Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Blackeyed Susan Oil Painting Demonstration

Rudbeckia hirta, the Black-eyed Susan

I wanted to show my basic still life set up used on small oil studies. Normally when working sight size, I would use the same lighting on the still life as the canvas panel.
Because fresh flowers can change so quickly I decided to use two artificial light sources to have some control over the set up and painting time. In this painting I am lighting the subject with one flood lamp and the canvas panel with a second color balance lamp. I am using a large drawing board to isolate one flood from the other.

I have attached a plumb line to the center of my shadow box that will be used as a vertical axis to which I will plot reference points to and on a corresponding center reference on my canvas. I am using it to establish heights and using the full length of a brush (or a chop stick) horizontally to establish basic widths and reference landmarks. I also use the stick to check directional measurements; I like to call this “Clocking the Drawing”.

When measuring from one point to another on a diagonal, imagine a clock face and think of the lines you are drawing as the hands of the clock, a point may start at five o’clock and reach to say eleven o’clock. By measuring vertical and horizontally and around the dial you will build a weave of reference points that will increase the precision and foundation of your drawing. I have a demonstration and video that covers the subject of sight-size and mapping a drawing here that you may want to check out.

 I have a very thin coat of medium on the panel that will be worked into, I can smudge and wipe out my line work easily as I check and rework my drawing. I block in my drawing with some burnt sienna, the halo around some of my lines are left over from adjustments to the drawing and composition. I am visualizing where the center of interest and focal point are to be, so I move things around a great deal at this stage, composing my picture plane and thinking about design. What I want as a sketch is a good foundation of the basic proportions and the contour edges.

I spend a lot of time looking at my set up with a view finder and reducing glass to help me establish my composition. I know what you’re thinking, not much to this setup, but I really think every great work starts with a great design. I can look at a painting from across the room and tell you if I want to have a better look or not. If those big relationships ( formal elements of art, form, shape, value, color, space, ) do not work at a viewing distance they will not work any better with my nose up against it. Paintings are to be viewed not smelled.

With my composition established, my approach to this painting will be capturing as much info as I can in each pass. The Black-eyed Susan’s are already past their prime and suffering the effects of our recent drought, so I want to concentrate on those fleeting floral elements first. I worked in both a direct (alla prima or wet into wet) and indirect method (successive layers of color applied opaquely and transparently) on the remaining elements. Using a fast medium and following the “Fat-over-lean” rule I should have a dry surface overnight and get three to four painting sessions with this subject before it expires.

In my first pass, I use full color laid down with diluted paint. I want to work with the pigment that is lean but somewhat opaque and attempt to finish each passage as I go.
The goal is to state each shape, by hue, value, chroma, working from simple to complex.
Working very deliberately, I am concentrating and thinking edges and shapes and how one relates to another. At this stage I am painting wet into wet trying to bring each part to its finish.

“Paint what you see, not what you think you see”, a maxim that one hears repeated often. Why, because it is one of the hardest things to do, letting go of assumptions, preconception and visual short hand that have been ingrained in us. We can not see what is in front of us because too often we let “What We Know” or think we know get in the way of what we actual see and it ends up that literally “ We can’t see the Forrest for the trees” .

We must try to see objectively and think in terms of the relationships between color and shapes not the object. Relating one to the next in terms of basic formal elements, shape, color, edges, value and the organizing principles of design, balance, proportion, emphasis, unity, all on a very complex and abstract level.

There is a intimate hierarchy of interaction when painting, sort of like doing a large jigsaw puzzle where one connects one piece to another in order to build this bigger picture. And that is where the real challenge is, without getting caught up in unnecessary details, obtaining the big picture and the revealing to the world through these aesthetic choices and our visual observations, something meaningful. Almost as hard to write about as to do.

“The whole is more than the sum of its parts.”  Aristotle

In the first sitting I wanted to record as much of  the Black-eyed Susan’s while they were fresh. In the second sitting I can work a bit slower and concentrate on bringing areas to a finish, using layers of paint and glazes and to zero in on the focus I want. I do my fine tuning here, adjusting and readjusting, checking the drawing, softening edges, relating and restating shapes, bearing down on shapes and modeling form. I look very carefully at color relationships and masses, trying to pick out those subtleties that best describe form and help convey a sense of dimension. I work very slowly trying to be selective on what I add and do not add, asking myself if it will add anything to what has already been said? Definitively more "Look" than "Put". It has also been said that painting is nothing more than a series of corrections.

I also believe painting is a visual conversation, where you ask a series of questions about each element and relate them to the whole. If those elements are working well together the image will come into focus. With the layered approach you can fine tune the painting with subtle modeling from beginning to end, until you reach the level of refinement you wish. If one does this thoughtfully, all kinds of what I call “painters epiphanies” about the image will reveal themselves. When all of the questions have been answered the truth is known.

"The main thing is to get the right color and value in the right place, in the most direct and natural, in the least affected manner possible.
Daniel Burleigh Parkhurst

Black-eyed Susan, oil on panel, 8x10

Harmonic Armature

Rule of Thirds and Harmonic Armatures
Are compositional tools that place the focal points or center of interest on the points of intersection, and considers the location of elements based on those lines and intersections. Composition is the aesthetic location of elements in a picture, the Rule of Thirds assists in locating the intervals that the human brain most favors as the point of interest and compositional harmony (harmonics) is the visual movement or pathways in a picture plane. All of which are powerful tools to help one judge and develop a intuitive sense of proportion and design (for composition).

I wanted to throw this in because although I do not sketch the armature onto the canvas I do have it marked on my view finder. I am always very conscious of these design tools when composing also understanding how the eye moves through an image. With just a little forethought, I think this armature came out nicely.
These are rather short explanations and composition is a huge topic to get into, I think, a post for another time.

Black-eyed Susan Video
You can watch the painting develop in this video. I tried to minimize the glare so you could see the painting develop in passages from the lay-in to finish. The trade off was that the color accuracy changes some through the video. But what I think it shows, and I hope you take from the video is some insight into the process of the layered method.

 Explore - Question - Learn - Enjoy, Jim

Further articles on this topic by Jim Serrett
Charcoal Demonstration, sight size and comparative measurement
Underpainting Techniques – Demonstration Four - Copper Pot Video
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, learning to simplify, Pochade Box paintings

Elements of Art
Principles of Design
The Golden Mean
The Rule of Thirds


  1. Wow! What a great painting. And what a nice post. Thanks for taking the time to share your tips.

  2. Jim, could you put this in your popular posts category please for easier finding again after the summer? Thanks and thanks for sharing!

  3. Karla, Thanks for the comments.
    It is greatly appreciated.

  4. Karen, Thanks so much for your interest.
    I do not have any control over the popular post gadget.

    But you can quickly find a article through the Blog Archives or a topic in the Label list. If all else fails there is a link to this article on the YouTube video.

    Your comment is greatly appreciated.