EVERYTHING THEY TOLD US IS BACKWARDS
One of the most common questions I am asked about my work is how I am able to create the vibrant luminous color effects in my paintings. I am able to accomplish this in spite of the fact that I am quite partial to heavy textured effects, dark compositions, and I like to use black pigments, which most of us are told we should never do. We have access to amazing learning opportunities and a fantastic array of high quality art supplies that would have been the envy of the great artists of the past. Still, we have lost something important about how to put paintings together in the last couple of centuries. I have made it my goal to 'shine the light', so to speak, on these lost concepts with my teaching and mentoring.
I learned to paint, not in the college and university painting courses that I took, which was frustrating to say the least, but by studying the methods and materials of the so called 'Old Masters.' My research eventually led me to the realization that, for centuries, the craft of painting was a very scientific and technical vocation that focused on the properties of light and color in a way that maximized the luminosity and color intensity of the painted effects. The thinking was that if you understood how to create the most luminous and vibrant colors, dulling them down and muting them for specific aesthetic reasons would be a simple matter of disregarding, or 'breaking the rules' as it were. Painters like Caravaggio and Rubens, for example, managed this in a time when their palette was limited to a handful of colors. We can see that copies of some of the earlier Masters' works done centuries later are often darker and in poorer states of preservation than the originals. Something important was lost.
Because of the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of a whole range of new manufactured pigments (Cobalts, Cadmiums, Chromium Oxide, Manganese, etc), the Impressionists had approximately triple the amount that were available to the Baroque painters. It is safe to say that had Monet been using the same paints as Rembrandt, the Impressionist movement would not have been so impressive. In recent decades, with the influx of all the new colors coming out of the oil and dye industries, we have tripled that number again. So, in a time when we have an abundance of excellent paints and mediums at our disposal, it is remarkable to see how dull and muddy looking so many paintings are.
When I survey the participants in the workshops, almost without exception, they confirm that they have all been taught to paint the same way, and almost every aspect of that instruction goes against the practices of the greatest painters from Van Eyck to Van Gogh: Mix your colors, paint from dark to light, paint over things instead of around them.
The Old Masters, including the Impressionists, for the most part, followed specific guidelines that allowed them to maximize the luminosity and color intensity in their compositions, when and where it mattered of course. I managed to simplify and condense the concepts I discovered into 7 guidelines or principles that can be followed to create the maximum amount of luminosity and color intensity in your paintings:
- Paint on bright white, smooth surface.
- Use the best quality paints and only single pigment colors.
- Use colors without mixing them (yes, black is OK).
- Use gloss mediums and do not mix your paint with thinners (water for acrylics, solvents for oils).
- Keep the underpainting and glazes light.
- Use transparent pigments for glazes, veils, and tints.
- Paint around things.
I think I may have come up with this quote but it is just as likely that I came across it years ago in my studies of the painting techniques of the Old Masters, in any case, I have decided to take credit for it for now - 'Painting is the art of subtracting light.' When you start with an all white, smooth painting surface, it reflects back all the light that hits it, as you add layers of paint you gradually subtract light from your composition. A good way to decide then if your painting is completed, is to recognize when you have subtracted just enough light, but not too much. Remember too, it is always easier to subtract light than to add it back in without the painting looking over worked.
I will share some little demo paintings that I made for the workshop to illustrate how dramatic and relevant these ideas are:
In the painting on the left I followed all the guidelines for 'brilliant' painting methods listed above. In the one on the right, the painting was done using the exact same methods except that guideline number 3 has been ignored and I mixed the colors, red and yellow to make orange, for example, instead of using pure colors:
In this example, which I discuss in another blog in detail (https://www.davidlangevin.com/blogs/news/only-the-best), I show the difference between good quality, medium, and poor quality paints:
This duo shows the effect of painting over instead of around things:
Invariably, artists will, without knowing it, paint in ways that are in opposition to one or more of these principles. With every guideline that is disregarded the painting becomes increasingly dark and muddy looking. Now compare the first painting with one where all of the 'rules' are broken:
I don't like to call them 'rules' because that makes it seem like a prohibition, and art is all about 'breaking the rules'. There are many good reasons why a painter might want to disregard certain guidelines in the interest of creative expression. I just think it makes you a better painter to know and understand these principles so that you can 'break the rules' in a deliberate and calculated manner.