Breadcrumbs Among the Piles of Paint

Breadcrumbs? What’s with breadcrumbs? I thought this was a blog about painting. Well it is a blog about painting, and I have, over the course of my 40 year career as both a professional artist and educator, come to certain conclusions, many of which I will be sharing during the course of writing this blog. So I thought I would give you some insight into how I roll.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I wasn’t formally trained as a painter. I had to scratch and claw until such a time that the puzzle pieces came together. I don’t accept anything on face value. I need to know why things work, before I can use them. Here’s the tricky one. How can you figure out how something works before you’ve tried it? So in the beginning there was a lot of trial and error utilizing many different approaches. If I now say that approach A works better than approach B, it’s based on my having experiencing both. Believe me, if I knock it, I’ve tried it. I also had mentioned that I had the resource of sharing my discoveries with my students and making sure that what worked for me was universal.

After a while my instincts became keener and I developed (I guess you’d call it) a sixth sense, an uncanny ability to ferret out the truth from the rhetoric. This is not to say that I haven’t gone down the wrong tunnel, but the fact that I’ve developed to the degree that I have, I owe primarily to my instincts. I equate my particular journey from being a non-painter (to the portrait artist and teacher I am today) to having been lost in the forest and following  breadcrumbs. By now, I feel like the trees have thinned out a bit. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped searching for better solutions, because I haven’t. I have no agenda and nothing to defend. If I were to discover that mixing Day-Glo paint with egg whites, while standing on my head and whistling the Star-Spangled Banner made me a better painter… up I go!

Anyway, this is the story of how I found my first breadcrumb. When I was in art school, in my first ever painting class, we were given a list of colors to use. We were given no instruction with regards to mixing color or anything else technical. When I looked up at the model, the colors I saw looked nothing like the colors on my palette. Trying to mix the colors was very frustrating for me. I had no guidelines for mixing color. If I would mix of color for skin tone I’d start with an orange and lighten it with white, but the color would be too intense compared to the model. So I would mix the complementary color (like I was taught in elementary school) to gray it down, but it also darkened it. When I added white, it lightened the color but it also made it cooler. When I’d add something to make it warmer,  it would change the value again. By the time I mixed something that sort of resembled what I saw in front of me I had no idea how to duplicate it. I found it all very frustrating because I felt I had no control.In the meantime my teacher would walk around the class and say things like, “Don’t you see that green in the middle of the forehead?” I never did!

Flash forward a dozen-or-so years, I was working as an illustrator, doing pen and ink drawings. When I looked at my finished drawings, I felt that I should be able to peel the paper up and underneath would be a painting. Unfortunately, I still had no clue on how to paint. But the desire to paint was absolutely driving me nuts so I had to do something. Whenever I would walk by an art supply store I would go in and look at the paints. I would look at all the different brands to try to figure out which would be the best to paint with. Then I would leave, empty-handed, still haunted by my color mixing nightmares. This went on for about six months until one day I walked into a Sam Flax and I saw a new product, called Liquitex Modular Acrylics (see pamphlet above.) Modular acrylics were based on a new concept. Rather than labeling each tube according to the pigment name (i.e., Ultramarine Blue), the Module Acrylics were labeled according to the color’s properties: it’s place on the color wheel [hue], how light or dark it was [value] and how intense it was [chroma]. I immediately bought the entire set. The logic behind this labeling was so remarkable because it allowed me to modify each property of a color without effecting the other two. Incredible!

Subsequently I found out that the labeling was based on the Munsell Color System, developed by Albert Munsell. Within 2 weeks I had completed my first full-color painting for the National Lampoon. My entire method has stemmed from bread crumb number one.

Until next time…

Comments

  1. Marvin . . . In large part, you just wrote my story. It took me a while long than you to realize that the more simple the palette, the better the result. Keep this info coming. Thanks.

  2. Marvin . . . should have mentioned, also, that our stories are alike in that I’m self-taught, and most of what I know has come from gritting my teeth and doing it over until it sinks in, or I stumble on something that works. You know the story . . . chain a monkey to a piano and he’ll eventually play the polonaise. I certainly admire you for being able to support yourself and learn while working in the profession.

    • Thank you Richard. However ther is more to my story. Eventually I went on to study with someone, but that’s a breadcrumb to be addressed in a future blog post.

      • Can’t wait to hear the followup. Mixing colors is something I STILL struggle with, and feel like I’ve been getting by by “stealing” color recipes as much as possible. I’ve also learned that simpler is better!!

        (though I rarely see that green in the forehead, either. Heh.)

        • Thanks for sharing. I’m hugely opposed to color recipes. I think of them as recipes for disaster. Color is much too variable for recipes to be appropriate.

          • I understand what you mean. And perhaps “recipe” was the wrong word. I meant that I do much of what you did, once. I gray the paint, I lighten the paint, then I warm the paint, then I gray it some more, then I have a huge pile of very pretty mud and no idea how I came across that particular shade. I’ve sort of found something that helps- I took a giant blank canvas and I’ve made patches of paint across the bottom to remind me of what the colors look like from the tube. (labeled and all.) Then I made a simple color wheel on it. Then I did a bazillion simple mixtures of paint (a lot of these were inspired by other artists, hence the stealing. I know better than to think “peach means skin”, etc.), then made some patches and labeled those. I’m getting a good feel for warm vs cool and chroma this way, but value is still incredibly tricky without messing with the other elements. I’m looking forward to reading more on your thoughts on color theory. So much has been written about it, it can be confusing, though James Gurney’s site is a terrific reference. 🙂

          • I do agree that the more you read the more confusing it becomes. That’s why I gave up painting in art school. Too frustrating! I will devote a lot of real estate here on color, particularly with regards to warm and cool. However, there are so many issues I need to address. A lot of windmills are in need of some serious jousting.

Speak Your Mind

*