Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The anatomy of painting (III of III)

I've entitled this series of post "The anatomy of a painting" for two reasons. First, I like titles to have five words and at least one preposition. It makes it sound like I'm very smart. I have degree that I paid a lot of money for and I feel like I should be using it in one way or another even if it's only to make me feel good about myself. Secondly, I think the title is appropriate. Paintings have an anatomy. They have a bone structure that keeps everything in place (the drawing) they have muscles that control it's movement (values) and they occasionally wear lipstick and perfume to get your attention (colour) Also they can wear too much lipstick and perfume and look like they are trying too hard. (i.e Diebenkorn)

So today we get into the makeup. Hopefully what I'm showing you is the equivalent of the "smokey eye effect" and not the "mutton dressed as lamb" effect. Firstly, a refresher as to where we left off:

Bones and Muscles. (Not really, but kinda)

when i got into teaching the phrase I would inevitably hear was "I can't learn to draw, I can;t even make a straight line without a ruler". My answer was always, "neither can I". Tromp l'oeil rests on the ability to form tight lines that separated the objects from their backgrounds. Because of this straight lines are fairly important, compulsory even. in fact they are so important they would require a longer word than compulsory but I can think of one at the moment.

So, being that I am "straight line handicapped" and painting with a ruler is way more work than it sounds like, what the solution. The answer my friend, is tape.The edges of the tape are carefully mapped to the changing contours of the postcard. I used very small pieces, maybe 3/4 of an inch at a time, in order to perfectly mask off the postcard from what would become the wood background.

This is tape. And it is awesome

At this point the painting is finished and I can sign it. what? Paint? Ok fine.

The wood grain is basically a mix of Transparent Iron Oxide, Mars Black and a little Mars Violet and Cadmium Red to adjust the temperature.

Mars Violet isn't in this picture
because she's camera shy.

The white in the picture is a actually a mix between Williamsburg Flake white and Davis Davis Titanium White (known as the "Gluck" white as it was mixed to specifications by the founder of Mission Renaissance, a private art school in California.) Also the oil on the palette is M. Graham's Walnut oil. I included just a little of in the white mixture as the Williamsburg can be described as "stiff" and the Gluck white is "ropey". "Stropey" white was not what I wanted so the walnut oil smooths that out a bit. Why not Linseed oil you ask? Walnut oil is thinner and faster so it takes less oil to thin the paint to the desired consistency. Too much oil can contribute to cracking and yellowing.

At this point with the paint mixed I can begin applying the background. Since the wood is so dark it was pretty evident it needed to go on first as it surrounded the postcard and would influence the values I chose later:

Transparent Iron Oxide: a good influence
on unruly colours.

Close up.

While I spent a good deal of time mixing the "perfect" white, white was not used in the initial pass over the wood grain. In the close up you can see I've started to incorporate the "grain effect" on the left side while the initial base color is still being applied on the right. I like to work as I go rather than fully applying the paint in layers. Normally I would "tone" the canvas with a light wash on a neutral color, maybe a gray or mustardy wash. But since I am not using white here, I'm letting the white of the canvas show through to give me an impression of lighter wood.

After the initial layer of paint was allowed to dry (overnight) the wood grain was enhanced with a very limited amount of white added into the wood mixture. The tape above the card was painted and the shadows were darkened. for those of you interested, I did not use walnut oil other than in the white mixture (it dries too slow). The wood mixture was mixed with Oleo-Resin medium from Michael Harding. Basically: canada balsam, turpentine, stand oil and a drier (cobalt I think). It dried quickly has great handling and allowed me to thin the paint enough for the white ground to show through:

The completed wood grain

From here I could remove the tape and begin the figures and white border. The painting of the figures was relatively straight forward. The white border not so much. If you remember from the previous post I had rigged a complex light blocking "unicorn" to solve the fact that I had multiple light sources. This proved impractical. I removed the overhang early in the painting process but the dual light source was screwing with my ability to make the shadows and the highlights on the white border "read" properly.

It's purdy. But it don't read too good.

As you can see in the above photo I've turned off the spot light on the left causing the slanting show to disappear. Ultimately I thought this strengthened the illusion. The dual light source just seemed confusing. So I turned off the second light and just used the overhead light:

By George I think she's got it.

This concludes the series on the making of 'Degas "Dancers in Blue"'. I plan on doing a series of Tromp l'oeil paintings on similar themes as soon as I finish a few still-life's which have been requested by Mark Greenberg who carries my work in Santa Fe, NM at Greenberg Fine Art. Degas "Dancers in Blue" will also be showing there at the end of the month. Stay tuned for more painting madness and possibly, pictures of bunnies.


Degas "Dancers in Blue" oil on linen 10" x 10"

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The anatomy of a painting. (II of III)

So. To continue.

The preparation of a support is tremendously important. It is, very literally, the foundation on which a painting is built. In a sense preparing a suitable canvas requires a lot of time and effort. So much so sometimes, that it's almost a shame to paint on it.

But that aside it's time to start the set up, which looks something like this:

Sight size. It's where it's at baby.

So what are we talking about here? Sight size. Basically, sight size is a method of drawing where the canvas and your subject are set up to be exactly the same size. You can see I've marked out the board (a spare shelf from my tré-chic IKEA bookshelf) with blue painters tape at a 10" square on the button.

At this point I feel I should confess something. I am measuring addict. I have several methods of measuring when I'm drawing I use a plumb line nearly as much as I use a pencil much in the manner shown here:

Incidentally, this isn't a photo of my hand.
My hand is much more muscular and manly.

And while I don't use a ruler, I do use a stick to measure similar distances. (I'm not going to post a picture of a stick. That would be silly). To do this I simply mark the distance between two points on my stick and compare the same two distances on my drawing. If one is bigger than the other, I fix it. If it's not, I leave it. I do this with EVERYTHING (and I mean everything). If you do it correctly you will end up with something like this:


You can see pretty clearly that all the important dimensions and shadows are appropriately marked. I've also used some place holder sketching to mark my shadows. I am a painter who is big on notation. I do not thoroughly draw everything but I do mark just about everything for later use. If you look closely at the picture you can see pieces of tape affixed to the edges of the wood. Those tape pieces are color-note numbers which match color swatches I've mixed on a small piece of canvas near my palette.

A good tromp l'oeil is dead sexy. To make tromp l'oeil work, the depth of field needs to be incredibly shallow. In my opinion a convincing illusion can be maintained with a depth of field of up to 3 inches. Anything more than that requires the viewer to be standing in just the right place for the illusion to work. Granted there have been very successful tromp l'oeil ceilings and even chalk sidewalks paintings. but again, if viewed from the wrong angle, the illusion fails. (for example of this check out more of Julian Beever's sidewalk art and check out the last one (http://www.squidoo.com/julianbeever)

In order to really nail down that depth of field the lighting has to be correct. I have several studio lights that I use for paintings. And fortunately, both are out of frame in this shot (fail).

"Unnecessarily complicated" Party of 1, your
table is now available.

I have a 600Watt spot light which is coming in from the side and a pair of daylight corrected fluorescents over the set up. The Macgyver'ed paper towel roll contraption is to prevent me from having two light sources on my subject, as I wanted the shadow on the right hand side to be as strong as possible to reenforce the shallow depth of field. (Eventually I would reconsider that decision)

After all is said and done, this is what the final painting set up looks like:

The taped-off board is actually
a mystical unicorn in disguise.

The next installment will cover the painting and it will be the most awesome post of the three. To prove this, here is a picture of a stapler:


Which has very little to do with anything.


Thursday, September 1, 2011

The anatomy of a painting.

When I started painting I scoured, positively scoured the internet for information on painting, supports, supplies and archival information. For every bit of data I can across that was worthwhile I found huge swathes of information that was... sub par. On top of that I never really got to see the intricacies of what went into painting; why use a pva size and not rabbitskin glue? Why use a alkyd primer and not a titanium white? why use black oil and not linseed? Poppy? Safflower? Heat-bodied walnut with turps?! AGGGHHHH!!!

And then my head would explode.

After I spent the next few hours carefully putting my head back together (not unlike one Mr. Dumpty, first name: Humpty) I carefully trolled through what information I had and did several test runs to see what worked and what didn't.

So, this blog post will be a start to finish (in three parts) chronicle of one painting. From the preparation of the support and ground to the final touches:

Degas "Dancers in Blue" 10" x 10" oil on linen

The first matter of business was to select a support. Don't get me wrong, I like stretched canvas. But I wanted something with a bit more resistance to the touch. sometimes the firmness of the support makes painting easier for smaller more detailed work. The canvas I used had some wrinkles was well, and it's been my experience that stretching canvas doesn't remove wrinkles. So I used a 10" x 10" square of birch plywood with a 1/4 inch cradle.

so... strong.....

Yet so.... thin!

Yes, so I cut a piece of Utrecht 66J fine texture single weave linen. Fine texture single weave makes a thin painting surface without all the Goddam bumps to hind the application of paint.

Square canvas, square support. It's
like I went to college or something.

So, with the canvas cut it was time to size the linen. Linen requires a barrier between it and the paint otherwise the acidity of the oil will, over time, eat through the linen like a bunny through the gate that you put up to keep it from eating you new pair of shoes that You Bought Expressly Because YOU NEEDED A NICE PAIR OF SHOES FOR YOUR SISTERS WEDDING!!!!


So I've recently switched to the use of PVA glue because hide glue tends to absorb moisture from the air and over time may shrink and expand causing cracks in the painting. So after a coat of PVA, I need to adhere the canvas to the support. Again PVA glue was my choice for similar reasons stated above. Incidentally, PVA is a acid neutral glue similar to Elmer's. However it is a lot thinner.

This resulted in unforeseen problem. Namely the bloody canvas failed to adhere to the support. As such i attempted two methods of trying tog et it to stick

Method # 1 Pressing it by hand:

The man (aka me) trying to keep
a good canvas down.

I can tell you from experience this method of attempting to smooth the canvas down with hand pressure is only successful if you are trying to do two things.

1. Get glue on your hands.

For this, pressing the canvas down with your hands if very good. The heat of your hands caused the glue to cure on everything but the canvas. So you can be sure that the use of this method of adhesion will prevent any glue from drying on your canvas and provide maximum coverage on your fingers. If you happen to have any hair on your hands or arms be assured they you won't by time you remove the glue. PVA is surprisingly an excellent alternative to wax.

2. If you are attempting to tire your arm out.

Again, the above method is excellent for attempting to wear your arms down in to worthless stumps. Combined with glue covered fingers it is excellent for rendering your entire upper body useless and makes that face push-up you have to do to get out of bed the next morning all the more enjoyable.

Method #2 MacGyver

I was considering using some spare string and
a paper clip to make an atomic bomb and
blow the damn thing up after this.

Again. this method was also fail. While i didn't have glue covered hands, I still had to do the morning face push-up due to EXTREME arm fatigue.

(Warning: useful bit of information coming up)

So I did a bit of research. The reason you don't use Elmer's glue is because of its acidity. As mentioned before (acid+canvas = bunnies+VERY EXPENSIVE SHOES). But its all I had so... do I dare? Then I came across this bit of info from Ross Merill, who is the chief conservator of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.:

"I wouldn’t recommend using Elmer’s white glue since it’s acidic. But when you think about it, the plywood, Masonite and fabric are all acidic, as well, but to a lesser degree. If you decide to use Elmer’s, mix a half cup of powdered white chalk (available at hardware stores) with a cup of water. Then add that to a quart of Elmer’s glue. Adding the chalk directly to the Elmer’s glue will result in a very thick paste. If it’s too thick to thoroughly mix, add just enough water to make it workable. This chalk (calcium carbonate) will neutralize the acidity of the Elmer’s glue."

Chalk is basically calcium carbonate. Which I have on hand for making traditional gesso. After mixing the calcium carbonate I ended up with a glue/chalk mixture something around consistency of maple syrup:

Although it moves like maple syrup
it's not.

You can easily see the viscosity here, what you
don't see is the PVA, because its too thin to
show up on film. Not unlike Calista Flockheart.

Much like the farmer who had a dog, I exclaimed "Bingo"! The new glue mixture was thick enough to hold the canvas in place. Enough for me to prime anyway...

The next installment will give a run though of the set-up and paints. Stay tuned or I'll send my killer attack bunny after you:

She May look cute, but she'll bite your face off.
And then your shoes.