Monday, February 28, 2011

What Colour Is It?

Suppose you are out there in the snow.  What colour is it?  What colour might it be?  Snow is interesting stuff.  There are many kinds of snow.  They behave slightly differently, but in general the colour depends on the surroundings.  Different kinds of snow will absorb or reflect amounts of energy (light).  It gets more complex than that, but sticking with the generality and looking at snow in the flat it will either be in the light or in the shade.

Noon on the Farm

Looking here at the flat snow in the sun you must recall the last post.  This is NOT WHITE.  Relative to the darks it is very light.  Since it is noon the sun is fairly high (this time of the year it is lower that in summer).  The sun is hitting the snow at an angle so a lot of energy is reflected and some is absorbed.  A good way to get a sun burn - I know.  The sky is a blue (with yellow, green, and red in it).  At this time the sun has gone to a cool yellow.  So you are pretty sure these colours will be in the snow.  These colours often mix to some greyed (yellowed as in complement) version of violet.  There is NO FORMULA.  You have to observe.  At least the time of day and the conditions give you some idea of what to look for.  If it was early in that day the sun would most likely be closer to orange.  Late in the day closer to red.  But you have to observe.  When mixing that colour you have to compare your mix to the subject and make corrections.  Just like a block study.  So what colour would you expect to be in the shade?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Seeing the Snow

Snow is an interesting study.  It is anything but white.  You find this out when you paint on site and train your eye to see - not to see what you have been conditioned to think.  You know, sky - blue, grass - green, snow - white.

Here is a recent winter painting.

With a New Eye, 11x14, Oil on Canvas

When I am painting with students who plaster the white on, I get them to take a piece of white paper and put it out in the subject area.

White paper added

This is usually quite a revelation.  Then, what colour is it?  More appropriately what value is it?  Then, how to see it, how to mix it, and how to apply it?  I'll look at these questions just as winter is slipping away.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Seeing in a Grey Day

Doing block studies is the single best exercise I know for sharpening colour awareness.  After doing these in bright sun light, the grey day gets easier.  If you find yourself out there on a grey day are there any tips for seeing the colours?

In the last post I mentioned the use of a shallow picture box.  Basically this means to get close to the subject and reduce the long depth in the painting.  This is what most still life paintings are about.  There is still depth, but not much if any atmospheric perspective or long view perspective lines to a single point on a horizon.  More on this later.

Since you are close to the subject it is easier to see the colours.  To assist you, consider using a colour isolator.  Even if you believe you can see the colours the isolator might surprise you.  Here is an isolator.

Grey View Finder 

This is my viewfinder.  It has a few interesting features.  First, it is value 5 or mid value.  This helps you establish the relative value of a colour (many people have trouble with this).  Second, it has a small hole in the middle.  If you look through the hole you will isolate a colour in your view.  In the short picture box setup, look at the colours in the shadows.  Inevitably there will be more than one.   Even on a flat plane.  Nope, a camera will not show you this.  It demonstrates why there are no formulas in realist or impressionist painting.  You observe and then you mix.  It shows you that there are few flat passages in nature.  Now you are the artist, so you can treat this observed colour and install it according to your concept.

Small Thumbnail

This is a small thumbnail of a bed bug line of a snow painting from todays session at the easel.  This is the transition from light to shade.  Notice the different hues in the section.  These were installed based on observation.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Grey Day Installation

The art history we have been talking about is about colour and the colour key of the day.  the Grey day is more difficult to paint (close values and subtle colours) and it is more difficult to make the painting interesting.  Certainly as you improve your colour awareness or visual sensitivity you are better equipped.  Remember, your job is to make a painting out of it.

Here is what I saw on Saturday.  A snowy, blowy day with weather warnings to stay home.  The usual suspects were there.

Snow for the Palette

It's a Camera, more colours than first apparent

So I got out of the wind, arranged the french easel to keep the snow off the canvas and the palette, and chose a motif with a shallow picture box.  This keeps the grey away and helps you see the colours.

Shallow Picture Box

It is still snowing and blowing.  I made a thumbnail to do the composition and design.  The colours were noted - the greens under the trees the warm and cool violets.  The hints of warmth.  The snow mixed with the early stage thin paint.  But then as I progressed to thicker paint I got some traction.  The painting has to be finished in the studio.  Here the snow has dried off.

Something Else, 11x14, Oil on Canvas

Perhaps you can see some of the elements I installed in the painting.  These are the makings of interesting paintings.  There are compositional elements, distortions, edges, light, and colour, all installed.  More on Installation later.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Monet, Plein Air, Hensche, Still Life, Robert Genn, Art History.....

What to do?  For those on the journey of learning and development all this information is daunting.  Overload.  It is much worse if you are a workshop groupie.

There is only one solution I have found.  Go to your room and paint!  You can't learn to swim reading about it on the couch.

Recent posts have been about that line of painters evolving from Monet.  There are many more lines, all with merit and interesting.  In my case I paint pretty well every day and I consider each painting a study.  I use Thursdays to do still life studies in the studio or on the back patio.  I paint landscapes en plein air whenever I can.  I paint larger pieces in the studio where I use thumbnails as the reference point along with paintings done on site.  I avoid using the photos I take, relegating them to an occasional peek for compositional considerations - no good for colour or value.  And I take the added knowledge I acquire along the way and use selected elements in my work.  That way I don't become a glazer or a tonalist or some other one trick pony.

Here is a recent snow scene with some embedded approaches.

Hiding From It, 16x20 Oil on Canvas

This was done from a plein air sketch and memory.  We were hiding in the woods to escape high winds. On site I determined my concept and added a few words to my thumbnail.  Perhaps you can see some of the study tools that found their way into the painting.  In addition there are others we have not yet investigated.  But mostly I just relaxed, stopped thinking and just painted.  When the CDs were over I took a conscious look.  Interesting to see what the blank mind used from the tool box.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Some More Hensche

For those of you on the path of learning about art and developing your work, you may find some insights in the sayings by Henry Hensche.  

He apparently was an excellent teacher - if you really wanted to learn.  Not so much if you were looking for the secret.  His painting was considered superior to Hawthorne's, and he also surpassed his mentor in teaching methodologies.  His teaching of the awareness of colour has been dying out since his death in 1992.  I suspect this is partly a result of our instant gratification society.  This approach takes constant practice and dedication.

A student's growth in painting ability is directly connected to his ability to see.

You don't ever do a painting for money.  If you paint to sell you stop developing.  Selling is a by product.

If you are looking for painting techniques (or formulas) you will not get them from me.  Techniques give you a predetermined solution to your problem.  Without visual analysis you will experience no growth.  You will return to pat solutions your teacher gave you.

Paint the large masses true to their colour relationships in the light key in which they are seen.  When this is done well you divide the masses into the divisions of the variations of colour seen in those masses.  When you no longer see any variations, stop.

It does your painting no good to add all kinds of detail if you miss the main point.  Get the right light key and the details will take care of themselves.  Otherwise your paintings will look like craft paintings.

You cannot fully develop your vision by painting in a studio.  You must get outside to learn to paint correctly.

Change your colours directly on your canvas, not on your palette.

And a host of others.


Hensche Study

Some references follow;

Hensche on Painting by John Robichaux
Hawthorne on Painting by Mrs. Charles Hawthorne

These books are available for less than $10.

You can download a Henry Hensche Colour Study pdf (approx. 190 pages) from

Monday, February 7, 2011

By Extension - Monet, Merritt, Hawthorne, Hensche Connection

The dominant teaching process today is based in tonalism.  A value based underpainting or drawing with colour added on top.  These people did not go this way.  As he developed, Monet became able to see and show the light effects on shapes.  So he started directly with the colours he saw.  His successors spent life times trying to understand and pass on this approach.

Henry Hensche was a student of Hawthorne.  He became Hawthorne's assistant.  Eventually, Henry developed more effective teaching approaches that demonstrated Hawthorne's ideas.  Just as Hawthorne developed figure and portrait studies based on the mud heads painted from life out of doors, Hensche developed block studies also done out of doors.  The beauty of the block studies is that they demonstrate the light effect on the simplest planes available.  One starts off doing these in sun light because the colours are easiest to see.  Then one will be able to do grey day studies in the overcast even though the colours are more difficult to see and the values are close together.  Eventually one will be able to differentiate sun in the morning, mid day, late day etc, and the same for grey days.

Block Study under Gallery Light - Multiple Sources

This study was done under the warm light in doors.  There were three iterations or adjustments made here.  The blocks were set up on a bench.  The shapes were stated with the colour closest to what is seen.  One at a time.  As the canvas is filled up one begins to see other colours that were not visible at first glance.  So each shape is adjusted compared to each other.  As the adjustments are made, more colour is seen.  This exercise shows you that the local colour is obliterated by the light.  It shows you the there is a different colour for each plane change.  It shows you that there are colour gradations on each plane.  Monet's approach of showing modelling by colour change is explained (as opposed to value change).  In the landscape Monet used this to show depth.  It explains the use of a series to study different light effects.  Hensche and Hawthorne showed that the application of spots of colour developed what others would attempt by drawing.

After studying the blocks in varying conditions student were progressed to studying items in still life.  This complicated the exercise because the number of planes increased substantially from the blocks.  Think of what the portrait would do, indeed the landscape.

Friday, February 4, 2011

More on the Monet Hawthorne Connection

Hawthorne became a renowned teacher.  He searched for teaching approaches all his life.  The approach came from the study of Monet who said that the subject is the light.  He taught both beginners and professionals at his Cape Cod Art School.  Here are some Hawthorne comments.

We must teach ourselves to see the beauty of the ugly.  It is greater to make much out of little that to make little out of much.

It is beautifully simple, all we have to do is get our colour notes in their proper relation.

Everyone knows what a man looks like, or a tree or a house, it is our job to tell the world something about these things that was not known before, an impression of what we alone have received.

The only way to learn to paint is by painting.  It is work that counts, experience in seeing colour.

Don't try to be an artist all at once, be very much a student.  Be always searching, never settle to do something you've done before.  Every successful canvas has been painted from the point of view of a student, for a great painter is always a student.

Remember, no amount of good drawing will pull you out if your colours are not true.  Get them right and you will be surprised how little else you need.

Have the courage to set down the colours you see - overstate the colours rather than be weak.  See the colour, then paint it a little more brilliant than you see it.

Working out of doors your eye will be brought up to colour - it has the effect of shaking off the shackles of your mind.  It is the most direct way of learning to see colour.

Woman With Hat

Girl in Yellow

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hawthorne from Monet and Post Impressionists

Charles W. Hawthorne was an artist and teacher.  His mentor was William Merritt Chase who was influenced by Monet's paintings of light and colour.  Charles became Chase's assistant, then went to Holland to study art.  Hawthorne set up his own art school in Provincetown in New England - the Cape Cod School of Art.  The year was 1899.

He presented problems to students in an inescapably direct way.  These lessons were posed and students were coached to concentrate on putting one spot of colour next to another - as the fundamental thing.  Paintings were done exclusively from life.  Models on the beach, still live in the studio, and finally the landscape.  During this study process students were encouraged to make many starts as opposed to finishing.  Notable students include Norman Rockwell, Henry Hensche, and Hans Hofman.

Hawthorne’s reputation as a great painter and educator attracted such scores of artists and writers to Provincetown, that it quickly became the largest art colony in the world. His unconventional approach to learning color theory became legendary. Students painted models posing in glaring sun on the beach, using only a 2 inch putty knife. The clumsy tool forced them to apply large dollops of paint, making it impossible to render the model’s features. The objective of these “mud-heads" as they came to be known, was to capture the effects of sunlight on the figure using large simple masses of colour without detail.

Mudhead with Braids

Mudhead Boy in Blue

Mudhead Girl on Green Box

Mudhead Girl with Pink Bonnet

From these images you can immediately see the influence of Monet.  The feel is there, not the detail.