Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Some observations on Hibbards key.

Above is the Hibbard from Bar Harbor. There is all kinds of stuff going on in there . I will begin by talking about the brushwork in this piece. Below you see a detail of the lower right hand corner.

Here is an absolutely masterful passage. Take a moment and study this rock, there is a major principle or two that you can learn here. The whole thing is made out of a visible and unusual brushstroke. But it also has a characteristic you might not notice, because the passage works so well.

Hibbard has dropped the "key" of the lights in this painting. That is, he has transposed its values down an octave, like you might on a piano. That gives him two things, richer color, and better ability to describe the form.

The color part is I suppose obvious but here's the deal. In order to paint in a high key it is necessary to add a lot of white into your color. And


Using lots of white bleaches out your paintings, giving them a chalky look. So go easy on the white. But the major reason Hibbard has this passage keyed down is this. He can describe the forms of these rocks in color that has some strength to it, and then place his bright highlights well above their value. If Hibbard had painted those rocks as bright as they would have been in the sun there, he would not have been able to do that.

I will again return to my example of the lead guitar player. Say he is out there playing with his amp turned all the way up on ten. When the time comes for his big solo, he reaches back to turn up another notch, but he can't. He is ALREADY playing with the amp turned all the way up.

So if you are painting a passage like this full of white, when you want to throw a bright highlight you can't, because you have left yourself no room above the passage, in your values, to use for your highlights.

This is a particularly common fault in today's plein aire movement because of our contemporary preference for "bright " paintings. We paint our interiors with colors made with lots of whites' and that has effected our taste.

Gloucester artist Emile Gruppe actually used zinc white which is more transparent in order to not "step"on his colors so much. This was not such a big problem with lead white, and before the second world war pretty much everybody used lead white. Today we all use titanium which is a great white, but it is very opaque and will make your color chalky if you don't take care to keep that from happening. There are a lot of chalky paintings out there.

Look at how those brushstrokes lay on the surface of that rock describing it's surface. There is no blending and there is plenty of variation in color also. Remember me talking about sliding a ring from your finger across a painting. If you did that to this painting there would always be several colors within it.

This is an interpretation of what he had before him. He transposed the appearance of nature into his language of brushstrokes. He didn't actually see the brush strokes. That means he didn't paint what he saw.He processed what he saw. When you hear people say every artist "sees" thing differently, they don't really understand this. Other wise the cubists would have been unable to drive.


JAMES A. COOK said...

Another great post STAP. Hibbards brush stokes seem so precise,that they seem to create many edges through out his painting to give it his unique effect. Was this deliberate. Did he us any other type of medium with his paints you think. The lowering of key in his paintings seems to be a technique he used a lot. I need to find the location of this painting so that I can study his painting as I am looking at what he was seeing. I always have a difficult time painting rocks, I do not know how to go about it.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Nothing good happens in any painting unless it is deliberate. Problems get there under their own steam. Quality does not.

The location is on Schooner head, which is next to Sand Beach in Acadia.

There is a Schooner Head trail, it is accessed from a little road that runs to it from downtown, rather than through the park. It has its own lot that you can see on the map. You could hike up from the Sand Beach parking lot too. This is a low tide location. The location is on the Sandy beach side.

I believe he used one of two mediums. One is VTO, (varnish, turpentine and oil. The other would be a copal, like Taubes that would be unavailable today. But it ain't in the medium......Stape

Mike Thompson said...


About a year and a half ago I took a couple of 9x12 canvas pads and went into my ''abstract'' period where I just took colors and painted them into puddles that flowed into one another for about 20 some odd ''paintings''. Before long I had dropped white and, using Liquin to thin the paint way down and using only 4 transparent paints per painting, developed a series that was very like wet in wet watercolors. There was another thing I observed. The transparent colors never got muddy or dirty and I always just changed color on the brush and let the painting process wash out the old color onto the canvas in a blend until the new color predominated. On the paintings where I used bone black, the colors took on a warm richness almost the way brown easter eggs do. Periodically I go through these just for fun and I am always amazed at the transition in the series that occurs when I allow the white of the canvas to show through like in a watercolor and don't have any opaque paints. The colors are much brighter and sharper and, yes, glowing. Those with white have a chalky appearance. On their own they look fine but side by side with the transparents they look ''dowdy''.

I used to live in upper east Tennessee which is pretty heavily forested and is often cloudy. I actually preferred cloudy days because the colors always seemed richer and there was less yellow (the greens were bluer and darker) and it was easier on my eyes no to have to squint. In a similar manner, I have turned my monitor at home down for ''richer'' colors in my pictures.

By lowering the key, I an assuming that most mixtures still have at least some white or opaque pigments in them. Transparent paints tend to be dark straight from the tube, not to mention pretty intense. The Hibbard picture is fairly small on my monitor but it looks like most of the paint is opaque except in shadows and a few trees. Do you ever 'cheat' and blend with an opaque yellow or an opaque blue (like the W&N cerrulean blue) or another low tinting strength pigment specifically to avoid white? As you can see, I find these subtle pigment characteristics endlessly fascinating.

Stapleton Kearns said...

There are painters who stain their canvas and then try to leave that showing for their shadows. I don't remember ever seeing Hibbard do that though. Emile Gruppe certainly did. It is a very traditional way of doing things. Gotta watch out with thin passages they can be fragile. Sargent spoke out against the practice.
If you are going to paint thin and transparent,it is best not to use a lot of thinner as you will make a weak paint film. It is better to just spread the paint from the tube if you can, so that it its thin. I almost never work transparently, but there are lots of fine painters who do.
I do not "cheat" by using a white substitute. I have seen this done with Naples yellow.I think that those kinds of devices can make your work look too method driven.
You can count on their being some guy out there doing exactly those things and making fabulous work. He will probably e-mail me.....Stape