Gurney Journey | category: Paint Technique


Gurney Journey

This daily weblog by Dinotopia creator James Gurney is for illustrators, plein-air painters, sketchers, comic artists, animators, art students, and writers. You'll find practical studio tips, insights into the making of the Dinotopia books, and first-hand reports from art schools and museums.

Frederic Church's Area-by-Area Process

This plein-air oil study by Frederic Church was left unfinished, which gives us a glimpse into his process.

Frederic Church's Area-by-Area Process
Bavarian Landscape; Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826–1900)
USA; brush and oil, pencil on academy board.; 27.3 x 30 cm (10 3/4 x 11 13/16 in.)

Church first outlined big areas of the scene in pencil over a sealed and toned paper surface. He then covered them in oil paint from the top to the bottom. 

This area-by-area method of painting is sometimes called "window shading" because it's like pulling down a window shade.

Your Questions about Plein-Air Painting in Oil

On Instagram, I posted about this plein-air still life in oil, and some of you had questions:

Your Questions about Plein-Air Painting in Oil

fefecru: "Can I ask you what umbrella is that? Anyone in particular you’ll recommend? 
A: It’s a Jullian umbrella, designed to clamp onto a French easel, but I keep it on a C-stand so that it doesn’t blow over and bring my painting into the wreckage."

agustin.poratti "How'd you build that camera trípod easel?"
A: That’s an Open Box M easel, which may not be made anymore, but there are others like it, and there's a Facebook group about building your own.

bencrastinate "Does painting with an easel help? Ive always painted my canvas flat on my desk. What are the benefits of painting on a vertical surface?"
A: I find it helps my speed and accuracy to have my painting set up perpendicular to my line of sight, and directly adjacent to, the same size as, and in the same light as my subject.

Your Questions about Plein-Air Painting in Oil

grinningink "Since you used oil here, wasn’t it still wet when you sold it that same day? Was there something to protect it when the customer took it?"
A: Yes, this was for a paint-out. I framed it and it was auctioned same day. I knew the owner, and after it was thoroughly dry I borrowed it back to varnish and photograph it.

Your Questions about Plein-Air Painting in Oil

thefrankryan "Is this palette approach inspired by Carolous Duran’s method?"
A: A lot of oil painters have used premixed colors. I was thinking mainly of Frank Reilly, but using an adapted version of his practice.
Your Questions about Plein-Air Painting in Oil

 "Please list the names of oil colors on the pallet, looks like three primaries and white." 
It’s the 5-color palette recommended by John Stobart in his book The Pleasures of Painting Outdoors: titanium white, cad yellow light, pyrrole red, burnt sienna, and ultramarine blue. You can paint almost anything with those five colors.

 "Would you also premix your colors when you paint with other mediums?"
In theory you could premix with water media, but the pools of color would tend to dry too fast.

Related previous posts: Painting Pumpkins 

Artists Collaborate with Museums to Explore Techniques

A growing number of art museums have teamed up with practicing artists to explore the painting methods of historical painters.  

Watercolor expert Mike Chaplin heads outdoors to demonstrate how J.M.W. Turner may have thought about tone (Link to YouTube). Instead of trying to copy a Turner, he paints directly from nature using materials and methods similar to what Turner might have used. Chaplin teamed with the Tate to produce similar videos with line and color.

London's National Gallery examines Titian's technique with commentary from art historians, conservators, and a practicing painter.  (Link to YouTube)

The Victoria and Albert Museum has demonstrated techniques of Renaissance artists (Link to YouTube).

Other museums such as the Yale Art Gallery have hosted illustrated lectures by conservators about painting methods, but it's not quite as engaging as watching someone try to replicate antique methods. It's a difficult gig for the living artist and it requires considerable humility.

Collaborations between artists and museum experts help to bring historical artists to life and make their work more approachable. Are you aware of other museum / artist collaborations? Please share them in the comments.

"Make every stroke count"

Stop and think for a second before you place a stroke. Consider how the stroke is going to look before you lay it down. Then commit to it. Don't move the brush three times when once will do.

Painting in gouache helps train this awareness. When you paint in water media, leave a passage alone once it starts to dry. Let it dry fully before you add more. Place the wettest layers on the first pass, and use drier strokes later in the process as you build opaque colors.

I learned all this stuff from my early years doing calligraphy, where you only get one chance to make a stroke, and you can't change a goof. I also picked up the idea from two of my early heroes, Jack Leynnwood (plastic-model box illustrator) and John Berkey (science fiction illustrator). I met each of them and watch them paint a little. As Jack used to say, "Make every stroke count." 

The purpose of this deliberation is not to make a particular virtue of technique, nor is it to make the brushwork stand out. Heaven forfend! 

The goal is economy and efficiency, just as it is in writing. Style gurus Strunk and White put it this way: "Omit needless works. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts." 
Quote from Strunk and White's book, "The Elements of Style"

Combining Pencil and Oil

Combining Pencil and Oil 

Our boat brought us to a settlement of crested hadrosaurs and their human assistants, where we spent a few days drying out in the smoky attics of their houses" 

The painting is done in oil wash over pencil on illustration board, which has been sealed first with some workable fixative spray and then with a thin layer of acrylic matte medium. 

Combining Pencil and Oil
Dinotopian flight instructor Oolu holds a lightweight skybax saddle. 

Combining Pencil and OilThis technique is fast, direct, and reproduces well. 

handeyeoriginals asks: "What do you thin the oils with to make the wash?"

Answer: Liquin (a fast-drying alkyd medium) and Gamsol (a mineral solvent). Note that both of those are toxic, so you need good ventilation and protection for the skin of your hands.

    joeybruceartWhat’s the advantage of an oil wash instead of watercolour?
    Colour? Vibrancy?

    Answer: It's workable for a longer period and it blends well with opaques.

Illustrations from Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time.

Illustration Techniques of Robert McGinnis

Robert McGinnis (born 1926) painted glamorous women and gun-toting spies for paperback covers and movie posters.  

This video by producer Paul Jilbert introduces McGinnis and his work and puts it in context. (Link to YouTube Video) Jilbert also produced a video showing the process of painting a standing semi-nude in egg tempera. 

The drawing is enlarged from photo reference on a Balopticon, similar to the one used by Norman Rockwell and Mort Kunstler. (Link to Video on YouTube

Book: The Art of Robert E. McGinnis 

Robert McGinnis on Wikipedia

Review of Thomas Blackshear's Illustration Master Course

Thomas Blackshear has produced a series of instructional videos called the Illustration Master Course. I have had an opportunity to watch most of the videos in the series and can highly recommend them. 

Review of Thomas Blackshear's Illustration Master Course

If you're not familiar with his work, Thomas Blackshear emerged in the '80s and '90s as an illustrator, creating about 30 US postage stamp designs, plus posters, art prints, and 3D figurines.

He trained in Chicago and worked for Hallmark Cards and the Godbold/Richter Studio. 

Review of Thomas Blackshear's Illustration Master Course

At that stage of his career he was inspired by Mark English, Bernie Fuchs, Drew Struzan, and David Grove, and he either learned directly from them or figured out their techniques. 

The first volumes in the series demonstrate these unusual techniques with gouache and acrylic.

Review of Thomas Blackshear's Illustration Master Course

In Volume 4 he demonstrates the "lifting out" technique, where you apply a gouache base layer over a pencil drawing and lift out light areas with a wet brush or Q-tip.

Review of Thomas Blackshear's Illustration Master Course

He has since pursued a gallery career for his original paintings, developing his own style that he calls 'Western Nouveau,' inspired by a variety of painters of the past such as Maynard Dixon and Alphonse Mucha. 

Most of his gallery paintings start in acrylic and finish in oil, sometimes with special touches of gold leaf.

Review of Thomas Blackshear's Illustration Master Course

His videos take you through the entire process, with closeups of his palette, his brushwork, and his special techniques, which he explains at each stage in a clearly recorded voiceover. 

Review of Thomas Blackshear's Illustration Master Course

The video occasionally cuts away to him sitting in his studio explaining the thinking behind what he's doing. His process is 100% 'old school,' using pencil, brush, tracing paper, and acetate overlays.

He often does a very detailed and complete pencil drawing and several color studies before he starts the finished painting, and the quality of his final results proves the value of solving all the problems sequentially.

Review of Thomas Blackshear's Illustration Master Course

Blackshear puts a lot of emphasis on getting the drawing right, no matter how much effort it takes, before proceeding into the paint. He hires models and shoots photo reference, but he freely interprets his reference to make it better.

There are six episodes so far, produced by Thaxton Studios. Each video is about an hour long, and priced at $45 for either a download or a DVD. Each is a standalone exercise and you don't have to follow them in order. I would suggest starting with whichever one that sounds closest to your interest. 

You can get info about Thomas Blackshear's Illustration Master Course at this link. The videos are also available at Gumroad as digital downloads or streaming videos.

Muddy Colors did a blog post featuring his gouache 'pick-out' technique as featured in the magazine Step by Step Graphics. (Thanks, Matt Dicke and Dan Dos Santos)

Brushstroke Tips

Brushstroke Tips

The painting knife in #5 refers to oil painters. In #6, I'm talking about the opposite pointed end of the brush. The purpose of these tips is to help us get us to #10—to guide our imaginations beyond the surface of the painting so we can live inside it. 

Good brush technique happens when you convey the most information with the least effort. But we don't want technique to be the subject. It's easy to make a painting look like paint; the viewer's awareness of the surface is a given. Painterly execution should invite the viewer beyond the brushstrokes.


Previously: "Ten Tips for Better Brushstrokes"

Painting a Backlit Parked Car in Casein

I painted this casein study while Jeanette was in the market, so I had about 45 minutes.

I took a gamble on the car staying parked, and lost the gamble twice, but kept going anyway.

(Link to video)
Over an underpainting color of Cadmium Orange casein, I used Cobalt Blue,Venetian RedIvory Black, and Titanium White and focused on a simple warm/cool 

How do you mix a color you're looking at?

Malcolm Marcus asked: "I would really like to see a video on how to understand what colors you are looking at. Sounds kind of nutty, but for those of us relatively new to painting, it's often hard to figure out what color something actually is."

How do you mix a color you're looking at?
Oil study by Charles Hawthorne (1872-1930)
Answer: The color you're looking at is a consequence of four main factors: 

1. The local color (or surface color) of the object.
2. The relative color of the light shining on it.
3. The relative amount of light shining on it.
3. The quality of atmosphere between the observer and the object.

You have to mentally combine all those factors in order to arrive at the color you will have to mix for that paint stroke.

For example, the girl's hat at left is a medium-value blue because it's a white hat lit by blue skylight which is less bright than the sunshine, and there's much atmosphere intervening.

The underside of her sleeve is a medium dull orange because it's in shadow, too, but this time the white material is picking up some bounced light from the warm-colored ground surface below her. Her skin is a dark brown because it's a light-skinned tan local color in relatively dim illumination. Backlit white subjects are popular with impressionist painters because they make make Factors #2 and #3 vividly clear. 

Most beginning painters see only the local color, because they don't yet recognize how their perceptual systems are filtering out the effects of the next three factors.

Learning to paint involves recognizing how those perceptual filters work. Once you understand them, you can analyze a subject in terms of the the relative influence of the four factors. 

I would recommend setting up a backlit white object on a sunny day and painting what you see. You could use a volleyball, skull, white cardboard box, or t-shirt. The experience of mixing the resulting colors will make these principles vividly clear.
There's a lot of beginning painting instruction on my new Gumroad tutorial "Color in Practice: Black, White, and Complements." and in my book Color and Light, available signed from my webstore or from Amazon. There's also a lot of information in my book: Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist.
Frederic Church's Area-by-Area ProcessYour Questions about Plein-Air Painting in OilArtists Collaborate with Museums to Explore Techniques"Make every stroke count"Combining Pencil and OilIllustration Techniques of Robert McGinnisReview of Thomas Blackshear's Illustration Master CourseBrushstroke TipsPainting a Backlit Parked Car in CaseinHow do you mix a color you're looking at?

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