Translating an image or a scene into watercolor is easier if you can envision the painting as a series of layers. Using the image you selected at the end of class or one of those below, make a simple study along these lines. Start by identifying the major shapes that comprise the image. These are the shapes that need to be separated from each other for the pictorial space to be apparent.
This market scene depicts a shallow space, crowded with shapes. It seems important to make clear where the individual components are, relative to each other. I would want it to be obvious that the car is closer than the umbrellas, which, in turn, are closer than the sunlit people. Beyond them are more shapes, subsumed in the deep shade. For each of the major shapes in your scene, draw a simple outline to locate it on the picture plane. Remember, this is meant to be over-simplified. We only need to knowwherethe shapes are, notwhatthey are. You will learn more about what needs to be in the painting and what can be left out if you resist the temptation to make your study a handsome product. Next, block in each of the shapes with a first layer. The layers will progress from light to dark, allowing each successive layer to be applied on top of the previous ones. To help see a couple of layers ahead of yourself, try asking, "Is there a way I can paint the entire shape with a wash that will underlie everything that will come later?" In most cases, this will be the lightest tone you see in the shape. Think of it as a common denominator. There is another progression that parallels the movement from light to dark. Thinking of the information that is being depicted as starting out verygeneral and becoming morespecific, layer by layer, is a good way to keep from putting in more than the viewer needs to be shown. In the deepest shade in the market scene, for example, it is difficult to know exactly what those dim shapes are. Instead of leaning in very close to the picture to try to make them out, lean back, and let them be vague. Give the viewers an opportunity to interpret part of the scene for themselves. Some parts of the picture will be sufficiently depicted after two layers. others will need three, or maybe four. If you feel the need to use more than 4 layers, it's time to rethink your approach. This is meant to be too simple. It is not a painting, it's a tool for learning how much information is enough. Just because you can see it, doesn't mean it belongs in the picture. Use three colors, one red, one blue and one yellow, to make all the colors you see. Have fun!
Is it necessary for the viewer to be able to tell the identity of every shape?
Squint! Light, middle, dark.
How many layers do you need to describe the stairs and the shadow that crosses them?
While we're on the subject of edge quality, I have to ask if you think we all see hard and soft edges similarly. Every time we discuss edges I get the feeling some people see hard where others see soft. It may have something to do with whether we see form or content first. Content has a way of influencing what we think we see. I always see soft edges in the sky, for example, even when the majority disagrees. Is that because I think of clouds as ethereal elements of the landscape? Could be. However you look at it, it's a slippery subject.
One thing I'm sure of, we can all use some practice deciding what kind of edge is appropriate, and then more practice making that edge where we want it. Technique and awareness!
Regarding edges, how important is it to be accurate? Does this landscape depend on making the clouds soft and the branches hard for the feeling it displays? What if some of the clouds were hard-edged? What about that hard line at the crest of the hill between the tree in the middle of everything and the left side of the frame? If that were soft, would the tree need to be softened, too? How about the foreground? A lot of painters believe that the foreground needs to be in focus because it's close to us. What do you think?
This fine old homestead makes a beautiful box full of light. What if you let some of that light leak out around the edges of the windows? It might be an evocative addition to the emotional content. Or, it might just be a mess. Will someone give that a try and pin it up next week?
For homework, give some thought to how these images might be adjusted by changing the edge quality of some of the shapes. Keep track of what you were curious about, and be prepared to tell us what you changed and what you learned.
To see the illusion of depth in this photo it is necessary to understand which shapes are in front of which. Take a look at that diagonal pipe, for example. See where it disappears behind the dark pile of sawdust? Just before it does, it crosses in front of blue hill, revealing that it is situated between those two shapes. Overall, the composition of shapes in this photo relies heavily on overlap to show us where the shapes are located in space. In fact, with the exception of the puddle, every shape in the scene overlaps or is overlapped by at least one other shape.
If the scene you've chosen to paint seems disappointingly flat, it may be that the shapes need to be moved around a bit, or another shape needs to be introduced.
In the photo, below, most of the shapes do not overlap each other, making the illusion of depth somewhat ambiguous.
If the dark overhang above the opening had a post holding it up that crossed in front of the building we would be able to see where all the shapes are relative to each other.
It's a good idea to tend to composition first, since the shapes are easier to rearrange when you haven't begun putting paint on the paper, but the other variables have a role to play, too. Let's look again at the sawmill image. The blue mountain disappears behind the tank and then reappears on the other side. That double overlap makes clear which shape is closer to us, but the color of the mountain also contributes to the feeling that there is considerable space between the two shapes.
In class, we observed how edge quality could be adjusted to make the space more or less obvious. In the painting below, notice how the edges of the yellow trees go in and out of focus. The color and value differences between those shapes and the dark background are potent enough that the foreground will still separate from the background even if some of the edge that sets them apart is softened. The advantage of deliberately losing some of that edge is that the yellow trees look more integrated in the scene when they are not completely surrounded by a hard edge.
Using the image you were working with in class or one of the illustrations in this post to explore how adjusting the variables (composition, value, color ,edge quality) affects the illusion of space. You can fill a page with experiments in the form of unrelated vignettes. The idea is that you are trying out possibilities as a learning process that precedes making a proper painting. For our purposes, the learning is the goal, so it's fine if you never actually paint the whole scene. If you have time, by all means go ahead and put it all together in a painting, but, in either case, bring whatever you do to share with the class. And, have fun.
This painting came up online as “related“ to whatever I was
looking at and instantly took over all my attention. I wish I knew who painted
it. Hell, I wish I painted it.
I’m fascinated by its combination of non-specific and
thoroughly descriptive brushstrokes. Considering that the majority of the marks
are nothing but marks, there’s still a lot we can conclude about the subject.
For example, we know it’s a landscape, and a snowy one, at that. But look at
those big dark rectangles. What, exactly are they? Some of them come together
as a stream. Others might be rocks or tree stumps. They don’t display the
features of these elements of landscapes, but they're located where we expect
to see such things. I can feel my brain straining to get those marks to hold
still and act like believable landscape stuff. And they do! Somehow, the
context is sufficiently established that a big, dark rectangle is all we need
to see to accept it as a cluster of trees.
So much for making sure the viewer knows what they’re
looking at right from the start. This viewer, for one, would much rather be
invited to have a role to play in the interpretation.
Let’s go down the list to see if we can begin to understand
what the artist did to establish enough context to get his or her marks to come
Composition and Value
Those few diagonally arranged darks in the center go a long
way toward creating a feeling of space. The washes above the “stream” get
lighter and less complex as they climb to the top of the page, contributing further
to that sense of depth.
The biggest shapes, those two dark mid-value patches of
woods on either side, are full of clues as to their identity. I think they would
be patches of woods even out of context. Compositionally, they frame the scene
and direct us into the open area in the middle.
Looking at the arrangement of shapes of different values,
it’s clear that this is a rather simple composition. There are only a few
shapes, overall, and they resolve neatly into light, middle and dark. I think
this simplicity plays a part in getting us to do so much of the work of
assigning identity to the non-specific areas. A more complex composition might
just be too much to ask.
The limited palette, like the simple composition, signals
that we will not be distracted from the job of getting the whole painting to
I notice that the lights and the darks are mostly
hard-edged. The majority of the soft edges in this painting occur among the
middle values. What do you make of that?
For homework, either loosely copy the snowy landscape, or
try making a version of this Seattle scene. Remember, the context will go a
long way toward making clear what’s what. For example, if you left a few light
geometric shapes along the bottom of the big dark trapezoid on the right, would
we know what they are?
Here are a few images that require close attention to Value. To create a convincing illusion of light you would need to establish the range within which the value of any given shape would work relative to its neighbors.
Choose one that looks fun to paint. You may want to make a quick monochrome value study first. Make notes about the relative values of each shape. Where would you like to make adjustments for the sake of the painting? Not everything you see in a photo is best "as is".The foreground shadows in the Monument valley image, for example, are too dark. They come off as flat black shapes. If you were really there, you'd be able to see into those shadows and observe much more than the photo displays.
When you're confident about the relative darkness of the shapes, devise your palette. Make sure you select colors that can make a dark enough dark to tell the story. This exercise REQUIRES having a practice paper handy. Remember to bracket the values, looking for something lighter than the shape you are about to paint, and something darker. For example, in the graveyard scene, the headstone on the left is darker than the sunlit grass, but lighter than the shadows on the grass.
We've been focusing on neutrals lately, and we've touched on the idea of letting the components of your mixes be visible in their more intense forms within the washes you make. The figure offers a good opportunity to practice this, in both the local flesh tone and the shadows. Here are some examples of figures where the colors are left unmixed or are touched into a neutral wash that is still wet:
Look at the local color of the skin tones of the figures below. Try copying the colors, keeping track of what you mix. In every case, I expect there was some of each of the primary colors involved. Experiment with allowing the component colors to remain incompletely mixed. You can start with a thorough mixture, where all the components have been mixed till they are evenly tinted throughout the wash, and then touch in a little of the components. If you're feeling brave, try double-loading your brush (loading more than one color at a a time). Do the same for some of the shadows.
This should be good practice for working from the model next week. If you have some large drawing paper (11x14" or larger), please bring a bunch for the short poses. It's fine if it's not watercolor paper, in fact, using relatively inexpensive paper encourages experimentation. Have a few pieces of the good stuff, too, for the longer poses toward the end of the session.
A very good way to focus attention on a particular part of a painting is to make it warm in an otherwise cool atmosphere, or vice-versa. Look at this scene, for example, where the windows are very warm while the rest of the setting is definitely cool:
The dominance of the cool makes the warm stand out.
The difference between the cooler and the warmer areas can be more subtle, like the relative temperatures in the scene, below, and still bring our attention to the portion of the image that is not dominant:
For homework, find an image you like and make a painting where you change the colors so that either the warms or the cools take up most of the total area. You can use one of the following images, or find one on your own.
You could cool down all this green and make the boat orange. Or make the trees and grass and water much more yellow and paint the boat blue. Or both!
Can you think of a way to leave the boat blue and change everything else?
What if you made the rocks rustier and changed the trees to Golden yellow fall cottonwoods? Then you could use more blue in the water and change the sky to sunset.