Thursday, January 29, 2015

Beginning Watercolor, 1/28/15: Thinking in Layers

We began a monochrome value study in class, which, with a little analysis we decided needed more than three values (layers). Since a study is usually meant to be an over-simplification, we chose to limit the range to just 5 layers; white, light grey, middle grey, dark grey and black. The value scale you're making will be helpful as a tool for deciding which value to assign to a given shape.

Part of the purpose of a value study is to make sure you're taking advantage of relative dark and light as a means of separating adjacent shapes that are meant to be in different spatial planes. When you assess your finished study, look for any areas where the space seems ambiguous. Consider whether the addition of color will solve the problem, and if not, imagine adjusting the values.

The assessment of the finished study is the most important part of the process, so be sure to squeeze all the information you can from the little piece of paper, and write your notes and arrows directly on it. Ask where there are areas that require greater subtlety or specificity. Are the darks dark enough? Have you reserved lights as needed? Since the studies we've done so far are all hard-edged, think about where a soft edge may be helpful.

When you have answers to your questions, get a good piece of paper and start a proper painting by blocking in the major shapes. They're the ones that need to appear separated in space. Outlining them should be all the drawing you need. At this point, we don't even need to know what they are, just where they are. For each shape, look for a way to make an overall wash - a kind of common denominator - that can underlie everything that will come later. If you're moved to continue to the second layer, put the first try aside and start a second on another sheet, so we can see what your first layer looked like all by itself.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Intermediate Watercolor, 1/28/15; Isolating the Darks

The paintings we did in class today relied heavily on the darks for their cohesiveness and content. We were free to apply the lights and middle values very casually. Most subjects need a little more deliberation in the early stages, but it still pays to look for opportunities to let the paint be in charge.

In this photo there are a few middle value shapes that require some care, like the domed basilica in the background, and a couple of lights, like the upward facing planes of the cars and the people's shoulders, that would be good to reserve, but it's still the darks that do most of the work of describing the narrative content. Can you imagine a mostly carefree treatment of the first layers, done in the faith that the darks will make sense of it in the end?

Each step of the way, this image keeps promising one more chance to make the illusion of light and substance convincing. If the yellow and the green ran together because you didn't wait for the first one to dry before adding the second, the red door frames would make it look solid. And if you made the frames all wobbly, the shadows would still make the light believable. And if your shadows were sloppy, the black doorways would sober the whole thing up. Inform yourself, and have faith! 

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Monday Night Watercolor 1/26/15: Isolate the Darks


When you look at your painting subject with an eye toward where to begin, it is tremendously helpful to be able to see right through the darks and middle values to the lightest tones. The first layer of your painting usually comprises  pale washes that describe a very general version of the major shapes.

Ignoring the darks can be tricky. To get that dark layer to hold still long enough for you to "peel it back", it may help to practice seeing it as a separate collection of shapes. 
Find a high-contrast image, or use one of those below, and make a simple painting of the pattern made by only the darks. Use a single color, and make all the darks very dark. If a shape seems neither dark nor middle value, decide which it is closer to, and round it up or down. We're simplifying here, so some compromise is required.

A benefit of getting good at seeing the darks as a separate layer is that you can look at an image or a scene and "read" how much of the narrative content is carried by the darks. If the darks alone tell most of the story, that means you can be carefree in your treatment of the layers that come before the darks. Stay tuned for more about this...

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Intermediate Watercolor, 1/21/15 How to Know What to Do ; Designing an Inquiry

 This photo has an irresistible composition. The interlocking shapes make a strong frame that surrounds the sunlit courtyard. The values are so distinct - light, middle, dark - I don't feel the need to do a monochrome study, but something about the space concerns me. I suspect that if I paint it just as it looks, the walls in the middle distance will converge with the ones in the foreground. To test this, try closing one eye.  There needs to be more difference between the nearby shapes and the ones across the courtyard. Right now, the color and value of both are too similar where they overlap. Can I solve that by adjusting the color of one or the other, or is this a job for softer edges on the more distant shapes? Maybe both? How can I most efficiently find the answers to these questions? Will it require a study of the whole scene?

Now that i've considered what the problem is and some possible ways to solve it, I can see the issues much more clearly. It probably won't take a full image study to get the answers, after all. I can focus on just the places where the space is confusing.
See the short triangle of light (point upward) in the center of the scene? The job is to get it to separate from the similarly colored light rectangle it's adjacent to (dead center). I don't want to make one much darker than the other or I'll violate the consistency of light and shadow, but a little color difference along a hard edge would certainly do the trick. There. Problem solved. No study necessary. Sometimes just clarifying the question provides the answer!

Something's wrong with this photo. I suspect it has to do with composition, but I can't quite put my finger on it. I hope someone takes this on.

Even when you are sure you're ready to launch into a proper painting of your subject, it's still a good idea take a good, long look at the relative values first. For example, just how light is that "white" car? Is it darker than the window?
I like to bracket each shape by filling in the sentence, "This is lighter than ____, but darker than ____."

Pick one of these images, or use one of your own. Try to identify what looks tricky to you, and clarify what makes it tricky. Plan a study that will give you the information you need to proceed to paint the scene with confidence. Take notes! Have fun.


Beginning Watercolor Homework 1/21/15 Monochrome Value Study

Five Value Monochrome Study

What role does value play in the relationships between the big shapes?
As a first treatment of a new subject, it would be hard to find a better exercise than a value study. Understanding the dark/light relationships between the big shapes in your composition is an essential step to making a painting that is cohesive. A five-value version  (white, light grey, middle grey, dark grey, black) can be done quite quickly over a simple drawing of the big shapes. It also provides good practice for seeing in layers. 
Look for an image that resolves nicely into just a few shapes - no more than a dozen.  The major shapes are those that must appear separated in order to understand where things are in the illusory space. You can use one of these photos or one of your own. 

Choose a color (just one) straight from the tube, that can get dark enough to represent black. It’s better not to make a color by mixing, since that introduces another variable. This exercise is designed to focus on value only. Similarly, all paint should be applied to dry paper, to keep wetness from distracting your attention from value.
If you are tempted to get fussy about edge quality, or texture, or any kind of detail, remember, this is NOT A PAINTING, and it is supposed to be too simple. A door may be important, but the doorknob probably isn’t. I have seen some so-called value studies that are, in fact, very carefully observed monochrome paintings. They may be quite beautiful, but as tools designed to reveal the essential elements of the scene, they are not very useful. The best way to find out if something needs to be in the picture is to leave it out.
After each step, while you’re waiting for the paper to dry, assess how complete the illusion of light and space and substance feels.

Light is an important component of this image. Isolating the variable of Valueshould reveal the role it plays in creating the illusion of sun and shadow.


In your drawing of the big shapes, try to keep the number down to ten, or fewer. The profile of each shape is all you need to draw. The idea is tolocate the shapes, not to describe them.

· Starting with the light grey, paint the entire page, except for any shapes that need to stay white.
Is there a feeling of light in the study? What about space? Substance?

· When that layer is dry, paint the whole page middle grey, except for the lights and the whites. If you can’t decide whether a shape should be light or middle, round it off one way or the other. The finished study will reveal whether you made the right choice.
Again assess the state of the illusion: Light? Space? Substance?

· When layer two is dry, apply the dark grey over everything except the middle, light and white shapes. Now that the background figure has a dark grey layer, and the section of wall behind him does not, notice how effectively the two separate, compared to the previous stage.

Finally, paint in the darkest darks.
The role of the darkest darks in creating an illusion of light, space and substance is clear even in a radically over-simplified image.

Where do I need more subtlety or specificity?
When the value study is finished, it can be compared to the source image or the scene to see where adjustments need to be made. Having come way over into the realm of too little information, we now have a basis for judging how much more needs to be included.  Don’t skip this step.  A study, as the name implies, is a learning tool. Your painting process will be more efficient and your paintings more cohesive if you extract all the lessons you can from your preliminary work.
In the photo, the two mounds of dirt are so similar in color and value it seemed sensible to treat them as a single shape. But the study reveals that it would be better to separate them, making it clearer that the one on the right is in front. It is also clear that the mound on the left does not separate sufficiently from the wall in the background. It looks ok where there is a shadow behind it, but where the wall is sunlit only the pencil line separates the two shapes. Perhaps lightening the left mound a little could solve both of these problems. Five values, in this case, are not quite enough. This is an example of the need for more subtlety.
The little raised frame beside the doorway that catches the sun is a fine feature  of the photo that I miss. It does an important job, describing the light. It is a bit of specific information that will add significantly to the picture without becoming a distraction.
It is surprisingly easy to see what is missing and what needs to be changed when the image has been over-simplified. If I had made a complex first attempt it would be difficult to know which of the (too) many elements were not necessary.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Monday Night Watercolor Homework: Color Mixing Without a Net

In class we talked a little about true beginners not being burdened with bad habits. For those of you with some experience with watercolor, I’m afraid it’s too late. You’re all doomed to keep making the same mistakes.

Just kidding.

Let’s start with color mixing. First of all it’s not true that you need lots of tubes of subtly different colors to make accurate copies of whatever you want to include in your paintings. Red, yellow and blue can do it all. Theoretically.

If our language had only 6 names for colors – red, yellow, blue, green, orange and violet – what would you call this color? No fair combining names, like greenish orange. Pick just one of the six.
It has to be green, right? It’s a complicated color, for sure, and you might wish we had “grey” as an option, but green is the color that dominates the mix. 

See if you can match this color using just one red, one yellow, and one blue. Try starting by mixing a green, since that’s the dominant color. Mix a little blue and yellow together. I’m guessing the green that results doesn’t look close to what we’re aiming for. Too intensely GREEN, like the one below, right? How can you dull it down?  

Try a little bit of red (the compliment). A really little bit, and maybe some more water if it looks too dark. Is green still dominant? If not, how can you nudge it back toward our target color? It either needs some more blue, or yellow, or red, or a combination of them. That’s the whole story. To get the color you’ve got to look more like the one you want, add some red, some yellow, or some blue. No recipes needed.
Once you get it in the ballpark, try it again with a different red, yellow and blue. There are many ways to make a reasonable duplicate of any color. Develop the habit of looking first for the dominant color, then adjust that with additions of what you think is missing. If your mix is too intense, add a little of the compliment to dull it down.

Look in a magazine for patches of solid color that are at least one inch square. Cut them out and stick them to white paper. Using just the primary red, yellow and blue, make a near enough match of each one and paint a patch of it beside the pasted on square. Make a note of which colors you used. Try to match it with different component colors.