it, making adjustments and corrections a breeze. By hatching shadow areas with the charcoal stick, you define not only the linear composition of the painting but also the masses of light and dark areas. However, charcoal dust can make colours dirty (yellow and light transparent colours in particular). The remedy consists in fixing the drawing by spraying some fixative on it. This is not a problem in the studio, but I don’t really want to have to carry around a spray can of charcoal fixative when I go on a painting field trip.

I have also used permanent felt pens (I like the Faber Castell Pitt Artists’ pens ). They dry quickly and will not interfere with the paint. I found the marks left by black pens to be hard on the eye. The risk with the hard lines drawing they create is that it is more difficult to paint soft edges. You tend to fill-in the forms delineated by the black lines and stop at the line, creating a hard edge. For this reason, I prefer drawing with a grey shade felt pen, which makes the drawing visible but not obtrusive. I also make sure I cover the lines when I block-in the painting.

Many times, I have used a hog brush and diluted paint to establish the preliminary drawing. This is ideal for simple subjects or with small format paintings. Diluted paint can be lifted with a brush dipped in solvent or wiped out with a rag. Lifting can be used to create highlights or make corrections. I found that Yellow Ochre, Burnt Umber and Ultramarine blue work well together. A mixture of Ultramarine Blue and Raw Umber gives a rich dark colour that dries fast. The Yellow Ochre is ideal for mid-tones. I also use either the Ultramarine blue or the Raw Umber to draw the linear composition with the round hog brush number 3. These are just suggestions and you can use whatever colour suits your style.

Related articles

Oil painting initial drawing with a Pentel colour brush

Friday, 7 January 2011

Drawing shadow areas from reference photographs

As I explained in an earlier article (see Working from photographs), details in photograph get lost in shadow areas. I have this issue when I print my reference photographs with my home printer on a sheet of A4 photo paper.

One way I found that helps with seeing details in the shadow areas consists in manipulating the photograph in Photoshop Element. I am using Adobe Photoshop Element 6.
If you want to invest in a good photo manipulation program, which remains easy to use and still has many features, go for the last version of this software which is currently Adobe Photoshop Elements 8 (PC DVD). There is also a version for Mac: Adobe Photoshop Elements 8 (Mac).

After I opened the photograph in Photoshop Element, I selected from the menu Filter/Sketch/Photocopy. The result was a negative black and white photograph.

I then had to invert the photograph to get the positive view: Filter/Adjustments/Invert. The result looked a little bit pale, so I decided to give it more contrast.

I applied Filter/Adjustment lighting/Brightness-Contrast. Using the cursor, I lowered the brightness to minus 88 (- 88) and boosted the contrast to 35 (+ 35).

Related articles

10 ways a painter can use digital photography 

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The influence of language on paintings

Lera Boroditsky, assistant professor department of psychology at Stanford University, has conducted a number of studies on the influence of language on how we perceive the world. She noted in particular how linguistic differences between different languages influences the way we see and the way artists paint.

For instance, “Russian speakers, who make an extra distinction between light and dark blues in their language, are better able to visually discriminate shades of blue.” (Wall Street Journal article: Lost in Translation)

Language is of particular influence with non concrete words and concepts and how we visualize them.

Knight, Death and the Devil by Albrecht Dürer 1513. Engraving. 24,6 × 18,9 cm. Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“In fact, you don't even need to go into the lab to see these effects of language; you can see them with your own eyes in an art gallery. Look at some famous examples of personification in art — the ways in which abstract entities such as death, sin, victory, or time are given human form. How does an artist decide whether death, say, or time should be painted as a man or a woman? It turns out that in 85 percent of such personifications, whether a male or female figure is chosen is predicted by the grammatical gender of the word in the artist's native language. So, for example, German painters are more likely to paint death as a man, whereas Russian painters are more likely to paint death as a woman.” (How does our language shape the way we think? [6.12.09] By Lera Boroditsky)

Further readings

Lera Boroditsky’s website with a selection of her papers and articles. She has a refreshing sense of humour (scroll over her picture and you will understand what I mean)

Monday, 3 January 2011

Free art books for your Kindle

At Christmas, I was the lucky recipient of a Kindle, the electronic book reader from Amazon. I am still playing around with it and I will tell you later what I think about it. I am going to share with you some great art writings I found on the web. Even if you don’t own a Kindle (or another eBook reader), keep reading as you can read these titles on your computer.

The first impression of the Kindle is that it does one thing very well: letting you read books without the distraction of multiple other applications. The obvious limitation is that the screen is black & white, which is not so good for reproductions of paintings.

In an earlier post, Art writings online for free, I already gave some links to writings by John Ruskin, Leonardo da Vinci, James McNeill Whistler and Sir Joshua Reynolds.

Below are more free books to consider:

Paul Gauguin

Noa Noa (English Translation)

Wassily Kandinsky

Concerning the Spiritual in Art

John Ruskin

The Elements of Drawing - In Three Letters to Beginners

Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574)

Lives of the Most Eminent Painters Sculptors and Architects (several volumes)

Related resources

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