Apr 20, 2017

4 Principles for Powerful Picture-Making


It's one thing to paint something to look like that something. It's another thing entirely to paint that something dynamically, in a way that draws your viewer's attention from across the room.

When you just can't make your painting of that apple look like the apple, be encouraged that there is a maximum of just 5 things that could be wrong—drawing, value, edge, temperature and/or color (See "5 Reasons Your Painting Doesn't Look Like Your Subject").

However, like I mentioned last time, there is another set of issues beyond these 5 that may keep your painting from being as strong as it could be. Does your picture lack "punch"? Do the elements in your picture seem lopsided? Is it unclear where the viewer should look? These are usually issues with composition.

To avoid composition problems, I remember "4 Principles for Powerful Picture-Making":

  1. Center of Interest or Focal Point
  2. Placement
  3. Value Pattern
  4. Line
Now, let's unpack these…

 

1. Center of Interest

 

Your center of interest (or "focal point") is the thing you want to convey the most. To decide what your center of interest should be, ask yourself, "what is the most important thing I want to communicate through this picture?" You can certainly communicate multiple things in the same painting. But when you do, it's a good idea to emphasize your most important statement and make your other statements subordinate. Otherwise, your viewer can feel visually overwhelmed and be confused as to where he is supposed to look.


In a room of shouting people, no single voice is heard.

The remaining 3 Principles for Powerful Picture-Making can be used to make your center of interest more powerful and compelling…


2. Placement

Do the elements in your pictures ever feel lopsided or otherwise awkward? Next time, plan the placement of elements beforehand by sketching small thumbnails in pencil. This allows you to move the elements around until they feel "right."

Good placement can be very subjective, but here are a few rules of thumb that can help (these are certainly not absolutes):
  • Avoid placing your center of interest exactly in the center.
     
  • Placing your center of interest higher than the canvas's center is often more appealing than placing it lower.
     
  • The further you place your center of interest from the center of your canvas, the more likely it will be that you'll need an opposing secondary element to balance it. This can help avoid lopsided pictures.
     

3. Value Pattern


Value pattern can give your picture that compelling "punch" to draw a viewer's attention from across the room. Value pattern is the arrangement of basic shapes of darks and lights. I often spend a great deal of time planning my value patterns by making thumbnail sketches like this:


If a value pattern is strong as a thumbnail, it will usually be strong in the final painting, too.

When I plan a value pattern, I consider these rules of thumb (again, these are not absolutes):
  • Allow the area of highest value contrast to be on or near your center of interest. This is one of the most powerful pulls to attract your viewer's eye.
     
  • Don't allow your dark shapes and light shapes to occupy the same amount of surface area. This can look static.
     
  • As much as possible, connect areas of similar value into one continuous shape. This almost always makes a composition stronger.
     

4. Line


Lines—both actual and implied—are powerful devices that can be used to lead your viewer on a fun journey through your painting and toward your center of interest.

In this painting, notice how the lines of the yarn, seat back, cushions, and other elements lead the eye through the piece. Although the lines take the viewer on a meandering stroll through the picture, they eventually lead back to the center of interest—the girl's face and hands.
 

Many people ask me how they can paint more loosely and have more interesting brushwork. Becoming a looser painter was a long journey for me, but next time, I'll share the practices that helped me do so.

See you then!
—Adam

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Apr 13, 2017

5 Reasons Your Painting Doesn't Look Like Your Subject

 
Isn't it frustrating when you paint and re-paint an area of your picture, only to step back and realize that something still looks "wrong"? Well, when I can't get my painting to look like my subject, it's encouraging to remember that there is a maximum of just 5 things that could possibly be wrong.

Now, there is actually a 6th thing that might be considered "wrong" with a painting. I'll mention it in a minute, but in this lesson, I want to focus on the following 5 (what I call "The 5 Fundamentals of Visual Art")–
  1. Drawing
  2. Value
  3. Edge
  4. Temperature
  5. Color
Now, I'll share how you can start diagnosing these types of problems in your work.



1. Drawing

 

"Drawing" is not only a noun; it is also a verb. As a verb, "drawing" is the act of placing the right marks in the right places. Even when I'm painting, I consider myself to also be drawing, because I am still endeavoring to place the right marks in the right places.

How to diagnose: If your painting looks out-of-proportion, "cartoony," leaning or tilted, etc., you have probably made some wrong marks. To learn how to avoid these pitfalls, read "The 4 Actions for Correct Proportions."


2. Value

 
"Value" is how dark or light a shape appears.

How to diagnose: Does your painting look "flat"? You have probably made a value error. Be sure to read "Making Your Flat Portraits Look 3-D."


3. Edge

 
Envision your subject made up of graphic shapes, like mosaic tiles. "Edge" describes the softness or sharpness of the boundary between two tiles.
How to diagnose: If the forms in your painting don't look rounded, or if things look "cut out," you probably have an edge problem. To learn how to paint edges accurately, read "Making Your Flat Portraits Look 3-D Part II."


4. Temperature


"Temperature" refers to how "warm" or "cool" a color appears.

How to diagnose: Do you struggle with "muddy" or "chalky" color? These are temperature issues. For help in understanding temperature, read "Avoiding Muddy & Chalky Skin Tones."


5. Color

 
I'll skip the difficult task of defining color—color is color!

How to diagnose: Color problems are sometimes painfully obvious—like when you can't get your mixture to match the color in your subject!* One of the biggest questions I'm asked by my workshop attendees is, "How do I mix that color?" If you struggle with mixing color, this lesson is for you: "A Better Approach to Mixing Realistic Skin Colors."
*Disclaimers: You may certainly choose to interpret
your subject non-literally (e.g., monochromatically or
with a limited palette). In cases like these, your mixtures
can deviate from the colors in your subject
without being considered wrong.
And even with literal interpretations, there
is "wiggle room," because color perception
has a degree of subjectivity.



Final Thoughts

When I can't figure out why my painting doesn't look like my subject, I'm always encouraged to remember that the problem is just 1 or more of these 5 things. I'm not saying that makes things easy, but at least it makes things manageable and learnable!

So what is that 6th thing that could be wrong with a painting?

Well, the 6th thing can be subjective, so it's often inappropriate to describe it as "correct" or "wrong," but #6 is composition. Even though composition can be subjective, there are principles that can help make a composition more dynamic. I'll share a few of my favorites next time in "Powerful Picture-Making Principles."

See you then!
Adam

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Apr 3, 2017

"Fun" Colors and When to Use Them

What is your favorite "fun" paint color? I'm talking about that paint color you love so much you could almost eat it (please don't!). Maybe it's a unique color that was required by a workshop teacher. Maybe it's a stunning hue you couldn't resist buying at your local art store. It's that beautiful color that sits on your palette, just begging you to use it…

…But you never seem to find the opportunity to use that color. You always search for the color in your subject but you can never find it. How do you know when to use that "fun" color?

This is a good thing to know, because having too many "fun" colors on your palette can hinder you. Here's why:

  • They take up valuable space on your palette for mixing.
     
  • They can make color mixing unnecessarily complicated. Color mixing is easier when you have fewer choices. Don't worry, having fewer choices won't hurt your painting one bit. Even very limited palettes can sufficiently capture the colors in many subjects (See "A Limited Palette That Won't Cramp Your Style")

To begin explaining when to use "fun" colors, I'll share which two "fun" colors I added to my palette for these paintings: 



"Aaron" • Oil 10" x 8"

When I saw my bro-in-law wearing this neon green t-shirt, I was like, "You need to wear that when you model for our painting group!" The shirt provided the perfect opportunity to try out a new paint color I had recently acquired—cadmium chartreuse from Gamblin. The color of the shirt was great fun to paint because of its sheer intensity and because of the way it reflected into his jaw and nose.

"Knitter's Gift" (Detail) • Oil • 30" x 30"

One of the most difficult parts of this piece was the section of fuchsia yarn hit by sunlight. The reason it was tough was that it needed to be both light in value and also very intense/saturated in color.
As you may have found, it is very hard to paint something both light and saturated at the same time. This is because the more white paint you add to lighten another color, the less saturated that color becomes. My solution was to thin my paint to a wash. This allowed my color to be lightened by the white canvas underneath without any white paint. My color could be light and intense at the same time.

But I still had a problem. Neither of the reds I typically use—cadmium red medium and permanent alizarin crimson—was the right color. Both reds were warmer reds than the fuchsia yarn. I could have just used one of these reds anyway, but I really wanted to capture the specific color of the yarn. So I added a "fun" color—magenta from Old Holland. It was the perfect color!

So how do you know when to use a "fun" color? You use a "fun" color when the subject calls for it. But here's the best part–you don't have to wait for that to happen! Go ahead and buy those shocking pink flowers. Pick up that bright aqua hat for your favorite model. Whatever your favorite "fun" paint color is, create the perfect opportunity to use it, and explore its potential!

Next time: I hope it encourages you as much as me to know there is a max of only 5 possible things wrong with your painting. I'll share what those are next time, in "5 Reasons Your Painting Doesn't Look Like Your Subject." See you then!

—Adam


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Mar 20, 2017

A Limited Palette That Won't Cramp Your Style



Would it surprise you if I told you I painted the portrait above with only 4 colors? Can you guess which colors?

Like I said last time, the very best color palette isn’t necessarily one with many colors (See "The Very Best Color Palette"). Rather, the very best color palette is the one that will help you mix the colors in your subject most efficiently. So how do you know which colors these would be?

Well, it's normally a good idea to have at least a red, a yellow and a blue on your palette* (plus the ever-essential white).

*Disclaimer: That is, unless you wish to interpret your
subject non-literally, (e.g. a monochromatic painting).


To determine which red, yellow, and blue, look at your subject and ask yourself these questions:
  • What is the strongest red present?
  • What is the strongest yellow present?
  • What is the strongest blue present?

If you have a red, yellow and blue on your palette that can represent the intensities and general colors of the strongest red, yellow and blue in your subject, you probably have all the colors you need to paint your subject convincingly.

But to mix your subject's colors more efficiently, you may certainly add colors to your palette as necessary. For example, I like having an earth tone color on my palette. Sure, I can mix earth tones with my 3 primaries, but it’s so much quicker (more efficient) when I already have an earth tone on my palette.

You might be thinking, "But I don't want to just add plain ol' earth tones to my palette. I want to add some 'fun' colors!" I get it—really, I do. I like "fun" colors too. But most of the time, I only use them when they're necessary (more on that in a sec).



Now, let me tell you which 4 colors I used for the portrait at the top (as well as the girl above and the girl with the hat below). I used the color palette made famous by Swedish painter Anders Zorn (1860–1920), which consists of only yellow ochre, vermillion (like cad red light), ivory black and white.




At first, this limited palette might seem very limited indeed, but look at the wide range of color possible with this palette (below)!



In the image above, you'll notice a very surprising effect. Remember how I said that you normally need at least a red, a yellow and a blue on your palette? Well, even though the Zorn palette doesn't call for a blue paint, mixing the black and white together produces a cold gray that looks blue compared to the other colors!

I learned just how efficient this Zorn "blue" can be when I used it to paint Andrea in blue jeans. To my astonishment, mixing just black and white almost perfectly matched the color of Andrea's blue jeans! If I had tried to mix the jean color by starting out with blue paint, I would have had to spend a lot of time graying down that blue with other colors. Thus, in this case, the Zorn palette was more efficient than a palette without black, because it enabled me to mix the proper color more quickly.

In art school, I didn't understand why a painter would want to use a limited palette. Why would anyone want to have "limits," especially with something so wonderful as color? To me, a limited palette seemed like a shortcut to make things easier.

What I didn't understand was this—artists like Zorn and Sargent didn't need to use limited palettes to make things easier. They could have made masterpieces with full color palettes as well. Rather, they used limited palettes because they are often more efficient for mixing the colors that actually exist in the subject. When Zorn's subjects required colors outside the range of his limited palette, he would add appropriate colors to his palette. Evidently, Zorn had "fun" colors too!

Personally, I think all colors are "fun." But there are some paintings that call for really "fun" colors. Next time, I'll share specifically which "fun" colors I used in these 2 paintings (Read "'Fun' Colors and When to Use Them":
 


See you then!
—Adam


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The Very Best Color Palette


 


Hi friend,

Do you feel like a kid in a candy store when you gaze upon the seemingly endless options of paint colors at the art store? Sooo many beautiful colors, but alas—so little room on one's palette (and often, so few bucks in the art budget). And to make things even more difficult, each time you take a workshop with someone new, you're required to buy several new colors. That was fun in the beginning, but now you have a "31-flavor" palette with no room left to actually mix paint. You're left wondering, "which colors do I really need? What is the very best color palette?"

To start answering these questions, I'll share which colors I typically have on my palette.

Note: All paints are the Rembrandt brand unless
otherwise noted. My wife, Andrea, and I like Rembrandt
paints because of their high quality and affordable prices.
 However, we continually try and experiment
with various brands and colors
.

 

My Essential Palette


If I had to choose only 4 MVP's (Most Valuable Paints), they would probably be these.


(L to R):
  1. Cadmium (or permanent) lemon yellow
  2. Cadmium (or permanent) red medium
  3. Ultramarine blue deep
  4. Titanium-zinc white (Gamblin)

These 4 colors provide a huge range of color that I find more than sufficient for most subjects. Many artists use some variation of the 3 primary colors (yellow, red, blue) plus white, because these colors can be mixed to represent every other basic color. The moral of the story? You don't need many colors on your palette.

That being said, I admit I usually have quite a few colors squeezed out…

 

My "Convenience" Palette 

 
(L to R):
  1. Cadmium (or permanent) lemon yellow
  2. Cadmium (or permanent) yellow medium
  3. Yellow Ocre
  4. Cadmium (or permanent) orange (Rembrandt or Utrecht)
  5. Cadmium (or permanent) red medium
  6. Permanent Alizarin Crimson (Gamblin)
  7. Transparent Orange (Gamblin)
  8. Transparent Oxide Red
  9. Viridian
  10. Cerulean blue (Utrecht)
  11. Cobalt blue (Lukas)
  12. Ultramarine blue deep
  13. Ivory black
  14. Titanium-zinc white (Gamblin)  
Note: I only use cerulean and cobalt blue occasionally,
as I usually find ultramarine sufficient for representing
most blues I encounter in nature.

Although my Essential Palette provides a huge range of color that I find more than sufficient for most subjects, my Convenience Palette often makes color mixing more convenient. Here's an example:
Let's say I need to make a color greener.
With my Essential Palette, I would need to add both yellow and blue.
But with my Convenience Palette, I might only need to add viridian.
Reaching for one color instead of two can save time.

Furthermore, my Convenience Palette allows me to reach some highly saturated (intense) colors that are beyond the range of my Essential Palette. Having these colors can be helpful, but only if my subject calls for them. Otherwise, they tend to take up space and make color mixing more complicated than necessary.

The Very Best Color Palette


So what is the very best color palette? Well, it may or may not be one of the palettes I mentioned above. 


Like I said, the very best color palette is not necessarily one with many colors. Rather, the very best color palette is the one that will help you mix the colors in your subject most efficiently. How do you determine which colors these would be? That's what I'll share next time in "A Limited Palette That Won't Cramp Your Style."

See you then!
Adam



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