Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The plein air adventures of Ruby Redfern

The following is an excerpt from Ruby Redfern's personal diary July 2019

Day 1 

I breathe in the warm ocean air. Jetlag, delayed flights and luke-warm coffee are my nemesis today. I rub my eyes and setup my easel. The horn goes off at 9AM sharp and so, it begins. I'm at the Quickdraw of an out of town plein air event. It's not my first event but I would hardly call myself a veteran, more like an amateur throwing darts in the dark.

The air crackles with nervous energy. The first painting spills out of my brushes faster than a Ferrari.  It's not a terrible start but I could have slowed down and done better. My painting sells. I'm thrilled. 

Day 2 

I paint all day. In the evening, I drive to the marina. There are boats, restaurants, people, possibilities everywhere. The clouds are a glorious mix of storm and cotton. Evening turns over quickly and sunset sweeps in.  I am completely paralyzed by awe. Is it possible the planet has started spinning faster? I am stuck in a slow-motion video while the world around me flashes away in a time-lapse. By the time I tear my eyes away from the sky, it is engulfed in darkness. So, I paint a nocturne. 

Day 3 

I'm determined to paint the sunset today. I am on time, in a nice park and my easel is setup. The sunset screams in, like a glitterati of showgirls in Vegas, fireworks and all. I revel in its audacity. But, I've just been handed a Bob Ross and asked to create a Mona Lisa. 

Day 5

I walk into the exhibition with heavy eyes. After days of painting, exhaustion has crept into muscles I didn't even know existed. I don't win an award. I know I don't deserve an award. Still, a wave of disappointed creeps in. I agree with most of the judge's decisions but not all. Sour grapes be damned. Surely, I could have been one of those undeserving candidates. I laugh at the thought and shrug away my disdain.

We have to man (or woman) our walls. I haven't sold anything since the first day. I muster up all my courage and wear my best smile. A polite couple stops by. I attempt words but my mind is emptier than a blank canvas. How could I not even remember what the weather is like. They ease me out of my misery by moving on.

I begrudging gawk at my fellow-artists as they glide around with ease, charming one client after another. Paintings are flying off the wall. It feels like everybody else is on 5G while I'm sputtering like a dial-up modem. I think it's better to let my paintings sell themselves and I shrivel up into the corner. Instagram is my best friend. What would wallflowers like me do without social media?

By some miracle, another painting of mine sells before the evening ends. I'm relieved. It's nothing like the veterans who have sold paintings in double digits but I know there are artists who have sold none as well. 

Day 6 

I'm at the airport checkin counter line. Day 4 still haunts me. I spent most of it driving around trying to decide where to paint. As I pull out my credit card to pay for the extra bag, I tell myself "Next time Rubes, its gonna be all rainbows, butterflies and unicorns".

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Lessons from the Easel #1

I have started a new series of short instructional videos on youtube. In this first video, I explain the problems I encountered while painting Lavender Farm (below) and how I resolved them. Click on the video (above) to see it :)

Lavender Farm. 8x10in. Oil
Available. $260
Click here to buy

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Your subject is lying to you... it happens more often than you think.

Have you ever been in a situation where you are painting with cadmium red out of the tube but it still doesn't look red enough on the canvas? or when you are literally slathering titanium white on the canvas but the value still doesn't look light enough? Have you ever been frustrated because you are glaring at your subject with great intensity and you think you have matched the colors exactly but when you put it on the canvas, it looks all wrong.

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it's not your fault.... well maybe a little bit your eye's fault but mostly your subject is lying to you. There are several ways in which the subject can lie to you. Your perception of a color is altered depending on the colors surrounding it

A value can look darker when surrounded by light value

A value can look lighter when surrounded by dark value

The inner square in both boxes above are the same but they look different because of the value of the color surrounding it. In the first case, the lavender looks much darker because it is surrounded by a lighter yellow. In the second case, the lavender looks much lighter because it is surrounded by dark purple.

Edgar Payne
So when you are out there in the landscape, the deep blue shadows make light on the rocks seem brilliant and you paint them too light. You are trying to add clouds(or snow) but no matter how much white you use, its not light enough. Your eyes have deceived you. So how do you avoid this trap? How do you seek the truth from your subject? The answer is simple. You move your eyes all over the landscape and compare colors to one another to see the truth. You see that your clouds are the lightest value in your landscape, you compare the rocks to the clouds and find out that even though they are in the light, they are not as light as the clouds. But they are warmer than the clouds, and much lighter and warmer than the cool shadows. Comparing and contrasting the values, temperature and saturation of colors all across the landscape will help you see and paint realistic colors.

Value contrast is just one way that color perception is altered. Complementary colors, Ground Subtraction and Eye fatigue all contribute to altering color perception. I will go over all of these concepts in detail in my one day color workshop on Nov 2nd, 10-5, $70. Sign up now to better understand, observe and mix accurate color.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Portrait Painting Tip #4: See the forest, not the trees

Every lesson I share on my blog, I have learned from my teacher Za Vue. This quote and the whole philosophy of this post is one of the most valuable lesson I've come to understand recently. "See the forest, not the trees". So what does that mean? Very simply put, it means to keep the big picture in sight  at all times and not get caught up in the details. 

Nicolai Fechin
Stepping back and looking at the big picture can help us spot errors at every stage of the painting process. So the whole painting process becomes a series of problem solving actions. 

Seeing the big picture will help you get a better likeness because you can judge the overall shape of the face, the height to width ratio of the face and the proportion of the neck and shoulders to the face. 

When you step back and look at the values, you can clearly tell if all of your light shapes fall into one value mass and shadow shapes into another mass. (See Portrait Painting Tip #2)

When we stare into a particular area intensely, our sense of color dies. We start seeing browns and ochre's. When we step back and look at the whole we begin to see beautiful colors belonging to the different hues of the wheel (yellow, orange, red, purple, blue, green)

Sometimes when we are painting the portrait, we forget about composition. But the negative space around the head is just as important. The shape, color and value of it should contribute to the overall interest of the painting. Stepping back will help you judge the impact of the space around your figure (is it too little, too much, too equal on different sides, how is the value, color?).  

Lastly, edges is such a huge topic but stepping back will help you see what edges are catching attention and you can intentionally manipulate them to move the eye around the painting. 

To summarize, 5 reasons to step back and see the big picture.
  1. Drawing 
    • Height to width ratio
    • Alignment of features
    • Shape of the face and proportion to head/neck
  2. Value masses (light/shadow)
  3. Color
  4. Composition
  5. Edges
Yong Hong Zhong
Remember to evaluate each of the 5 points throughout the painting process. When you step back, remember to look at your subject as a whole as well as your painting.

So next time, take a step back and admire the forest. Don't get caught up in the trees or worse yet the branches.

Also See Portrait Painting Tip #1, Tip #2, Tip #3

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Portrait Painting Tip #3: The fall of light

James Gurney has an excellent article on the color zones of the face with examples and I will refer you to it

To recap his article:
  • The forehead is the lightest/brightest part of the face
  • The middle portion of the face from ear to ear including cheeks and nose is the reddest(warmer) part of the head.
  • The lower section of the face below the nose is the grayer and cooler than the other 2 sections.

In his article he mentions capillaries and veins being the reasons for the local color zones of the face.

Apart from the local color of the zones of the face, I want to talk about the fall of light. Consider a head lit from above. If you think of a head as being shaped like an egg, the forehead is the top of the egg and it receives maximum light. As we move away from the top, the light gets weaker and weaker until it meets the core shadow(the point beyond there is no direct light on the egg). You can see this effect in the photo of the egg. By this consideration, you can see why the forehead is the brightest and chin is grayer and less bright as it recedes away from the light. This is known as the fall of light and it is a thing of beauty. You can observe it on any surface. As you get further away from the light source, the light effect gets weaker and duller.

Here is a beautiful example of this by Za Vue. You can clearly see the 3 color zones of the face with the forehead being the bright and golden, the middle section is red from ear to ear and the lower section below the nose is cool and grey. As always, these color zones relate to each other, meaning the cheeks are redder than the forehead, the chin is grey compared to forehead and cheeks. Please note that despite these observations the whole lit side of the face belongs to the light value family(See Portrait painting Tip #2 for more)

Also See Portrait Painting Tip #1Tip #2Tip#4

Monday, February 18, 2019

Portrait Painting Tip #2 Break it down into 3 distinct values

A 9-step value scale divided into 3 value families
The key to designing a good painting is to break it down into 3 value families -light, medium and dark (not including highlights and dark accents). A painting designed with 3 values in mind looks organized and pleasant. So, how do you do that? Look at your scene and break-it down into 3 value families. Don't copy things exactly as you see them, look at the whole and decide which value family  each part of the painting belongs to. Ideally you want an unequal distribution of light, medium and dark values in your painting. You want one value to be the dominant mass, the second value to be sub-dominant and third one to be minimal in terms of canvas acreage. When the light value is dominant, it is called high-key painting. When the mid value is dominant, it is called mid-key and when the dark is dominant, it is called low-key painting.

There's a lot to be said about designing your paintings with 3 values but a picture is worth thousand words, so here are some examples. In the groupings below, the first image is the original painting. The second image is the original painting without color and third image is my simplification of the value masses in the painting.

The first example is a painting by Fechin. Please note that when you squint your eyes, the whole face falls into one value family.  When you start your painting, you need to think in terms of broad value masses like my simplification below. Once the value masses are clearly established, you can add half-tones that maintain the value masses. Details and accents come in last. Don't be distracted by features; things like eyeballs or lip color are accents on the face. In case of the Fechin's painting, the hair, dark part of the  shirt and left background belong to the dark family. There is a little bit of light on the front of the shirt. Notice that the face never crosses into the light family (except maybe the highlights)

In the example below by contemporary painter Suchitra Bhosle, the skin-tones belong to mid-tone value family, the shadow side of the face is a darker midtone but never gets as dark as the hair which belongs to the dark family. The light is in the background.

In this painting by Sorolla, the skin-tones and background are mid-tone. The light value mass belongs to the shirt, scarf and skirt. . There is a tiny amount of dark in this painting, only in the hair. The shadow below the neck is a dark accent as well as the eyes.

Below is a painting by Za Vue. She has a beautiful dominant light family of values running from the face down into the shirt. The shadow side of the face (like the cast shadow in her neck) belongs to the mid-tone. She has subdued the darks in the face so that it stays in the mid-tone family. The hair is mid-tone and there is little bit of dark around the face and in the background. 

I hope this makes sense. This is a packed blog post and it seems simple enough to understand but it is much harder to implement, especially when we get caught up in the details. Always remember to step back and look at the whole. This concept applies to all kinds of subject matter (not just portrait painting).

Also See Portrait Painting Tip #1Tip #3, Tip#4

Monday, February 11, 2019

Portait Painting Tip #1: Know your light source.

Know your light source. The first step is to identify the temperature of your light source. In model sessions we typically use either warm or cool spot lights. This step is important because the intensity and temperature of light influences the colors of the skin tones, surroundings and overall harmony of the painting. Don't get caught up with the local colors, try to observe the effect of light on the colors.

Cool light has warm shadows but remember, color temperature is always relative. What this means is that the shadow is warmer relative only to the colors of the skin tone in the light, so the overall harmony of the whole picture could still be cool. Also the shadow is affected by reflected light which could be warm or cool depending on the surrounding colors. 

Few examples of cool light paintings by Sargent and Fechin. Notice the overall cool color harmony of these paintings. 

Few examples of warm light paintings by Sargent and Sorolla. Notice the warm harmony of these paintings, the warm light affects the surroundings as well.
An example of cool and warm Max Ginsburg paintings side by side. Compare and contrast the skin tones of these two paintings.

Also See Portrait Painting Tip #2Tip #3Tip#4