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 way I learned to paint in oil, is to start with an underpainting. It could be a monochromatic value sketch, or a diluted full color draft. Either way, the underpainting would be covered by thicker paints as I progress and hopefully the process took the work to a better place. Once in a while, I just fell in love with the underpainting, and the continuation of the work was saturated with doubts.
This river landscape (a Watts homework) was an example. The one on the left was the underpainting and the one on the right, the final work. I hesitated quite a while after the first draft about whether I should proceed at all. There was a liveliness and richness of color that I loved and didn’t know how to preserve when I added more paint to it. Also got lost was a sense of flatness, something more graphic and watercolor-y. This is not to say the underpainting was a better painting, but it makes me wonder the different directions I could have taken in finishing up this work (if it is not a homework in realistic landscape). Even some of the pencil marks begged to stay!
Moreover, can I achieve a watercolor effect with oil paints? Well, somebody can.
That’s Australian artist Julian Meagher, who painted in oil but managed to achieve the transparency and the lucid aesthetics of watercolor. Apart from his website, Amber Creswell Bell’s collection Still Life: Contemporary Painters has a good section on Mr. Meagher’s work. He painted with extremely diluted oil paint, and did not hesitate to use the white of linen canvas instead of white paint. The result is a good combination of precision and fluency.
His works remind me of Giorgio Morandi (1890 – 1964), one of my favorite still life artists (as I mentioned many times before). The technical approach couldn’t be more different. Morandi is opaque and static, while Mr. Meagher is more colorful and vibrant, cleaner and much more scaled up. However, the solitude, the quietness and the thoughtfulness are there.
The more I see good art, the more I am wowed by the range and the potential of the each medium. We are only limited by our skills! (Is this a good thing or a bad thing? :))) )
According to Mr. Watts, there would be many more levels of still life courses after the gesture one. However, the people at the Atelier see no plans for new releases. I still have some catching up to do in the landscape area, but otherwise, I will focus on my own practice and projects in the coming months.
These are the final ones from Phase IV of Watts Atelier’s portrait painting courses:
A few notes:
This phase focuses on the “loose style and expressive edge work of gesture portrait painting.” It’s quite obvious that I need more practice and confidence to be more gestural. It takes a lot of effort to achieve the look of effortless.
Color wise, this stage is pretty open, but I still start with Zorn, and add others if necessary. It’s nice to have a familiar starting point.
According to Mr. Watts, there would be several more levels of portrait painting courses after this. However, I don’t see they have any plan for new releases in the near future.
For the time being, my “guided practice” of portrait painting will take a break and I will move on to “independent study.” The plan is to continue focusing on the looseness, giving more variety to the background design and trying to achieve a less rendered but more finished look.
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. 😉
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.