A Gilder and Framemaker living and working in Maine writes about projects in the studio and life around the farm
Letters sent to Mark Nelsen
I hope you’re still putting paint to canvas, because I’m finally getting around to passing on those few notes I mentioned to you the other day. I haven’t found the notes I sent to Ms. Winkelbauer so I’m going to start from scratch.
Colors I use – I tend to experiment with new ones often and then keep using some. I’ll start with the “foundation” colors (my word). In no particular order, as they come to mind.
1. Yellow ochre – light
2. Raw sienna
3. Chrome green – deep
4. Chrome green – light
5. Ultramarine blue
6. Zinc & titanium white
7. Burnt umber
8. Raw umber
9. Burnt sienna
10. Grey blue – a Holbein color
11. Terre verte
12. A yellow – perhaps cadmium yellow – light
13. Cadmium orange
These are all earth colors which mean’s they’re permanent. In looking over the Holbein paints I have many blends that spark my appetite.
Yellow ochre I find a pivotal color. Most important to me is that it warms other colors and brings them forward on the picture surface. It’s indispensable for me when painting white houses in sunlight. Very little needed for this to impart the warmth and light. But the sense of light is only completed when it adjoins an effectively painted shadow area. Colors used for shadow areas vary but here’s a suggestion.
(But first because I’m a bit ahead of myself – I under paint most landscapes with a wash – on the gessoed canvas – of yellow ochre. If there’s other paint on the palette – any in the list, mix them in but let the ochre dominate. Raw sienna is fine too. Mix them in with zinc white to keep the tone delicate.)
When I start a painting, after covering the canvas, as above, I then further block in the areas of the picture with washes that will guide the painting along. I will block in a white house with yellow ochre mixed with cadmium orange – it will be quite dark in the area to be shaded – lighter where the sun will hit. You’ll find that the underpainting will usher along the final painting.
Initially, sky areas should just be given a light wash. You can use the gray blue perhaps with a little cadmium red and/or terre verte. There’s probably nothing more difficult than painting a decent sky that complements the scene you’re painting. Eventually you’ll find that the best skies come from the wrist, not the brain (so does much of the best painting overall). Whenever I say wash, I’m talking about the underpainting. Is it helpful to say skies should look breezy?
One thing I can suggest about skies is that it’s best to go from light to dark. While light areas – clouds – can be put over a darker blue area, for example, it is often quite effective to define lighter areas with the darker tones, i.e., shaping clouds. Try to paint them freely.
Going back to house shadows: The following colors can be mixed for effective shadows:
I’m not making a recipe so I can’t say one tablespoon of this and one tablespoon of that. Start with the white, then add the ultramarine blue, ochre and a dash of the red. Without doing it in front of you, all I can say is experiment. And hold the mixed paint up to the light area of the house (do it first) to see if you’re on the right track.
Trees: I did some hard looking at trees this past year. I really started to make some progress when I decided that their greens were “ugly.” That is after the first paler green blush of spring. And no matter how light summer trees look, they are relatively dark against the sky – I’m thinking especially of the outer edges where the leaves “touch” the sky.
I also tend to block in trees in darker tones than they will finally be. And let the paint dry so that added bunches of leaves will be distinct and not blend in too much. But also use wet in wet. But softness is desirable, I feel. This is a push-pull proposition.
Trees and sky especially benefit from being painted on location (plein air). There’s a freshness that comes from painting on the scene that is often lost in the studio. This applies especially to natural phenomena – less to buildings and man-made objects but they benefit also from being painted on-the-spot.
It helps to train your eyes to see suggestions or nuances of color in a thing. In trees look for hints of cadmium red, raw sienna, blues, etc. Then use them. How much you use them is up to you.
I’m going to stop here for now. But I’ll take a breath and send another installment. If you have questions, save them until I finish.
Continuation of Painting Notes
Medium – this should have gone up front. For the past number of years I’ve used turpentine and cold pressed linseed oil. A knowledgeable painter friend substitutes thin-x for turpentine. He says he feels turpentine causes yellowing over time and thin-x does not.
Fat over Lean: This means that succeeding layers of paint should have more oil in them. This is to assure that underlayers do not dry after upper layers, which can lead to cracking. First washes and blocking are done with turpentine only. On later layers I add oil sparingly – not worrying too much but mentally keeping track of where oil has gone down and how much. In my work the amount will vary in different areas. Also a painting done in a matter of a few days or weeks will probably not have a chance to get dry enough to effect bonding. Thickness of paint has a real bearing on this. Also some colors have more oil content and take longer to dry. White is one of these – not to worry about this. However, I’ve found some difficulty with cerulean blue so I no longer use it.
Speaking of white: The reason I have listed 2 whites is that titanium is more opaque and gives a brighter appearance than zinc. I use it on white houses, highlights on surfaces such as chrome bumpers and for clouds.
Zinc is more transparent and can be used to heighten colors without causing too much milkiness. Nevertheless milkiness is a quality to be on guard against. During the course of a given painting, when I need white, zinc is what I use. I stay away from flake white because of the lead content.
From white to black: I have no black on the color list. That’s because different subjects that seem to call for darkness also suggest different ones other than black. For example, the darkness of an interior seen through an open window can be accomplished with a mix of burnt sienna and ultra blue.
The darkness of a pine tree might be suggested by a mix of burnt sienna and chrome green deep with some cadmium red. Experiment.
Play with yellow ochre and raw sienna to get a feel of their differences. As I said, yellow ochre is warm and brings out the side of a white house and is useful (used judiciously) in painting skies. Also, both yellow ochre and raw sienna are good blended in with greens for foliage.
Also, experiment with raw and burnt umber. They are very different. Burnt umber is good for rich darks – sometimes as an underpainted wash for a lighter surface color.
Raw umber is a beautiful, soft, gentle color when mixed with white and sometimes used in shadow areas of houses and to describe unpainted weathered wood.
When experimenting with colors, it’s not a bad idea to take strips of canvas with gessoed squares and line up sample color patches for future references.
Grey blue by Holbein is a useful starting point for blues skies. Of course I blend it with other colors.
Terre verte (earth green) is useful in painting skies also. Mixed with white, it can produce a “blue sky” all by itself.
I warm up the greens of foliage with yellow ochre, raw sienna, cadmium red, cadmium orange and yellow. I also use the umbers and sometimes the blues.
Referring back to where I talk about “black”: When reproducing dark areas, look into the dark for traces of color. I usually warm up deep shadow areas with a touch of cadmium red. You don’t want the dark area to become isolated from the rest of the picture.
For now, that’s about it for things I can think of about oil paints – at least for starters. However, you might be interested in the following suggestions: one about a drawing method, the other about painting on paper.
Painting on paper: This weekend a friend who teaches in Baltimore told me how she prepares a painting surface using 100% rag paper – Ph neutral. First she soaks the paper and stretches it, stapled to a board to insure flatness. When dry she gessoes it. Thin gesso somewhat if you want a surface free of brush strokes. Then she adds a coat of polymer matte medium. It is then ready for oil paints.
For reasons I can’t quite explain (partly because of smoothness), paper can be a very pleasing surface to paint on.
Drawing on paper: I’ve enjoyed the following way of drawing, again starting with gessoed paper. I use ebony pencils (there’s only one grade). At various stages in the drawing, I use thin-x over the pencil to create gray washes, and also to deepen blacks. Drawing into a surface wet with thin-x will make an intense black line.
I can also paint out areas on lines with the gesso. This, however, does take repeated coats, sometimes because the black will show through. This transparency can be put to good use to created grayed areas by painting over where that effect may be wanted, such as in skies.
This method feels more like painting than drawing. Basically the process is a matter of pushing and pulling – alternating between pencil, thin-x and gesso in any order. The only drawback is that there can be a coolness about the work. I’ve overcome this by tinting the gesso. I’ve used inks – they must be thoroughly blended to avoid streaking. Probably the best tint would be accomplished with dry pigments.
That’s it for now. Give me a call or write if you have questions. Enjoy –
Love to you both,
P.S. I saved your address but wasn’t sure of the number so I mailed it to school.
An afterthought: Who knows when I might find these useful for publishing in some way. © ‘87
Continuation of painting notes
I keep thinking of things to add to the painting notes. How do you feel about that? When you’ve had enough, tell me.
This morning I was working on a painting that I thought I’d finished over a week ago, though there were still things that bothered me. I’ve finished it three times since. I was trying not to listen to my instincts but each time I did, I improved the picture.
One thing most painters will tell you is to beware of those parts of a painting you may fall in love with. You wind up working around them, trying to save them. They’re taking charge. Often they have to be replaced by another passage that will be compatible with the rest of the painting. It’s a socialist enterprise. The parts have to work for the good of the whole.
What comes first? i.e. standing in front of a subject, what part should be painted first. When I was younger I thought it logical to paint foreground over background. So skies surface went in first – clouds over them – trees over sky. More or less, anyway.
But as we learn over and over again, painting is not life. It is the manipulation of paint. Particularly I’m talking about oil paint.
So when painting trees, for instance, it is effective, in the pursuit of a painterly equation between the picture and the world, to move between sky and trees during the course of the painting.
For some reason, painting the sky into the foliage works. But don’t do it exclusively. It is especially effective when punching in those spaces of light showing through a tree or a mass of trees. And the paint (rendering the trees) need not be dry. And a slight blending is not bad either. The hue in these spaces can be a dite darker than the nearest open area of sky. Also a painted sky with differing color areas than you’ve observed in nature can work.
I don’t think I mentioned before that I let the stages of a painting dry before laying on the next stage. Not always true but pretty much the case. The major reason for this (the only one I can think of right now) is to allow each color to speak for itself when you want it to. There are times, as I mentioned in the last paragraph, that blending or wet in wet can be very effective. Done well it can create a very rich surface.
How’re you doing? Best, Bob
(Note: This is a transcription (by Nancy March) of some “Notes on Painting” that Bob sent me over the period of a few weeks in 1987. They have been pinned to my studio wall for many years now and rereading them never ceases to increase my understanding of painting. Perhaps more importantly, these notes increase my affection and respect for Bob – his devotion to his practice was a constant inspiration. Mark Nelsen, Litchfield, October 2008)