Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Questions and Answers

In the interest of more speedy replies, I've decided to have an occasional post featuring questions I've received and my answers to them.

This week I've had questions from two blog-followers living in France. 

About the paintings on your blog: do you paint them from imagination?
Except for my plein air work, usually done for classes, I usually paint from my imagination. Often a sketch will be the original germ, but I rarely follow it too scrupulously.  
Or maybe from sketches? 
For a number of years, I worked directly from my sketches, including very many from the sketchbook I published. In the making of all those drawings, I learned a good deal about the landscape, and I began to develop a vocabulary that I could call upon when making a painting from my imagination. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to gaining that vocabulary, just hundreds of plein-air drawings.
 I guess you don't work from photos. What about the cow? I have worked a few times from photographs, and I tried to do so many times when I was just beginning. I always found that it was very hard for me to be selective among all the information in the photo. Often, on looking at the photo, I was no longer sure why I'd even taken it. When I make a drawing, I edit as I go, stressing the parts that are of interest and just letting the other stuff go. Consequently, when I look at a twenty-year old drawing I immediately know what I was thinking about when I made it.
The cow(s) presented a big difficulty. I have no real familiarity with our bovine sisters, and so I had a good look on Google images. Unfortunately, no one seems to have wanted to take a photo of a cow on a steep bank, facing the camera almost head-on.

So I was forced to consult The Atlas of Animal Anatomy for Artists. This of course had no view such as I wanted, but it certainly had lots of information which has proven valuable.

In the end, I went to my 19th c. Dutch landscape painters.

Anton Mauve

Willem Maris
Between them and the anatomy book, aided by a few not-right Google images, I plunged in. Because information comes from multiple sources, my cow is less like pure beef and more like meatloaf.

I received a number of critiques of the length of the cow's head, one from a farmer's daughter. They all centered on the head being too long and narrow, not triangular enough. Consulting Ellenberger's Atlas, I discovered that there's a considerable difference in the heads of cows and bulls.
I also looked at a plate with a cow's head. Seems long to me.

In any event, I've shortened her head, and managed to bring the water level up to her. I'll include a photo in another post.

The question might well be asked, "Why didn't you paint a cow from life?" Two reasons: 1) I might spend many a year looking for a cow in the position I wanted her to be, and 2) this time of the year in New England, with all the snow on the ground, Bossie is safe in the barn, drinking unfrozen water.
I'm experimenting with your ""process"". I was wondering about the fact that if the deepest darks are warm and if the impressionists, etc., moved from Corot et als' brown shadows to violet - how does a grisaille/brunaille/block-in, in blends of burnt umber/ult blue, or prussian green/brownish madder, give the correct transparent shadow colors?!

Manet used black, in the great tradition of Hals and Velasquez.  Monet didn't. I love them both. 
The impressionist "discovery" of violet and blue shadows is a very valuable addition to our visual language. In my experience, shadows are blue or violet---except when they're not. 
I'm very suspicious of color prescriptions, and color banishments. It's certainly true that a lot of historic landscape painting was made with a rather rich, brown gravy. But then there are heros of mine who never heard of the impressionists, and wouldn't have cared if they had. A great example is Jan van Goyen (1596-1656).

Jan van Goyen
As you can readily see, he did fine without Claude Monet's memo. I should be very pleased to have painted that. Giving Monet (also, I admit, a favorite) his due, here's a painting with great blue shadows.

You might well make the case that the Monet is closer to the look of the real world. But his painting is automatically bluer because of the snow.

Here's a painting I did a few years ago (30x46) where there is very little blue in the shadows, despite most of the painting being in shade.
(30"x 46", 76 x 116 cm)

It has a lot more of the 'local color' without striving for an impressionist palette. It's just my way of looking at things.

Generally I find that I 'see' lots of warm colors in shadows, often caused by warm light from the lit areas bouncing up into the dark masses. In the painting below, there is a great deal of brownish-madder bouncing around.

(42" x 28", 106 x 71 cm)

In using burnt umber and ultramarine transparently in my underpaintings, I enjoy being able to go back and forth, cool to warm. Usually only small amounts of either are still evident in the finished painting.

I would have expected something more along the lines of alizarin crimson or pyrollo vermilion + ultramarine blue to give crimson-ish extreme darks + violet shadows ... ?

For me, the underpainting is not the place for such a definite color statement. Because the vermilion is opaque, even when thinned, it tends toward mud in mixtures with blue----and transparency is my primary aim in the beginning. Crimson and ultramarine are both cool colors, despite the crimson being a sort of red. I don't want to be all on one side of the warm/cool divide. The painting below was certainly started in burnt umber/ultramarine. You can see how I have a lot of red in the shadows on the right foreground, and that the shadows get bluer as they move away from the viewer.

(36"x60", 91 x 152 cm)
(Because you're one of the lucky devils coming to the French Workshop in June, you'll be able to see then how I work with my two 'grisaille' colors.)
If you have any questions you'd like me to address, leave a comment with your question or, alternatively, send me an email. I'll answer them when I can.

Keep painting!



  1. Awesome post!! Thanks for sharing...note to self regarding shadows getting bluer as they move away from viewer. Good stuff here Donald.

  2. One of the most valuable blog posts from anyone I have followed! Look forward to June.

    One more question though:
    Here in Europe the Holbeins in your list are almost impossible to obtain. Could you suggest appropriate equivalents from Rembrant, W&N, Sennelier or Pébéo?

  3. Hi, Bruce. I ordered the Holbein colors from the States - Dick Blick. Trouble is the shipping/postage can easily get to be (= normally is) very expensive! (order nothing bulky and get a number of each of whatever if you're sure to need a stock of it?) Cheers Jon

  4. Thanks, Jon. Not unlike our ordering the Beckers yellow from Sweden. I know of no substitutes, but I really haven't looked. I'd bite the bullet and just do it. You'll love the colours.

  5. Thanks Jon and Donald. I was afraid that that would be the answer. An artist friend here is also considering a Dick Blick order so I'll share the mortgage costs. I'll have to sell something for the postage. Last time I ordered a book from the states the postage was twice the price of the book. I think it came round the Horn on a clipper because it also took months to arrive.