There are certain tricks or techniques an artist can use to enhance the illusion of 3d form in their work. Picking any number of these tools from the mental drawer can drastically improve a painting, and they prove especially helpful in realism when an artist develops the intuition to deviate from the reference where necessary, in order to make a more successful painting (as opposed to a more successful reproduction). One such tool is knowing where and how to reduce the chroma (or intensity) of an object’s local color as it recedes into shadow. In the words of classically-trained figurative painter Shane Wolf:
It’s crucial that the lighter value mixture be slightly higher chroma than the next darker mixture as this is how form works in nature. “Lighter brighter; darker grayer” is an old academic saying that explains that if an object is in light, it’s brighter; as it turns away from light into halftone, it gets darker and grayer.
(Wolf, Shane. “Alla Prima, Three Hour Sketch.” The Artist’s Magazine. November 2012: 38-39)
We all know that shadows make colors darker, but what we often forget–myself included–is that to complete the illusion in a painting, it may also be necessary to dial back the brightness/chroma/intensity of local colors to avoid shadows that compete for depth-space with foreground surfaces or objects, to the detriment of the overall image.
Words of wisdom, from the astoundingly skilled, 26-year-old, San Fransisco-based painter Hsin-Yao Tseng:
“It’s important to squint your eyes while studying your subject and to stand back from your painting frequently. Squinting simplifies the details so you can see the big shapes and value patterns of the subject. Also, you get a sense of the lost-and-found edges. Standing back from your painting lets you evaluate the unity of the piece. Seeing the unity prevents you from overworking detailed areas or making unnecessary brushstrokes.”
(Seidner, Rosemary Barrett. “Born To Paint.” The Artist’s Magazine. October 2012: 44-51)
Great advice for perfectionist, detail-obsessed realism painters. Although aware of this advice long before reading Tseng’s feature this week, I too often forget to practice it. It was a timely reminder, as I was just about to put the finishing touches on a new experimental painting.
The more experimental or unfamiliar the territory that an artist is navigating, the more important it is to have his trusty fundamentals and basic skills by his side, like a compass, should he suddenly realize how lost he is.
So, Inspired by this painter wise beyond his years, I spent a recent afternoon in the studio focusing on this teaching. Being mindful to step back and gaze loosely at the overall image every 30 minutes or so, I found it a very refreshing practice. Note to self: do more of this.