Focused practice: 4-value exercises using landscape and animal references

For this week’s focused practice exercise I painted small studies in 4 values using reference photos. I’m working my way toward plein air painting so wanted to focus on outdoor imagery. I recently read somewhere how engaging it can be for a composition to add animals or people, and wanted to give that a try.

Daily Art 08-20-2018 - 08-24-2018 4-value landscape and animal studies

I started each of these exercises by selecting a photo from Pixabay and creating a thumbnail in my sketchbook. Using the same 4-value approach from a couple of weeks ago, I looked for big shapes and assigned one of the values to each shape. I also kept an eye on the composition of each image and once the initial thumbnail was done I adjusted the crop and value assignments as needed.

For composition, I was looking at:

  • the ratio of lights to darks
  • where the horizon line was positioned
  • contrast and position of the focal point
  • direction of angles and how the eye flows along the picture
  • making interesting shapes.

I just finished reading The Simple Secret to Better Painting: How to Immediately Improve Your Work with the One Rule of Composition by Greg Albert and worked to follow the principle “never make any two intervals the same”. I didn’t always achieve that goal, but I do think this week’s experience of recropping and making compositional adjustments was enormously helpful.

One small example of looking more critically at the composition was on the third day when I added a break in the tree line in the background so it wasn’t just a boring flat-topped shape. It’s amazing how much that tiny change improved the composition!

The study in the lower left is a white cow under a cloudy sky. That one was particularly challenging to me because parts of the sky looked as dark as the land. I re-read the section in the Landscape Painting about the plane and value divisions in landscapes and Albala says it’s likely that the sky will be lighter overall than the ground, even if there are value shifts within it. Later that day I was out running errands and took a look at the clouds in the sky compared to the land — sure enough, even the dark undersides of the clouds were lighter than the ground. This was a case where the photo reference, while a striking and attractive photo, probably didn’t tell the actual story of the light and shadows in the subject. It was a great feeling to connect what I’ve been hearing about painting from life vs. from photos to my own experience.

These exercises were also good for getting more familiar with my (growing) collection of brushes. I enjoyed the feeling of the Silver Brush Grand Prix bristle brushes on this slightly textured surface, especially the tactile scratchy feedback from blocking in the paint and the way the paint skipped over some of the texture in the surface. The other brushes I used were synthetics and felt much more smooth on the surface. It was surprising to me how much of a difference the feeling of the brush made on my enjoyment of the experience.

And the biggest unexpected delight this week might have been from changing the way I drew the subject on the paper in order to start painting: I just started painting! I skipped drawing marks with a pencil or pen and jumped right into roughly blocking the shapes in with paint. It felt fantastic, and it got me going much faster than drawing in lines.

It reminds me a lot of the value exercises I did awhile back where I toned the paper with graphite, erasing the lights and deepening the darks. It was something I learned when reading Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and it’s a technique that feels quite natural to me. Which is surprising because I’m typically so analytical that I would have thought a more linear, structured approach would be a fit for me. Same thing with the gesture drawings I’ve been doing every morning. It’s like my right brain really wants to quiet down the left brain :)

On that note, next week I’m going to do some painted value studies using the wipe out technique. I want to experiment with some surfaces, mediums, and additives so that the acrylic paint lifts out OK. Based on some previous tests, I found that prepping the canvas with an isolation coat (soft gel gloss + water), adding retarder to the paint, and brushing on a layer of glazing liquid onto the canvas was pretty effective. Another technique that worked was to mix the paint with glazing liquid in a 2:1 glazing:paint ratio, also on a canvas prepped with the isolation coat.

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