Week 4 – Watercolor: Creating Form
When I walk around my classes to observe what my students are working on, there are things that stand out and tell me we need to work of some basics still. Most students want to paint things that look reasonably real as opposed to impressionistic or abstract, yet there is a lack of understanding about how to create a 3D look on a 2D surface, e.g. paper. That was the basis for the lesson but it was more than just creating the shapes it was also how to see them in everything around you.
As an artist, your first job is to become very observant. You will hear me say this time and again but it is very important to understand what you are painting before you can actually start painting. Whether you are working from a photograph or plein aire being able to see the detail will bring a sense of life to your paintings and a sense of light.
Highlights, form shadows, reflected highlights and cast shadows work in concert to bring form and substance to your subject matter and your painting in general, you need to learn to see them in real life so you can use them in your paintings. We start with the light source.
We live on a planet with only one sun, keep this in mind when you are working from a photo or if you set up a still life at home. A photo, even ones you take yourself, can have what is called "fill light". It comes from the flash on your camera. Professional photographers may use several fill lights to create an image, while not wrong, too much light can take out the drama of the light and out of your painting. With a still life, most people will over light their subject because they want to be able to see every detail, which is fine so long as you take a photo with only one light source as your primary reference, use the others only if you need some clarification. If you are working directly from the set-up, resist adding more than one light source, it will work to your advantage.
Another thing to keep in mind is where the light is coming from. As a photographer I know that the time to get the best photos is early morning before 10 or 11 a.m. or after 2 p.m. and try to get the light to come from the sides of the subject. This will create dramatic form and cast shadows as well as highlights for a much more interesting photo. This principal also works in paintings.
Look at how the light falls on your subject, in this instance a roll of paper towels. The top of the roll and the top of the side closest to the light will be your brightest areas, everything else will be shades of gray. Now look at the corner on the table opposite the brightest corner for the roll (you may have to set up a roll next to a window or other single light source to see this). You should notice a couple of things one is the cast shadow and the other is that the form shadow on the towels is just slightly lighter than the cast shadow.
First the form shadow: Notice how as it goes around the roll it changes from a dark blue gray to lighter grays and finally to white in the upper corner, this is how you need to paint the roll or any subject for that matter. Start with a darker blue/gray (blue, purple and sienna) on your brush put it on the darkest part of the towels, rinse your brush and move the paint around the roll with water. Another thing to keep in mind is your strokes should reflect the surface you are painting. The towels are round so you should use curved strokes to help create the illusion of roundness.
Now the cast shadow: Notice how the shadow moves away from the roll, it is very dark near the roll and right under the roll and as it moves away from the roll it becomes softer and the edges more diffused the further it is from the towels. Keep this in mind as you paint, you can start near the towels with some thicker paint and as you move away from the towels do more dry brush to lighten and soften the color.
On the inside of the towel roll the highlights and shadows are reversed since the towels are blocking the light from the light source. This will be true on anything that is hollow such as bowls, buckets or rotted tree trunks. See it first before you paint.
The last thing is the reflected highlight. This is probably the most challenging thing for you to see though once you finally do see the reflected highlights, it will be easier to see them in all things. Reflected highlights occur when light bounces off of one thing and back into the form shadows of another. It is usually a cooler color such as a blue purple but it can also be a reflected color of something around the thing you are painting, it won't be as bright as its origin however it will be just slightly lighter than the form shadow. Adding these soft purple or cooler colors to your shadows will give them life and bring a sense of reality to your paintings.
You can create form whether you are working wet into wet or wet on to dry, either one is going to take practice and knowledge. You need to look for these things I've been talking about, they are all around you. Once you see them you will understand how important they are to your paintings so please don't just take my word for it start looking for these things.
It is also good to practice your techniques on a scrape canvas or paper (use watercolor paper it's tougher). The more familiar you are with how your paints and brushes work the better off you will be when you are working on your masterpiece.
I showed how to do wet into wet first by wetting the paper with just water then literally dropping color or just barely touching the paper with the tip of the brush onto the wet surface and letting the paint work its magic. You can also wet the paper with paint that has a lot of water then dropping color into the wet paint, both methods create fun results, its what I love about watercolor, just letting it do its own thing, remember if you fight the watercolor it will win, work with it and you will have great results.
I'm still working on finding something for class but I hope to have it up by Sunday.
Here are a couple of Google links that will take you to the works of Rembrant and Van Gogh to see how the masters used light and shadow. With Van Gogh you will have to look at his "saner" periods but his use of light is beautiful.