Sunday, February 19, 2012


Once you have the materials and supplies you need, it’s time to start a painting. You’ve purchased some paper and you have pastels and a few gadgets on hand — now what?

Let’s assume that you’ve decided to start painting on a piece of white Wallis paper. This is the paper I have my beginning students use in the classroom. Turn the paper over, measure to 12x18-inches in size, mark the back and then cut it with scissors. I know you think this paper is expensive but I assure you that it won’t go to waste. You need to allow yourself enough room to make a few mistakes and not be so cramped that you layer too much pastel on too quickly, which can easily happen when you have a smaller sheet of paper. Give yourself some elbow room; you can always crop the painting later or wipe it out completely and start another painting on the same piece of paper. It’s quite versatile.

Tape your paper to a firm, flat drawing board. Take about a ¼-inch bite on the edge of the paper all the way around. Use decent tape with enough adhesive. I usually suggest 3-M masking tape #312 or #323. I strongly suggest not using blue freezer tape (you have to contend with a blue mat, which is not good for color decisions), nor drafting tape (it peels off too soon.) Tape it down well to keep the paper from wiggling or buckling as you work.
We’re going to paint in the studio using a photograph today. Find a photo with a clear, simple subject, good contrast, excellent clarity and color. Life is too short to paint something you don’t want to paint, so find a subject you enjoy and intuitively respond to, as well as a place you see somewhat frequently. Don’t try to paint your vacation snapshots for this first painting. Hawaii or Cabo san Lucas can be wonderful subjects, but you haven’t enough daily exposure to be successful. Your own back yard, neighborhood or area is far more suitable for this first painting.

Be selective. Instead of painting the grand view with the beautiful clouds piled up over the mountain, the tree-covered hills and charming house, the majestic trees and masses of mounded flowers in front of the fence along the curving lane cutting through the grassy foreground you’re better off choosing either the mountains and sky or the hills and house, the trees and flowers or the lane and grasses. Select simpler elements and learn how to paint each one. (See landscape photo at left.)

Don’t copy calendar art or magazine photos. It’s always better to use a photograph that you’ve taken yourself. You’ve made choices already, deciding to point the camera at the subject, as well as making compositional decisions when you took the photo. You have some familiarity with the place, having visited it before, and using it will never raise the question of copyright violation.

I hear you moaning that your photographs aren’t “good enough,” but that’s really not an excuse. I often find that painting from a less-than-stellar photo can be freeing. It requires you to bring your memory to the painting. Why did you shoot that photo in the first place? Maybe you remember the color or the drama. Think about what the photo doesn’t show and bring it to the painting. The photo is not the goal. It’s the starting place. The one thing you might want to do is print the photo large enough that you can see it clearly.

I want you to determine which eye is dominant. If you don’t already know, imagine looking into a camera or microscope. The eye you use to look through either of these devices is the stronger one. Clip the photograph to your board on the side of your dominant eye at about eye level, so you’re looking directly at it. You may eventually prefer to hold it in your hand, but to get started I suggest clipping it in place. This keeps the perspective consistent.

Before you pick up that charcoal you need to do two things. First, spend some time looking at the photo. Decide on some key elements:

• Establish the light. Is it sunny, overcast or a broken sky?

• Decide on the time of day.

• Decide the season.

• Determine the direction of the sun.

Mentally walk into the photo. Try to feel the place. Imagine where you’re standing and how far you are from your subject. Remember or imagine the areas around the photo’s image, to each side, above and below what’s showing. This photo is an aid to your personal vision. Don’t become trapped into painting what you see just “because it’s there.” You haven’t captured reality in the photograph, only the camera’s eye view of it. Bring your artist’s eye to it now. Question whether you need to include any element that’s only along the edge of the photo, such as trees or bushes. If half or less than half of an object is showing, ask if it needs to be included. You can always mask off portions of the photograph to help create a more interesting composition.

Second, you need to tone your Wallis paper before beginning the sketch. Deciding on the paper color or tone of a background is a very involved study that will take you a long time to explore, so for today I want you to think of a color that would highlight all the elements of your photo well. It shouldn’t be the same color as any individual element, for instance, blue like the sky or green like the trees. Get out a color wheel and think about the basic primary and secondary colors, analyzing what each color might look like behind each element. Any color is acceptable, but each one will give a different overall look to the painting. If you can’t decide what color is best, gray is fine. The value of the color may have more relevance than its hue. I suggest you use a medium-dark to dark tone, which will help establish your darker values from the start.

Lay your board flat and using the flat side of the pastel stick you’ve chosen put down one light layer all over the paper. It doesn’t need to be thick. If you put a lot of thick pastel on the paper you’re just wasting it. Now take your 3-inch-wide foam house painting brush and rub thoroughly in all directions. You can scrub like crazy, really working it down into the tooth of the paper. It won’t hurt the Wallis paper at all. You’ll notice that a dark color becomes considerably lighter when you do this, so take this lightening effect into consideration when toning the paper. You might also prefer to do this outside since it can set up quite a cloud of pastel that it’s best not to inhale. Lightly run a paper towel over the surface to make sure there is very little color coming off and you’re set to go.

Once the paper is toned, you’re ready to begin an underdrawing. Get out a stick of extra soft thin vine charcoal. This very soft charcoal allows you to make a fairly wide range of values. (There will be more about this in the Letting Value Lead chapter.) Hold the stick near its end to make very light strokes on the Wallis paper. Choke up on the tip to make strong, bold darks. Use a soft white plastic eraser to erase the tone and reestablish stark white if needed.

Begin by looking for the large geometrical shapes underlying the scene. Think of this as a map of the flat, two-dimensional shapes only. A mountain may be a triangle, a tree an oval, a wall a rectangle. Find the most significant features, such as the location of the horizon line (not in the middle!), the top of the trees or the direction of the stream. Next, sort out the dark and light areas, arranging them into a pleasing design. The mountains may become medium-dark, the trees very dark, the shadows medium in value. Don’t worry about dirtying the colors of your pastels. You won’t need to spray fixative or otherwise protect this underdrawing because you will cover the charcoal with colors of the same or similar values. If you blow it and want to change something, it’s no problem. Simply use your foam brush to swipe off the charcoal and begin again. The toned Wallis is very forgiving, so you may return to the toned paper color at almost any time.

This might be a good time to familiarize yourself with the landmark book, Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting, in which respected author John F. Carlson presents his Theory of Angles. He writes:

“The prime cause of the large light and dark relations in a landscape is the angle which the masses present to the sky.”

Carlson explains that the value of the land, mountains and trees is determined by their angle in relation to the light from the sky. He theorizes that there are four basic landscape values:

• The sky, which contains the source of the light, thus the lightest plane.

• The medium-light of the flat plane of the land.

• The medium-dark of the angled plane of the mountains.

• The dark of the upright plane of the trees.

You will need to observe and adjust for the landscape you’re painting, but this is a wonderful set of rules against which you may analyze your composition and its values. Use this theory as a benchmark, asking yourself if you need to lighten or darken aspects accordingly.

Recomposing in the underdrawing stage is so much easier than later in the painting. Take some time to find a pleasing pattern for your composition in grayscale, solving all your questions here, and you’ll have a strong painting when you finish.

Once you have completed your underdrawing you’re ready to begin using color. Values, the light and dark relationships of all colors to one another, are the basis you need to establish first. In the next chapter I’ll discuss the vital role of value in choosing color.

Shown here are two examples of underdrawings on white Wallis Pro grade sandpaper, toned with various gray colors, drawn with extra soft thin vine charcoal and a white plastic eraser.