Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Bridge

Enough theory. Let's get our hands dirty again.

First of all, this painting was painted from a photograph.

Blue Leah #8, oil on canvas, 2012, 24"x24"

Some of you might be doing your detailed, oversized hands paintings from life. For my part, between the amount of microstructure and the inevitable motion of the model, I find it impossible. As a general rule, I don't like to paint from photographs, but when I can't work with the model, like for instance if they moved away or I'm painting a hand, I don't see any harm in working from a photograph. As long as I maintain enough concurrent practice in working from life, I remain able to see the photograph in terms of the informational content of reality, and not the restricted information of a photograph. Tracing backward to reality, I can then trace forward to the painting, et voila.

So, that's not the point. The point is this. My schedule interrupted my work on this painting at this point right here:

It wasn't a short break - something like a month. I did a whole other large painting during the interruption. I snuck in and did the wrists at some point, but then the left-side hand was just sitting there, unpainted. On my first day back from the break, I did the following:

Careful scrutiny of this image will reveal that I totally fucked up the painting. The right-side hand has a warm range of yellows and peaches in it. The left-side hand is a chalky white, with some patches of red. I was painting away, and thinking to myself, "Why aren't these colors matching? I know I'm using the same paints." It didn't occur to me to stop.

I was saved from finishing the painting in this totally fucked-up way by having previously scheduled some time hanging out with Charlotte, which forced me to stop at the breaking point of the shadow across the palm. Overnight, I realized what I did wrong.

Here's the palette I set up for the session where I got the colors wrong:

On the lower half of the left are Windsor & Newton's flesh tone paint, plus soft mixing white, and below that, Gamblin's flesh tone paint, plus soft mixing white. This is a trick I learned from Adam Miller back when I was tearing my hair out trying to mix the same flesh tones over multiple sessions with your usual red/yellow/blue/black/white formulae. His trick was, "Just get three or four manufacturer flesh tones at random, and learn how to modify them. It's much simpler." This trick works pretty well for pale caucasians (and nobody else). I don't think Adam's using it anymore, but I like it a lot. On the right side, bottom, is cadmium red deep hue plus white, and on the top, Sennelier Cool Gray 707 (my favorite paint) plus white.

If you study the palette, you can see that most of the times, when I dipped the brush in the paint to pick some up, I dipped it in the plus-white region of the mixture, and not in the pure color. And therein, my friends, lay the error.

What I remembered overnight was that when I painted the first hand, I forgot about the plus-white premixing. This was how my palette looked for the first session:

I painted the colors into the wet blue undercoat using pure color, then laid the yellowish Gamblin and the white over them. It was a fairly depressing thing to realize that I had thus completely ruined the painting.

Well, you know me: a mix of obsessively compulsive and psychotically happy-go-lucky. So the next day, I went right back into the studio and did what I could to fix the mess. Fortunately, the paint was still wet, allowing me to lay a lot of the yellowish Gamblin into the fingers:

Then I continued down to the palm, using the technique of pure-color-first which I had originally used. So, this is what the palm looked like in its initial state:

Painting this, I remembered why I conveniently forgot my pure-color procedure. It's scary as hell. Before you lay in your darks and your lights, your figure looks like a lollipop. It is less immediately hair-raising to paint with a mix of color and white, but your colors come out too muted. The real benefit of the color-first procedure is irretrievably lost in the fingers: when you paint the lights over the colors, they go over them without mixing, so that the moderation of the surface color allows the deeper saturation to show through, just like blood beneath the skin. Here, let me show you:

This is an enlarged part of the original hand. As you can see, blues, oranges, and reds are visible in the deep weave of the canvas, between the bumps. On the bumps, a gentle brushing of light yellows and whites defines a brighter desaturated surface. This technique produces optical blending without loss of subliminal but distinct differences. And that is precisely the thing I fucked up so totally in the fingers. Here they are post-save: the richer colors lie on the surface, mixed with the whites, not underlying them. That's the best I could do, given the initial error:

So, anyhoo, I worked up the palm using my original, scarier technique:

And then I spent a fairly tedious several hours putting in the blue background:

Now, I like this painting OK. And if I hadn't just confessed at length to my errors, you probably would never have known about the grotesque problem with it. But I would have known, and I will never be able to love this painting as much as I would have if I hadn't goofed up how I was doing it.

This story has a trivial moral and a major one:

The trivial moral is that once you start a painting, don't walk away from it for a month or two and forget what you were doing.

The major moral has to do with the lollipop technique I started using for this painting, and my subconscious avoidance of it when I resumed. The lollipop technique is scary because the initial states don't look like the final painting. In fact, they look terrible. You have to ignore your eyes and have faith that the formula will work out in the end (this is actually true for virtually all layering techniques in painting).

You basically have to put yourself in the same position as our old friend Wile E. Coyote:

tertiary/quaternary consumer and master tactician Wile E. Coyote

I have thought a lot about, and previously quoted, one of the more famous quips of Rabbi Nachman of Braslov. Rabbi Nachman of Braslov said, "All the world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is to have no fear at all." This sounds a lot better in Hebrew.

I have thought a lot about this dictum,  but now I think the Rabbi does not go far enough. I would like to modify it thus: "Step off the cliff, and the bridge will appear."

At the same time, and ever in keeping with my advice that you approach my moralizing with skepticism, please keep in mind what your mother told you about things not to do just because your friends are doing them.


  1. I really like that painting. Perhaps there is still a subtle difference in the colors of the hands, but it works fine, because there is also a difference in light, with one hand in full light and the other holding shadow. It has a sort of yin-yang effect. The shape made by the hands evokes a wing-spreading bird, while the hands have a wonderful realness and muscularity. I think I would choose it as my favorite of the Blue Leah series - the most unusual one.

    Obviously the "scary method" needn't be feared, as you know how to work it.

  2. Thank you very much for this post Daniel, it's very interesting and I do love your colors !

  3. Fred - thank you - I'm glad you like this one. Startled it's your favorite of them, but that is something I can live with; your explanation is really wonderful, and adds to what I understand about it. Thanks for taking the time to explain.

    The scary method doesn't get less scary - the idea that you have to embrace failure in order to succeed - gulp!

    Francoise - I'm glad you enjoyed that! You've remarked on it before, so I thought you'd like a close-up look at exactly what I'm doing.

  4. Daniel, you make me want to run out and paint some hands! As a practitioner of the glazing method, I usually spend my nights in sweaty panic, wondering how in the hell am I going to fix that mess I made on my painting. Some times the bridge is at the bottom of the cliff...

    1. Kevin, paint some hands! Please! I'd love to see. I apologize for the long delay, it's been a simply crazy week. I strongly empathize with your glazing travails, although I have moved away from glazing generally, because of the very travails, as well as the time it takes. I had thought of mentioning that the bridge may be at the bottom of the cliff, and even including a graphic of the distant "poof" of Coyote hitting the ground - but then I thought, "Why warn them?"

  5. I think its maybe better to say, 'The bridge doesn't appear until you step off the cliff'. Not that every cliff has a magic bridge...!

    That would explain Wile E.'s fundamental misstep.

    1. Yes, true, I like to apply the game theoretic "modified tit-for-tat" strategy - repeat your opponent's last move, but throw in a positive response once in a while to see if there is room for improvement. As applied to cliffs, the model is, don't jump off the ones that seem very likely unbridged - most of the time.