Monday Morning Art School: more interesting greens

We take a snapshot of a dancing, glowing landscape and what we end up with is a wall of dull green. We need to insinuate that original energy back into our picture.

Bracken Fern, 9X12, oil on canvasboard, available, Carol L. Douglas

Michael Wilcox published a watercolor pigment guide called Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green. (Don’t buy it unless you can get it for a few dollars; its information is widely available on the internet, including here.)

Of course blue and yellow make green, but there are many routes to the same destination. I ask my students to avoid greens out of the tube, because they’re a sure-fired way of ending up with a monochromatic ‘wall of green’.

Apple Tree with Swing, 16X20, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

Instead, I ask them to mix their greens using a matrix. I’ve written about this many times, so I’m not going to repeat the concept, except to say that it’s critically important to avoid the soul-sucking deadness of greens out of a tube.

Impressionism changed the way we look at and mix color. From the beginning of painting, artists understood that to warm a color up, you add a warmer tone, and to cool a color down, you add a cooler tone. If that neutralizes the color, so be it. That’s in fact what happens in real life with real light.

The Impressionists started to treat color as a wheel. If you wanted a warmer, lighter green, you mixed it not with Naples yellow* but with its cadmium yellow neighbor. If you wanted a cooler, darker green, you mixed it with it not with black but with its Prussian blue neighbor.

Better yet, you didn’t mix them at all, but laid gold next to green to warm it up, and laid blue next to green to cool it down. These tiny, discrete spots of color are averaged by the human eye into a coherent image. A blizzard of brushstrokes and color resolves into a discernable truth.

Spring Greens, 8X10, oil on canvasboard, Carol L. Douglas

If you look carefully at human skin, you realize it’s not ‘skin-tone’ but is quite varied. There are areas tinged with blue, yellow, purple, and red. Without that, a person would look dead. The same is true of foliage. There are moments in which the color leans toward khaki, yellow, teal, violet and orange. They are what give life to greens.

Unfortunately, these color shifts are subtle and almost never caught in the snapshots we use as reference photos. We talk about ‘photographic proof’ as if it is an absolute, although by now we all know that photos are terrible liars.

For guiding a painting, photos have their limits. They distort distance and spatial relationships. Modern point-and-shoot cameras (especially cell phones) blow contrast and chroma up, because that’s what buyers like. In exchange, subtle value and hue shifts disappear.

We take a snapshot of a dancing, glowing landscape and what we end up with is a wall of dull green. Does that mean we can’t ever paint from photos? Of course not (although you’ll never really master the intricacies of natural color if you don’t go outside). It means we have to insinuate that energy back into the picture, and the tool we have to do that with is color.

The Impressionists taught us that we can do that by extending the range of color in an object. I can give you many examples of artists who did that, starting with Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh. Spend a few hours analyzing their paintings in terms of color range.

I made a series of four photoshopped trees, above, to illustrate the concept. The first one is the normal way we might paint trees. With each step, I’ve added color range to the tree, until the final version has every position in the color wheel.

The guiding principle is the color of light. I’ve kept (for the most part) cool colors in the shadows and warm colors in the highlights. When you first try this, it will seem artificial and possibly absurd, but persevere. It’s the key to dynamic greens.

*Today’s Naples yellow is a mix and almost as deadening to a painting as sap green.

Monday Morning Art School: good reference photos

A good reference picture is not necessarily a good photo. A great photo is almost never a good reference picture.

Headwaters of the Hudson, by Carol L. Douglas, private collection. This is one of several paintings I’ve done based on the following photograph.

Sometimes I’ll post a photo to Facebook, only to have someone suggest, “You should paint that!” Of course, I won’t. A photo good enough to elicit that response is a complete artistic statement in itself. Painting it won’t improve on it.

A good reference picture is not necessarily a good photo. A great photo is almost never a good reference picture. The purpose of a reference photo is not to make your composition, lighting, and color decisions for you, but to provide you the information you need to make those decisions in paint.

The photo was taken on the causeway to Moose Island, ME, many years ago.

When I do paint from photos, I always start (surprise, surprise) with a drawing. Why sketch first? I don’t want my photos to drive my paintings. It’s best for me to seek out the composition on my own, and then find the details and plug them in. The last thing I want is to be a slave to a photo.

I have tens of thousands of snapshots on my server, archived by where and when they were taken. But imagine, for a second, that I want to paint rolling surf. I‘ve taken many such photos, but was the right one on the Great Coast Road in Victoria, Australia, at Sandy Hook in New Jersey, or at Port Clyde in Maine? Nothing for it but to search every folder for the image I want. (My phone is, in this case, ahead of my laptop. It can search by image, and it does it very well.)

Deadwood, 36X48, available from the artist.

What will make one photo better than the next for my purposes? Not the setting, but the lighting, the color and the angle.

When I take reference pictures, I make a point of shooting far more peripheral material than I would for an artistic shot. This is because I’ve outsmarted myself too many times by cropping out essential information in the viewfinder. Detail is generally unimportant in a reference photo, and most modern cameras (including the one in your cell phone) have far greater resolution than the artist ever needs. Go ahead and crop when you’re ready to paint, but more overall information, not more detail, is generally what you’re looking for.

This was the reference photo for the painting above. It was taken by my friend Joe Wagner and I snagged it from Facebook. Yes, a certain amount of artistic license was taken in the final rendering.

Flat, indirect light can be really boring in a landscape painting, but it’s sometimes helpful in a reference photo. It allows you to create your own atmospherics. You’re never stuck fighting a lighting source that doesn’t work.

Yes, I sometimes Google images. There are things I have seen in life but have never photographed—the Northern Lights, a star-spangled sky over Nebraska, or a Friendship sloop, to name just three. I use these pictures as background information. The last thing I want to do is copy someone else’s artistic ideas.

The portrait commission

A portrait is a ticklish intersection of your viewpoint and the client’s.
Andrea, by Carol L. Douglas (private collection)

Last spring a gentleman stopped by my studio and handed me a battered photo from his wallet. It was of his wife, taken when they were very young. It was tiny and terribly worn. Only her face was unmarred, but what a face it was! It radiated a quiet joy at being caught in this moment by this cameraman. No wonder her husband had carried it with him for decades.

I took a few pictures of his picture and handed the original back to him for safekeeping. Summer is no time for me to take on a commission; he would have to wait for autumn. Still, I’d stop and take a few swipes at it whenever I was in my studio for a day, and by late August it was finished.
A detail of the worn surface of the photo.
In one way, it was a painting only a woman of a certain age could have done. It was easy enough for me to plausibly reconstruct her clothes, her makeup and her hairstyle, because there was a time when I’d styled myself the same way. But I couldn’t get lost in a retro fashion show. My client was clear that he wanted an impression of the photo, not a faithful reconstruction. It was not only a portrait of his wife in her youth; it was a portrait of a photograph he’d carried for most of his adult life.
Drake, by Carol L. Douglas (private collection)
I’ve painted several portraits from bad photos and tiny snapshots. Usually, they are nowhere as joyous as the one at top. The model often can’t come to me because they’re dead. The painting is a way to help his or her survivors grieve. The most difficult one I’ve ever painted was of a stillborn infant, above. It was painted from a blurry snapshot, taken hurriedly in a hospital room.
Such paintings are, artistically, as difficult as it gets. There’s no light in the photos and you’re making up most of the details. And there’s a lot riding on getting it right. The mother of that infant asked for the painting several years after her baby’s death. As a mother, staring at the snapshot for hours on end, it was easy for me to feel her grief. It was my duty to help bind it up, in any way I could.
It is always easier and more successful to work from life or a combination of life, sketches and photos (the more feasible solution for a group portrait). One still must consider the motivation of the client.
Reclining figure, by Carol L. Douglas (private collection)
The nude figure, above, was technically easy, since I had the model in my studio. What was difficult was the model’s public identity; she is a doctor. For the past twenty years, I’ve spent a lot of time with doctors, and I have a great respect for them. Still, I wasn’t her patient. It wasn’t until I started the painting that I realized how much her clothes defined her in my mind. I never got past my own reaction to her undress. That is apparent in my intentional simplification of her facial features. Still, the painting is a success, one of my favorites in a long career of painting.
The Children of Dean and Karolina Fero, by Carol L. Douglas (private collection)
Another portrait that’s among my favorites is The Children of Dean and Karolina Fero, above. I didn’t know these kids before I started this painting. Many years later, the daughter is my close friend and her brother a valued acquaintance. It’s full of symbols that mean something to the sitters but not to the casual observer.
Next year I’m booked to go to Scotland to do a portrait in situ, in the manner of Francis Cadell. I’ll spend the intervening time thinking through what the painting means, both to the person who commissioned it and the model. Get that right and the painting part is easy.