Friday, December 4, 2009
Oil Studies from Drawings II
Let's talk about flesh tones. In figure painting classes, we are taught about how the human skin has all sorts of colors. There are redder areas, greener areas, bluer areas... and that's before we introduce the concept of the light source imposing its color onto the flesh. All this is true. But what do we do if we're not working from a live model? Photos rarely show these color variations and if they do, they're usually way off.
In the case of these oil studies that I have been showing you, I worked only from the drawings on gray paper so obviously I don't have any color information. They give me information about gesture, form, anatomy, the nature of the light source, (hard / soft light, from which direction it lights the figure, etc.) But no color.
I can do one of three things. First, look at pictures by Sargent or Zorn or Sorolla or whomever you think you can learn from, and lift the color scheme. Try to match the context and the skin tones you see in a great work of art.
Secondly, you can use your own earlier work, perhaps one you did from a live model with a particular intent to record color information from direct observation. You can analyze what works and what doesn't in an earlier painting, and make adjustments on your new piece.
And thirdly, you can make it up. And that's what I've been doing with these little sketches of mine. My interest is not so much in exaggerating color in a figure, so really pushing different local colors isn't important to me. I'm interested more in creating an overall color theme and working in that context.
The idea is that you can make the skin any color you want, as long as you don't deviate from the color context you created for your entire picture.
And how do you stay within the context? You basically stay true to the various color relationships occurring within the picture. Here are some things you need to pay particular attention to;
Warm / cool relationship. You either have a warm light / cool shadow relationship, or vice versa. If the light is warm, the shadow colors need to be cool. And this needs to be consistent not only on the figure, but the environment around it. The painting above, incidentally is a cool light / warm shadow set up. See how the relationship holds true both for the figure and the bed sheet?
Color of primary light source. If the primary light source has a particular bias, like say, yellowish color to it, everything it illuminates is going to be affected. Not just skin, but everything else too.
Color of ambient light. Consider the color of ambient light. Outside, the sky is a major source of ambient light and everything not being lit by the primary light (that is to say, stuff in shadow) AND facing the blue sky would have a blueish cast to it. We have to think about how the planes are oriented in this case.
If the skin color looks wrong, usually it's because it's out of context. If you're quite sure of what the context is, it's relatively easy to pinpoint what the problem is.
For example, if the skin tone looks "chalky", it's usually because you have painted a cool light / warm shadow figure in a warm light / cool shadow context.
If you've painted a warm light / cool shadow figure in a cool light / warm shadow context, the skin tone often looks muddy.
If your figure looks sun-burnt, you've obviously put too much reds and oranges in the skin but failed to do so in your context.
If you're light / shadow relationship on the figure looks yellow / purple, (because you were thinking, "ok, complement of yellow is purple....") You have to have yellow / purple relationship in your context too. And what's making the shadows purple? Is it really THAT purple? or does it just LOOK purple because it's next to the yellow?
What it boils down to, is like everything else in painting, there's no formula; Only some guidelines, and even those are general and sometimes confusing. And understanding the concepts intellectually doesn't always translate to actually executing them.
If you find that frustrating, welcome to the club. Grasping the idea that all color (not just skin tones) is contextual is one of the highest hurdles to conquer in the learning curve. But once you get it, (and I assure you it only takes paying attention and practicing) painting convincing skin tones won't be any different from painting convincing apples and pears. Well, there's the matter of drawing, but that's another story.
Posted by Terry Miura at 10:22 AM