Sunday, October 24, 2010

Complexity class results

The demonstration painting, shown above, was the result of about an hour's work to show the class how to interpret a very intricate and complex background. The key element to a successful background is that it must support the subject of the painting effectively, without unduly drawing the eye, functioning to move the eye to the subject. To do this you have to use a combination of techniques, among them patterning the light and dark, and repeating the characteristic shapes, colors or textures found there.

Remember that there are five elements you must manipulate to achieve the illusion of depth: cooler color, lighter value, less detail, softer edges, less contrast. It's probably be best to begin with a ground color that is the general value of the subject you’re painting, or very nearly so. Neutral colors are easier to work against, but saturated color can be visually exciting. The value of the color is more important than its intensity. Choose carefully.I chose a cool gray in a medium-dark value for my demonstration painting.

I find it’s easier to lay down the sky color, when its seen, before beginning any elements that reside against it. An underdrawing in soft charcoal can determine the areas where the sky will obtrude into the snarl of trees, for instance. I suggest using a thicker application of sky color in openings and a very, very light color application, perhaps a shade darker than the open sky, where branches will lie against it.

Examine a snarl of close branches behind the subject of the painting, such as a forest might present. Notice that you can sort out areas where the growth is denser, perhaps larger branches or trunks, and places where the crisscrossed branches are lighter in color, value and amount. Squint your eyes to see, not the actual branches but the impression of them created by values. Rather than trying to paint every branch, which is overwhelming, begin with the larger areas of darks (which may only be medium in value, depending on the scene), and lay them in over the sky color using the flat of your pastel stick. Use lighter strokes and lighter colors where the branches thin, thinking of areas of value, NOT branches. Thick and thin, medium to light, no matter what the value begin with the flat side of your pastel, not the point.

If you find thick trees immediately behind your subject, analyze the large light and dark areas of value that create the impression of a wooded hillside or tree-covered slope. The distant trees may not be tremendously different looking than the closer tree, especially in a photo, but remember that if you were there standing on site looking at them you would be able to see the effect of air, whether the camera catches this or not. So decide how far the trees are from the subject, or whatever is behind it, and keep them uniform at the same distance. For instance, let’s say you have background trees on the left side and the right side, with some farther away in the middle. Those trees that line up, despite being on different sides, must appear to have the same amount of detail along the edges, be the same color and value, and have the same amount of light and dark to look uniformly distant. The farther grove of trees will of course have less of all these elements.

Patterning can be a huge part of this illusion. Squint like crazy to see this. Record the repeated patterns you see with an area of value, forsaking any kind of descriptive detail. Think in terms of value, using shapes of light and dark, the repeated line or stroke that’s most characteristic, and then color.

Blur or manipulate the photograph to help you see the complex background subjectively rather than objectively. I often use Photoshop to blur and crosshatch the background area behind my subject matter, in order to be able to analyze the shapes and values. Sometimes I reduce the color or saturation, as that can be distracting, but sometimes I don’t. I will also sit down and do a pencil drawing of the subject, on a separate sheet of paper (not as an underdrawing, that is), which forces me to see the complex background as an area of values patterned with light and dark.

Use whatever helps you to mass the areas of complexity into shapes and values, and then select effective colors. It’s most advisable to paint this area that's behind previous to painting the subject in front of it, although small adjustments are possible and often necessary. Just think logically about the complex ground—you can’t really paint all the teensy branches and leaves well, nor should you need to. It’s like haiku poetry, suggesting enough to satisfy the mind of your viewer and let them enjoy looking at the subject.

Here's another painting of mine, done long ago, that illustrates how to simplify the background. There were a lot of trees and brush in the photograph, but they have become patterns of light, medium and dark values that suggest all kinds of things to the viewer. 

I also shared my new gouache book, Small Scale Paintings in Gouache, with the class. I'm so thrilled with this little book. It has 68 of my 2.5" x 3.5" paintings in it, three step-by-step demonstrations, and a little about my history, including a portion of the article published in Watercolor Artist last February.

It's easy to preview and buy it, if anyone is interested. Here's the Blurb page where you can see all the details. Be sure to click on the little View Screen square in the lower right-hand corner when you get there to enlarge the image to fill your monitor.  Blurb ships to many countries. Check here to see if they ship to your area.

Keep going, gang!