Project Friday: Squinting to See Values

October 25, 2013

130809_manLeft: Sketch that is approx. 4 x 6 inches in an 11 x 14 inch Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media hardbound journal. (The sketch is only about 4 inches tall.) French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna Schmincke gouache.

I have three different images to discuss today. They may seem unconnected because two are portraits and one is a nude figure study from life drawing, but they all have one thing in common—they all rely on squinting. And that's the project for Friday: Squint while you sketch something so that you can better see the values.

For this project you can use a photograph of a friend, you can stop your TV at an image that you want to work on, you can set up a still life on your table, you can go off to life drawing. It doesn't matter.

Work on watercolor paper (or a high quality wet media paper like Strathmore 500 series Mixed Media paper) because you'll want the ability to lighten areas if necessary, i.e., lift off paint. Sizing on watercolor paper (or quality wet media paper) will allow you to do this.

Work with gouache in diluted applications (if you're using great gouache like Schmincke or M. Graham) or work with glazes of watercolor, your choice. 

Work monochromatically. I tend to work with two complementary colors and use them to neutralize each other, and let one predominate. But you can work with any dark valued pigment alone, payne's grey if you have it (I prefer to mix my neutrals), or sepia. Sometimes I simply start using whatever is left over on my palette and mix as necessary. Whatever you do make sure you have paint that will allow you to get a value range from darkest darks to lights. Using a high key color like yellow isn't going to work.

Use a large round watercolor brush. (I like to use a number 12 round that comes to a good tip. Your brush should hold a lot of wash.) Don't use your Niji Waterbrush, use a real watercolor brush for this project because you want a brush with a great belly that can hold a lot of color and you want to work on managing your water.

130627_ChipSepiaLeft: Sepia watercolor on Arches hot press watercolor board. I cut a 16 x 20 inch board in half to get a 10 x 16 inch board. I did this in a figure drawing class with Stephan Orsak at the Atelier. The goal of the class was to sketch the figure directly in the 2 hour and 45 minute class. Everyone else was working in oil paints but Stephan let me work in gouache. I ended up using dilute washes because they were easier to try and erase from the board. I slowed myself way down and focused on the shapes and values. This wasn't always successful. The first attempt is the horizonal sketch that is just above the date at the bottom of this board. Then, disappointed with that, and knowing no amount of additional washes could save it, I started the upper body view on the left. Towards the end of the session the instructor told us that we should prepare to draw this week's and the next two week's poses on a single "canvas" so I turned my board on its side again and quickly did the full stance at the top. (The model was doing something odd with his foot and I wanted to have some sort of note about that.)

130627_ChipSepiaDetailLeft: Here is a detail of the figure study. I didn't get very far with the darkest darks before I had to abandon it and do a second full-figure image. You can see where I wanted to go however. My outline around the figure was made with too dark a wash and it isn't blending out so if I want to make it disappear in this instance I would have to go darker on the background.

Set up your light source so that there are strong shadows and a range of values in your subject. (If you're working from a photo or TV choose appropriately: "Perry Mason" is a great place to start for strong lighting, and it's already monochomatic!).

1. Look at your subject and squint. Close your eyes tightly so that color recognition begins to disappear and what you see are shadow shapes. 

2. Look at your paper and draw those shapes with your brush and a diluted wash of paint.

Note: You can elect to go in with a dark wash and get the shadow areas as dark as possible, but not all papers will allow you to lift off watercolor easily so you might prefer, as I do, to work lightly and build up. This also allows me to correct for placement, shape, and proportion.

I tend to start with an eye, and work outwards, if it's a face. On a full figure I tend to do light painted lines for the contour, to start, then I go in and look at shapes. Over time your memory will hold the shapes in your mind better. 

Don't forget that you can work around negative shapes with your brush and leave your highlights.

3. Once I have an overall aspect down I go in with darker washes and refine wash shapes and values. I work all over the sketch at that point, because a dark value in one area will inform the dark value in another. Keep squinting when you look at your subject.

Note: When you lay in your washes load your brush so that it is full of the strength of paint you want to use. (Test a dilution at the corner of your paper if you're not sure.) Apply this wash to all areas in your sketch where you see that value—with one big long stroke, adjusting the shape of the shadow/value, by the movement of your brush. That's the goal. Don't worry if you don't do it each and every time. Don't worry if you have to go back and glaze in a darker value when portions of your lighter wash have dried. That's why it's practice!

Many people find it helpful to do a background tone against which they can judge the values in the subject. This is obvious in a still life, but in a portrait or figure sketch it might seem less obvious. I tend to leave the backgrounds of my portrait studies the color of the paper, but recently I've been adding background washes. Try both and see which works best for you.

130930_BlueManLeft: Direct brush sketch with French Ultramarine Blue, Magenta, and Burnt Sienna on Strathmore 300 Series Watercolor paper, 9 x 12 inch sheet. (I wrote about this watercolor paper at the link provided.) 

If you need to lift up color (and your paper allows it) I recommend you use a stiff brush, like a scrubber. Wet it with clean water and gently rub on the area you wish to remove color from. Blot the paper to remove the lifted color. Rinse the color from your scrubbing brush. Repeat as needed with a couple caveats: 

i. Some papers won't take rubbing, but pill and fall apart.

ii. Some colors stain and are difficult to lift. Switch to non-staining colors (manufacturers label colors for you so check their website if you don't know).

iii. If you need to lift a lot of color and it doesn't come off in one go it is sometimes best to let the paper dry completely in that area after blotting. Return to lift more when the paper is dry there. (Over time you'll get a sense of what your paper can tolerate and you'll behave accordingly.)

5. Stop before you find yourself fussing. (This is not as easy at it seems so don't beat yourself up if you find it impossible to stop in time—just stop as soon as you notice you're fussing.)

Note: Over time you'll learn to control your water/pigment mix, and be able to judge drying times. If you add more glazes of paint over an already wet area you'll get blending and dilution and quite possibly some ballooning and other water after effects. Remember the conditions that applied when you went in to that wash and you'll learn to avoid it or seek it out, depending on your preference.

Remember to slow down and take your time while working on this project. You can always increase your speed later. 

I hope you have fun this evening (or weekend if you can devote the time—and it would be good to work a couple hours everyday for three days in a row on this exercise, hint, hint, hint) with this Project Friday.

  1. Reply

    loving the history of the images as revealed by layers of wash…nothing like wielding the BIG BRUSH!!!!! Have a great FRIDAY!

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