Category Archives: Paintings

The Zorn Palette Experience

Anders Zorn, Self Portrait With Model, 1896
Anders Zorn, Self Portrait With Model, 1896

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.

Focusing on Portraits

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:

Portrait, oil on paper, fall 2020

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:

Alexandra, 20 x 24 in, oil on panel, February, 2021

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:

Portrait, oil on panel, Feb, 2021

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.

Master Studies – A Different Approach

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:

Two-tone (notan):

Three-tone:

Four-tone:

Movement Studies:

Colored Studies:

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!

A Series on Black Paper Inspired by Giotto

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!

St, Francis Renounces All Worldly Goods, (from Wikimedia), Giotto

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:

Giotto Studies 1, Gouache on black paper, 9 x10 in, 2020
Giotto Studies 2, Gouache on black paper, 9 x10 in, 2020
Giotto Studies 3, Gouache on black paper, 9 x10 in, 2020
  • 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! 🙂

Autumn Colors – A Throwback Series

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:

Autumn Colors 1, watercolor and ink pen on paper, 16 x 12 in, 2015
Autumn Colors 2, watercolor and ink pen on paper, 12 x 16, 2015
Autumn Colors 3, watercolor and ink pen on paper, 16 x 12 in, 2015
Autumn Colors 4, watercolor and ink pen on paper, 12 x 16 in, 2015

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.

Happy Halloween – Self-portrait?

This painting was done earlier this year, but gosh, is there a better time to post it?

Self-portrait, acrylic on masonite board, 30 x 24 in, 2020

In case you wonder, the cat is reading The Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches), a 15th century treatise on witchcraft, written by the Catholic clergyman Heinrich Kramer. The book had a great influence on the prosecution of witchcraft in later centuries. You need to know your enemy I guess!

My First 3D Art – The Story of Yang Guifei

Yang Guifei 杨贵妃 (719-756), Imperial Consort Yang, is one of the four best known beauties in ancient China. She married Emperor Xuanzong 玄宗 (685-762) of Tang Dynasty in essence, granted the highest rank among the Emperor’s harem, but was not his official wife (I believe he didn’t have one at the time.) Her family rose to power because of the Emperor’s favoritism, but also caused a lot of tension in the court. During a rebellion that forced the Emperor to escape the capital, the imperial guards blamed Yang Guifei for distracting the Emperor from his royal duty and forced him to kill her. Her short but eventful life was commemorated in poetry, paintings, dramas, and novels throughout Chinese history till today. The legend even goes beyond China. Some Japanese believe she didn’t die but escape to Japan.

In the outskirt of Xi’an, a city in central China, and once the ancient capital of Tang Dynasty, there’s a tourist site called Huaqing Palace. It’s said to be the royal resort of Emperor Xuazong and Yang Guifei. I visited the site two years ago, and was fascinated by the story and the modern obsession of it in China. I always wanted to make an artwork about it, but find it very hard to condense a rich narrative. Eventually, I did it with 5 paintings – 5 sides of a box.

The story begins with a peony. In Chinese culture, peony not only implies beauty, but it’s beauty in richness and glory. It’s the national flower of China today. The blooming flower is Yang in her innocent years. The background design is a twist of the Taoist symbol. Legend has it she spent some years practicing Taoism in a temple before entering the palace, a fashionable thing to do among upperclass women at the time.

The story continue on to the Huaqing Palace panel, where she enjoyed the Emperor’s love. Yellow is an imperial color in Chinese culture, and dragon is a sign of the emperors. The figure on the left is after an modern statue of Yang in Huaqing Palace. Among the four ancient Chinese beauties, Yang was regarded as the plump one (that also reflects the aesthetics of the Tang Dynasty). However, her modern statue is not only slim, but also western – makes you wonder about the presentation, representation, and the interpretation of history. The ribbons were often used in traditional dance and Yang was an excellent dancer according to legend. Huaqing Palace is also a site for hot spring, and you can still see the pools where Yang and the Emperor enjoy themselves today.

The next panel is a part of the map of the capital of Tang Dynasty, with the yellow part represents the royal palace. The hairdos and hats were an indication of the social position back then. As illustrious as the imperial couple, they were both just chess pieces on a political power grid. This is especially true for a woman like Yang. However she’s favored by the Emperor, she’s never the only woman around him.

The final part of her life story features a broken jade bracelet. Yang Guifei’s maiden name Yuhuan, in Chinese means jade bracelet. In Chinese culture, broken jade is also a symbol of the death of someone beautiful or virtuous. The battle horses and banners referenced ancient paintings about Tang battle scenes.

The top of the box is a collage of how Yang’s life story was remembered throughout history. The calligraphy is part of a long poem Chang hen ge 长恨歌, “Song of Everlasting Sorrow,” written by Tang poet Bai Juyi 白居易 (772-846). The poem is a retell of the love story of Yang and the Emperor. The painting next to it is done by a Japanese woman artist Uemura Shoen in 1922. There are still TV dramas produced present days in China. The cell phone is both our means to access history nowadays, and a tool to fulfill our desire to share some glory of a celebrity. I change the Apple symbol to Lichee fruits – a favorite of Yang Guifei. Legend has it the Emperor ordered the battle horses to transport the fresh fruit (native to southern China) to the capital (central China) for her in three days!

The most difficult part of the project is to balance the narrative and the art. I have a story to tell, but I also hope viewers could find the work interesting to look at even though they don’t know anything about the story. I want the symbols and the designs I use serve both as literary and artistic devices. For example, there a line running though the four sides of the story with a tiny circle on each side. It loosely follows the geographic route from her birth place, to the Huaqing palace, the capital, and finally her death place. The color changes of the line correspond to the vicissitude of her life. It links the narrative, and I hope it also moves the eyes.

The project is acrylic on a wooden box, and the surface of the box was quite textured. I sanded it, gessoed it, but it’s still very different from painting on canvas or masonite board. It’s a lot of work. Having so many surfaces to work on expand my ability to tell a complex story, but it also gives me the trouble of finding a place for it in the house! 🙂 Honestly speaking, I couldn’t tell if any of these makes sense, but I had a great time working on this project.

Show News and Some More

I recently became a member of the Pacific Art League and joined their 99th Anniversary Exhibit, “Beyond 2020.” My painting “Sail” was selected into the gallery show, and will be on view at their Palo Alto gallery till January 2021. Here’s the piece:

Sail, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 24 in, 2019

The painting was inspired by a still life study I did before:

Still life, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 in, 2019

My still life study was focused on how to paint white with color, but I found the way the lines curved, meandered and crossed very intriguing. After the painting was done, I kept looking at it and tried to follow those lines in my mind and in my sketchbook. The objects gradually disappeared and the lines and shapes led me to new ideas, and eventually, a new painting.

Testing Materials (6) – Black Watercolor Paper

In the last post about materials, I mentioned that Stonehenge has a line a black watercolor paper. The official name is Legion Stonehenge Aqua Cold Press Black. It’s 140lb, and 100% cotton.

I ordered a pad and tried a couple of paintings:

Nikki, watercolor on paper, 9 x 12, September, 2020
Astrid in Design, gouache on paper, 9 x 10, September 2020

Here’s what I find out so far:

  • It behaves like a good quality 140lb watercolor paper. So in theory, you can use water.
  • However, as one can imagine, transparent color doesn’t fire well on black paper. You need a lot of pigment for a color to show, and the colors still dry lighter. So you can’t really use a lot of water.
  • Like any type of black paper, how you deal with value on it is quite counterintuitive.
  • In the first painting I used mostly watercolor and mixed in some gouache white in the highlight area. The second painting is gouache. I personally like the the gouache one better.
  • I feel like I am very lack of imagination with this paper. For the second painting, I believe I could achieve similar effect with ink resist method. While using black paper makes it easier in certain ways, ink resist could have some unexpected result. In other words, it is not particularly empowering.
  • It could be just I don’t know how to make the most out of it.

Show News

“Lamonte,” one of my 100 Day Art Challenge paintings, entered 6th Annual Figures & Faces Art Exhibition at Fusion Art Gallery as a finalist:

Portrait of Lamonte, watercolor on paper, 9 x 12 in, July 2020

“Waterfall” and “Penitencia Creek Park” entered “Landscape” show at Grey Cube Gallery as finalist:

Landscape, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30, 2017
Waterfall, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30
Penitencia Creek Park, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 in, 2019

Small steps, but moving forward nonetheless!