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Paint Your Shadows Bold… And Transparent !

Light is often the making or breaking of a painting.  Some subjects seem uninteresting or lifeless until bright lights and the consequent shadows become parts of the scene.  Light not only creates interesting shadows for a painting, but it also produces tonal extremes, lights and darks.  Without dark tones and areas of shade, the light parts of a picture will seem bland and not stand out.  Dark tones are needed to emphasize the lighter ones.  In the same way, without light areas, the darker tones have nothing to contrast with.  The issue is not just how much light you put into a painting, but also how DARK you can make your darks! Very dark areas near very light areas will give your painting the greatest amount of contrast and impact.

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On a sunny day, the main tones are pushed to extremes.  Areas of BRIGHT light will be bleached out to some degree, and thus you will paint them with pale washes.  The brighter the light, the paler the tone, BUT also the more opportunity to offset light colors with dark.  Sunny areas contain warmer colors like yellow, brown, or red, whereas shaded parts of a scene will be grayer and cooler in tone.  At the same time, when painting a brightly lit section of a picture, do NOT think that a thick layer of brightly colored paint will convey the brilliance or glow you are looking for.  If you apply paint thickly, it can appear opaque because the brightness of the white underlying paper has been covered up.  Therefore, add lots of water to your color before applying it.  The more water you have in your mixture, the more the white of the paper will show through to suggest brightness.

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Because the bright spots in a painting will appear even brighter next to dark areas, SHADOWS and shaded areas ought to be a part of any painting.  A lack of light creates the darker tones within an image while also creating shadows and areas of shade.  An object blocking the light casts a shadow which can fall across a lit part of the scene.  SHADE tends to be simply a larger area of shadow.  The darkest tone in a painting is often the deepest area of shade, where the least amount of light reaches.  As light is reduced, color tends to become darker, grayer, and more muted.

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A shadow across an area of white (for example, snow) will show as a blue, gray, or violet.  However, shadows that are cast across several changes of color (for example, over a field, then a road, then a stone wall) appear to require several CHANGES IN SHADOW COLOR to look realistic.  That is ONE option. To create a shadow color, you could first look at the color as seen in direct light.  In this case, the shadow color must relate to the color it falls across.  If a shadow falls across a green field, its color will be a gray-green.  A shadow cast across a variety of features will change color appropriately, although the shadows MUST remain the same TONE (darkness) throughout (even as the colors change).  Furthermore, shadows cast across a landscape will follow the contours of the land, showing dips and depressions.

If shadows falling across a part of a painting are a darker and cooler version of the base color, how would you paint a cast shadow that crosses a path with grass on both sides (with this method)?  First, you would paint the areas themselves, with the grass painted green and the path perhaps painted a gray-brown.  Paint one area and let it dry before painting the next to avoid blurring.   When the painted grass and path are dry, next create a grayed-green and a grayer gray-brown for shadow colors.  Then paint the shadow in two different stages, one for the grass and the other for the path, with drying in between to avoid bleeding of color.  In theory, the overall TONE of the shadows stays constant throughout, even though the COLORS change according to the features underneath.

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Artist Robert J. O’Brien uses a somewhat different (and simpler) technique. Instead, he suggests creating one TRANSPARENT gray shadow color from indanthrone blue, gamboge, and quinacridone rose. Instead of mixing/using multiple shadow color mixtures (as described above), he uses his one transparent gray to glaze over ANY areas that require a shadow. He paints the areas first with their local color, then, when dry, he paints shadows with the ‘shadow gray’. To vary tone and darken certain shadows, he glazes the same gray over previous layers. (Two, or more, layers are darker than one layer!) Since the gray shadow color is transparent, the base color already on the paper continues to show through the layers and remains visible.

So, to create LUMINOUS shadows, you need to be able to see through the shadow to the color beneath. Using a TRANSPARENT paint color is a must!  Your shadows should NOT be thick and opaque.  The most transparent blues are phthalo blue, indanthrone blue, ultramarine blue; the reds are permanent alizarin, quinacidone rose, permanent rose, or quinacridone red; the yellows are  quinacridone gold, gamboge, burnt sienna, or hansa yellow light.  Most blacks and grays straight out of the tube are NOT transparent, so it is advisable to mix your own shadow colors. Mix your shadow color DARKER than you think you need.  Don’t be afraid to paint the shadows dark!

Sometimes color or light can reflect back into a shadow, especially at the shadow’s edge.  REFLECTED LIGHT may require a lighter or warmer section within a shadow.  Reflected light can be very subtle but can create varied color intensity within the shadow itself (for example, warm light suggested by a touch of yellow in the shadow, or a yellow underlayer).  In other words, areas of shade close to brightly lit parts of a painting might absorb more light; the painter could use more color and less gray here to create a bit more color intensity in the shadow.  

In most cases cast shadows have CRISP edges, which you would paint wet-on-dry (wet paint on dry paper) over a dried wash.  As previously mentioned, nearby objects can reflect light or color into the shadows.  A painter could brush in reflected colors while the shadow color is still wet, for SOFT blending. Other shadows may be SOFT-edged (for example, where fleeting light flashes over a hillside, or in some snow depressions).  Paint these soft-edged shadows wet-into-wet.

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The general process for creating a watercolor with enough contrast to make your picture “pop” involves painting in stages and layers.  Your aim is to paint confidently with a brush full of color and to paint shadow areas right up against the lightest parts of your painting.  Think of it this way:

Stage 1 is the initial drawing and any light toning down of the papers,

Stage 2 is painting in the light washes,

Stage 3 is building up the darker colors and shadow areas,

Stage 4 is adding the darkest marks and details, and

Stage 5 is painting the cast shadows.

Remember that your light colors need BOLD DARKS!

Painting Skin Tones.

There are so many variations in skin tone that it seems overly simple to choose only certain specific pigments for painting skin.  In other words, you don’t have to use prepared color formulas.  Consider variables of age, ethnicity, light source, reflected light, and gender when you are painting skin color.  Skin color does NOT come in a tube; it must be mixed by the artist based on an interpretation of the colors seen.

To reproduce skin colors accurately, observe your subject closely.  Painting skin tone has more to do with the light and the environment than with any preconceived notion of what skin color should be.  You must analyze how and where the light source strikes the skin surface.  From which direction does the light come?  Is there more than one source of light?  Can you see any reflected light in the shadows?  What colors do the shadows add to the general skin color?  Is the light soft or harsh?  Warm or cool?  Brighter light will make reflected color stronger and more obvious.  Bright light darkens and sharpens shadows.

Skin color can vary from the palest yellow on through pinks, browns, and ebony.  Light skin tones appear transparent and vibrant.  Dark skin shows a range of rich, exciting colors.  Look for a subject’s general skin tone; then alter tone by diluting with water for highlights or by adding a complementary color to create shadows (for example, a trace of green shadow on a pink jawline and a bluish or purple shadow on brown or dark skin).

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Facial areas like nose, ears, cheeks, chin, and tear ducts of the eyes tend to be warmer in color than the rest of the face.  The most basic way of painting skin is, after careful observation of general skin tone, to mix that color with two to three transparent paint colors.

Possible skin color combinations might be:

For fair skin—

Burnt Sienna/Cadmium Red/New Gamboge

Burnt Sienna/Permanent Alizarin Crimson/Cadmium Yellow

Burnt Sienna/Winsor Red/Cobalt Blue

For Native American or Hispanic skin –

Burnt Sienna/Brown Madder/Cobalt Blue

For Asian or fair skin –

Raw Sienna/Burnt Sienna/Cobalt Blue

For dark complexions –

Burnt Umber/Permanent Alizarin Crimson/Ultramarine Blue

Burnt Umber/Permanent Alizarin Crimson/Cobalt Blue

Burnt Sienna/Burnt Umber/Ultramarine Blue.

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Apply the general color thinly in a pale wash.  When this underlayer is dry, layer more color, as needed, to suggest skin depressions and create form.

Adjust the ratios of your colors to fit your subject’s skin color and value.

When trying to make the skin in your painting lifelike and interesting, you should paint wet-in-wet or on damp paper to allow for soft transitions.  In painting skin, your layers should follow and define the shadows you observe.  You must have value changes to imply form.  Build up your layers of paint, remembering to save areas for the highlights.  Create form and depth by painting depressions and shadows, leaving highlights created by lightly painted layers.

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More experienced painters might prefer to mix paint on their paper rather than premixing a general skin color on the palette.  When paint is mixed on the paper, colors are much more interesting and vibrant than the same color combinations mixed on the palette, then applied to paper, which tend to be dull.  Glazing and layering one color at a time on the paper gives skin a luminous tone.  Apply the lightest washes first; then gradually progress to the darkest washes, which you should apply last.  Build up transparent layers with Hansa Yellow Light, Permanent Rose, Quinacridone Gold, Quinacridone Magenta, Winsor Red, Winsor Blue (Green Shade), and Winsor Blue (Red Shade).

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Be sure to use transparent colors for a clear, luminous effect.  By choosing a warm and a cool transparent color for your palette, you will have more than enough color options to produce unlimited skin tones.  By varying proportions of each color to change color temperature AND by paying attention to the order in which the colors are layered, you can create different skin tones.  (Remember that the last layer of color glazed on will determine the dominant hue of the skin.)

Why Did I Change My Palette Colors?

For many years, I used the colors and brands of watercolor paint that my instructors used. (Interestingly, each instructor had different preferences.) There were so many different colors to choose from I was unsure why they used some colors and not others. I didn’t worry too much about their color choices when I was just starting to paint, being more focused on learning technique, but as I gained experience, I wanted to understand why we used those particular colors. Was it just a matter of personal preference, or were certain colors better for some reason? Why?

LEARNING ABOUT COLORS.

‘Color’ became more and more interesting to me. I became fascinated by how many different ways there were to mix colors from the paint that was already on my palette. There was such variety! Yet at some point, I began to feel some dissatisfaction with certain black, gray, and green paints straight from the tube, and began to prefer my own mixtures. Unlike blends that I created from mixtures of often primary colors, some of these tube paints began to appear dull, flat, uninteresting, and lifeless to me. Other tube paints looked stark, strident, unnatural and out of place in certain pictures. What a revelation! I began to notice details that I had not been aware of before. And I was starting to feel unhappy with a few of the colors on my palette.

QUESTIONS.

Why did some paints, like some of the reds, greens, and browns, look so flat and dull?  Everyone talks about ‘Transparent Watercolor,’ but what is it exactly? Are all watercolors transparent? And why is transparency important? How are opaque colors different from transparent colors? Where does the elusive ‘glow’ or luminescence of watercolor come from? Is it in certain pigments, or does it result from how the paint is applied? I decided to try to make my paintings glow!

As I studied and experimented, I learned more about the characteristics of pigments and how they behave. The issues were confusing! Some paints worked well in certain situations but not in others. Some colors mixed cleanly with others, but similar-appearing colors, when mixed with another color, turned into mud! Ugh! I realized that all watercolor pigments are NOT transparent or equal in intensity. All blues are not interchangeable. In fact, sometimes tubes of paint with the same name do not even contain the same pigments! How could one expect them to behave the same? And, further, some tube paints are not made from a single pigment but are mixtures of a number of pigments, each of which  has its own characteristics.

HOW NOT TO MAKE ‘MUD’!

Jeanne Dobie, in Making Color Sing, describes how she makes vibrant, glowing color. She recommends transparent and pure color pigments as a base for your palette colors. To capture the ‘effect of light’ in watercolor, use transparent and single ingredient pigments! Jeanne says, “Because transparent colors permit the greatest amount of light to pass through to the paper, reflecting back to the viewer, they impart luminosity. Moreover, they remain transparent when mixed together – so there’s no mud!.. If you begin a watercolor with opaque pigments, you’ll lose the effect of light. Opaque pigments are denser and heavier, which greatly reduces the amount of light transmitted through to the paper. Because of this ‘thickness,’ an opaque pigment does not mix well with another opaque color. It only becomes thicker! If you mix two opaque pigments together, you are flirting with a muddy mixture. Should you mix three opaque pigments together, the result may be too lifeless to call a watercolor.”

WATERCOLOR INGREDIENTS.

Watercolor pigments are composed of several different types of materials. First, some pigments are made of ground MINERALS or EARTH. These have a tendency to float on the surface of the paper, whether transparent or not, and so may NOT be very good for mixing. (I think it is interesting that some mineral pigments are quite transparent — for example, genuine ultramarine blue, burnt sienna, raw sienna, cobalt blue, viridian, and manganese blue.) Second, some pigments are ORGANIC DYES. Third, other pigments are SYNTHETIC DYES. The dye pigments are NOT all transparent as one might expect, because some are combined with various fillers.

MY PALETTE COLOR CHANGES.

Gradually, I have added more transparent primary colors (red, yellow, blue) to my palette and reduced the number of opaque pigments. I have tried to find transparent colors made from a single pigment (i.e. ‘pure’, as Jeanne Dobie describes). I now have a wide variety of  transparent red, yellow, and blue primaries which can be mixed into numerous clear variations. I chose each paint for a particular quality; while some are very similar, no two are exactly alike.

On my palette, I continue to keep some additional “occasional use” colors that are opaque, such as cerulean blue, cadmium red, Winsor Newton Payne’s gray, and burnt umber. Many greens I mix from primary colors, but I have a few transparent greens on my palette. I removed any ochres and use burnt umber with care, as they are opaque. I like the siennas because they are transparent or semi-transparent, depending on how diluted the mixed wash is. While the above earth colors look beautiful when wet, they do seem to lose their richness as they dry, appearing flat and somewhat dull. (I plan to discuss the specific colors that I have on my palette in a later blog. Stay tuned!)

GLAZING.

Jeanne Dobie also maintains that selecting pure transparent pigments is just the start. An artist needs to learn about color relationships to use the colors successfully – color mixing could be the subject of yet another, later blog post, perhaps. And, yet, there is also a place for the opaque colors on your palette. “To complement the pretty (transparent) colors” and to enhance their jewel-like tones, you need to use more subtle, “non-brilliant mixtures.”  Thus, my first discovery in the search for “GLOW” was that the glow begins with the use of transparent colors.

The second part of creating glow in a painting seems to be related to a technique called GLAZING. Most watercolor painters are aware that it is possible to paint one wash over another, a process called glazing. (The secret is to apply each wash, usually the lightest color first, to a THOROUGHLY DRY sheet of paper.) Now why would a painter want to do this? It seems like a lot of trouble! Is it worth it?

Yes, properly applied, layers of washes are what actually produce the characteristic GLOW of watercolor and a stained-glass effect that cannot be achieved by any other means. To achieve the much sought after GLOW FROM WITHIN in watercolor, an artist glazes layers of mostly transparent pigments. Pigments applied in glazes have MORE luminosity than the same colors mixed on the palette and applied in a single wash!

Once you have practiced your wash techniques and feel you are a bit proficient at them, here is the procedure for glazing:     1. Develop your glazes from transparent watercolors (eg. Indian yellow or Hansa yellow light, Winsor blue or Phthalo blue, Winsor red or pyrrol red).     2. Begin with your lightest pigment, usually a yellow.     3. Keep your washes DILUTED and transparent.     4. Make sure, VERY SURE, that all previous washes are COMPLETELY dry before a new wash or glaze is applied.     5. Use the most opaque paints toward the final stages of your painting. Using them in the initial stages runs the risk of creating mud or chalky washes. (I must give credit here to Don Rankin, who, in his book Mastering Glazing Techniques In Watercolor, gives these clear and simple ground rules for glazing.)

IN SUMMARY.

I now have more transparent pigments in my palette, fewer of the opaques. I try to employ the glazing technique with transparent color more often than I previously did. I like the effect! If you too are a painter who strives to find a way to have your work ‘glow from within,’ try what I have described above. See what you think, and let me know.