Tag Archives: #oilpainting

Busy with the Basics

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:

Still Life, burnt umber pick-out, August, 2021
Cast Quarter View, two color, August, 2021
Still Life, 3 colors, August, 2021
Skull Front View, 3 colors, August 2021

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.

Recent Works, Still Zorn …

Oil:

Young Woman, oil on canvas board, 11 x 14 in, July 2021
Young woman, oil on canvas board, 11 x 14 in, July 2021

Watercolor:

Jeff, watercolor on paper, 9 x 12, July 2021

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.

Zorn and Quasi Zorn

Zorn in oil, the usual approach:

Raven, oil on board, 11 x 14, June 2021

Quasi Zorn in watercolor:

Girl, watercolor on paper, 9 x 12, June 2021
Amanda, watercolor on paper, 9 x 12, June 2021

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!

Zorn Palette Continued …

Aeris, oil on wood board, 11 x 14 in, May 2021
Woman with hat, oil on wood board, 11 x 14in, May 2021
Young woman, oil on wood board, 11 x 14 in, May 2021

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! 😉

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.

Copying Masters (2) – Van Gogh

This is a study done when I first experimented with acrylic (or painting with anything). I stared at the original for days couldn’t figure out how to achieve that sense of unity. Eventually I decided to paint the whole canvas with a dark shade of burnt sienna and “drawing” on top of it.

Original (from vangoghonline.com)

Still Life With Yellow Straw Hat , 1881-5, oil on paper mounted on canvas (14.25 × 21 in)

My copy: