Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

A Head Study After Sargent

Charcoal drawing by John Singer Sargent

First, I want to thank everyone who came out to the opening of my exhibition last weekend at the Christopher Hill Gallery! The art looked really good all hanging together in the beautiful gallery space, and the reception was a lot of fun! It was great to see friends whom I hadn't seen in a long time, and to have met some new friends too~

OK so today, I'm going to share a recent head study I did as a demo. I took process shots along the way, but I found out afterward that my photos weren’t all that good - the white balance on my camera was set wrong.  But I thought I’d show you anyway - it may still be worthwhile.

I am using a charcoal drawing by J.S.Sargent as reference for this one. As I hadn’t painted heads in a while, I wanted to keep things simple. I decided to just use the Zorn palette - Titanium White, Ivory Black, Cad Red Light, and Yellow Ochre. 

I toned the canvas lightly with a mixture of black, red, ochre and Gambol. Mostly black with red and yellow to warm it up a bit.

I started my drawing with a small brush, using the same puddle. Just trying to get the shapes reasonably accurate. Paying particular attention to the distances between hairline, brow, and bottom of the nose. 

Then I started more careful measurements (eyeballing, but a more careful eyeballing) using the glabella area as my epicenter. This is a good place to start because it’s bony and has a lot of sharp edged shapes that don’t move around. 

I tried to get the overall shape of the head in the ball park, but I don't commit to a tight outline. Not that I could get it precisely anyway. Then I start getting placements of features by going to the glabella and working outward. In the end, the outer edges of the face / head is measured out from the middle out, and the adjustments are made to the initial drawing that way.

I placed the dark shapes of the brow, eye, and the shadow under the nose (which defines the bottom of the nose). I typically have a hard time judging distances between the brow and the eye, and between the eye and the nostril wing, so I tried to do this very carefully. 

The distance between the brow and the hairline, and the distance between the nose to the chin are easy to adjust later, so I’m not too worried at this point. As long as I have reasonably humanoid proportions, I'm OK with that. For now.

I then knocked in the shadow side with the same thin paint. I didn’t make it too wet - just lightly scrubbing in - but I could have made it washy like watercolour as well. I don’t think one method is better than the other, except that with the wash method, you have to let it dry a bit before moving on.

A little more work with the underpainting. Just blocking in the shadow pattern doesn’t give me the “big sculpt”, so I tried to emphasize the blockiness of the volume at this stage. I see now that I didn’t quite get the turn of the form on the temple area - that should have been addressed here as well.

Now I start in with colors. Before I started, I got several puddles going on my palette, primarily to make decisions on major color relationships between shadow, darker light, and lighter light areas. As I haven’t painted with the Zorn palette in a long time, I thought I needed to familiarize myself with the color range before I put paint on the canvas. 

I want to emphasize that my aim in premixing puddles is not so I can approach it like color by numbers. I'm just trying to get a feel for the major relationships. The puddles I mixed are not so big, so I do have to keep mixing and adjusting as I go forward from here. 

Then, I just blocked in the head, trying to maintain the big sculpt. The original drawing doesn’t give us any info on the shadow side - it’s very dark - so I just blocked it in very dark.  Later, I might be able to give it a little more information but I didn’t want to guess at it without the overall context, so I made the decision to leave that dark and simple for now.

Had I decided to block in the shadow side at a lighter value, I would have had to provide more information in there. Lighter value assumes it’s illuminated, which means information will become visible. If the information is not available, one would have to either make it up, or hide it somehow. 

Blocked in the hair and the mustache. Also gave a softer turning edge to his left temple.

Working around the eye socket and the nose, a little more modeling and adding some warmth to the skin in those areas, while cleaning up a few edges. 

With the Zorn palette, warming up means increasing the amount of red and /or yellow ochre in the mix. (That's all we got!) Obviously, because the original reference is in black and white, I'm making up the colors on this study. Certain areas being warmer or cooler are more or less generic tendencies of an average head. 

Integrating the skin with the hair to achieve a very soft edge at the hairline. 

Darkened the shadow side of the mustache as well. 

Cleaned up around the eye socket so he doesn’t look like he has a black eye.

Dropped the value around the chin area - I needed more overall vertical value change of the big sculpt, so that the front plane of the face has more of a curve from top to bottom, underneath all the features. It’s easy to lose sight of this.

A little bit of definition in the shadowy area under the mustache, and around his left eye (bag underneath, etc.)

Defined the hairline a little bit more by painting in darker areas between hair and skin, but still keeping them very soft. A few sharper (but not super sharp) edges are present where hair casts a shadow on to the skin. The original drawing has some dark, sharp lines but John is using the line as an expressive device here. If he were to paint the same head, he wouldn’t make those notes.

Made the plane changes a little subtler, a little softer. (forehead area and front-to-side plane change)

Decided the skin tone needed a little more variation, so added blue-leaning cool tone at the temple (lit side) and green-leaning one around the mandible. The nose became redder as well.

Subdued the eye detail in the shadow side, a little more paint in the lightest areas. Modeled his dome a little more. 

Background and clothes. I did the clothes first. When I painted the dark background, the lopsidedness of his hair became apparent. So I fixed that after I took this shot.

At this point, I’m just making minor adjustments. Making sure the big forms turn, and the little forms turn, and nothing jumps out. Softening and sharpening edges in strategic areas.

Here’s where I stopped. The hair is fixed, The highlights on the nose and the eyelid taken down a notch. 

Some of the dark notes within the shadow area were too harsh so I knocked those down too. 

On the forehead, I defined the transition plane from light to just before the core shadow more clearly - this isn’t in John’s drawing, but the painting seemed to need it. 

The sharp edge of the shoulder against the dark background would be a no-no in a traditional painting - that form, after all, has to turn away from us. I just like doing that as a nod to myself. 

I think that’s it. I hope you found this interesting!

Monday, October 5, 2015

A Start of a Cityscape Painting

Wash & Dry, 36 x 36 inches, oil on linen

I found some photos on my cell phone that I'd forgotten about. They are some of the early stages of the painting Wash & Dry, which is one of the pieces I did for the upcoming show at the Christopher Hill Gallery.

They're just cell phone snapshots so admittedly not the best quality, but I thought they may be of interest. As usual, I'll try and describe what I was thinking and doing with each shot.

The canvas is 36 x 36 inches. The composition is a variation on a smaller painting that I did several years ago. I made a grid on the canvas and transferred the main elements - just the big shapes, no detail. 

Then I went ahead and used a brown wash (Asphaltum + Gambol) to indicate the shadow areas. With sunny scenes with clear light / shadow patterns, the separation of light and shadow is what I look for. At this point I ignore local values - that is to say, it doesn't matter how light or dark the actual thing is. I'm only interested in describing where the shadows are.

You can see my "underpainting" isn't very tight or tidy. I don't get into details or precise values. Just indicating where the shadows are, is enough. I can move on to opaque colors from here.  I started with the pale yellow wall of the building on the left - I didn't have to start there, but it seemed easy enough and it was a big shape, so I thought, as good a place to start as any.

I moved on to block in –opaquely and thinly– other big shapes; the building next door, the awning, and the sign above the awning, and the sidewalk and the street surfaces. Although I'm still not precise with colors and values, I'm trying to get them in the ball park at this point. Some thought goes into which big shapes are lighter or darker than which other big shapes.

General hue directions for the shapes are decided here, too. But again, just in the ball park. Not yet precisely determined.

Getting the darker shapes darker - all part of establishing value relationships of the major shapes. I cleaned up the edges a little bit while I was at it.

Not the best photo but you can see that the dark window shapes are still very thinly painted. I like to paint everything opaque, except  the dark darks. Notice I didn't say except the shadows.  Some shadows aren't all that dark, and if I can see color or detail in those shadows, I paint them opaque.

Later when I paint sunlight on some parts of these windows, I'll paint those opaquely, because the values won't be as dark.

A little more paint on the surface - cleaning up some shapes and breaking up the awning into two values - top lighter than front. I'm also starting to define some smaller shapes as well.

Above shows the edge of the fire escape. The "balcony" part of the structure is essentially a rectangular box. I think I took this picture to show the importance of getting the perspective correctly.   It's a small shape, but the accuracy of drawing makes a huge difference. If it involves a vanishing point, you'll want to make sure it's done right. Otherwise the building will be a collection of wonky parts that won't look right. If you're lucky, it'll look intentionally expressive. In most cases, it just looks like a badly executed painting.

Simplified block in of the windows. Just the shadows on the window shades, and the dark shapes where the shades don't cover. Details such as trim,  panes, glass, cast shadows from the frames all come later, if at all. 

Sometimes I don't add any detail, if the painting looks good without them. If you put the details in too soon, you don't have that option. Sure, you can always take out detail later, but it takes some experience to recognize which details are unnecessary. 

Here I am trying to figure out the cast shadow from the fire escape. The ladder casts a long shadow across the building's surface, and I wanted to make sure they were believable. I used a straight edge (a $2 wooden yard stick from Lowes) to draw the lines with a sharp pencil. I laid the straight edge right on top of the wet paint to do this. You can see below that it kind a made a mess of things.

I actually do this on purpose now. I've come to realize that the mess is an integral part of the process. It adds to the visual texture (if not physical, tactile texture) of the surface, and though I may paint over it, while it's there it reminds me that the surfaces need some sort of visual activity. It reminds me not to smooth out every shape. Variation within a given shape can happen in many ways - value, color, thickness of paint, the type of brush strokes, etc - but if I'm not mindful, I tend to end up over rendering and end up with a boring color-by-numbers look. The presence of the mess forces me to treat these windows (or whatever I'm painting) as abstract shapes, and not render them literally.

After I got the lines drawn with the pencil, I blocked them in with darker, grayed down colors of what was already there. It's important that the color and value relationship of the original big-shape block-in be more or less established. Otherwise this tedious part of painting straight lines will have to be re-done later when I decide I had the big shapes all wrong. (Which is often the case, I admit) 

If there is one important lesson here, it's this; Work out the big relationships first, details later. Sorta like life, huh?

I'm sorry to say that after this point, I completely forgot to take any more pictures. As I get into the painting, and especially when I start getting more abstract, I really become immersed in the process and it's rare that I remember to take frequent breaks to take photos. 

One of these days, I'll do a proper process thing, I promise!

But for now, I hope you found at least the start of it interesting.

Wash & Dry , and many other new pieces will be on display at the Christopher Hill Gallery. Urban Light, a three-man show with James Kroner and Nobuhito Tanaka opens this Saturday, October 10th. If you're int he area, come on out and check out some great paintings and sip some wine with me!