In figurative painting the use of light & shade, aka tone, is the way to suggest three dimensions, aka form, in/on the flat world occupied by the painted image. I am always amazed, especially in watercolour, how even the smallest tonal difference hints towards this suggestion (a slight irregularity in an otherwise even sky wash provides enough annoying proof!), but, on the flip side, if there is not enough tonal contrast between the light and shade, it can render a watercolour dull and lifeless. Getting the relative tone right is therefore the main challenge in figurative painting. I have two comparative questions constantly running through my head while I paint: when I am assessing tone I ask "Is it lighter than / darker than?” and when I mix and lay each brushstroke I ask ‘Is it too light / is it too dark’? Estate agents may say Location Location Location, I say Tone Tone Tone! It sounds strange to non-painters to hear that painting is about answering a constant barrage of questions in one's head for every mark made, but it is. And it doesn't end with the light and shade, what about all the relative measurements a painter is constantly making in regard to line, shape, colour? The idea that painting is relaxing is absurd! However, the uninterrupted concentration required to constantly answer all these questions does give the mind respite from other concerns and anxieties, and hence it can be a highly therapeutic occupation.
BE THE RED: As painters we often add a splash of red into a painting to bring a composition to life. The red stands out because it is different. This week I read a quote by the Stoic Agrippinus, likening our role in society to threads in a garment, he said, "I want to be the red, that small and brilliant portion which causes the rest to appear comely and beautiful”. Red stands out because it is different but its real purpose is to make the other colours come alive. Being different is not about attracting attention to oneself, it's about bringing out the best in everyone else. Red understands how to "be the small part that makes the rest look bright”. No wonder the red tube lasts for so long!
The danger with photographs is that one tends to copy them, and copying, while admirable for record, is not really creative. Paintings made from photographs often look rather stilted because they lack the 'time element' evident in work made from life. By 'time element' I mean the generalisation and selection process that is a necessity if you are painting from life over a period of time, whether it be minutes, hours or days, because the light and shadow changes and things move. Paintings do not have to look perfect, and they certainly do not have to look like photographs to be successful, in fact they are more appealing if they don’t!
Using several photographs together for your reference can help avoid becoming a slave to the limited information of one photo, a sequence of photos will help you realise that things change and help show what matters and what doesn’t, that you can leave lots of things out without losing any of the punch. If I am working from photographic reference I tend to work from several photographs at once, flicking back and forth between them. I also place the photographs/computer screen at a small distance away from me and upright in front of my gaze, so they are in the same eyeline as if I was observing 3 dimensional life.
The eye sees the subtleties of light and shade but the camera sees tones rather starkly. Shadows may look very dark in a photo and even black, but apply some logic, unless the shadow is really underneath and devoid of all light it probably wasn’t black at all because the ambient light would have enabled your eye to see more colour in the shadow than the camera can. And shadows move quite swiftly, so don't allow a shadow to be too static in your painting either. People tend to believe that the photo must be right, but why would you trust such a small portion of reality? So use them as a guide, feel no obligation towards them or their supposed veracity, take things from them such as shapes and spaces, but work out your own colour set and the relative tones. Question what you include and leave everything out that is not relevant to your painting. The upside of photographs is that they do not move or go away, so you have plenty of time to experiment and master your techniques!
It is the interaction of colours within a painting that makes it appear more colourful, not the number of different colours employed. Too many colours can in fact dull a painting - the mixing of pigments leads to dark browns, greys and blacks (as shown by earth and the oil below the surface) and consequently, mixtures employing too many pigments become dull. I aim to use three colours to make most of my paintings (versions of RYB), adding more only if I cannot reach the desired colour combination with three. The limited palette does not mean you cannot use several, or even many, colours in a painting, but in colour mixing a limit on the number of pigments helps protect the mixtures from becoming muddy and dull.
Shadows very much belong to the objects that cast them. Insofar as is possible they should be painted at the same time as the figure/table/chair/building that owns them, painted as an extension of the colour used for the shady side of the object, since it is from this side that the shadow extends. The proximity shadow, the area where object and shadow meet, is usually the darkest part. Often I wonder if the shadow owns the object rather than the other way around, as shadow areas act as an excellent link between objects and their patterns reinforce the abstract two dimensional composition of figurative painting.
The New Year is well underway but I am not one for New Year resolutions, in fact chasing change for change’s sake means less time consolidating that which is good. I am talking painting here, and talking particularly about colours: there are SO many lovely watercolour colours and it is SO tempting to keep adding more to one’s palette, but the end result does not necessarily make better paintings, in fact more often than not it creates confusion. We coax various reds, yellows and blues into stimulating and attractive patterns, encouraging them to ‘show us their true colours’, and then along comes a new turquoise and the lure is too tempting to resist! New colours ARE exciting in themselves, but fundamentally painting is all about combinations: red, yellow and blue and how they come together to make all the other colours. The pans and tubes you squeeze dry, are the colours you are using, their properties (temperature, transparency, opacity etc) are why you are using them, keep these characteristics in mind when a tempting hue seductively seeks to join your palette!
The temperature of colours matters hugely in mixing, so a warmer orange mixed with cool blue will make a duller green, for example, than a cooler orange mixed with the same blue. Transparent Orange mixed with Ultramarine Blue makes a fab black as they are opposite colours but mix it with Prussian Blue and it makes a gorgeous foliage green. Letting the colours mix on the paper makes a different green from mixing them together in the palette and overlaying each colour as wet on dry glazes makes it different again. There is just so much variety in colour mixing it is somewhat mind blowing but also sooo exciting!
You have probably noticed, if you view my work, that I love painting the shapes made by black suits, especially in movement. First I love the silhouette they make, second I love the slight tonal difference seen in the black as different angles of fabric receive light more and less. Inspired by a wedding I went to recently (and the Royal Wedding in May) I began a series of brush and ink paintings, contrasting the formal shape of the suit with the more ephemeral nature of the dress fabric, they have become rather romantic and strangely uplifting so I wanted to share them with you. Painting happy subjects actually uplifts the spirits, you will find yourself smiling as you paint. Here, painting just with black ink, I only had to concern myself with shape and tone so my mind and emotions could completely engage with the subject matter and were likewise lifted on the wings of love.
As an artist our eyes are probably the tool we value the most in painting. The long summer days of an English summer are wonderful for working outside and also extremely good for eyesight: as you look up from a watercolour, and then back down to the paper, changing your focus from far to close and back to far, over and over during the making of the painting, the muscles that work the lens are being exercised. Although the lens of the eye hardens as we get older, by keeping the muscles that shape it honed and toned, you help maintain your vision. Painting outside is not only the best way to learn to paint from life but has the added bonus of maintaining your eyesight! Long may the summer last!
The March issue of The Artist Magazine shows the second part of my series on light and shade in watercolour, "Game of Tones", this time it is about translating the tonal values onto paper and I use several African wildlife paintings to illustrate my points. The designer has laid the article out beautifully and I noticed that the 3 images on the first spread also displayed the main elements of watercolour painting: the linear brushstrokes of the Kalahari springbok mother and kid show the efficacy of LINE, the silhouettes of the wildebeest against the dawn dust show the strength of SHAPE, and the rounded bodies of the ambling elephants demonstrate how loosely FORM can be suggested. All three illustrate COLOUR & TONE. It is fun to find a 'lesson' in your paintings, take a look at some of your favourite watercolours and decide which element of painting is illustrated predominantly - line, shape, form, colour or tone?