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:
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. 😉
Found a beautiful book, The Art of Movement by Ken Brewer and Deborah Ory. It’s a collection of dance photography. It’s a great book to study figures and motions. I did some sketches and drawings from it:
The last one is a strange pose. It has an enclosed and squarish quality and a lot of symmetry. The lighting is mainly top-down, making it more grounded and static. It’s not a composition that I would normally choose to work on. On the other hand, there’s a nice contrast between the infinity loop formed by the arm, and zig-zag pattern formed by heads, torso and the legs in the middle. There’s tension and connection between the two dancers at the same time and that’s what I was aiming for when starting the piece. However, as I worked on, and as always, I was distracted by the details, and lost my focus. I think the zigzagging is there, but the details of the hands cut in the flow of the loop. I also think the value contrast is not enough and shapeless. I think this is mainly because I am still copying what I see instead of using it as a reference to create. I hope when I have a better grasp of human figure, I could look beyond the photo and draw my interpretation.
I changed the title of the previous post for better record keeping. I am still staying home, still doing art.
This week I tried triads – 3 colors evenly spaced around the color wheel. A word on color wheel: I use a commercial one from The Color Wheel Company. Many artist make their own, especially if you work in watercolor, because different brands of colors do differ slightly. It makes sense to lay out your frequently used colors in a circle, add shade and tint, or even make a value chart for each of it. You can also make a list of the complementary, analogous and triadic color schemes. I think this kind of work may help you to understand your color better, and I always feel like I should do it, but … What can I say? I am lazy and unorganized.
Back to triads. They are somewhere between analogous and complementaries. Much more vibrant than the former, and less contrasting than the latter. More importantly, the color spectrum yielded is much richer – if you mix them properly, they can give you almost everything.
That caused a problem for me. As you can see from my first try, I used red, blue and yellow, and I mixed them, got everything, and confused myself. What’s the difference between using a triad and using everything then?
So I tried to separate the colors in later attempts:
Of course later after a few minutes of googling, I found out that when using a triad in a design, you usually choose a dominant color and that’s how to differentiate it from using everything.
So far I’ve tried some of the most commonly used color schemes. These are things I learned from doing these studies:
Limiting palette helps me to explore the potential of each color more extensively.
It also forces me to pay more attention to value.
Colors are very distracting, so it’s good to have a strategic approach. Do I want a harmonious piece or a contrasting one? Do I want the solemnness or the richness? Etc.
Restrictions spur creativity.
There are more color combos one could explore: tetrad – four colors consisted of two sets of complementary; split complementary – choose one color, and add the two on each side of the complementary (a narrower triad) etc. Maybe I’ll come back to these in future. Maybe.
Based on my very limited survey, this is how people around me spend their time nowadays: cooking; shopping online for groceries; cleaning and reorganizing their homes; zoom meetings. I have my fair share of cooking and shopping everyday, and decided to do some house keeping for a change. And these are the thing I dug out:
Sorry for the weird shadows in the pictures. Obviously the person who took the photos for me also wanted to sign the paintings with his shadows. To some extend, this is a Chinese tradition among art collectors. In some old Chinese pieces, if you see many seals filling in the empty spaces, many of them are not belong to the artist, but the collectors (a way to say “this is mine!”).
Most of the paintings above are done by copying old masters. This is the way of learning traditional Chinese painting through time. In some of these pieces, I combined elements from different paintings and I remember the teacher was quite surprised by that “Oh, you started creating already!” Composing your own piece usually follows years after years of copying, and it’s not a common thing for beginners. Since Chinese paintings are usually signed and dated with Chinese calligraphy, that’s another thing you are supposed to practice for years by copying masters.
Staying home is a good time to copy and study old masters. This is probably the most efficient way of improving skills, but if you only do that for longer period of time, the side effect might be daunting your creativity. Strike a balance.
I know the title “Stay Home Doing Art” is a bit misleading this time. It is actually stay home digging out art. Hope next time I could post “doing art” for real.
J. W. Hill (1812-1879) was a British born American watercolorist and lithographer. I came across his work in a still life anthology and was taken with soft, serene and tangible feeling he created with watercolor, quite different from the wet-in-wet method I was taught in. Upon close-up examination, it is full of tiny strokes, like an engraving. Some of the strokes in the background created interesting patterns and was applied in a very painterly way. Maybe that’s how you do impasto with watercolor! 😁
In my copy, I didn’t go for the strokes. I was at a moment that my colors often ran wild. I think Hill’s Study of Fruit is a good example of unity and harmony with colors, and that’s what I went for.
I almost missed this: obviously yesterday was J. W. Hill’s birthday. So happy birthday Mr. Hill! 🎂