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.
Quasi Zorn is 1) when I realized that I didn’t have ivory black and cadmium red in watercolor and replaced them with neutral tint and pyrrole red; and 2) when I couldn’t decide if the white of the paper counts or I should use the titanium white. The paper white doesn’t help in mixing colors, but the titanium white turns everything too opaque. I will keep digging and meanwhile order some new colors!
I just realize that I almost skipped the entire month of May. Well, I have been painting and taking online lessons from New Masters Academy, Watts Atelier, and Sentient Academy. The art world is online! (There is a potential danger of being overwhelmed with too many good stuffs though 😂.)
I have continued working on portrait and oil with the Zorn palette (I talked about it here). There are still a lot of the basics about the oil medium that I need to grasp, such as keeping my paint clean, using layers, being mindful about brushstroke economy etc. These skills directly affect how far one could push the range of the Zorn palette. As muted as it is, there is drama to be laid out.
The last piece is a bit too much fun. I used Gamsol to dilute my paint and put on a thin layer of background in the beginning. Too much of it makes the paint “watery.” Normally I would wipe it off or wait for it to dry. This time instead, I added more to see what would happen. And wow! It ran down with all those interesting patterns! I don’t know if the piece was ruined or what – it’s a practice painting anyways, but it made me curious about what else this medium could do! 😉
California watercolor artist Mike Bailey once said in his workshop that artists should keep going back to their old works and find inspiration there. In the past, that’s something I rarely did. My own works used to make me sad. If they are good, I feel like I haven’t made any progress, and if they are bad, I am bad. Last year when I started my social media presence: this blog and my Instagram, I managed to go through some of what I had done with Mike’s words in mind. It took some getting used to, but after many self-pitying moments, I saw sparks. There are things that generate ideas, things that remind me of techniques I learned and forgot, and things I simply want to re-do.
One of the sparks is an old abstract acrylic painting “Waterfall”, a design still excited me:
I kept the design, but drifted away from the primary colors and brought in the fluidity of the watercolor medium. Here’s the new version:
Earlier this month I also submitted a self-portrait to Art Room Gallery’s Portrait Show, and received an “Honorable Mention.” Here’s the artwork:
As I mentioned before I have been focusing on portrait this year. Though techniques are still my major concern, and I understand it takes far more than the a few months to grasp it, I do often think about if I could go deeper than just the face. “Decision” is an attempt to bring out a bit of the inner world of the subject.
Anders Zorn (1860 -1920) was a great Swedish artist well-versed in watercolor, oil, etching and sculpture. He not only left behind many beautiful artworks, but also a unique palette. As shown above, the Zorn palette consists of only four colors, commonly described as ivory black, titanium white, yellow ochre and cadmium red. Did Zorn really paint with only these colors? Many artists don’t believe so, but the four colors probably served as the backbone of his approach. Zorn believes such a limited palette helps achieving a coherent portrayal of light. Nowadays, some art schools use Zorn palette as a transition from grisaille to full palette painting.
The choice of colors seems odd for me at first. Coming from watercolor, I almost never used white, and used black only in the form of ink, mainly for line work. It’s quite a shock to me to find out that the ivory black, cad red and ochre are in fact a muted version of the primary colors, and the white, as the coolest color in the set, plays big role in controlling the temperature of mixtures we derive.
Here are some exercises I did with the Zorn palette. They are not finished paintings, but a part of my continuous efforts in portrait painting and experiments to find out the potential of this limited palette:
A few notes:
Zorn is not a “pretty” palette, but some of the “muds” you see in my paintings are due to my poor ability to keep my brushes clean, or a lack of assertiveness in my strokes. Not his problem! 🙂
Since it is not a “pretty” palette, the approaches have to be value based, and it’s a great exercises of control in that sense. You can also practice this method with gouache.
I got conflicting information on whether ivory black is considered a warm or cool black, but I think it doesn’t matter. It is less overwhelming than mars black and therefore more versatile. It makes beautiful green, brown, and blue with the rest of the colors.
White is the only true cool in this set, and some artists use lead white, which is probably less overpowering than titanium. I couldn’t find lead white and titanium white works fines if you don’t use it too aggressive and too early.
Apart from cad red, you can also use Vermilion or brick red.
I do see artists adding blue to the black, use a chromatic black, adding a different shade of red, etc. As a practice, I’ll keep the painting within the simple version of these four colors and focus on values and consistency in atmosphere. Fun is the next step.
I have been more and more focusing on portrait painting in oil recently. Neither do I have the intention to become a portrait artist, nor do I want to switch my main medium to oil. It’s a practical choice. With portrait, I don’t need to spend much time choosing subject matters and thus narrowing on technique. There are plenty free references online, and there’s always the option of a mirror. Plus, it’s easier to find more comprehensive oil classes from online than other painting mediums.
Since last fall, I have taken three portrait classes. The format is similar – the teacher demoed in class, you did your painting at home and submit online for critique. In retrospect, the painting styles I was shown are quite different.
The first one was with an extremely talented young artist, Kailun Qu. Kai painted in alla prima style, fast, spontaneous, and effortless (seemingly). He gave effective critics without reservation, something I’ve been looking for for years. Here’s one of the portraits I did for the class:
The next artist I studied with is almost the opposite of Kai. Renowned figurative artist Joseph Todorovitch held a 5 week workshops online, with 4 hours each week. The 20 hours were dedicated to one painting, and in the end he’s not done. Later we received 8 more hours’ demo. Take a look here and you’ll understand why the labored approach is fully justified. It’s quite surreal to witness the birth of a masterpiece, but I have to admit a couple of weeks into the workshop I realized this is way above my weight class. I didn’t spend even half of that many hours on my version:
The most recent class is from Watts Atelier, Portrait in Oil with Ben M. Young. Watts has all sorts of art classes all year long, and is more focused on basic skills. You can choose to audit or participate in the class, and the feedback worths every penny. Here’s one of the class homework:
The good thing about online classes is that if you pay for the critique, it’s not just a verbal feedback. The instructor could easily paint over digitally to show exactly what he meant. Plus you get to keep a video version and therefore the ability of constant review. I will repeat some of these classes on my own several times to get the most out of them, and probably take a few more from Watts. For the time being, that’s the plan.
Hopefully later on I could carry the techniques I learn this way onto other subject matters and even different mediums.
I took a composition class at Fullerton College with Marshall Vandruff last fall and was introduced to a more analytical approach of studying masterpieces. Instead of making a copy, we did value studies, and took closer looks at the use of patterns, directions, rhythms etc. in composition.
For me, the value study is the most valuable. Many artists recommend doing a value sketch before any painting, but I was never clear about what I should look at and work on in this step. As a result, I either skip it, or simply map out the light and dark in my reference. In the class, we were asked to turn some master pieces into two tones, three tones and four tones, and see if they still work. And that’s the key! A good painting should work at every stage, and a value study is make sure that the black, white and sometimes grey shapes are well designed and interesting. Why? because when someone look at your painting from afar or as a thumbnail, those value shapes are the ones that call attention.
Here are some examples of the studies I did for the class:
A few notes:
I used to do master studies by copying the entire painting. I find it very helpful, especially in appreciating the whole process of creation. Sometimes, however, when I am trying to get all the details right, I overlooked the big pictures. Single out certain elements of a masterpiece and study only that helps me go deeper in that direction.
Most of these studies are no bigger than a business card. They are not easy to do but still much faster than copying the whole painting in details. I could study a lot more masterpieces this way. I think these small studies are complementary to the detailed studies.
In theory you can go up many more levels in tonal studies, but as you can see, a 4-tone study is already very close to the final identifiable shapes. I personally find two-tone is the most important. That’s the first impression. Three and four tone studies help you work out more complicated and subtle designs.
The colored studies should also have a focus (such as temperature), and should still focus on big shapes.
Another thing these studies did to me it enhances my sensitivity to the design elements in a painting, and now when I am looking at an artwork, I find myself doing mental notans and arrows!
My 2D Design class comes to an end and the final project is a poster designed as a tribute to an artist. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920) is an artist I admire and want to study. So I took the opportunity to revisit some of his art:
All the images are paintings or sketches by Mr. Thiebaud. You can find his self-portrait, his portrayal of his wife, his best-known subjects, pies and cakes, and his typical landscapes – San Francisco streetscapes, Sacramento River Delta and mountains and many more. I also included one of my favorite quote from him.
I like Mr. Thiebaud’s vibrant but often economic use of color, his bold and whimsical composition, and above all, his ability to turn mundane subjects into humor and drama. There’s also a healthy positivity in his art, that always cheers me up.
Mr. Thiebaud just celebrated his 100th birthday this past November.The Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento curated an exhibition commemorated the event and Smithsonian has an interesting article about it. Obviously Mr. Thiebaud is still painting everyday, playing tennis and driving!
Would art do that to me? 🙂 Best wishes Mr. Thiebaud!
I first came to know this panel St. Francis Renounces All Worldly Goods, attributed to Giotto (1267 -1337), in Glenn Vilppu’s composition class at New Masters Academy. (He has a composition class on his own website and it’s very pricey. I don’t think they are the same thing. The NMA one is more like a masterpiece composition appreciation class.)
Honestly speaking, I knew little about Middle Ages art. It’s the section in a museum I often skip, assuming those paintings are mostly more about religion than art. I was surprised to see Mr. Vilppu going back that far to talk about composition. If I remembered it right, he sees many religious paintings as comic strips and superhero stories of the time. I guess that makes them the predecessor of the modern narrative art!
This panel is from a series of St. Francis stories. The figures are quite realistic, with vivid expressions and movement. The stage setting is deliberate. The artist used a series of verticals and horizontals to group the subjects and surroundings, and then use diagonals from clothing, figure and architectures to guide the eye. All this builds up to see the otherwise obscure hand in the air. There’s drama and clarity in the narrative.
What strikes me most, is the way the artist divided the panel. It’s cut in half horizontally in the middle, and vertically, there’s an obvious space to part the surface in two, also in the middle. If this is from a modern artist, I’d call it bold, but I don’t know Giotto or Late Middle Ages art enough to call it anything. While I watched Glenn’s lesson, I doodled some composition lines of the piece trying to make sense of them. Later, I developed a few pieces from that design:
I show the pieces in the sequence of when they were designed, but I actually finished the painting of the third one first, and showed it in a previous post.
You can see how I took more and more liberty with the composition, or I should say, the design finds its own life.
I use Giotto Studies as the title for now for lack of a better one. These are not real studies though. I merely scratched the surface and stole a few lines.
I want to say this is like a one stone two birds thing. I read a masterpiece closely, and got inspiration for something new.
I know what I could do next time I am running out of ideas to paint! 🙂
The rich colors of the season remind me of a series I did years ago. It consists of four still life paintings, done in watercolor and ink pen. It was the first series I ever did and was done before I had any appreciation of doing things in some sort of consistency. My natural inclination is always jumping around among different things.
As I have better understanding of the creative process, I start to see the benefit of staying for a while with a particular technique, a color theme, a subject matter, a design concept, etc. It reenforces your strength, challenges your thought, and often leads to new discoveries.
Anyways, here they are:
The things that connect this series are techniques and subject matters. I set up some “fall” related objects and chose four settings. They are parallel to each other in terms of relationship. Another way to develop a series is to derive new pieces from the old one. I am in the process of an experiment of that and hope I will be able to show it soon.