Late 2022 I started a few personal projects that were build upon whatever I learned at Watts. The plan was to start with some small paintings of florals, eggs, jars etc., and gradually grow into bigger more complicated arrangements.
I am happy to report that for the most part, I have been on schedule. Here are the florals I have done so far, and I hope they are proper celebration for the New Year and the Spring Festival:
In early 2021, I audited an online workshop by artist Joseph Todorovitch (see a brief description here). At the time I felt the content was too advanced for me. It may still be. It came to my knowledge recently that the artist had a more fundamental series in 2020 called “Painting the Portrait with Ease.” It is a nearly 9 hours video series featuring step by step painting of the portrait of Abby. You can buy or rent (for 48 hours) from Vimeo.
It is more fundamental because the portrait involves no complex background and clothing, and the palette is limited (not as monochromatic as it seems though). The “ease” part comes from the artist’s clear explanation of his choices and thought process. If you are looking for shortcuts circumventing learning and practices, there’s none. In fact the artist’s approach is quite meticulous and laborious. He shows no hesitation in scraping off the “finished” part of a painting and going at it again. While there are plenty basic information on portrait painting for a student, the process he used is the same for completing advanced works. This is a series that deserves revisit from time to time.
Here’s the painting I did while following along the series:
Another young artist I took lessons from recently is Alex J. Venezia. The lessons are a 12 hours video recording from East Oaks Studio, featuring also the portrait of a young woman. Mr. Venezia used a layered approach, and the videos were recorded over weeks. If you want to follow through, you need to be patient and let the paint dry in between. The artist is also extremely particular about the subtle changes of value and color in his paint. I feel like I need a better habit of organizing my palette and more practice in mixing colors to make the best out of these lessons. The painting I did during this series is a not a step by step following along and is abandoned halfway. I do plan to revisit the lessons in future:
A few more words on East Oaks Studio: While you do need a subscription to access the above mentioned videos and many other recorded and live lessons, East Oaks has plenty free content posted on their YouTube channel. They feature quite some established working artists. It’s a rich resource that takes time to digest.
Years ago in a watercolor class, we practiced rendering glasses by choosing from a couple of setups. I got ambitious and turned the practice into a full painting:
The roses were supposed to be a different setting, and I didn’t choose it because I thought apples would be easier. However, in composing the whole piece, I thought the glimpse of the flowers would be interesting. As you can see, I indeed didn’t know how to handle those petals and leaves back then, but I think they added liveliness to the scene. I remember some fellow artist commented, “The roses are saying,’We are here! Our turn! Our turn!'”
Recently when looking through some old reference photos, I was surprised to see that I actually took a few shots of the roses at the time. Hence, their turn:
Hehe, the petals and the leaves are still challenging, but I feel they are happy to be in the spotlight!
The first one is a Zorn palette without time limit, and the rest are supposed to be gesture with an open palette. My plan is to finish the still life course soon, and I will write more about it when it’s all done.
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. 😉