I got my first reading glasses when I was 48 years old. Initially, I felt the glasses hurt my painting. That was probably true during the period when I was adjusting to the idiosyncrasies of having two glass lenses balanced on my nose. Obviously, I got my glasses because I needed them. My eyes had lost their ability to accommodate various focal lengths. But eventually I began to view my glasses as a positive contributor to my ability to see the big picture.
When I’m painting I wear a +1.25 pair of reading glasses to view both the canvas and my palette. When I step back from my painting to view it from a distance I occasionally leave my glasses on and view the canvas as a blur. To further enhance this effect I sometimes use my reading glasses which have +1.50 lenses which further blur the painting. Sometimes I will put both glasses on at once to see the maximum blur and maximum simplification of pattern. In addition to seeing compositional errors you can also easily see errors in value using this method.
Leonardo da Vinci used to stare at the blotches and stains on walls and see people, beasts, and landscapes. He called this imaginative exercise quickening the spirit of invention. I do a variation of this by quickly painting in the foliage of a tree, for example, and stepping back to see if the random strokes suggest branches or interior negative spaces. The mind superimposes a perceived order onto chaos and broad visual suggestions become apparent. As you get closer the eye begins to see only the detail and chaos of brush strokes. So I step back, try to fix the imagined image in my mind, then step forward to emphasize the reimagined order. If I look through a reduction lens as I get closer to the painting it is easier to see the overall pattern of the image as imagined from a distance. Although the reduction lens doesn’t eliminate the need to step back twenty paces or so, it can speed the painting process.
Many artists use a mirror to view their paintings in reverse. I prefer to use a small handheld prism. A prism has the advantage that when you look through it you can rotate it and look at the painting in reverse as well as upside down. Some artists bend down and look through their legs but I find my method more convenient.
I sometimes use my reading glasses, my reduction lens, and my prism all at once, or in various combinations.
As painters we have to see things differently. Using a variety of optical tools is one way to accomplish that goal.
This phenomenon was first noticed by French weavers. When they wove two colors such as green and red into tapestries they noticed that the colors from a distance became muted. They also noticed that other colors in close proximity seemed to magnify the color intensity. However they noticed that if the patch of green were placed next to a patch of red the color at the border seem to be intensified. This phenomenon was used by the Impressionists to good effect and was one of the principal ideas prompting the foundation of their school.
Josef Albers later expanded on these ideas in a series of paintings where the principle of field effects was exploited. You’ve probably seen optical illusions where a blue field will have a gray dot in the center. However this dot will appear slightly yellowish or greenish as the blue appears to project its opposite color into adjacent color fields. While this idea is simple to grasp in an optical illusion its application to painting is more difficult. But it can be exploited to good effect not only as a guiding principle to applying fields of color but also to adding color when you load your brush.
This principle can also be used when you paint zones of complementary colors. For example, if I paint a large green field the green is often difficult to control. So I might begin this area by painting a thin layer of red paint over the entire zone. The mingling of colors will begin to add a quality to the greens not achievable in any other way. I mingle the color somewhat haphazardly allowing some red to show between strokes and some layers of green to smear and mingle with the red. This mixture adds to the vibrancy of the paint surface. It is especially effective if I load my brush with plenty of purples and oranges to further accentuate a green in some places and neutralize it in others.
It may sound complicated, and I suppose it is, but with patience and practice you can achieve a quality of painting unequaled by any other method.
So how do you make a painting look good from 60 feet? The answer is to compose using large patterns of interlocking values. Every painting should be designed with four to five major values. These four or five zones should be one solid value with slight value modulations within them.
If you paint the sky in one solid value you will find that when you paint in with different values the basic value will have a kind of momentum which will bias any value that you paint into that basic value zone. (Remember that I am talking about value here not hue. A vibrant sky should have several different hues of one basic value).
When I paint the differing value zones I generally start with the sky, usually a value seven or eight. The trees are the darkest, as upright objects reflecting the least light, and are usually in the two to three value range. So after I lay in this basic value I then paint the lighter portions using a value of four or five (for light hitting the foliage) and the underlying value of two will maintain the overall value integrity. In other words, the original value will persist and bias the value as I paint different values into that zone.
Remember painting with thick paint is an art, not a science, and I only use what seems like a very disciplined technique to reach a specific objective; thick, juicy, vibrating color.
In order to paint with spontaneity you have to do a lot of planning. Trying to inject spontaneity without proper planning is inviting disaster. My approach is to select what aspects I want to plan and generally I choose to plan composition and values. Others might choose to plan saturation and brush strokes by doing a small color sketch. Experience and preference will guide you in your search for your individual style.
Why is the ability to paint accurate value so important? Strong, discrete value zones are essential to create the pattern necessary for strong composition. Early in my painting career I tended to force values into the very dark and the very light, neglecting the subtle and beautiful intermediate values. I got this habit from practicing the art of the woodcut in which I thought in terms of black and white. Others tend to use only the middle values neglecting the deep darks and brilliant lights that give depth.
I have heard the claim that the eye can only differentiate from nine to ten different values. Ansell Adams effectively used a value system where he forced the nearly infinite values of black-and-white photography into only ten values. He developed this theory by observing the more discrete values of landscape painting. John F. Carlson, in his famous book on landscape painting, advocates a similar idea but suggests limiting values to four or five.
By using nine values I can force the values into sets of two or three and still maintain the broad patterns advocated by Carlson, or I can use the entire nine for a more full value, tonalist effect. I find that having nine values on one grayscale gives me more control which is absolutely necessary in the high-wire-act of thick painting.
There are lots of ways to load a brush. This is one way I have found to get lush strokes of broken color.
ONE of the most critical aspects of thick painting, and the most mystifying, is loading the brush. Using thick strokes of color with just one solid pigment will look static and heavy. However, if you introduce slivers of complementary color into a stroke it will look lively and bright. There are a variety of ways to get this effect. The one I prefer is to use the palette knife to load the brush.
I then take these three or four colors and swipe them with the palette knife (using my left hand). I then apply this mixed pigment to a large flat bristle brush I hold in my right hand. I very carefully and slowly apply this paint to the canvas. With a bit of practice you will be able to quickly pick up paint from your palette, mix it with the palette knife in your left hand, apply it to your brush, and then apply it to the canvas.
I demonstrate this technique not because I insist it is superior but to demonstrate a very controlled method of getting a variety of paint on the brush. It may seem complicated but if you rely on swiping your brush through a messy palette to get variegated color you will probably be disappointed. It isn’t necessary to paint every stroke using such a controlled method but it is extremely useful in painting areas that need energy and vibration like foliage, skies, roads, or any main point of interest.
Another way to get multi-hued strokes is to make little piles of paint very close to each other on the palette. You then swipe this pile of paint with the brush being careful not to over mix the paint, then very carefully apply this mixture to the canvas. This has the advantage of being much faster.
The most common method (and least satisfying for me) is to use the brush to pick out bits of color from piles of paint from the palette being careful not to over mix as you pull paint onto the brush. This method is a little harder to control because I tend to get lazy and start using paint right out of the tube. I find it is much easier to get things right if I very carefully mix the colors I want to commingle.
No doubt other methods, or combinations of methods, are possible. Let me know your favorite technique.
A short video describing how I work with thick paint.
Brad Teare © 2009