Monday, September 16, 2013

Daylight on Skin, Filtered Through Foliage

I got myself into a situation where I wanted, for the first time, to paint diffuse thin-forest daylight on flesh. Having neither the means nor the inclination to paint a nude in a forest, I had to somehow alter a studio spectrum of one large open window and a fluorescent overhead, to the directionality and coloring of forest light.

My intention was not totally naturalistic: the painting is ultimately supposed to have a vaguely Boucher or Fragonard feeling.

Francois Boucher, The Rape of Europa, 1732-4 oil on canvas, 91"x108"

But I didn't want colors as completely artificial as theirs. So I also looked at Jeremy Lipking, who is one of the most adept contemporary observers of outdoor color, and especially of outdoor color on skin.

Jeremy Lipking, The Last Light, 2008, oil on canvas, 30"x18"

I wanted to split the difference between these two modes of painting outdoor color. Of course, there is no true split, because the difference is one of category, not degree. Boucher and Fragonard were painting before the widespread application of what I think of as True Color to painting - like me, they came up with generally relevant color formulae and procedures before or at the beginning of a piece, and then applied these formulae and procedures throughout their work, regardless of accuracy.

True Color swept the world of painting sometime after 1870 or so. I'm not entirely clear on what happened. Probably a lot of factors combined: painting outside, mass manufacture of high-quality pigments, comparatively mass training of new artists, the blazing results of the scientific method throughout society, subject-specific scientific advances in optics, the aesthetic prodding of photography, an industrial-age sense of triumphalism. Whatever it was, in a very few years, the formulaic paradigm of color mixing gave way to a vivid fidelity to color as it is perceived. One tends to think of the Impressionists in this connection, but the True Color outlook is just as visible in Academic painting of the period (the self-styled traditionalists). The penetration of this outlook is geographically broad - from acknowledged centers of the art world like France and England, to the hinterlands of northern Europe, the boondocks of Russia, and the savage wilderness of America. There are few real innovations in art, incidents which blow its range of possibilities much wider. But the True Color revolution is one of them.

Lipking is one of the more intense partisans of the True Color methodology.

So I worked on splitting this unsplittable difference: creating an idiom drawing on the faithful palette of Lipking, which descends from Sargent and Zorn, but also orchestrating this palette to harmonize with a stylized, unreal universe, more in keeping with an arcadian Fragonard forest than a real day in the woods.

Here's what I did: I used a green undercoat - terre verte, to be exact. I kept the values relatively close to one another, without the comfortably form-defining chiaroscuro of my usual lighting. I amped up the reds in the flesh because blue-green daylight darkens reds. I let the shadows fall to green and burnt umber where the skin would reflect ground and foliage. I did highlights cast from above with white and King's Blue, where blue sky would be lighting the skin. And I threw in random yellows and pinks, because natural light pulls stunts like that.

I'm an intensely analytic colorist, having no natural instinct for it. But I'm pretty pleased with how this effort is working out.

Daniel Maidman, Meiosis #4 (detail: first sitting), 2013, oil on canvas, 48"x72"

Coincidentally, the sheet of color notes illustrated above plays a large role in my article in the new issue of International Artist (issue 93, October/November 2013). I have been discussing undercoat here in terms of its utility for evoking a type of light and space - the green serves a very practical role in this painting. But I generally choose undercoat colors mostly to match the mood of the painting. This is the topic of the article, which goes into my feelings on grey, blue, black, brown, red, green, and purple. I illustrated the role of undercoat colors by comparing a number of my paintings with the meticulous color note sheets I made for them (this is how I keep my colors consistent from sitting to sitting).

If you pick it up, I hope you enjoy it.


  1. Since a combination of complements = parallax through overlapping visual fields (depth perception), and figure–ground = perceptual grouping for recognizing objects — thanks for making sense of how complementary colors can help establish the figure in a particular context. Seems like a Terre Verte undercoat could also work to capture flesh in cool-cold fluorescent light.

    1. I can't decipher the first sentence at all! But I can tell you that terre verte is indeed applicable, if not ideal, for painting flesh under fluorescent light - I would go for more of a mix of green with turquoise if I wanted it to actually look fluorescent-lit. Terre verte is a little too healthy.

      I'm going to repost the piece about you here in a day or two, by the way - you don't mind, do you?

  2. Sorry to be so cryptic... essentially I was trying to say that it takes a relationship of compliments to realize "place". Whether it's a parallax view for depth of field or interacting complimentary colors to establish a figure in a specific ground. Without the compliment there's only two dimensions...... flat-land is what Carl Sagan called it, if I remember right.

    Sure, post away. It's your blog and you can post if you want to.

    1. Abbott, in his novel "Flatland"! An odd and excellent novel too. Thank you, belatedly, for the explanation of what you were getting at. It makes sense now.

      I will post the post then. Not today, because I just put one up today. But on another day.