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Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Afraid of the darks

It’s only when you’re no longer struggling to manage the technical problems that you can start telling a story with your brush.

Northern  New Mexico, 8X10, oil on Ray-Mar board, $522 unframed.

When teaching, I usually find myself sounding out little ditties with my brush rather than playing through the whole score. Nobody can absorb all the nuances of painting in one marathon demonstration; if that’s what they want, they’re better off buying a video and watching it repeatedly. I prefer to paint a passage that shows a solution to whatever problem is bedeviling my class at the moment. Rarely does that result in a fully-realized painting, but I feel that it’s the best way to teach.

Students setting up to paint in a quiet hamlet. What a paradise New Mexico is!

I was doing that yesterday, demonstrating how to hit a dense, rich color on the first strike. Watercolor students are often afraid of the darks, because they know there’s no going back from an incorrectly-placed deep passage. With few exceptions, watercolor doesn’t take correction well.

“That’s the bitch of watercolor,” I said, sadly.

“Ohhh, the Bitch of Watercolor!” someone riposted. “What a great title!”

My students. I love them.

"Enough of that stupid horse!" said Jimmy the Donkey. "Look at my beautiful Roamin' Nose!" That was the end of that painting.

The diffident watercolorist tries to circumvent their fear of darks by substituting a series of glazes. Glazing has its place, but you can’t use it in lieu of courage. Excessive glazing makes for muddy color and indistinct edges. The end result is lifeless. Paradoxically, that struggle against the darks sucks all the light out of the painting.

Just as watercolorists have problems with darks, some oil painters have an equal and opposite problem with light. They understand intellectually that they work from darks to lights, but they’re somehow unable to make the jump. Sometimes that’s caused by working in bright sunlight, which lies about the true values in our paintings. Or the painter thinks they should lay down a bunch of dark color and then lighten things by adding white into them. That’s a misunderstanding of indirect painting.

White, incorrectly used, makes for chalky color.

New Mexico can sure put on a show with her skies.

The problem may also be that they have too much solvent in the bottom layers. If those layers are too wet, nothing above them stays separated and clean. A good rule of thumb is that solvent gets used in the bottom layer only (and sparingly), paint in the middle layer, and paint and medium in the top layer. The fat-over-lean rule is not only archivally sound, it’s easier to manage.

Confident color is integral to alla prima painting. There is only one way to achieve this:

  • Draw well enough that you have confidence in where you’re placing your color, and,
  • Mix and test your color so you’re sure of it before it hits your finished painting.
My dog buddies came out to visit me, as they do every year. It's painful to see the grey in their muzzles and the hitch in their gitalong.

“Why this emphasis on process?” a student once asked me. “Shouldn’t art be about freedom of expression?” Well, yes and no. All expression rests on a firm foundation of technique. It’s only when you’re no longer struggling to manage the technical problems that you can start telling a story with your brush.

I’m teaching in Pecos, NM this week. Yee-hah!

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