Figure Painting from Live Models, pt. 2


Last month I intended to follow up my post on mixing Skin Tones with more figure studies, but I got lost in the Spring rush of work and the workshop I taught.  Fortunately, paintings can wait for you, so I'm able to share them now! :)

These paintings, much like the last bunch I posted about back in February, are all done in 5-20 minute sittings.  There's such a fantastic energy in this experience!!  It's an absolute rush, and I just love love love the needle-tip-focus of thought and energy that goes into making the paintings. You have to make quick decisions, one after another, and most importantly of all, you have to SIMPLIFY, big time, bonding your darks together into a single wash and focusing on the directionality of the light.

I don't do any drawings, but instead just jump in, choosing an important, dynamic location on the body through which force is exerted or an expression comes out (a shoulder, an upturned chin, an important arm that's holding something, etc....) and building outwards from there. However, I spend some time each and every sitting making a plumb line with my brush to figure out where the body's weight is creating a through line, and measuring out comparative sizes of body parts (that are sometimes distorted by perspective) with a finger.  It's very similar, on that level, to what you might do with charcoal or a pencil.

After that, there's no going back.  I measure out the form of the model as I go along, through comparative proportion and location- the head is as big as this or that part, the arms drops down to the navel or the hip, the hand is above a foot or behind it, the front leg is in line with a shoulder, etc.  The body is floating in space, so it only has to relate to itself.  If the image goes off the page, I find that acceptable, because atleast things are (approximately) in proportion to themselves. 

Everything starts hard edged, but then you start to work wet into wet more and more as you go along, bonding arms to legs or stomachs, dropping in darker shadows, etc.  After everything has dried, I sometimes go back and drop small wet on dry details, such as the umbrella handle.


One of the focuses in the last few months has been to attempt more detailed renderings like the first image in this post, or the one just below.  I do these over an hour, with three 20-minute poses.  This allows for some glazing, where my lights now have value and hue (instead of being the white of the page).  But the truth is that the bones are exactly the same as a single 10-20 minute pose.  That's where I knock in my darks against the white of the page.  All the real forms have to go in then. The rest (the pale skin for the chest below, the paler value blue for the jeans in light, etc) are all there to push the illusion of the shape being a human, but the bones of whether the composition works or not occurs at the beginning, when my lights are still the white of the page.


Of course, we still do a set of 10 2-minute sketches at the beginning of each class.  I really like these because the images are almost entirely disposable.  There's  none of that "this is a precious work of art I must make perfect" stuff going on.  It's purely mark making and paying attention.  It's also a very good time to "get to know" the model- proportions, peculiarities of their body, their habits of sitting, how you're going to approach their hair, necklaces or scarfs they wear that can help express weight, etc.  These early sketches become important later on when I do the 5, 10, and 20 minute sketches, because it helps me build my confidence up, for when I later jump right in with direct painting.

In each pencil sketch, I focus on something in particular I find interesting, and let the rest float away.  Sometimes its the gesture of a hand or the muscles of the arm doubling back on itself...


Other times it's focusing very much on the face and the angle of the chin...


Here I found the line of the foot very elegant, and spent a great deal of time capturing it and the cast shadow on the thigh.  The rest I let drift away.  The goal is to create visual priority.


These sorts of sketches become very important when I start to attempt tighter renderings.  I'm already acquainted with atleast a few of the peculiarities of the model's body, and so can pay better attention to them.  Whether its the thinness of the thighs on one, the broad chest of another...


Or the angular cheek bones and bold hair of another.


Upcoming Workshops


This is a follow up post on my upcoming workshops.  Please note that I now have a new "Classes" page on my website, with a "Classes" tab in the Navigation Bar.  All information will be stored there.


3-day Wet-Into-Wet Workshop, June 2018

I'm offering a 3-day workshop through Arts Benicia in two weeks.  We are currently 2/3's full, so there are still spots available if folks are interested.  If you're interested in signing up, here's the link- Loosening Up With Wet-Into-Wet Landscapes. The fee is 295$, paid directly to Arts Benicia through the website. 

Class will be May 31st- June 2nd, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, 900-400, with a break for lunch in the middle.

Of course, we'll be painting lots of landscapes and exploring technique, and having a good time doing it!  But we'll also be moving past the brush as we judge and build compositions- exercising our critical eye as we work towards you painting your own subjects on Day 3. 

If you've not painted watercolors much before, this would not the be the class for you, as the intent is to move beyond just technique and a bit more into the thinking and planning and building of a painting.  For those with less experience, I'll be offering an introductory Wet Into Wet class through Arts Benicia on Friday and Saturday, July 28, 29th.  However, if you've taken a class from me before, this would be a good follow up to stretch your skills! :)


For those who are looking into the future, I have a number of additional classes I'll be offering over the course of the year in Benicia, CA.  Please go to the Classes page to read the full description and follow the links provided there to enroll.

July 27-28th - An Introduction to Wet-Into-Wet Watercolors

Sept 7-8th- Exploring Color for Watercolorists

October 11-13th- Continuing With Wet-Into-Wet Watercolors

Exploring Skin Tones


As I've noted in a previous post from February, these last 4 months I've jumped into doing figure studies from live models.  Of course, lots of this has to do with seeing the human form and rendering its shape.  You're trying to get comparative proportions right, a sense of balance and weight to the skeleton, how a chin tilts to express a certain kind of demeanor, etc.  But a new subject, like skin, also requires that you mix new hues. 

As humans, we're very aware of the shape and color of humans, even if we can't exactly say what color someone is.  I can paint all sorts of browns, and believe me-- you'll know that they're all wrong.  It's very nebulous.  And, of course, folks have lots of skin tones, that range for golden yellow-browns, down into deep blue-purple browns, up into pale pink-browns.  So it's not like you can nail it down and just rinse and repeat. 


What's the Value in Making Color Charts?


When I get to a new conundrum like this, I go back to the well, so to speak.  That means practice and experimentation, usually piecemeal over a few weeks.  Just trying some out here and there, bit by bit educating myself.

For this sort of process, my desire is to know the colors on my palette well enough, and to know my subject well enough in terms of hue, that I can easily mix the tints and hues and shades that I want in the spur of the moment.  I need some sort of recipe which I can branch off from, in the wild busy-ness of a 10-minute sitting.  There's really nothing to be done but to get mileage on the brush, as always.  But not all miles are built the same!  Or so I think, anyways.  The goal is to be thoughtful in your iteration.  To notate, think, and try out an idea... and then to reassess what you want to do differently, and experiment again. 

Below you can see me pushing through different mixing lines, noting the company, paint pigments, etc.  All of these pages of swatches are on the back of throw away paintings.  It's a good way to reuse the material, and I don't fret about wasting money or paper.  I just experiment until I've had enough for the day.  This is useful as a way of seeing how your pigments react to each other, and the kind of mixing lines you can get with different pairs and triads.


But it's also limited, because it doesn't really relate to the actual subject. This is where I got the fun idea of using my family as test subjects.  LOL!  I took the swatches I'd been working on, and began to see if we matched up to any of them.  Here's my poor daughter at 8 in the morning on a Saturday, going with one of daddy's crazy ideas--

 almost Matching the hue of her forehead

almost Matching the hue of her forehead

 assessing how red lips really are...

assessing how red lips really are...

Here's my arm, as I try and find a match.  I work outdoors, and so my skin is pretty tan.  Much darker and browner than my daughter's and wife's.


And my wife, on a Saturday morning.  Thank you Kate!  Kat's skin is much paler and pinker than my own. 



This was an incredibly useful process, and informed my paint mixtures after assessing real skin tones, versus the swatches I'd been painting.  I went back to the drawing board, and tried out some new mixes, which were experiments informed by the results and analysis I'd done on the first batch.  I began to zero in better on my target.



More Than One Way to the Same Hue-

Skin Tone Mixing Lines.jpg

Skin tones tend to fall within the red circle I've created in this image.  It's a strange, magical place on the color wheel that's like a little black hole.  Nothing really lands in the space just right, and getting the right hue pretty much always requires a mix of some sort. 

Most of the mixes I was doing earlier involved a mixing line between Burnt Sienna or an alternate brown and Ultramarine Blue (represented by the blue lines and circles).  This can work fine, but it has a limited range of hues, and can get "dead" pretty quick- it does, after all, make a nice neutral!  Because of that, I often add a muted yellow, like Yellow Ochre.  This warms it up, but can also lead to making green-browns as you add your darkening blue. Blegh!

Skin Tone Mixing Lines Green.jpg


This is why I began to explore other mixing lines, which you can see below.  Yellows with pinks and oranges with purples.  Neither will mix a cadaver color and instead make a variety of muted warms, which is nice.  However, once again, the range of hues is limited.

Skin Tone Mixing Lines Green1.jpg

I tried mixing various muted yellows with a variety of pinks/ magentas, but the outcome was often too pink for my taste.  You can see my notes as I go along, noting if something was too light or pink or dark, or muted, etc.  I also tried shrinking the color gamut of my mixes by using a variety of muted colors, like Caput Mortem, Indian Red, Raw Sienna, and Van Dyke Brown.   This makes it harder to fail at mixing a human skin tone.  Even your mistakes atleast look like a person.  But it also has its own limitations, because you need to both a) carry more tubes of paint around just to paint skin tones, and b) the gamut is more limited, which makes it harder to move around fully within the little yellow circle.  The hues were often more muted than I really wanted. 


I tried mapping out and comparing various mixes with different yellow and oranges too.  Always the goal is to experiment and then critically assess before I do more.  The orangier I got, the better the mix got.



In the end, though, I really felt like there's a value in using paints one already has on one's palette, and I feel like skin tones vary so much that there's value in having the ability to mix a wider gamut of hues.  That means mixing from three pigments or so.  I went back to an earlier mix- Yellow Ochre and Burnt Sienna- and mixed them with Dioxazine Purple instead of Ultramarine Blue.  This gave me a rich darkener that kept my mixes warm, instead of grey or green.  Pretty good results!

Skin Tone Mixing Lines Purple.jpg

A special little thing I like to add to my mixes is American Journey's Buff Titanium.  This is a warm, muted creamy yellow-white.  Having a pale, warm light with a bit of body to it can be very helpful for mixing.  This allows me to lighten a hue I get, much like an oil painter would, without having to aggressively dilute my mixture with water.  This can be nice for two reasons- first, because it has covering power, which can be useful when inserting people into scenes, and second, because it allows me to paint wet into wet with a pale value, but to do it with a thick pigment.  That's very useful for a variety of wet-into-wet effects, as we work with the Watercolor Clock

What's really fun is how many different recipes there are for mixing skin tones.  You can go forever picking up hints and clues.  This is where I've landed for now.  Next week, I'll share some photos of some of my recent quick figure studies, as I've put some of this skin-tone mixing hullabaloo into practice.


Broken Eggs- What Goes Into Painting for a Show


One thing I'll say for having a show, is that a deadline increases the speed of my production.  I paint regularly, and usually those "incidental" successful paintings are the seeds for a show's idea.  But when a show comes, as my wife said with a knowing smile, "You paint like mad for 3-4 weeks".  It's true.  The reality of art-making is there are a lot of broken eggs along the way, and it always takes longer than I think it will to get a set of paintings I'm satisfied with. 

The amount of work required for this show was about 50/50, final versus not included pieces.  And that doesn't even count the 3-4 paintings I just directly threw away or didn't even finish.  The flops.  Then there are the ones where there were technical difficulties, and I had to unravel the process of how I was going to build the image logistically.  I know early on that they'll not be successful pieces by my standards, but I often push through to the end anyways- I learn things and acquaint myself with the subject better, and this often pays off later.  There's also a lot of futzing and fiddling and such with works that are almost done, where you're trying to get them just right and not screw them up in the process.  There are those pieces that you like but you think, "Well, there's just not enough wall space", and you have to set them aside.  And, yes, there are those jewels that you finish and think "Thank you!" and you're done.  ;P   But they're fewer than one might think.  Perhaps I had 3 or 4 that way, out of the 20-25 attempts I did for the show.

All of this leads, if I'm lucky and tenacious and open to change in like measure, into something like the final 10 pieces for this show.  I can see all the discarded pieces in the final work, of course, but most folks don't get that opportunity.  So, this is my "broken eggs" post.  !!  :P


Working With "Finished" Pieces-


On the left is what I completed on site.  After I came home, however, I nudged a few things around.  I warmed up the stone to the left of the waterfall, and also dropped some very soft shadows into the falls itself- both cast shadows from the rock face on the right, as well as little daubs of soft color to show the varied values within its normal form.  I dropped in some gentle shadows and scruff bitsy on the foreground mountain, and added some warm highlights on here are there, using a mixture of Titanium White and Yellow Ochre and Burnt Sienna.  You can see some of this to the left of the falls, as well as in tiny strips to the right.  Finally, I wanted to bring the foreground trees closer to the view, and so I dropped a few more shadows in. 

I don't have a before pic for this next piece, but I went through a similar process with it.  I admit, I was chasing the light on site (a dangerous endeavor!), because it got so lovely late in the day.  The highlights on the left are all preserved with drybrush work, but the highlights on the right are all dropped in after the fact, with the same warm, opaque mix. The goal, to me, is to mix this highlight very thickly.  Almost no water at all on my brush.  Just a tiny bit.  This lets me grab the paint, daub it off if need be, and dry brush in my highlights, to get a natural look that shows the texture of the paper.  The little dried up leaves are the same.  But then I ran out of time.  :( 


Finally, after I got home, the goal was to drop some shadows in on the trees, so I worked these over a bit too.  It's a dangerous proposition.  There's no going backwards- the darks only get darker, and things can get moody quickly, but I wanted some directionality in the light. Finally, as I fiddled about, I dropped little highlighted green blades of grass in the water to catch that same late afternoon light down at the bottom of the composition.  And... done.


Learning From Mistakes Gathered On-Site-


Here you can see two versions of a piece I did.  The left one, done on site, I actually liked, but almost the moment I finished I knew the mountains were too dark.  There's a cool, humid, blueness to the mountains in the valley, and not capturing it in this painting was a key lesson for me, because I thought the piece was otherwise successful.  I painted it again when I got home (the right-hand piece) and focused on getting the background mountains to recede, and the diagonal sunlit mountain and meadow to separate and come forward. 

Once done, however, I still felt the image was a little flat.  I was chatting with my wife (a great critic!) and I said, "The midground mountain isn't far enough away."  And she instantly replied, (very matter of factly, of course) "That isn't the mid-ground. It's the background.  The midground is your person."  DUH!  So true.  "But if you darkened the trees in the distance, it might connect them to your midground, and separate them from the background mountains."  DANG!  Right on the money.  So I gave it a shot, and I felt like the subtle difference was just what I was looking for.  Critics can be very useful!



Below are three different versions of Half Dome I did, none of which I was very happy with.  The mountain was cool and blue enough.  I'd learned that lesson.  But the birches just past the rivers were causing me fits.  I did these in April and it was almost Spring.  The buds were just starting to push.  Thus the trees were actually still bare, but there was a gauzy haze of gold-green that you could see in their branches.  So hard to capture!

There was actually a beach scene going on, with lots of kids and a families out, but I decided to focus on Half-Dome for one painting...


...and to separately make this little sketch of the families on the beach to scratch that itch.  I wasn't quite satisfied with either, but atleast I was sitting around in Yosemite, painting.  LOL!  A good place to make mistakes.


I did this the next day, and was not particularly satisfied with it either.  The pale, limey birches were still causing me fits, but I liked, conceptually, the two-tone approach to the water, and used it again later, for future pieces.



After the fact, it occurred to me I could combine these two paintings. My concern while on site was that, on a quarter sheet, the people would just be tiny dots.  But with a bigger piece of paper?  Perhaps?  Might be fun!



I share these two pieces, which are in the show, to demonstrate how some of the earlier failures came to bear fruit.  The mountains are pale and distant, the just-budding trees looking better, as I cut their edges and made them only gently warm, and the water has a two tone effect, to reflect the blue of the sky in one section and reveal the green, muddy river in another.  All lessons learned on site.  After painting the same thing repeatedly, you start to get a feel, at the very least, for how you want to approach things, and what little pitfalls you want to watch out for.  Each time I started a mountain face, I'd say to myself (literally), "It's warmer in the sun than you think.  It's paler and it's bluer in the shadows than you think."  The earlier missteps helped convince me.


Thanks for reading!  I hope to see some of you at the show.  :)