Method to the Magic and Other Creative Musings, Jennifer McChristian

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Often people ask me about the difference between how I work when painting a studio piece versus how I work when painting outdoors. With plein air there is a certain amount of spontaneity, mental fortitude and ingenuity that is required to complete a painting in one session.  Working en plein air engages you in its visceral experience and makes you more sensitive to subtle color changes and tonal gradations due to changing atmospheric conditions.  Because of these quickly changing conditions I am forced to paint in a more intuitive and expressive manner, capturing the essence and impression of my subject matter and omitting unnecessary and irrelevant detail.  Painting from life is essential to every artist.  It sharpens the memory, dramatically improves draftsmanship, and gradually enhances painting proficiency.  Studio pieces allow me more time to analyze and contemplate the painting in various stages.  I can combine such techniques as working wet into wet, dry brushing, glazing and scumbling.  I can add interesting detail that I would not have time to include in a plein air study such as moving objects or figures/animals in action.  Studio pieces also allow me to create on a larger scale, unfettered by time constraints. However, in spite of these differences my general methodology remains the same.  I consistently apply a system of strategic and well planned steps which lead my paintings in the right direction regardless of how much or how little visual details I obtain.

 Summer's Swan Song, 8x10, oil

Summer's Swan Song, 8x10, oil

It should be noted that the details are not the main focus for me.  I always strive to create an impression, a mystery or gesture which allows the viewer to engage their imagination and fill in the blanks.  My main goal is to simplify shapes, harmonize color and get the correct value range.   If I am working outdoors I will scout the area and search for a scene that inspires me, often squinting to blur out any subtleties and simplify it into the dominating value contrasts.  If I am working in the studio I will already have selected my image from a photo reference but will fine tune the composition in order to strengthen its visual impact.  In addition to the photo reference I will sometimes use smaller color studies done on site in order to translate accurate color and values for large scale paintings.

 Plein air painting in the Caribbean using the Coulter System easel

Plein air painting in the Caribbean using the Coulter System easel

 Painting in my Los Angeles studio (also known as my 'sanctuary').

Painting in my Los Angeles studio (also known as my 'sanctuary').

My Process: Starting With Value

Once I have selected a composition that pleases me I will then proceed to do a small thumbnail sketch using a black and white value scale with a range between one and four values. Limiting the number of values yields a much stronger composition.

In a small, spiral bound sketchbook I begin with a light pencil outline, only indicating major shapes and silhouettes.  I then use cool grey markers to organize the shapes into a cohesive, dynamic  and pleasing design.  Using the broad, chiseled tip end of the markers allows me to get more coverage in less time!  I use Copic Sketch Markers in cool grey labeled C1C4 and C7.

 I keep small, spiral bound notebooks handy for preliminary value sketches.

I keep small, spiral bound notebooks handy for preliminary value sketches.

 This useful '4 Value Bar' helps me to evaluate the overall light and shadow families in my subject matter

This useful '4 Value Bar' helps me to evaluate the overall light and shadow families in my subject matter

Just as I limit my number of values to four or less to strengthen the composition, I also strive to limit the underlying abstract shapes and assign each shape a value.  By keeping the values simple and linking the shapes into larger abstract shapes it becomes easier to organize the shapes into a strong composition.  Using my black and white marker sketch as a guide I am ready to begin painting using a limited color palette.

And Then Comes Color!

I really enjoy the benefits of using a limited palette while painting en plein air, however when painting in the studio I may occasionally add a few more colors. There are many strengths that come with using a limited palette. A limited palette will help maintain solid color harmony. It's amazing the numerous amount of colors you can mix with a limited palette. Beautiful neutrals and vibrant hues galore! I do not use any black on my palette. I mix rich, colorful darks using my transparent colors (also referred to as stains) which consist of Ultramarine Blue, Alizarin Crimson, Indian Yellow and Thalo Red Rose.

I always mix ample pools of color with my nifty little palette knife to ensure clean colors and to avoid 'polluting' a beautiful color mixture with a dirty brush.  My all time favorite brand of oil paint is Gamblin, however I also enjoy using Winsor NewtonGrumbacher and Blue Ridge Oils on occasion.  As far as brushes, any good quality 'hog bristle' will do.  I prefer using flats and brights, ranging in size from #4 to #10 for field sketches and miniatures.  If  I'm working on a larger studio piece I increase the brush size to get more coverage (it also forces me to work a little looser and with less restraint).

 My palette

My palette

Here are the colors I use for my plein air and studio palette:

  • Titanium/Zinc White
  • Cadmium Yellow Medium
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Indian Yellow
  • Cadmium Red Light
  • Thalo Red Rose (Quinacridone Rose will also work)
  • Alizarin Crimson
  •  French Ultramarine Blue

Other colors I occasionally include in my studio palette are:

  • Cerulean Blue
  • Terra Rosa

The Demo:

For the demo I have selected a reference picture from my Wellfleet, MA trip.  This delightful, sun-drenched  scene provides a wide range of values which can be reduced into a bold and simple design.  There is also a lively contrast between warm and cool colors throughout the image which is always fun to depict.

 Here is the photo reference for the demo alongside a black and white value sketch

Here is the photo reference for the demo alongside a black and white value sketch

Step 1:

 Step 1

Step 1

I started my painting by applying a very thin wash of Indian Yellow and Thalo Red Rose in order to tone down the stark white of the canvas panel.  This vibrant underpainting also harmonizes my overall color scheme and infuses my painting with a warm and luminous glow.

 

 

 

Step 2:

 Step 2

Step 2

Next I quickly scumbled a loose sketch to indicate the major shapes and silhouettes, establishing the general areas of light and shadow.

 

 

 

 

Step 3:

 Step 3

Step 3

I started blocking in the darkest values (shadows) using a #6 bright hog bristle brush, making sure to keep the colors consistent with my value sketch.  I keep the paint consistency relatively thin during the initial block-in stage.

 

 

 

Step 4:

 Step 4

Step 4

Next I started blocking in my mid-tones, working on the various sections of the canvas simultaneously and making sure to maintain the value and shape relationship I established early on.

 

 

 

 

Step 5:

 Step 5

Step 5

Once the majority of dark and middle tones were blocked in, I began to lay in my lightest colors. Typically I paint the lightest values/colors last in order to avoid muddying the vibrant colors with the darker colors.  I also began working on smaller shapes within the big shapes, making necessary value/color adjustments and adding subtle color shifts within the shapes.

 

 

Step 6:

 Step 6

Step 6

During the final stages of painting I began adding details and refining my edges, etc. For delicate, thin lines I like to use a 'rigger' brush (also known as a liner).  The edge of a palette knife can also be used to create clean, crisp edges and super-straight fine lines.  Note that I took artistic license and omitted the circular metal sculpture (located between the two buildings) from the composition.  I felt it was too distracting, confusing and led the eye away from the focal point.

Hope you’ve enjoyed the progress pictures and the insights into my painting process!  These techniques have proven dependable and productive for me and I hope they help to guide you in your painting adventures.  As always it’s important to have patience with these methods and remember that mileage is the key to a full understanding of their benefits.  An old Taoist saying goes “repetition is a form of change” (like the movies 'Groundhog Day' or 'Edge of Tomorrow').  And it isn’t just limited to painting.  Never underestimate the value of constantly sketching, be it in cafes, museums or weekly figure drawing workshops.  It’s important to consistently push yourself to view new sceneries and try new things, whether it’s a different restaurant outside your neighborhood or a different country outside your continent.  It all helps to fill the well of your personal inspiration in order to keep your Muse intrigued and excited!

 A few studio "essentials" to get the creative juices flowing ;-)

A few studio "essentials" to get the creative juices flowing ;-)

Parting Shot:

 One of my all time favorite painters, John Singer Sargent, immersed in his craft.

One of my all time favorite painters, John Singer Sargent, immersed in his craft.

Happy Painting!

Visit Jennifer's website to learn more about her and her art.