CHAPTER 10. HOW TO PAINT VARIOUS PICTURE COMPONENTS
A combined knowledge of watercolor technique and the ability to analyze what one sees should enable you to reproduce almost anything on paper. In the sections to follow, there is no attempt to prescribe specific technical methods for painting all of the familiar pictorial components, but rather to suggest useful bases for your own individual analytical procedures.
HOW TO PAINT ANYTHING
There are four steps to be followed in painting any subject at all and they can be stated very simply:
- Analyze the pattern.
- Recognize the basic picture components, stripped of detail.
- Reproduce those fundamentals on paper.
- Add the details needed.
ANALYZE THE PATTERN
The great hurdle for all painting beginners is that every scene appears to be complicated by an endless assortment of detail. But most subjects, no matter how involved they seem, are basically simple. Sometimes only a very few components are required to reproduce a scene convincingly. The artist can then add as much or as little fill-in detail as he chooses. Let us analyze a subject which can be particularly confusing. The principles involved can be applied to any scene.
Suppose you are at the ocean watching great combers smash against the rocks. With each surging wave the water explodes into the air, deluges the rocks, and recedes, while eddies and cascades whirl, leap, and foam, now green, now spumy white. Innumerable points of action are packed into the brief space of a few seconds. With each wave the water-distribution pattern repeats itself almost identically, the same eddies, the same shapes, the same colors, but it is never still.
Before attempting to paint, just sit, observe, analyze, and plan. Choose the exact spot and the exact moment of wave action that you want to paint. Now rule out and refuse to see all other movements of water, concentrating on the patter at that instant exclusively. Study the forms, colors, and values of the scene. Within ten minutes or less you will probably have memorized them. You will then be able to reproduce the subject almost as well as if it were stationary.
LIGHT AND SHADOW
The mood of a landscape picture is often established by the time of day or the weather conditions portrayed. These, in turn, affect or are affected by the way the painter handles light and shadow. The following list, combined with other special topics in this section, will suggest particular points to look for in painting subjects under special conditions of lighting or weather. In the long run, of course, you must go to nature, studying, analyzing, and memorizing the colors and values you see before you, then experimenting with your pigments until you are able to translate what you have seen to paper.
A day of bright sunlight is characterized by strong shadows. There is a great contrast of light and dark, and visibility is unlimited. In the early morning or late afternoon there are very long shadows. Most of the scene is likely to be in shadow, with just a few spots lighted by the low-lying sun. If the artist has his back to the sun, however, virtually everything will be bathed in light. “In the Shadow of the Hills” on page 152 was cast in strong light and shadow in order to turn a prosaic subject into a dramatic painting. The hills were painted in strong sepia color and the sky, which does not take up much space in the picture, was arbitrarily painted green.
In sunrises and sunsets, with the observer facing the sun, all erect parts of the scene are seen in dark shadow and appear gray or nearly black. Little local color is visible. Level surfaces, such as grass, which are brightly lighted are darker than you might think. In fact, the whole earth is strongly contrasted against the sky. Distant parts are lighter and grayer than those near at hand.
Billowing cloud formations usually break up the landscape into sunny and shaded expanses as the cloud shadows sweep along. With a heavy overcast, however, the whole landscape is dark and solid. There are no shadows, and objects are identifiable principally through their local colors.
Moonlight gives a bluish cast to the landscape. A moonlit picture should be painted in a low key with most areas quite dark. Shadows should not be too pronounced. Study the position and angle of the moon if it is included, for many artists take unreasonable liberties with nature and these errors are quickly detected by those who know. One artist was told his New England twilight had a Southern Hemisphere moon. Remember the crescent, or new moon, is never seen with its points down, although it has often been seen that way in pictures.
Fog usually calls for an over-all gray with virtually no whites or real darks. Receding objects quickly disappear from sight.
In snow scenes, the snowflakes replace the foggy mist as a softener of accents. The sky is gray, and there are no extreme darks. Most of the scene is clothed in white.
Rain, like fog and snow, reduces distance of visibility. With rain, however, the wet surfaces of stones and other solid objects are either extremely dark or, if turned up to the sky, mirror the light. Rainy weather therefore calls for strong contrasts. Like snow, rain can be seen only against objects. Drizzly rain appears much the same as fog, except that mirror-like piddles sometimes reflect dark verticals like trees and the relatively light sky.
Clear skies are usually described as blue, but actually skies appear in all values from white to near black and in variants of all the hues of the spectrum.
No other facet of the natural scene is as variable as the sky. Not only does it change in pattern, value, and color, it also possesses a unique quality called luminosity. A clear blue sky may really be a hazy gray or violet at the horizon, ascending through a light greenish blue and increasing in depth and blueness toward the zenith. Furthermore, the sky lightens as it approaches the sun and darkens as it becomes more distant. A sky painted in flat blue without color variation is likely to appear as banal as a color postcard.
To suggest luminosity in painting a clear sky, it is necessary to contrast the sky against the scene below and to suggest vibration in the sky itself. This can be done by using two different colors, one washed over the other. Surprisingly, the effect achieved by this technique will be much more luminous or vibrant than if the same two colors are mixed beforehand and applied as a single wash.
To use this technique, first prepare two separate pans of diluted color, say blue and a warm yellow. Cobalt or any other smooth-flowing blue could be used with Yellow Ochre, Raw Sienna, or Cadmium Orange. Both colors should be thinned out with a great deal of water. Now turn the picture upside down on its slanted support and, beginning at the horizon, brush the thin yellow was the width of the sky, continuing the wash downward to the bottom of the paper, which is, of course, the top of the picture. At the start the yellow must be very weak (no darker than linen color) and grow still weaker as the wash progresses, as more and more water is gradually added. When the wash is finished, the top of the sky will be pure white, the yellow will be deepest at the horizon and evenly graduated between the two extremes. When the yellow wash is thoroughly dry, the picture is turned upright and, beginning at the top, the blue wash is brushed in the same manner as the yellow, weakening the hue as it descends. When the blue reaches the horizon, it must be thin indeed. With both operations completed, the result will be a luminous sky, pale greenish at the bottom and strong blue at the top. It should be emphasized by a solidly painted landscape below. The sky in “Ruddy Veteran,” page 54, was painted in the manner just described. The blue wash was grayed somewhat to match in key the brilliant tree, which was also considerably neutralized.
The great billowy puffs that course over the bright blue sky in the summer are called cumulus clouds. Their substantial thickness gives them definitely shaded bottoms and sides, except those surfaces exposed to the sun, which are approximately white. The relative positions of the individual large clouds and the directions in which they move should be carefully considered, for they are too important compositionally to be casually placed.
Cold gray nimbus clouds are rain or snow clouds. They are dense, formless masses which usually obscure the sky. If by chance there are breaks between them, one sees only the high level stratus clouds above them. Sometimes the lower nimbus clouds are broken up by wind, and the fragments, being nearer the earth than their parents, are plainly discernible as what sailors call “scud.”
A nimbus cloud formation should be painted in an overall strong gray. The lighter sections can be mopped out in a deliberately planned pattern while the paint is still moist, then touched up with a brush for accents and corrections, and the whole allowed to dry. The effect will appear accidental and spontaneous. Remember that the contrasts between the lights and darks are not so great, but they are definite.
The cumulonimbus cloud is the familiar thunderhead which grows up out of a nimbus cloud layer, often to mountainous heights. It is the only cloud that might be described as of vertical formation. It appears to be built of firm cotton puffs piled one above the other, each sharply defined. Of course, a painting need not be literal. The details may be merely suggested. In analyzing the pattern of a sky, remember that the underside of a cumulus or nimbus cloud layer can be astonishingly level, appearing almost as flat as a ceiling. Like a ceiling, it should be painted upside down. The individual clouds may be thought of as great, roundish cushions in various sizes. Sketch A, Figure 50 shows a preliminary arrangement of clouds. In painting the actual picture, the regularity of the outlines would have to be broken up as in B. Notice how the shapes placed one behind the other diminish in size as they recede, the ellipses approaching more and more a straight line until, in the extreme distance, only horizontal strokes are needed to indicate the cloud field. Clouds near the horizon appear horizontal, with very little vertical dimension except for the cumulonimbus thunderheads which appear like mountains of solidified froth.
A sunset is made up of three factors: 1. The sun, if still above the horizon, or its rays, if below. 2. The clouds or atmospheric mist which intercept the rays of the sun and cause the changing color patterns. 3. The clear sky beyond the clouds.
The sky itself is virtually always the same. Close to the sun there is a creamy glow which becomes greener and then bluer as it ranges outward. If clouds or haze are absent, this is all we see. The whites and grays and the bright yellows, oranges, reds, and pinks appear only in the clouds or vaporous mist.
The clouds float about in definite strata, those of identical formation cruising at the same level. The heights vary from ground level to perhaps six miles. The lower ones are usually the puffy cumulous clouds, seen as individuals.
As the sun retires below the horizon, shadows darken firs the earth, then the low-flying clouds, and later the higher cloud layers. Between the observer and the sun, the clouds or haze provide the bright reds, which diminish in brilliance as they become more distant. The sunlit sides of clouds are white. Clouds completely in shadow are dark gray and may be seen strongly contrasted against the still sunlit, creamy, high-level clouds.
The combinations are never-ending. No two sunsets are alike, but the behavior pattern is always the same.
To paint a sunset scene, select a viewing position by the sea or on a hilltop, the higher the better. You aren’t likely to see much from a valley. There must be some clouds in the western sky, and preferably haze. The most magnificent displays occur when the sky holds two vaporous layers, low-lying cumulus and very high stratus clouds. The time for observation is between twenty minutes before and twenty minutes after actual sunset. The pattern changes continually so that every three or four minutes you see a new sky.
It may be advisable simply to study the “anatomy” of sunsets for a few nights, perhaps making quick sketches with a pencil and including notes about the colors. In that way, you can record several arrangements and paint the best one from memory and the knowledge you have gained from analytical observation. Color photographs can also be used as notes, but don’t paint a watercolor copy of a photograph. In actual painting a good method is to draw arbitrarily a very low horizon line and paint the sky above it. The earth scene can be added later. Remember that the earth will appear very dark and, by contrast, its darkness will add brilliance to the colors of the sky.
Sunrise effects are similar to sunsets, but the sequence is reversed.
Fog appears in various shades of gray, some warm, some cool, but always gray, with no pure whites and no extreme darks except perhaps in the immediate foreground, and even these are grayed somewhat. All color and value differences are subtle. There are no strong contrasts. If you study and analyze fog, you will see that only the near-at-hand features show any degree of contrast and that as the other parts recede, they resolve themselves into separate flat upright planes, like stage scenery, each one grayer and lower in value than the ones in front of it. Only the near planes show distinct color. The farther ones are virtually all gray. Infinity in a fog may be no more than a few hundred feet, and the whole picture has to be telescoped into that short depth. Although the regular laws of aerial perspective apply in fog scenes, distance is measured in yards instead of miles.
To paint a fog scene, I usually mix a pan of medium gray, avoiding sediment colors, and wash the mixture over the entire paper. If there are to be near-white areas in the foreground, I mop them out lightly while the paper is still wet. Then, while the color is still moist or after it has dried depending on the effect I want, I paint in the series of upright planes––usually beginning with the furthermost. This is often a gray just a trace darker than the over-all color. The planes become gradually darker and more colorful as they move forward. Near objects are painted in reasonably strong detail and color, but even here I mix some gray into every color. Working on moist paper is often advantageous, for the color applications tend to merge with the background and assure soft edges.
Painting a snowstorm is much the same as painting a fog, with snowflakes taking the place of mist. Visibility may be a little greater and, of course, all top surfaces appear white. However, as in painting fog, there is no real white. All snow must be grayed somewhat. Everything being relative, we can judge a value only by comparing it with a standard of some sort. Nothing in nature is whiter than snow. However, if you hold up a brightly lighted white card and squint past it at a real snow storm, you will see that the snow appears to be much darker than white.
To paint a snowstorm, cover the entire paper with a strong gray wash, then mop out the white areas and paint in the colored areas. Remember that the snow appears grayer as it recedes in the distance. If snowflakes are not indicated, either individually or by swishes of the brush, the picture may suggest mist or murk rather than storm. A few flakes can give an impression of great activity. They can be scratched out with a razor blade, or masking liquid can be applied before you begin to paint. If masking liquid is used, there are several points to remember. When the maskoid is removed, the resulting white spots may have to be grayed somewhat. Also, although we think of snowflakes as very small and all of the same size, a snowflake close to the eye may appear as large as a distant chimney. It may be necessary to paint the near flakes larger than at first seems reasonable. Remember, too, that flying snowflakes cannot be seen against a stormy sky or against the fallen snow. Place them only against color dark enough to silhouette them.
The principles for painting fog may be followed essentially for rain scenes, but there are several special problems with rain. In a rainstorm, one sees many puddles which are, in effect, mirrors. Usually they appear very light (almost white) or very much darker than the earth around them, depending on whether they reflect the sky or some solid mass, such as trees or buildings. Remember that these puddles are mirrors, and be sure to ascertain what they reflect before you paint them dark or light. Wetness makes such things as tree trunks and rocks very dark although the wet tops of flat rocks may mirror the sky and appear very light. Thus, some foreground items may show very strong value contrast.
Grayness pervades a rain scene as much as it does a fog scene. Raindrops themselves cannot be painted, but the direction of the rain can be indicated by a few moist brushstrokes. This direction can be important to your composition, so before brushing it in be sure to choose the angle right for the picture, regardless of what you may actually see. The direction of the rain is particularly important in a painting of a torrential driving rain, for then the violence of the weather is actually the subject of the picture, and the landscape details are merely a foil to emphasize the storm.
SNOW IN SUNLIGHT
The contours of a snowy surface in sunlight can be seen only because of shadows, so shadows are a leading factor to be considered in painting a snow, sunlit scene. Don’t spread the shadows around aimlessly. Study the scene carefully and learn why they assume the positions and shapes they do. Note that the long shadow of a telephone pole, for example, reveals all the surface variations, the undulations, ruts, and ridges of the area it crosses.
Snow shadows often appear quite blue but, as in the case of skies, one must guard against a “postcard blue” effect. A blue or violet very close to neutral gray is likely to be best, though special conditions can change the rule.
Sunlit snow in the distance may seem as white as that close by, but it is not and cannot be painted that way. To suggest the necessary atmospheric perspective, snow in the distance must be subdued somewhat by blue or violet gray.
All top snow may appear pure white, but when you notice that certain areas show definite highlights, you can see that surrounding parts are actually darker. A five percent gray is useful in modeling sunlit snow surfaces.
White paper can be used very effectively to show brilliantly lighted snow, but it is not the only way to handle this problem. Snow can be painted in quite strong grays throughout and still seem to be white. It all depends on the relationship of values.
Still water is like a horizontal mirror. To paint it, you must understand the rule of reflections. In clear water, reflected colors are slightly darker than their originals. Murky water has a color of its own––perhaps cream, brown, or green––which either discolors the reflection or obscures it altogether. Still water is sometimes crossed by air currents that destroy its reflecting power in patches. These breaks, which usually appear to move horizontally from side to side, can be used to advantage as composition elements.
Open water is seldom still, so definite reflections are a negligible consideration. The apparent color of salt water is determined by the sky: blue sky, blue water; gray sky, gray water. However, the sea is ordinarily much darker than the sky. The rougher the water, the darker it is likely to be. The blue or green of sea water is usually far from pure blue or green. A good deal of gray is required in the mixture. Wind, cloud shadows, distance, and other influences may cause local variations of color or value. Near-at-hand waves or rollers are green, often capped with white.
When painting the sea, don’t do the whole expanse in the same color or value. There should be a gradation of tint from front to back to show the distance: darker in the foreground and lighter at the horizon, or vice versa. The eye will follow a gradation of color. Note that the sea, like the land, appears softer and more neutral in color as it recedes in the distance. The sky usually appears to be almost a continuation of the water. The values differ, of course, sometimes slightly, sometimes definitely. In any case, it is good practice to soften the dividing line. A hard, sharp contrast at the horizon destroys the illusion of distance.
Waves are themselves parts of larger waves, or swells, that can be indicated by horizontal swishes of color, smoother and closer together as they retreat from the eye. In heavy weather, rollers or breakers are capped with white and long stretches of spume along the shore. Some artists retain these white spaces by painting with masking fluid beforehand, but personally I find it easier to leave them white as I paint. As a rule, the whites are not really as pure as they appear and usually need a bit of softening.
Remember to keep the ocean flat. Your brushstrokes should be horizontal, never diagonal.
Painting boats requires more knowledge of draftsmanship than many subjects because all the structural parts, lines, and surfaces of floating vessels seem to be curved. Even a coal or sand barge, rectilinear though it may at first appear, is well supplied with curves. These many curves, divorced from plumb and level lines, can be deceptive. Study the curves in the various paintings of boats in this book. The sketch opposite is typical. From bow to stern, the gunwales of this skiff swell outward in the waist and they curve vertically as well. Figure 51 shows this double movement, yet notice that the further gunwale is drawn with a straight line. Ships present much the same problem as small boats.
When boats or ships are only secondary notes in marine pictures, their lines may be simply hinted at, but close-ups of boats require a sure hand at drawing.
The principal action in a picture usually takes place in the middle distance, so the foreground must act as a support for and a guide into that center of interest. Despite its subordinate role, the proximity of the foreground to the viewer makes it important. The foreground must be planned as a part of the whole picture. It should support and lead into the main interest. Detail and character can be suggested in the foreground, but no details should be prominent enough to upset the planned pattern of color and shadow masses.
Using the actual subject before you, but remembering that the foreground is not important in itself but simply a guide which leads the eye to the main interest, brush in simple forms, using as large a brush as feasible. The idea is to strive for compositional pattern without detail. For example, if a diagonal direction at the lower right or a dark mass at the left is needed for the plan, it should be brushed in without hesitation. It can always be rationalized later.
Once satisfied that the foreground elements are well spaced, you can turn them into recognizable objects. A diagonal stroke may become a fence rail, a branch, a pathway, or whatever seems appropriate. A dark area may suggest a rock or the shadow of an unseen tree.
Remember that the foreground must be subdued. Detail may be suggested, but it should not be obtrusively delineated. For example. A mass of yellow grass can be painted broadly with a one-inch brush, then a few individual blades of grass can be indicated by hairlines. This can produce a surprising illusion of thousands of individual blades of grass. A bush with a singular leaf pattern might be drawn in considerable detail with a fine brush and then washed over with a flood of color while still moist. This will simplify the bush and pull it together. Most of the line drawing will be lost, but enough will remain to suggest a great deal of leafy detail.
Many types of foregrounds are shown in the paintings in this book. In “The Old Town, Gerona” on page 92, the subject has very little depth. The church and the mass of dwellings occupy most of the picture and constitute the entire middle ground. A simple foreground was needed, one that would set the buildings back a reasonable distance but still allow an unimpeded view of the houses. Grass, a tree, and small unobtrusive figures at the left fill that need.
Another kind of foreground is seen in “California Coast” on page 71. This picture is divided into three parts: the warm-colored rocks and weeds of the foreground, the gray rocks in the middle distance, and the blue-green sea in the far distance. Interest centers around the middle ground, and the foreground is a foil for it. Much unobtrusive detail is hinted at, but very little is actually delineated.
The basic rule for painting a tree is to choose a good tree, use it as a model, and paint as its color and construction suggest. On occasion, trees may be indicated with only a simple stroke of color to suggest an appropriate contour, but when individual trees are being portrayed, they must really appear to be individuals. A mass of green pigment will not suffice.
Remember there are no two trees exactly alike. They have a great range of character which is affected by species, age, environment, time of the year, and other factors. The picture should reveal all of the individual characteristics of the tree or trees shown. By cataloguing the distinguishing features, you will be able to analyze them quickly and systematically. Study the general shape, the fronds, the skeleton or framework, the base of the trunk, the age or condition, and the color.
Note the general shape of various types. There are the straight and rigid spruce and the pliant willow, the solid Norway maple, the gracefully forked elm, the twisted old apple, and all manner of types between. Which does your model resemble?
Fronds are the large leaf clusters at the ends of the branches. Do they hang down, stand erect, or extend horizontally? Are they round, pointed, irregular, closely or loosely packed? Notice that frond shapes often follow the shape of the tree itself.
Are the trunk, limbs, branches, and twigs straight or twisted, fluent or angular? How do they spring from the trunk––rectangularly or in graceful forks? Is the bark smooth, rough, or mottled?
How does the tree spring from the ground? Is it straight and clean, like a light pole, or is there an expansive root formation above ground?
Notice that young trees tend to be symmetrical, smooth, and clean while old trees are likely to be rangy, gnarled, bumpy, twisted, and scarred.
Trees run the gamut of color from the pale green of the aspen to the black green of the yew. The color of a single tree can change from yellow green in the spring through solid green in the summer to yellow, red, or brown in the autumn. Look at your model and see what color it actually appears. Don’t assume it is “tree green.” Notice also that the foliage of a tree in sunlight has basically only two values, those of the sunlit and shaded color; any minor variations from these two values are usually accidental. Examine the color of the trunks and branches. Are your models white birches, pale gray beech trees, scabby-looking sycamores, or another kind of tree with a trunk of some shade of brown or gray?
Many kinds of tree paintings are reproduced throughout this book. “Ruddy Veteran” and “Autumn in the Air,” both in color on page 54, are portraits of individual trees. Trees are also the main subject of “Wispy Willows” on page 132, “Monterey Coast” on page 121, “In the Woods” on page 131. Trees are secondary but important elements in many other pictures, particularly “In a Provence Market” on page 2, “Winter Fog,” page 114, “Family Picnic,” page 93, and “The Little Statue,” page 53.
IN THE WOODS
In the woods, where tree tops merge with each other, leaving no outlines, where sunlight breaks through a million apertures, and where tree trunks abound without order, the effect is utter visual confusion. Patterns that might make interesting compositions are not easily detected. It is necessary to analyze, simplify, and plan. You can’t paint a million leaves, but you can suggest them.
Using a wide, flat brush, paint the floor of the local forest in local, sunlit color and then brush in large masses to represent the tree tops. Next, with simple strokes, add tree trunks and other elements such as boulders or clumps of dark bushes as accents.
So far only relatively light colors, or sunshines values, have been used. Now analyze the scene’s over-all sun-and-shadow pattern and boldly brush a mixture of dark warm gray pigment over some of the areas already painted. This will represent the shadow pattern.
Always keep in mind the all-important requirement of pattern. Each area should be calculatedly spaced, regardless of the actual disposition of elements in the scene. There should be a pleasing arrangement of lights and shadows, tree top colors, tree trunks, earth, rocks, sky openings, and the like, all definite enough to be judged easily. If any parts of the pattern are unsatisfactory, they should be corrected before any further painting is done.
To break up the severity of the sharply defined color shapes, correct the colors of the tree foliage in the foreground, indicate sunlit and shaded areas, paint in a few definite leaf clusters, add light and dark accents, and pick out a number of sky holes. Leaves in the middle distance should be treated as masses. Those farthest away should be subdued with a pale violet or blue wash, whether the eye sees them that way or not. Tree trunks may be separated into shaded and sunlit surfaces, if necessary. The trunks and branches near-at-hand can receive individual treatment, those in the distance may merge into the foliage. The earth may also be “loosened up” by adding in the foreground pebbles, fallen trunks, grass, dead leaf masses, or whatever details seem appropriate.
To finish the picture it is only necessary to correct tonal values and add a few accents.
It is surprising how a busy forest scene can be indicated with little color variety. Extreme simplification is the secret. By squinting through nearly closed eyes, you can learn to see the myriad details of forest foliage in a few simple values. It is rarely necessary to deviate very far.
The major factor that must be considered in painting interiors of buildings is that of the key or tonality of the scene. The volume of light inside the average house on a sunny day is less than one-fiftieth of that outside, yet the indoor objects appear to be as clearly lighted as those outside.
Ordinarily, when an artist depicts a room interior, he unconsciously raises the tonality of the lighting so that the room appears as brightly lit as an outdoor scene. This, of course, is quite proper. However, there are times when both indoor and outdoor views must be included in one picture. Such a project confounds many artists. If they continue painting the interior in a high key, there can be no value contrast between the interior and the exterior and it will be impossible to suggest sunshine in the open area.
In the picture “Barn Interior,” I applied a heavy wash, probably a 30 percent gray, over the entire drawing except for the space of the open door, a small window at the upper left, and a few chinks where sunlight enters. When dry, that dark wash was considered white and other interior values were painted relatively darker. For the area of the open door, on the other hand, the white paper rated as white. Actually I painted two pictures in one, in two different keys. When seen in color, the sun really shines on the open field and the doorway stands out with the brilliance desired.
Remember that, since all tonal values are relative, a very dark value can appear light and can even suggest white convincingly.
To paint architectural subjects accurately in any medium requires an ability to draw and a thorough knowledge of perspective. Also helpful, If one aims at “architectural portraiture,” is a knowledge of architecture itself.
In the watercolor medium, there are three general ways to paint buildings. First of all, they can be painted in a fluid style in which masses are merely suggested. Or they can be painted freely but with individual buildings clearly identified and their details suggested though not delineated. Finally, they can be painted as “architectural portraits,” whether of whole structures or small sections, with details drawn accurately or suggested with some degree of definition.
The first method is most commonly followed today, probably because “juicy” watercolors are extremely popular and also because watercolor offers a perfect means for reasonably combining structural rigidity and fluidity of appearance.
In painting city scenes, I frequently use the second method which undoubtedly represents a carry-over from my one-time practice of architectural design. The most difficult hurdle of my early painting career was that of “loosening up,” of ignoring minutiae and learning simply to hint at all except the principle features. This method, which depends on the defining of form and subordination of parts, allows the artist to develop bold patterns and dramatic conceptions. “Union Square,” on page 154, was painted by the second method. The third approach is exemplified by “St. Patrick’s Cathedral,” page 51, “Temple of Diana, Nimes,” page 42, and “Church in Morelia,” page 6.
For painting city buildings, the wet-in-wet method or a modification of it to suit one’s individual needs is excellent. Using the widest flat brushes available, indicate entire buildings with a swish of color, allowing the edges to dry soft and making sure the pencilled outlines are not followed too closely. Shaded areas can be brushed in similarly with darker color. When the pigment is dry or nearly dry, dab in, not too sharply, indications of windows, cornices, doorways, pediments, and similar details. Line is often combined with was very effectively in architectural subjects. Very fluidly painted architecture is usually used as a background for some nearer point of interest which is more definitely executed.
Artists working in this apparently careless manner often begin with accurate drawings, heedfully calculated in terms of perspective. These are then used as a base for the loose brushwork, but are never allowed to show through the liquid technique.
For my own work I usually prepare an accurate layout with vanishing points, horizon line, and other necessary perspective aids, though liberties are taken later with the drawing to give it a free-hand appearance. I also methodically work out a preparatory color sketch to show the spacing of shadows and the like, for these are usually more pronounced in architectural subjects than in landscapes and greater care is needed in composing them.
Unlike most subjects, a still life can be painted with considerable verisimilitude, because the arrangement is designed in advance. The composition is worked out in the subject itself instead of on the paper. It is essential, therefore, in choosing still-life subjects to avoid the commonplace, those subjects made stale by incessant choice. If commonplace material is used, it should at least be presented in a fresh way. A still life need not always rest on a table top, nor need it be viewed always from the same old angle. Much can be learned from good photographers. Note the unusual lighting and angles of their shots. Without becoming eccentric, the painter himself can adopt similar approaches.
The foregoing suggestions apply of course to serious esthetic conceptions. For practice painting, the stress on the unusual is not so necessary.
The essential characteristic of a cut flower arrangement is its irregularity or looseness, so the admonition to “loosen-up” applies with special force to flower painting. Don’t try to draw every flower and leaf. Drawing should be restricted to a rough layout that shows only the placement of the bouquet and its principal divisions. Flower groups should be painted, not photographed. Forget the pencil. Feel your way along with the brush and liquid paint, a little lighter than you actually want so there is room for modeling and development later. Place the individual large blossoms or groups of blossoms with simple blobs of color. Don’t think about petals, centers, or detail. Concentrate on pattern. Look for a pleasing design of colors whether it follows that of the subject or not. Next, add the greenery, also in loose, flat approximate shapes arranged as you think it should be and not necessarily as it is. Think of the green as a unit rather than as a lot of stems and leaves.
The shadow areas of the individual parts and of the bouquet as a whole can be added next in broad flat shades. The shading of a rose, for example, might be just a single wide stroke.
The painting thus far represents the three-dimensional quality of the subject. Now you can add the detail––as much or as little as you want––but, to repeat, keep it loose. There is nothing more deadly than a cast iron bouquet. Put the background in last to set off the flowers.
PORTRAITS AND FIGURE PAINTING
Figure paintings are compositions in which figures are the main interest and all else is background or supporting material. Figure painting and especially portraiture call for greater technical skill than landscape work. A good knowledge of drawing is necessary to achieve the likeness that is essential in portraiture and the accurate definition of the anatomy that is required in figure painting. Aside from the necessity for accurate drawing, great technical command of the watercolor medium is also required. Watercolor’s propensity toward accidental formation makes it a most difficult medium for portraiture and figure painting. If one is unable to achieve a likeness while retaining the freedom and fluidity expected in a watercolor, it may be better to paint these subjects in a more easily controlled medium, such as oil.
For the portrait shown on page 91, I first made a very small sketch of the head and then designed the attendant material to support it, much as I would plan a landscape. Remember that a portrait is not just a head in a rectangle. The rules of composition apply here the same as elsewhere. I wanted to paint a picture as well as a portrait. The decorative floral background was purposely included for that reason and to help show off the wetness of watercolor. In “Party Dress” on page 134 the background was so designed that the dark face, contrasted against the very light passage, becomes the focus of the viewer’s attention. A watercolor portrait must be more than a likeness––it must be a watercolor likeness.
FIGURES IN A SCENE
In a scene with figures, as opposed to a figure painting or portrait, the over-all subject is important and the figures are merely aspects of the composition. Such figures, therefore, must be painted in keep with the other picture elements––loosely or carefully, as the case may be, but not as though they deserved special attention as individuals. As mentioned before, a human figure, however small, always attracts special attention and can easily “steal the show.” It is necessary to watch for this.
Broadly speaking, there are three types of figures that may inhabit a scene. Figures close at hand should be drawn with enough detail to make them individuals. Figures in the middle distance can be merely suggested by indicating their dress and attitudes. Those in the distance are likely to be little more than monotone shapes.
If you are painting a scene that involves many persons, a street scene for instance, be careful not to space them too evenly or in combinations of similar size. Instead, place a group here, a few couples elsewhere, a number of individuals, and then perhaps a few really large clusters. In painting a large group of figures, think of them collectively, as units or masses, and not as a number of different people. Let the shapes of the outlines of the group take precedence of the details within it. The idea is to compose a good picture pattern, and the shapes and proper spacing of the group masses will help to do this.
Remember that in looking over a throng, you can see all the heads, but the bodies of those in the nearest ranks only. When the crowd outline is on paper, dot in the heads with a brush full of color, perhaps pink or orange, you need not show every head. A few will suggest many. Now suspend bodies from the nearest line of heads to give the crowd a vertical dimension, a front wall and an appearance of mass. If necessary, dab in color around the heads to represent hair, hats, or scarves. The white paper between the heads will probably be too conspicuous, so apply a loose wash of very pale blue or gray over the whole crowd group. The slight merging of colors that results will resolve the group into a definite unit. Nearer figures can be treated in a more individual way.
Openings into dark chambers, cave entrances, cellar doorways, and the like appear solid black, and many artists paint such areas just that way. This results in an appearance of black solidity rather than the emptiness which the holes really suggest.
To avoid this problem, swish a stroke or two of some other color––perhaps blue or green––into the thick black paint while it is still wet, then leave it to dry in only partial mixture. The color will be barely visible when dry, but the slight divergence from black will give the impression of a mysterious something within the hole that will suggest space rather than solidity. As mentioned before, a combination of two or three very dark shades used at full strength can give a more intense and vibrant dark than black alone. The impression of dark, open space is given by leaving the colors imperfectly mixed.
A single large shadow may cover a number of objects of different hues, such as the side of a white house, an adjoining red shed, and a yellow blanket spread on green grass. The shadow has a cohesive influence, pulling together its member of colors so they become agreeable parts of the whole. This is the essence of repose, that the whole is more important than any of its parts. The over-all gray of the shadow area brings all the colors into harmony.
I have already referred to “shadow color.” This is a gray which inclines toward one of the spectral colors. Ordinarily I mix gray by combining a brown and a blue, perhaps Sepia and Cobalt Blue for a dark shadow, or Raw Umber and Cobalt or Cerulean Blue for a lighter one. This shadow mixture is applied uniformly over all shaded parts of a picture, whatever their colors may be. Then, while still moist, the shadow is keyed to the color of the object it falls on by flooding in a bit of paint of the underlying hue. Where the shadow falls on white, it is diluted with a drop of water or mopped out slightly with a brush.
MONTEREY COAST. Courtesy of Kennedy Galleries, New York. Because of their unusual natural growth pattern and the windy punishment they consistently receive, Monterey cypresses are quite unlike the general run of trees. In painting special trees, of any description, study their peculiarities and be sure to stress these individual characteristics.