Monthly Archives: October 2009

Hot and cold, dark and light

Temperature in painting

I find painting and portraiture with temperature (just warm and cold, light and dark) rather than a full palette of colours very rewarding. Earlier this week our model took on an emergency sculpting project and so did not turn up.  While frustrating at the time, it facilitated my interest in painting with just tones and temperature, setting aside the actual colours.   I had half a day to play, and did the oil sketch on the bottom right of a plater cast.

For me the approach has most of the drama you get from black and white painting.  But there is an added dimension of excitement, the tension and vibration between the warm and cool colours, its a bit like looking at a tree in autumn after the leaves turn, against a clear cool blue sky.  A shimmering drama.  In these paintings I have used blue (ultramarine) and brown (burnt sienna) as the warm and cool colours.  Mixed they make deep darks that can be shaded to either side of the warm/cool dimension.  An alternative palette is yellow ochre, black and white.  This is only slightly more restricted than the classical ancient palette of the greeks and Romans that also included an earth red

Temperature management and composition is central in any kind of painting and particularly in portraiture.  Too many portraits are painted with ‘skin tones’ that are just warm ochre and pinks, leading to dull and uninteresting pictures.  More exciting portraits have painting schemes that set warm and cold tones against each other, Lucian Freud being the most obvious and immediate example.  The contrast, vibration, musicality and form set them apart from the run of the mill.

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The first painting project

Contre jour

Our first painting project of the course was an extreme contre jour painting, or in this case two.  The model was sat right against a brightly lit window, so that her features were in darkness, hence difficult to see and difficult to represent.

At one level the challenge is to construct an abstract image of dark and light shapes in a manner that is interesting and gives a clear sense of the quality of light coming in from the window.  You can see the difference in the light between these two paintings.  The second was painted on two consecutive bright sunny days, whilst the first was painted on grey, overcast, London days.

I also took a different approach to the abstract construction.  The first uses the window frame to create an energy and tension of the strong dark cross against the light and of the recto-linear forms against the organic form of the model.  Perhaps a statement of the tension between humanity and modern existence, of a human being sitting still for 6 days.  The second is a bit different, by using the window shape to box in the models head it gives strength to the sense of the model being trapped by her job in a frustrating position, and with a streaming cold.  While she was extremely patient, it was very clear, and understandable, that she was not enjoying the experience.

`The second challenge is to give form and personality to the model in the head itself, when the lack of light provides for limited creation of form through tonal difference.  I went about this by using some slightly exaggerated tonal difference, but more importantly by building up difference in colour (hue) to create the planes on the face, its expression and hence personality.  The top photograph shows the use of reds, greens, greys and oranges giving the impression of substantial sifting of planes, ie both form and expression.  The models lower ebb is clear in the second portrait.  I also use the colour contrasts to give a sense of energy to the person, a living, pulsing, being rather than just a a physical shape.


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Fiona’s summer portrait

Questions of Intensity

Here is a portrait of Fiona that I finally finished but it has been a struggle to get it right in the end.  The main issue has been the organisation of intensity across the picture.  (my apologies that the photograph of the picture is not that good).  The idea was to show Fiona with an intense gaze, an invitation, perhaps a challenge, to the viewer to engage with her.  I wanted to inject a sense of intensity into the picture as well as push the boundaries of my own mark making.

You can see in the detail picture above how I have used contrasting colours in the brush strokes to create a sense of drama, energy and form.  Keeping clear brush marks also adds its own energy to the the image.

We are all used to the idea of creating interest with abstract patterns, as part of the picture making, using tone and colour management.  However, I had not previously given much thought to the issue of patterning with intensity.  I had intended that the chair back and wall would be as intense as the head, but experiencing that showed how deluded I was.  It was way over the top.  Having ‘knocked back’ all of the back ground by glazing over with the colour complement, the picture came to life.

It raises a potential for future paintings of creating more differentiation of intensity, even in the main subject, either through the colours loaded on the brush, (some less intense, with sparks of colour added).  As well as the broader abstract picture impact of placing intensity.  This should probably go hand in hand with the nature of the brush marks, ie intense marks versus blended out marks.


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The Sculpture Project

Managing the play of light

The first project of my course at Heatherley’s portraiture diploma was small head sculptures.  The idea is to gain a better appreciation of the 3 dimensional nature of the head and especially of the parts that are not the facial features.  These parts are more than 80% of the whole surface area and an important part in facial recognition.

Like painting, the abstract qualities of the piece are critical to the art, rather than simply a likeness.  In sculpture, the abstract qualities may be less obvious than in a painting, because the tone, look and lines at any point in time depend on where the viewer is and the lighting at the time.  The test is to manage the play of light across the surface, so that there is a continuous and interesting pattern from all angles.

The similarity to painting goes further; by drawing on experience of the subject over a period of time the final sculpture captures elements of many facial expressions, in one image.  Similarly, there are many different ‘languages’ that can be employed, and usually are consistent across the piece.  Classical sculpture is managed with a series of curves, each of which continue in one sweep, until the text curve is started.   Rodin changed all that by making sculpture so that from all angles the curves are continuous, creating a coherent and sophisticated curving pattern.  A more modernist approach, and closer to contemporary painting is to sculpt with a series of flat plains that give tonal patterns in an interesting pattern.  My attempts at the last one of these are the top two pictures in this entry and the second of them in the bottom picture.  John Dean’s experience is that the interlocking plain approach works in relatively smaller pieces, but becomes uninteresting in larger pieces, when the continuous curve approach takes over the baton.

An idea that is very interesting to me is to use the combination of painting and sculpture, ie to start making a portrait by making a sculpture and then using the sculpture as a basis for a painting, allowing a greater focus on the picture making and form.  Practically, it should also make it easier to work from photos, or rather a series of them.

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