Archive for July, 2011

Watching the Grandchildren – layering process

July 24, 2011

I’ve just finished the most recent oil painting – It’s called Watching the Grandchildren. I had a lot of ideas in mind while I was painting it, and a lot of struggles as well. One thing that went pretty well, better than I had a right to expect probably, was a complex layering process on the blouse and wrap of the subject. The blouse has a complex pattern on it, and tassles as well – underneath which is a strong red color. I knew I wanted to use a rose madder glaze (can’t get enough of that madder these days), and as I’ve posted before I wanted to use the madder in a flat glaze layer so that any eventual fading will not break the picture. So, I would model forms in an underpainting and then glaze over that, as expected – but in this case some elements would have to go over the glaze layer as well. So how to layer everything? I made a plan and followed it, and here’s how it went:

Leo Carillo layer 1

Leo Carillo layer 1

The underpainting is Da Vinci Arizona Brown Ochre and Rublev Lead White #2 (lead white in walnut oil). I use paints from both of these companies regularly; I’ll do reviews here at some point I’m sure. I chose brown ochre because the transparent rose color of madder makes a nice middle red color over brown, as I’ve discovered in other experiments. As I found out later, I could have made this brunaille underpainting a bit darker. Common wisdom states that the glaze layer will darken whatever’s underneath; but I’ve found that’s only true up to a point. I wound up having to darken the shadows further at the end.

Leo Carillo layer 2

Leo Carillo layer 2

Then I laid down the pattern on the shirt. I wanted to get the pattern down first and then glaze right over it, because the pattern would still show through the glaze somewhat, so that I’d be able to use it as a template for repainting it on top of the glaze layers later. I figured if I tried to just tackle the pattern on top of the glaze for the first time, I’d wind up messing it up – erasing and lifting and correcting and scrubbing – and run the risk of ruining the crystal clarity of the madder glaze that I wanted. I think I was right about that; a pattern like this is not something I find so easy to do. My wife mentioned that I might stop painting at this point, and that was a compliment; but it wouldn’t have worked to leave it here. Besides, how could I resist the next step? It’s got madder in it!

Leo Carillo layer 3

Leo Carillo layer 3

This is what the first glaze of madder looked like. For some reason this particular color seems nearly impossible to photograph accurately. From this point on, heavy Photoshopping was necessary for each photograph, and so you may see some variation from pic to pic. I liked the color of the madder here, of course, but the blouse wasn’t really dark enough to make the composition work. It had to really stand out from all that white wall – especially since it would have all that distracting pattern in there. In a composition, focal point is everything. So more layers were necessary. Madder, of course, takes a long time to dry in oil; this stage of the painting took a while.

Leo Carillo layer 4

Leo Carillo layer 4

After three glaze layers of madder it was pretty much as you see here, dark and rich. But if I’d made the underpainting any lighter than it was, it wouldn’t have worked. I would have had to keep darkening with another layer of rose madder, and that might have made the element too saturated in color. It’s right on the borderline already (although, of course, this nice thick layer of madder gives some wiggle room for fading later on). Sometime before I try doing this again, I’m going to have to do a bunch of glazing studies over drapery, to really become familiar with just how these very transparent paints interact optically with differently-colored underpaintings. I’ll try various madder lakes, of course, but also ultramarine, Prussian blue, weld, carmine, verdigris, and perhaps lac. When I do these studies, I will most certainly post them here.

Leo Carillo layer 5

Leo Carillo layer 5

At last I was able to restate the pattern on the shirt, using the previously-painted pattern as a template. After it was down I had to knock parts of it back a little, and emphasized other parts, for the sake of the composition. After doing that, I put the tassles above everything, and did a bit of last-hour modeling on the whole thing. Below is the final look. I planned it out as carefully as I could; still, I think I was somewhat lucky. Much could have gone wrong, and I knew it could right from the beginning. It was a bit of a tightrope walk in the dark.

Isn’t that madder pretty, though? If you’d like to see the whole painting, you can see it (and a couple of life drawings) on my artwork blog here.

Leo Carillo layer 6

Leo Carillo layer 6

This is the kind of layering technique that is sometimes required when using a limited palette of traditional colors. Some colors, like rose madder, are best used transparently – and sometimes not as the final layer. Most of the time I simply paint directly, but in situations like this one, that just won’t do. I don’t think of the color palette that I use as being particularly limiting; but sometimes it is necessary to plan ahead. Though some other aspects of this painting could have gone a bit better, I’m very pleased that the blouse turned out so well, and even more pleased to have this process under my belt for next time.

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Sap green

July 10, 2011

I’ve been neglecting the blog, because I’ve been insanely busy with getting my portfolio together, building my site, etc. But I’ve been experimenting with this and that as I’ve had time. Some of my recent adventures: an anthocyanin blue from geranium blossoms; an iron weld lake; shopping for a dragon’s blood tree; studying carmine in the wild; the first really successful madder lake from my garden plants (and figuring out how to make a dark and a light madder lake from the same batch); and the finding and purchasing of a natural-lake oil paint, from a very mainstream company, that has been out of circulation for most of a decade. I’ll share all that stuff with you, but for today I’ve prepared an article about sap green:

Sap green is a traditional color that enjoyed popularity from medieval illumination all the way through the Romantic era of watercolor painting. It is a warm, yellowish green, transparent, tending toward olive in masstone and a brighter, livelier green in tints. As an artist’s color it has been quite useful to many artists, filling in a difficult mixing area of the color wheel, supplying beautiful and interesting transparent green shadows, and lovely mixtures for foliage. It is fugitive, of course, like most natural organic colors, which is why it fell from vogue in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when modern synthetic greens that were more lightfast became widely available.

The color sap green is derived from the berries of the buckthorn plant. The usual plant used was rhamnus cathartica, or common buckthorn, which is found in the British Isles. The cathartica part of the species name refers to the fact that the buckthorn berries can be used as an emetic, and the plant is often mentioned in older medicinal treatises.

Sap Green - © MFA Boston

Sap Green - © MFA Boston

The dyestuff in Northern Europe is common and economical, and yields a beautiful color – small wonder it was popular for so long. The plant has been naturalized in parts of North America, and has become quite a problem in those areas, because common buckthorn can be very invasive. It spreads rapidly and aggressively, has no natural enemies on this continent, and quickly takes over an area of woodland, squeezing out the natural flora, and in the process some of the natural fauna as well, as they lose their traditional food sources to the invader. My original excitement to try growing this plant was dampened considerably upon learning of the problems associated with it.

I’m quite a fanatic about natural colors, of course; so, while I am an adamantly against risking introducing an invasive species into the ecolocality in which I live, I nevertheless spent some time in negotiations with myself. The common buckthorn is invasive in much cooler and wetter areas than southern Californa; there is little way the plant could be as successful here. In any case, the plant reproduces sexually and needs both a male and a female plant to spread; I’ll just get one plant, I reasoned, and so I’ll be safe. But in the end, I decided sadly that it just wasn’t worth the risks. I want to grow plants that can have a future in my garden and others – common buckthorn clearly doesn’t fit the mold, at least not on this continent. (The closest thing I have to an invasive species is madder, which is spreads agressively through root runners. But madder I feel confident I can control by killing it off if necessary, mainly because the birds and other animals of the area are not interested in its berries or seeds, so the chances of it spreading without my knowledge are greatly reduced. Common buckthorn does not have that element of safety; its berries are enjoyed and spread by many varieties of bird.)

If you happen to live in an area that has been invaded by common buckthorn, you have every opportunity to make some real sap green; for goodness sake go out and pick some berries. Every berry you use is one that cannot spread the species further.

There is another, non-invasive species of buckthorn that is actually much better suited for the hot and dry weather of California, being from the Mediterranean area of the Old World: rhamnus infectoria (or rhamnus saxatilis), the same buckthorn that is used to make stil de grain yellow lake. While a green can be made from the berries of this plant (depending on how ripe they are), it is much better used as a source of the lovely yellow stil-de-grain. You can get the berries from dye shops. I’ve been thinking of getting some seeds and growing a shrub in my garden plot; unfortunately, they seem a bit difficult to come by.

This is one of several posts I’ll make concerning the importance of localism in thinking about the sustainability of artist’s colors. If I lived in Northern Europe, sap green would be a primary color on my watercolor palette. Here in the American Southwest, it can’t be.