This painting is part of a two part tonal exercise in painting the same subject twice, once in blue, with a wide value range, and once in red with a much narrower range. The post linked there deals with that part of the exercise in more depth.
What I want to cover here is the method I used to build up the paintings, which I got from a book by Harold Speed called “Oil Painting Techniques and Materials”. I won’t go too much into the book itself here, (I plan to review it when I have the time), except to say that it’s the best book I’ve found so far about oil painting, it does exactly what it says on the tin, and can be had from Amazon for a paltry £6. Don’t believe the reviewer who trashed the book, he/she plainly hasn’t the first idea. For the serious student of the philosophy and practice of oil painting, this book is a real gem.
Back to the painting. The good Mr. Speed presents a detailed account of what he calls an elementary tone exercise in his chapter on the practical aspects of learning to paint with oils. I’ve followed his instructions to the letter here, except of course that I’ve used cadmium red and white, were he recommends using raw umber and white, something I intend to do for future monochromes.
First, a word about the support. I’ve used a 6mm thick MDF panel which has had two coats of Robersons Acrylic Gesso primer, sanding after each coat, and a mix of ultramarine and burnt sienna alkyd paint and turps rubbed on with a rag to give a light grey ground, something like a Rubens panel, but with quick, cheap modern materials. The brush strokes from the gesso get accentuated by the rubbed in grey tone, giving a nice lively ground to paint on. Of course, canvas or whatever else you want to use would do just as well for this exercise. Using a toned ground makes it much easier to judge the tones as they go onto the painting.
First stage is to lay out the drawing roughly, with charcoal. Unnecessary if you have a superb eye, but I don’t. I used a rough and ready sight-size approach to drawing out, like with the Bargue drawing technique, only quicker and less accurate. This exercise is about tonal relationships, not accurate drawing.
Before starting to paint, both the white (I’ve used flake white) and the raw umber (or cadmium red in this case) are thinned down with a 50/50 mix of turps and linseed oil. This is a time honoured medium, which I know a lot of painters use. Strange that, even though I’ve gone as far as cooking my own Maroger and making my own sun bleached linseed oil, I’ve never tried painting with this basic medium. The paint is thinned down to a consistency which allows it to flow well, but still covers solidly and opaquely. Mine was about the consistency of butter left out on a warm day. I used Robersons pure gum turpentine and cold pressed linseed oil.
Step one – mark the darkest and lightest points
First thing to do is pick the darkest point on your subject, and put a corresponding dark note on your painting. Then find the lightest light, and match that. In the case of this cast, it was pure the white on the highlights. That gives you your tonal range, and every other tone will be judged in relation to these. Well, this makes perfect sense to me, since it’s exactly the approach I’ve been using on my series of 100 still life drawings.
Harold (we’re on first name terms now), makes a point of recommending that you relate tones to your darkest, not your lightest tone. This is because relating tones to the highlights will make them appear too dark in comparison to the white, and will result in errors. I think he’s got a good point there.
Step two – fill in the background
Once the two extremes of tone are stated, it’s time to fill in the background. This should be done as evenly as possible. Harold says that you should learn to put down flat, even paint before you start messing around with flashy textural effects. Make sure the paint doesn’t go on so thick that you get ridges up against the edges of your subject, since this will work against the three dimensional effect when you paint the main forms. A loose edge which cuts slightly into the form is best.
Step three – fill in the base and main shadows
Well I guess this will only be relevant if you’re painting a cast, like I am here, and like Harold uses for his exercise. I can see no good reason why you can’t use something else though, as long as it’s monochrome.
He advises paying particular attention to the edges here. Although the tone blocks are put in with flat tone, the edges should be stated as carefully and accurately as possible, with particular attention to where they are sharp and where they soften and disappear. To be honest, I’ve rushed mine a bit here, but you get the idea. The edges of shadows soften considerably the further away they get from the form that casts them.
Step four – lay in the main shadow blocks
These are also done with a flat, even tone. Simplifying the main shadow blocks and deciding where to end them is no easy task, and comes with practice. My practice with the Bargue drawings and with the tonal still life drawings has helped me here. To be fair, it’s also much easier to do this with a plain white cast. I find trying to do this on a portrait drawing much more difficult.
Again, attention should be given to the edges, particularly where they meet the background. Since the edges of my main tonal block here against the background are on the shadow side, I’ve softened them somewhat. When I get to putting the light tone shape in, I’ll be wanting a hard edge up against the background on the left of the cast.
Speaking of which…
Step five – put in the main light block
At this stage, you have your surface covered, and can begin to judge more carefully the relationships of your tones, one to another. In this picture, I’ve already darkened the surface the cast is sitting on, and lightened the background. The difference between them was too great, and the light block wasn’t standing out enough. This stage took probably the longest of any part of the painting, making small adjustments to the tone blocks and trying to get the relationships between them as close as I can to what I see.
It’s important to note that I’m talking about the relationships between them, or the ratios here. I’m not matching what I see, because my black is red, (I thought everyone knew that red is the new black), and has a mid tone. So I’m trying to make sure that the light block reads as light, which means bringing down the surrounding tones. But I also have to make sure that the base still reads as black, as far as I can, so that means bringing them back up. Lots of push and pull. This stage should be slightly less complex on a raw umber monochrome, since the darkest tone will be almost black anyway.
But this is simply a more extreme form of what we have to deal with in painting anyway, that our tonal range is limited, particularly, I think, at the light end of the scale. Because of that, I was careful not to throw away pure white on my light block here, I had to leave some ‘headroom’ for highlights, which will be pure white.
Step six – work the edges
As in the previous stages, the task now is to concentrate on the edges where the tonal blocks meet, making them softer where there are smooth transitions, (indicating rounded transitions between planes), and harder where there is a sharp edge.
Most of the edges here are smooth, at least almost all the internal ones are. The only really sharp edge is down the left of the cast against the background. But the bottom of the leg, on the left, has a sharp edge, and so does the broken plane of the left arm. Likewise the right edge of the neck where a 90 degree change in plane direction creates a sharp edge.
Although I’ve been looking at edges more in my still life drawings, I’ve never concentrated on them to this extent. Because of that, I’ve never quite realised before how important they are in describing form. Now I think that they are at least as important as tone in creating a convincing three dimensional illusion.
Harold makes the point that the edges should be dealt with first, before any internal modelling is attempted. The reason for this is that when you only have the large tonal blocks established, there’s nothing in the way of the free movement of your brush. You can make confident, definite marks, and if you’re really good, bring real sparkle to the painting at this point. Unfortunately I’m not, and just spent lots of time fiddling obsessively. But when I get better at handling a brush, this should be very valuable. Harold also goes to some length to advise on how the brush should be held. Not near the tip, like a pen, that will reduce you to small, fiddly movements. Holding the brush as far down the handle as you can allows for grand, confident sweeps. Unless you have wobbly old arms like me, in which case you just get paint everywhere, and have to wipe it off again.
But he’s right. Every now and again on this painting, I managed to put in a sweep which worked, or at least came close. The effect is very different than fiddling and diddling with little tiny movements, and has two great advantages: Firstly, the more you diddle about with your paint, the more it breaks down and loses the strength of it’s colour. Try it, get a bright colour, and diddle about with it ceaselessly for half an hour on a bit of canvas, work the living daylights out of it. Then get some fresh from the tube, and put it down with one stroke, right next to it. Very illuminating. Secondly, once you learn to control your brush like this, you will be able to make more expressive sweeps. That has to be a good thing. Painting, as we all know now, is not just about copying what you see, right?
Step seven – final modelling and finishing
The last stage, of course, is putting in the finer modelling and highlights, which I got too involved with to remember to take any progress shots of. But that stage went a lot quicker for having laid down a solid foundation with this organised approach to building up the painting. I must be honest, I’m a bit surprised that this painting came oft he end of my brush.
One of the strengths of this approach, I think, is that it forces you to work from the general to the specific, just like a Bargue drawing. This seems to me to be such a universally useful approach that I’m beginning to think that it’s a basic tenet of producing good representational work. You sometimes see people who work gradually down a picture, completely finishing each part before they move onto the next. Now I don’t want to criticise other people’s working methods, but it seems to me that it’s very easy to lose the ‘big picture’ working like this, and, if I’m honest, I think the overall strength of the work I’ve seen done like this suffers. There’s nothing wrong with detail, but it must work within the entire picture, or it’s just fiddling for fiddling’s sake.
Having got so much from this painting and this approach, I’m now planning a series of monochrome still life paintings, the point of which will be to practice and internalise what I’ve learned here. Realising how something works is just the first initial stage. Then, it has to be practiced and practiced until it becomes second nature, until it happens without thinking. It needs to be internalised to the point of unconscious competence.
What I’ve taken from this exercise is, firstly, a way of building up a painting which allows me to concentrate on the main tone masses without getting lost in detail too soon, and secondly, the full importance of edges. These are the two points I’ll be looking to internalise over the next series of paintings. I have to say, I’m quite excited.
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