The President’s Palette
As a beginning artist, I started a painting by looking at a scene or setup, and then drawing outlines of at least the major features of the elements in the painting. From there, I would proceed to paint in local colors and shadows. This is close to the “Paint by Number” kits. Remember those? I do, since I completed two of those at a young age that hung in my parents’ basement for many years. Thankfully, there is a better, more productive method called “massing.” Oil painting is somewhat messy, and therefore particularly suited to massing. Watercolor, printing, drawing, and similar media are better suited to a linear approach. For oil painting, massing is more painterly and results in a better artistic result.
Instead of seeing a scene or setup as a collection of edges to be copied, massing requires that the artist see the elements of a scene as a collection of volumes that need to be described on a two dimensional canvas. To put it simply, if a painter wants the end result to appear to have real volume, it is best to think volume and to start by painting volume.
To mass in a scene, I sometimes use raw umber mixed with a little black to get a deep brown. With as large a brush as I can easily handle, I paint in the elements of the scene with little regard for detail. For shadows, both object and cast, I use heavier paint to get them dark. I use thinner paint for light areas and may even wipe paint off of an area that is very light. The end result is a loose composition in one color that I can easily adjust to get it right. Some would consider this a monotone under-painting. The beauty of this approach is that I can examine my composition for balance between light and negative spaces, and light intensity in specific areas. I can also add or delete elements with ease, and it puts me in a very painterly frame of mind. Once I am happy with the composition, I start applying mid-tone object colors and the background, working from there to the dark shadows and lights, only putting in sharp edges where necessary to enhance the composition.
To my surprise, massing of the objects has changed the way that I see my subject. I now look at the objects as volumes having weight, and in some intangible sense, can “feel” the weight of the objects. This way of seeing translates directly onto the painting, allows me to use thicker paint in the right areas, and leaves me with a more dynamic and beautiful painting.
What’s on your palette?