Tuesday, June 30, 2009

So you can tell them apart

Here's a painting of mine from a number of years ago. It was painted pretty much in its entirety on location at Owls head light, near Rockland Maine.

I wanted to talk a little about color saturation tonight. here's another one of those ploys like the one I spoke of last night. Its not the answer to all of the problems of obtaining light, but its another tactic to keep in mind, another arrow for your quiver.The ideas I have been discussing the last few posts have been about ways of differentiating your lights and your shadows.

  • I paint the lights in a high value and the shadows in a low value, so you can tell them apart.
  • sometimes I paint the lights with one pigment and the shadows with a different pigment, so you can tell them apart.
  • sometimes I paint the lights grave and the shadows highly colored, so you can tell them apart,
  • or I will paint the lights highly colored and the shadows grave, so you can tell them apart
  • sometimes I will paint the lights warm and the shadows cool, so you can tell them apart
  • sometimes I will paint the lights cool and the shadows warm, so you can tell them apart.
  • sometimes I will paint my lights opaque and my shadows transparent, so you can tell them apart.
  • sometimes I paint the lights with hard edges and the shadows with soft edges, so you can tell them apart
  • sometimes I use cool reflected light in the lights and hot reflected light in the shadow, so you can tell them apart
The point of all of that was to drive home the idea that the lights and the shadows are different worlds. You need to use what ever means you can to differentiate the two. One of the characteristics of a painting that has light is that the shadows and the lights are markedly different.

There are common mistakes that kill the effect of light, some of them are

  • forming the shadow note by using the color of the light, or the local color plus black. It is to prevent beginners from committing this ART FELONY that teachers remove black from their students palettes.
The errors below all have the same cause at their root.

  • over stating the reflected light, so they become as bright as the darkest note in the lights.
  • overstating the modeling in the lights causing an "overmodeled" look and sometimes putting a value in the lights that is as dark as the lightest note over in the shadow side.
  • too much detail in the shadow, shadow "eats" detail
  • edges poorly handled, generally, uniformly too hard.
All pf the group of sins above have as their cause an error in observation. They come from painting "piecemeal". That is what happens when you paint each section of a painting the way it looks when you look directly, and only at it. An object appears differently in the larger context of its environment than it does when you scrutinize it. The better way is to paint each area the way it looks when you observe the entire scene in front of you. That's is an enormous concept.

Seeing piecemeal is an almost universal fault in weak painting. Ives Gammell, my teacher would talk about the "big look" of nature. I have heard it described in another way also,by a portrait painter who said "paint the hands the way they look when you look at the head, paint the head the way it looks when you look at the hands".
All of that sounds pretty simple, but actually doing it can take a fair amount of practice.

A painting that is "seen" piecemeal is a collection of small pictures placed one next to the other rather than a single large unit. This absolutely, and totally kills unity of effect.


If you are thinking about getting a neck tattoo, you just couldn't do better than that.

A painting should be one single image on the canvas, rather than a number of smaller images all clamoring for our attention.


Gregory Becker said...

When I am painting I am usually painting from inspiration, knowledge and instinct.
Sometimes, for me, ideas like the one that you presented are difficult to remember during my process.
I'll do a painting and then relax from it for a while. Then, I'll look at it again and see obvious errors like the ones you've pointed out and kick myself because I know better.
It seems to be a problem of internalizing principles and focusing to bring them out at will.
I intend on working on that problem quite a bit.
Any insights?

Unknown said...

I guess learning to paint isn't so hard.. it's the learning to SEE that
is the difficult thing.

I think I'll hold off on the neck tattoo for now.

"ausneg". n. a rejection of anything Austrailian, as in, "He refused shrimp on the barbie because he is an ausneg."

Jesse said...

"An object appears differently in the larger context of its environment than it does when you scrutinize it."

This is something I've been thinking about for a while. I haven't really been able to come to a successful resolution in my paintings, but you've helped solidify some of these concepts. Great post Stape!

willek said...

This is an extremely powerful post, Stape. Just great advice and very helpful to strugglers like me who are trying to bring it all together.
Have you seen the diagrams in the Faragasso book on the Frank Reilly method of painting? (A Student's Guide to Painting) A lot in that book is contrary to what you have said today, but the diagrams are a way of placing the local values in light and in shadow on a predetermined scale in pictures lighted in different ways. They are very interesting and relate to what you are saying, but in a different way.

hypolly= Language used when being overly affectionate to your parrot.


mariandioguardi.com said...

Another problem that I notice with student painting is, not only over-reliance on black for shadows, but also the over use of mixing too much white into the color pigments for the light and bright areas. I think Sargent shows how effectively you can use white for light. However in mixing colors for the light and bright areas over-reliance on white can make lights cooler and duller than you might want. It's something to consider when mixing up lights and brights. Also, I have found using the best quality white that I can afford,and keeping it to a minimum helps keep the lights and brights from getting that chaukey dull look.

Stapleton, I'd really appreciate your thoughts on the use of whites.

Also, I am a strong believer in finishing the painting away from the observational scene (be it landscape or still life). That after image, which stays with you, will help keep your intention clear. Painting awy from the observation can help with getting a "Unity of Effect". "Unity of Effect" is really key to the polished professional look and style of an accomplished painter's work (Abstract or Realist!), isn't it. I am having that tattooed to my neck as I write.

Unknown said...

Love the painting Stape and your thoughts about separating the lights from the darks is sooo right on. I am contemplating some of your other thoughts as they are very intriguing.

Unknown said...

This concept is always hard for me. You can't really look at the head and see how the hands look at the same time. If the head is the focus, I could see the hands being lessened in importance. Would you say that avoiding piecemeal work is the same as making sure you have a focal point with all else subordinate to it?

As far as pasting on features, knowing the underlying planes helps in going from big to small, right?

armandcabrera said...


Another great post.
Considering light and shadow
Howard Pyle the father of American illustration said best I think;

'the lightest tone in the shadow is darker than the darkest tone in the sunlight'

Stapleton Kearns said...

We all have that. it seems you can only learn one new idea at a time.You hammer away at that until it operates without your thinking about it, and then you can begin to learn the next idea.

There is at the same time a slow leaking of memory forming a limpid pool of forgotten concepts beneath your feet.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Learning to paint well is no harder than learning to play classical violin or to do open heart surgery. The difference is that because far more people do heart surgery than paint well, its harder to find teachers.

ausneg= the balance in your account when you are auspoor

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks It took me a long time to grasp that concept of the big look of nature.I do remember suddenly thinking,"oh I get it" and then wondering why I had thought it so hard.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have not read that. Is it still in print? I have a feeling those charts are like the ones in Loomis's illustration book.

hypolly = not attractive, but definitely better than lopolly. Ick.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I will write a little about white tonight,alright? Can't wait to see the tattoo.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Hey Frank;

Thanks, Remarks made in this post are in no way intended to be, or given as advice on portrait painting but serve only to illustrate ideas of use in landscape paintings. They are also not intended to diagnose or treat any disease or condition.
They are void where prohibited by law, and are provided without guarantee of their efficacy.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I will address those in my post this evening.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Hey thanks. I will post my version of that quote tonight,

willek said...

The Jack Faragasso book on Oil painting for students is no longer in print and I have seen it for up to $250 on Amazon. After I sprang $150 for mine, I saw it a week later for $80. I think Faragasso is more of a teacher than a painter, but, to be fair, I have not seen a lot of his work. In the book a lot is madae of the Reilly system of assigning values for locals in varying light condition. I think it is really good to know about anda there might be times when, before starting a picture in difficult light, you might actually do a diagrama or two to get things straight before starting. Faragasso also has a book on Reilly's methods of teaching figure drawing. I think it is terrific. Paul Rahilly was a Frank Reilly student and has taught at the Museum School for many years, He teaches a version of what he was taught. Interesting the student of a a guy who taught illustrators taught at the MFA school for so many years. Doug Higgins, also a Reilly student, has an autobiographical web site (http://www.dhfa.net/) where he talks about his schooling. He talks about the value system briefly.

uncentes+ 100 of them make an undollar. I have a lots of those in my mutual funds.


Stapleton Kearns said...

I don't think I am going to spend that for a book this weewk. Incidentally, Doug Higgins is a friend of mine. He is a fine painter and a fascinating guy. Check out the URL that Willek posted.

uncentes= root of uncentive, the opposite of an incentive is an uncentive.

Fi - WhereFishSing.com said...

This may at first seem an odd connection, but stay with me... In horseriding I learned of the concept of 'hard eyes' and 'soft eyes'. The latter is what you want and it is the same concept of 'big picture' with a different name. The way of 'soft eyes' is to focus on one point (in this case through the horse's ears in the direction you wish to travel, in painting on the focal subject) but to keep your peripheral vision active. Its the best way to catch everything in your visual field while in focussed concentration. 'Hard eyes' is focussing so narrowly on something that peripheral vision is lost. Lots of detail, tunnel vision. On a horse this can be dangerous as such a narrow focus leaves you open to surprises suddenly appearing that you would have seen earlier with soft eyes. In painting, hard eyes gives the detailed but disjointed effect that Stape talks about. Just another approach to the subject.