I am not a particular fan of insects, but the sound of cicadas is a constant in my childhood memory. Summer time in Beijing when the city was still haze free, kids with long bamboo sticks were searching for cicadas in the canopies of trees. The molt makes good ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, probably for treating cold. When I first saw the picture of a blue cicada I was delightfully surprised. I never knew cicada could be this pretty. The ones we had in Beijing were black and brown. Yet, we all romanticize our memory, don’t we?
“Summer Dream,” which currently on view at the Pacific Art League gallery, was inspired by two of my previous pieces. The design came from “Marching” (not obvious, I know, long story still developing), while the color theme “Landscape.”
By the way, naming the artwork is probably the hardest part of the creative process, at least for me. While “Sing” may be self-evident, it was still an afterthought. As for “Summer Dream,” hehe, I grabbed it out of nowhere the minute before submitting it for the show, and had to check the register sheet to remember what it was when I brought the artwork in. 😂
These are some of the portraits I’ve done recently. Palette wise I have pretty much opened myself to everything now:
Here’s an old Zorn palette one:
A few notes:
The first three paintings are supposed to be gesture studies. I obviously overworked.
On the other hand, spending more time designing the background makes the process more interesting and the painting more finished. I like that.
Managing an open palette did distract me from better value control and cost more subtlety in skin tone.
I am thinking a two-step approach to improve: first spending more time preparing the palette – premixing most of the colors like I did with the Zorn palette; and then use a timer to push for a more gestural result. Two hours? Three? 🙂
It’s been a while since I did any master studies, and luckily the Watts’ program forced me to catch up. Here are some of the facial features I copied recently:
Eyes – Fechin
Nose – Rembrandt
Lips – Leyendecker
Ear – Bouguereau
A few notes:
The reference photos I used are provided by Watts Atelier, and some of them are not very close to the original. For example, I believe the last one is from William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 – 1905)’s Portrait de Gabrielle Cot. The original painting is high on realism. This doesn’t really affect the study though.
The most difficult thing I found is to re-create the texture, which is achieved by either manipulating the surface (Fechin) or brush strokes (Rembrandt). In the former case, it’s hard to guess how the manipulation was done. As for Rembrandt, it’s a laboring buildup that can’t be achieved in a few hours. For now, I am still focusing on the basics. Texture and brush strokes are like signatures. They are very personal and take long time to form.
I find choosing a topic and taking a small portion of the masterpiece to study is more effective than copying a whole painting. I also like the exposure to different styles. Bouguereau and Leyendecker are completely new to me and I find the highly stylized approach from the latter very refreshing.
2022 for me is not only moving on from the beloved Zorn palette, but also a broadening of the subject matters. The plan is to keep practicing portrait and still-life, with an emphasis on loosening up and becoming more gestural. Meanwhile, I will add landscape and later figures to the learning schedule. For medium, oil is the focus for now, but I’d like to do more watercolor sketches with or without ink.
Landscape is not a particular interest of mine, but for years, I used it as a check-mark to see if I have made any progress in techniques. After doing other subject matters for a while, I would attempt a few landscapes to see if I feel more confident and comfortable. It never did!
It took me some time to figure out that apart from value control, the key to a successful landscape painting is shape design. To deliver a believable tree, on surface you have more leeway than doing a portrait, but the lack of definitive guidance (the shape of an eye, a nose etc.), you need to come up with your own. That freedom can be a curse.
Looking above, it suddenly hits me that before doing trees, it might be a good idea to practice more bearded and hairy portraits first! 😉
Zorn is not the only limited palette used by artists. Well-known landscape artist Scott L. Christensen stayed with lemon yellow, cadmium red, ultramarine blue and white for many years, and his method has many followers. Presidential portrait artist Mark Carder teaches a palette of 5 colors, permanent alizarin crimson, cadmium yellow pale, french ultramarine, titanium white and burnt umber. Karen Blackwood painted her award winning coastal sceneries mainly with alizarin crimson, cadmium yellow pale, ultramarine blue, titanium white and viridian.
It’s not hard to see that all these are some versions of the primary colors. Replacing Zorn’s ivory black with Ultramarine and yellow ochre with a brighter yellow allows a more chromatic and less muted approach to painting.
Using a limited palette doesn’t mean you can’t use other colors. The above mentioned artists, Zorn included, all supplement their palette whenever necessary. Limiting color choices is to create harmony and in training, helps us focusing more on values. Eventually, we need to listen to the painting itself for what color comes in.
I have been staying with Zorn for months now, and it serves well for portrait painting. As I moving on to more still life and floral paintings, I began adding more colors to my palette. Zorn is still my starting point and foundation for each painting. Here are some recent exercises from my Watts classes:
For the watercolor paintings, I planned two different approaches, a softer and muted one, vs a more vibrant and contrasted one. The results were somewhere in the middle. Especially for the first painting, I wish I had softened some edges and let go certain definitions instead of spelling out everything I saw.
The gouache one is a homework from Watts. It is a practice of the Zorn palette and the tiling technique. I found both the medium and the technique challenging. Tiling is to juxtapose thick layers of close-value paints and blend them (if necessary) later. It’s a good preparation and practice for oil painting, but it requires a lot of patience in value control and shape design. Hehe, patience! 😉
Still homework from Watts, burnt umber pick out, burnt umber and white, phthalo-blue, black and white respectively.
I like MDF board covered with canvas better than MDF board with gesso, because it’s more absorbent. On gessoed board, the paint takes longer to settle which can be frustrating. However, if you like the super smooth and realistic look, board it is.
I need to learn how to take photos of oil paintings. 😉
Color chart and value scales are among the things that appear in almost every art book, and are practiced in some form, in every art class. They are also the things I have been avoiding. So tedious! A Zorn palette chart, 45 little squares in total, is a required assignment from my Watt’s Atelier class. Just the push I need.
The chart is quite self explanatory, and here are some paintings done with these colors:
A few notes:
This is by no means all the combinations you can get with a Zorn palette, but it still shows off the potential of these four colors.
The nice thing about oil paints is that after I mixed all these colors, added a few drops of clove oil, I could use most of them for weeks. This practical side is a huge motivation.
It’s quite handy when there are clean colors to go back to while painting. I use a large palette, but still run out of space and get muddy all the time. This is an improvement of my working condition.
Cad. red #1 is the first to dry out, followed by #2 in that array, no matter how much clove oil I add to them. There must be some weird chemical reactions going on, because all other stay buttery for weeks just fine.
The more I use Zorn palette, the more I am in love with it 😍.
After some deliberation, I signed up for Watts Atelier‘s online program in July. The program has a drawing and a painting part, and both start with the basics. There are video demos, handouts, and homework to turn in. It is probably good enough for the money even if you just watch Jeff Watts doing the demos, but you don’t want to skip anything to do it right. That is to say, it is not a small commitment.
Here are a couple of paintings from the Phase I Portrait and Phase I Still Life homework:
A few notes:
In Phase I, the painting routine starts with a single color, burnt umber, progress to two colors, burnt umber and white, and then 3 colors, phthalo-blue, black and white.
I will go back to Zorn in Phase II.
I sometimes wonder if I will become one of those forever learners: keep taking classes and never become a standalone artist. I feel so comfortable following a routine and not to think what to do next. On the other hand, it’s not like I have nailed the skill part already. So this is an experiment. Let’s see if the intensive training at Watts would eventually set me free by building confidence through skills.
Watts has some gouache courses but no watercolor. Jeff once said many amateurs started with watercolor, but it is actually a most challenging medium to excel in. I do feel I see value better and have more control over shape and edges with oil. I still hope to apply whatever I am learning to watercolor. It is such an expressive medium.
The more I learned about anatomy and head drawing, the more I am afraid of making mistakes, and the tighter my paintings become. Especially in watercolors, things were all under control (to the extend of my ability of course). They rarely just happened. The recent Draftsmen podcast mentioned how as a student, one learns and memorizes everything, and later forgets everything to become an artist. Hehe, we’ll see.