Here is a question raised by another reader at the end of the previous post which asks how one can do without a white until the late stages of a painting…
Great post, thanks! I have been trying to hold off using white as long as possible, but I find the painting gets so dark. It’s hard to keep a good value contrast going- can you offer some advice about that?
Excellent question Judy, and one I voiced myself when first I took a workshop from a well-known Russian/Armenian oil painter last January. (I don’t mention his name out of respect as he is a private individual and wishes to minimize his online presence. But if any readers of this blog have taken one of his workshops they will immediately know whom I speak of. He descends from Sergei Bongart, who descended from Peter Kotov, who descended from Nicholai Fechin, who descended from Illya Repin. A veritable royal line of Russian painters.)
The Turkish Page” by Frank Duveneck
Note the differences in the temperatures of the whites.
His answer was for me to initially block in my colors using a strong primary or secondary hue which is two steps darker than what I would ultimately want to end up with.
Which takes care of most of the issue of establishing value relationships with a limited value range without using a white. However, when you must to indicate a large white passage, say, clouds in the sky, or a white table cloth in a still life, his approach was to first substitute ochre for that white, knowing he would return to the passage in question during the finish and lay a cool or warm white on top. And when I watched him do this in the studio it made sense. Painting all his values darker, and then raising them up, made all the color rich and beautiful.
Judy, give it a try if you think you understand my explanation. Or you can try the following . . .
“The Turkish Page”, by William Merritt Chase
Note there is less differences in the temperatures of the whites.
What I find myself doing more often is simply reserving the white of my ground until late in the painting. And using a thin wash to tint it a specific hue early on if it becomes necessary. This isn’t all that different from the idea of laying in an ochre, I’m just reserving the white area for a later finish. I leave the lighter areas untainted by white paint as I work out my mid- to lower value relationships so I don’t have to contend with errant white getting into those darker passages. And when the darker values are established then I start mixing in white as necessary, working up from the mid-values towards my highlights, which usually become the thickest of all. This takes some planning but I am convinced this was a common approach used back in the 19th century. Perhaps not so much now, but certainly back then. So, in the end, my recent work has transparent darks, semi-opaque mid-values, and opaque lights. Executed alla prima, for the most part.
Duveneck being painted by an unknown painter as he paints the “Turkish Page”.
We are starting to get a little ‘Inception’ thing going here…
The only caveat is, you must develop a good hand and decent drawing skills to succeed with this technique.
You don’t want to be moving an important passage of paint around, or changing a significant color relationship halfway through a working session or everything will become muddled. You also don’t want to be searching for the correct shapes, change your composition, or be indecisive with your edge work. You want lay down structure, with accuracy, and commitment from the git-go. Which, of course, is the art of the alla prima painter. It is an approach which separates the skilled from the unskilled, the brave from the timid. And with all humility I can say I am still working on this technique myself.
I didn’t say it would be easy, only that the results are magnificent when everything goes well. And for those times it doesn’t, and the painting turns into a train wreck — oh well — that’s when the palette knife comes out. So I can scrape off the crud and make another run at it.
And yes Judy, mixing a black out of Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Permanent, and Viridian Green means the darks will remain transparent. Unlike using Mars, Bone, Slate, or Ivory black. Assuming you can keep your white out of it. even the least amount of white in your brush will taint this mixed black.
If you are interested signing up my upcoming August ‘Essential Plein Air Techniques’ workshop, click here. There are only three spots left on a first-come, first serve basis, so don’t delay if you want to join the fun! Learn to paint en plein air with a knowledgeable and respectful teacher. This class will be limited to 12 participants to guarantee quality one-on-one time with the instructor.
UPDATE: Because workshop sign-ups this year have been so quick I may offer a second outdoor class the following week, if there is enough interest. That will be decided after the first week closes.