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My Landscape Palette

Have a sweet Thanksgiving day!

 

Whether you are a plein air or studio painter, you need to select and stay with colors and brands that work easily for you.  Colors by the same name vary from one manufacturer to the next, making it hard for you to learn how to mix your colors predictably.

 

Lay out a complete palette each time you paint.  Even if you don’t think you will need a color, put out a little dab.  You may need it for tinting or toning, and if it is not there your color mixes will suffer.

 

Lay out your palette in the same order every time.  This keeps you from dipping into alizarin crimson when you really wanted burnt umber.  There are many good layouts—pick what makes sense to you.

 

I have used the same selection of colors for decades, deleting or adding just a couple, and upgrading to professional grade oil paint when I could afford it.   This is my landscape palette, arranged warm to cool, from left to right:

  • Titanium white (Old Holland), opaque and permanent, a nice dense white.
  • Alizarin crimson lake extra (Old Holland), transparent deep violet red, this is actually Quinacridone, a permanent alternative to the old fugitive alizarin crimson.
  • Cadmium red light (Old Holland) opaque, dense red with a hint of orange.
  • Cadmium barium orange (Grumbacher P-T), opaque, simply a very pleasant orange.  Grumbacher paints have a lot more oil and carrier in them, rendering them less intense than Old Holland.
  • Cadmium barium yellow pale (Grumbacher P-T) opaque.  Sometimes I buy Old Holland lemon yellow instead, but lately I have preferred the weaker Grumbacher because of developing cataracts.
  • Yellow ochre light (Old Holland) opaque, an ugly color but invaluable as a mixer!
  • Burnt umber (Old Holland) transparent, warm brown, very dark.
  • Viridian green deep (Old Holland) transparent, cool deep green.  This is the only green on my palette, and is useful in skies as well as in the landscape.
  • Ultramarine blue (Old Holland) transparent, deep dark blue with a hint of violet.  Usually my only blue.

Additional tubes I rarely use:

  • Naples yellow (Old Holland) is on my palette only if I am painting bleached summer grass.  For years I got along fine without it, but again—the eye problem seems to create perception problems with yellows and purples (complimentary colors, which I find interesting.)
  • Cadmium barium yellow medium (Grumbacher P-T) opaque, nice for wildflowers and mixing some greens.
  • Ivory black (Old Holland) is available, but rarely used.  It makes nice greens, and in some situations works well to reduce a hue.  If over-used it can make a painting look ashy.

Learn which pigments are permanent.  Some manufacturers post the pigment’s permanence on their website.

 

Anything with “Hue” in the name is an inferior substitute for the real thing.  Better to have a very limited palette of high quality paint than a lot of tubes of trash.

 

Professional grades of artist oil colors are far superior to student grades.  They contain more pigment in proportion to the oil, and are more finely ground.  Even if you cannot afford the more expensive cadmiums, you will probably be able to afford the umbers, siennas and ochres which cost very little more in the professional grades.  Think of it as “student grade paint is to professional grade paint as margerine is to butter.”

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Light and Atmosphere in Your Painting

Whether you are working with a still life set-up or plein air painting, think of light and atmosphere as closely related entities.  Their tone will influence your entire painting.  One way of unifying atmosphere is by toning your canvas—staining it, for example, with alizarin crimson for a rosy light, or yellow ochre for golden light, and leaving bits of that stain showing through the painting.

 

Another method is to use the atmospheric hue throughout the painting, with more in the background and less in the foreground.

 

A key element in creating atmosphere and unity is moving color around.  Bent grasses reflect sky colors.  Foreground shadows echo the color of distant mountains.  There will be a slight change in hue from bottom to top as you paint a 50’ tree.

 

This is “aerial perspective.”  However, I find that term cold and unimaginative.  I think in terms of light and atmosphere as I paint.

 

How you interpret what you see is a personal thing.  Southern California, being a warm climate, is often painted in warm light.  However, I always saw it as cool and silvery.  I felt vindicated when reading that some early southern California Impressionists also noted that silvery light.  It may be caused by fine dust and sea-salt particles adrift on dry breezes.  It does not exist in Oregon, which has an entirely different character to light.  Know your light.

 

Landscape or still life, the color of light and atmosphere will impact your handling of aerial perspective.  When you visit an art museum, take a small notebook with you.  In it, make notes of how other artists use color to create atmosphere.

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The Problem with Plein Air Painting is...


Last summer a friend and I scheduled a painting day in Portland’s park blocks.  We chose a great location with red bistro umbrellas in the middle-ground and plenty of diners and strollers.  The park was in deep shade, light was somewhat greenish as it filtered through thick leaves, and the red umbrellas were mostly in shade.  Heavily tinted bistro windows appeared stark black.  I painted what I saw and was predictably disappointed in the dark result.  This is the problem I have with plein air painting:  Local color does not always match mood, and mood is the driving force in my paintings.

 

When Portland Art Museum Rental/Sales Gallery invited a baker’s dozen of its artists to a paint-out in the same park, I approached it in a wholly different way.  I preselected a site, photographed it, did multiple pencil sketches, and studied the values.  The monument of Teddy Roosevelt, which I wanted to feature, was lost in background foliage of the same value.  Altering the surrounding foliage to a cheerful light value created the center of interest I wanted.  The artist in my painting was actually facing me, but turning her toward the monument created a link between her and the monument.  Had I painted her the way I saw her, she would have been the subject of the painting, and Roosevelt, superfluous competition.

 

I wanted to portray a cheerful, busy day in the park.  And while that was exactly what the day provided, it was not what local color and real values provided.

 

Such high-key oil sketches as these are abnormal for me:  I am a landscape painter enamored with shadows and low-contrast.  Entirely out of my comfort zone with urban/people painting, I find it necessary to dig deep into the principals that govern my meditative landscape paintings:  Composition, color, value—and most of all, mood—pushing one reality to create another.

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Oil Painting Demo--my approach to painting


Spring Storm

Click on the DEMO tab to learn how I paint in this step-by-step illustrated demo of Spring Storm.  In this start-to-finish demo I will tell you what materials I am using and what I am thinking about at each stage of the painting.  Brushwork, color theory, botany--it's all covered.

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Alla Prima Workshop


Yvonne at Fire and Earth Studio, photo by Thomas Kitts

Let me start by saying there was no fluff in Thomas Jefferson Kitts workshop.  Painting alla prima, we completed five studies in three days.   Kitts challenged us to detect the subtleties of value, hue and chroma.  He introduced several of the students to “notan”, a concept of value-massing, and gave us a lesson on the Gamblin color system, a variation on Munsell's system.

We painted still lifes from sumptuous arrangements of fresh fruit and flowers.  The play of light and shadow through the arrangements gave us opportunities to apply what we learned about value-massing.  On the last day, Kitts did a demo painting, then we painted from a model, separating values and color temperature on pale skin.

Kitts, a Portland Oregon artist, ocassionally consults with Gamblin Artist's Oil Colors .  Each student got a goodie bag of Gambin products, including an informative DVD on color mixing theory.  Following the workshop, I spent a morning reading Gamblin's website--well worth the time.  After I photograph my workshop paintings, I'll give more detail about what we covered in class.

One tip:  I usually wear smooth-soled SAS shoes.  But by the end of the first day, my feet were tired and freezing (this is February in Portland on a concrete floor.)  For the rest of the workshop I wore wool sox and hiking shoes with heavy tread.  The big spaces in the tread seem to keep shoes from absorbing cold from the floor, while the wool sox provided cushion, warmth, and kept my feet drier.  Warm feet at winter workshops are happy feet.

If you are looking for a painting workshop in Portland, Oregon, I heartily recommend Kitts.  Plan on working hard, learning a lot, and taking breaks and lunch on the fly--and finishing invigorated. See his paintings and find his workshops at www.thomaskitts.com

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Painting with Primaries I

In a prior post (DVD Review: “Three Landscape Studies” by Scott Christensen, August 22, 2010) I wrote that I would report on my experiments with a palette limited to three colors plus white and black.  Frankly, there have been a few duds and some paint-overs with my more extensive palette.  I’m not giving up on it, however, because I really like the concept.  The following 8x10" oil sketch, using primaries, worked.

 

These are the colors I am using for my primaries:

  • Grumbacher RedOak Glen en plein air
  • Old Holland Cadmium Yellow Lemon
  • Old Holland Ultramarine Blue
  • Old Holland Titanium White
  • Grumbacher PT Ivory Black

While these colors differ somewhat from Christensen’s palette I am following his basic theory and practice.  Only one brush was used, a filbert #4.

This late summer setting is in the little mountain community of Oak Glen, in southern California.  While Sharon Rachal painted the beautiful old stone school, I tackled a thoroughly green scene with a charming old shed.  As we were cleaning up, Sharon, with a twinkle in her eye, noted I had painted the restrooms.

I selected this view because of the challenge it presented in mixing warm and cool greens in a green-dominant painting.  Could I make the greens advance and recede properly?  Could I make the shed advance even though it was a cooler green than the surrounding foliage?  Could such a green scene be interesting?  When faced with a scene to paint, not only do you need to edit out the superfluous distractions, but you need to identify a set of questions or conditions that keep you focused.

I mixed big piles of basic dark and warm light, using these to tint and tone other mixes.  There is quite a bit of Grumbacher Red in the sun-lit portion of the green shed.  The angle of shadow on the shed is critical to the painting and is repeated in the foreground grass as well as by a tree branch.  Note a slight break in the shadow on the shed, which slows the speed of the line and reduces its severity.

This 1.5 hour plein air sketch afforded me greater understanding of primary colors and how to mix them.  It also proved a plein air painter can travel lightly by using primaries.

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