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? 🙂
For the watercolor paintings, I planned two different approaches, a softer and muted one, vs a more vibrant and contrasted one. The results were somewhere in the middle. Especially for the first painting, I wish I had softened some edges and let go certain definitions instead of spelling out everything I saw.
The gouache one is a homework from Watts. It is a practice of the Zorn palette and the tiling technique. I found both the medium and the technique challenging. Tiling is to juxtapose thick layers of close-value paints and blend them (if necessary) later. It’s a good preparation and practice for oil painting, but it requires a lot of patience in value control and shape design. Hehe, patience! 😉
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.
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! 😉
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
Amedeo Modigliani is an Italian artist famous for his uniquely stylized portraits. I always like his paintings and attempted a study years before. Somehow Modigliani’s Madame Amédée reminded me of my neighbor’s cat, and my original plan was to use the composition of the original painting, and replace the head with that of a cat’s. It didn’t work out and I switched back to the lady. The result wasn’t much of a copy, and you can still see the trace of my deviation.
This is another try. This time it was not a copy, but I tried to stylize a self-portrait. I meant to focus on the inner world of subject, but somehow it was all spilled over into the background. As a result I went way beyond his typical palette, which is quite muted.
After learning drawing and painting humans for a while, I find myself even more fascinated by Modigliani’s ability to go beyond realist forms while stay true to the spirit and character of his subjects. I probably will do more studies of Modigliani in future.