Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

October 10, 2017

Sight Size and other tricks

I find it odd how particular techniques in painting get a fan club type following. Wet into wet for watercolour is one and I suppose plein air another. Sight size is an interesting one. It comes from academic training where you set up your drawing of a plaster cast so that from a certain position both cast and drawing appear next to each other at exactly the same scale. All observations need to be made from this viewing point. It was much used by portrait painters such as Singer Sargent to get good likenesses and accurate tones. Although it appears Sargent only set up the painting in this way for parts of the process and to check progress. It was never intended however to be a method used in all circumstances. Here is a link that gives a good description of the method: Sight Size.

If for example you want to paint a wide view then getting both your scene and the painted image the same scale would be pretty tricky. Also if you were painting a subject that was far away then your picture would have to be very small or your viewing point would have to be a very long way from your canvas! Sight size drawers tend to use plumb lines etc though a threaded frame over the subject would seem to be easier and quicker IMO. This is not a debunking of the method, I think everyone would benefit from learning and trying it. I do however feel over reliance on the method can produce rather stiff soulless paintings. The method shows it’s weakness in the work of atelier students who tend to produce identikit sub Sargent paintings and academic drawings that all seem to be from the same dead hand. That said many of those students move on and successfully establish their own identity.

Really the method is part of a whole suite of techniques to get the perceived and very 3D world down on 2D paper. Plumb bobs are good if you have never used one then I suggest you give it a whirl. If you use a black thread you can put little blobs of white paint every inch which helps transfer information. Their main use though is to make it easy to determine how things in your subject relate along a line. You can use it to translate horizontal information or angles as well. All of these methods depend on you returning to the exact same position to make your measurement. The easiest by far to use but more tricky to set up is the threaded frame. Really you need a separate stand for the frame, but as with the plumb line I would encourage everyone to try it out.

What I would not advise however is to make any of these methods into  your everyday standard painting procedure. Their use is to teach you how to make comparisons of scale angle and alignment. Your aim in using them should be to evolve the ability to do those measurements by eye, this may seem hard but it is surprising how quickly the brain catches on and eventually they become second nature. Nonetheless I still get out my frame for work where it is very important that exact proportion are achieved.

Its disadvantages are that it is a monocular method, it allows you to see the world pretty much as a camera does. In turn this means it has all of the problems associated with camera images, the distorted proportions at the edges of the frame which become impossible to hide as the view widens. The method assumes we should only see what we can see with our head fixed, but to my mind this is only a small part of the visual experience, it is literally too narrow. To paint wider or higher than convenient views requires a whole other set of skills including constructive perspective both linear and hyperbolic. Also a number of adjustments such as sliding vanishing and eye points. Although this sounds hifalutin and complicated the actual application can be taught to anyone in a day or two.

A very mixed bag of work in this post as I have been dodging between media .

Blandford Forum, Dorset, drawing, pen and ink

This is Blandford Forum in Dorset. The challenge here was to reduce the busyness of the scene without loosing the impression of complexity. If you succeed in doing this people come up and say, “Oh look at all that detail” and “Just like a Photograph!” For windows it is important to get both consistency and variety into them. So I try to keep the position and rhythm accurate but vary the mark made to indicate them. Pen and Ink.

Blandford Forum, Dorset, pen and ink, drawing

Here is one where sight size would let you down! You would have to have your nose touching the paper to get this view. The camera could not produce it either, the building on the left would be very distorted. It is really a composite view as I am both raising my head to look up and turning my head to look left. A point that is vital to fix is the one where you look straight ahead. People assume that in a drawing the straight ahead point must be in the middle but here it needs to be far to the right where the road ends. Each of these movements causes swings in perspective that result in distortion. So what appears a simple scene is actually quite complex to construct. In practice I sketch in the rectangles of the facades and adjust them to find the best compromise between observation, what I “know” is there and the restrictions of a flat surface. Here the key line to track is the join to the walls and roofs. Pen and Ink.

Cardigan, Llanchaeron, Wales, pen and ink, drawing

This is Llanerchaeron in Wales a beautiful walled garden. I only had time for this quick sketch but would have been happy drawing there all day. I decided in the end it needed slight touches of colour. This is always tricky as the temptation is to add more, but I think greens would have been too much so I left them all out. Pen and wash.

St James, Shaftesbury, Dorset, watercolour

This is St James in Shaftesbury. I very rarely do a half sheet en plein air in watercolour as splashing it on with big brushes is the only option so the drying time becomes key. The other reason is that they are expensive to frame, rarely sell and if you do sell they get a lower price than a far smaller oil. This subject was a gift though and it was great fun to paint as is often the case the light improved as I worked but with watercolour you cannot easily chase the light. Once I got home I felt I could get more atmosphere in by washing back and as it was a 1/2 sheet  I  used the garden hose! It is nearly always worth taking such risks I find even if a few almost alright watercolours bite the dust. Watercolour.

Worbarrow bay, Dorset, oil painting

This one put me through the mill and I nearly abandoned the whole thing. It is Warbarrow bay near Tynham in Dorset. I find these looking down at bays type compositions very difficult especially when they include foreground. I had a plein air watercolour and photos but I still ended up trying several different tonal arrangements over a few weeks. It still may not be finished, I might cut it down as I think a better picture could be had by loosing a 1/3 rd of the right hand side. 24in by 12in Oils.

St Martins, London, oil painting

I recently visited London to see some exhibitions and just before the heavens opened the light on St Martins in the Fields was fantastic. No paints with me so this is done from phone snaps. Another one that might loose a couple of inches from the top! 16in by 12in Oils.

Newport, Wales, Pembrokeshire, plein air

I escaped to Wales for a few days and was greeted by blustery weather and fantastic skies and seas. This is Newport in Pembrokeshire and I had very little time to paint before being chased off the beach by the tide. I got rather too involved with the ruffled surface of the water which seemed to have every colour under the sun in it. 10in by 8in oils.

Moylgrove, Ceibwr Bay, Wales, Pembrokeshire, plein air, oil painting

This is Ciebwr Bay near Moylgrove in Pembrokeshire. This is painted sight size  as I hadn’t used the method in a while. I can’t say it made much difference as far a judging things goes, a little easier to judge relative tones maybe. I did use my tone guide which is just a bit of very black plastic with a dab of titanium white on it. This allows you to more easily judge how far away the darks are from being black and the lights from white and their average  hue. It was astonishingly windy and I had to anchor my easel to some big rocks. It makes it impossible to do really accurate brushstrokes as your board is flapping like mad! 12in by 10in Oils.

Wales, cliff, plein air, oil painting

Done on the same day but a bit down the coast. I had almost given up finding something to paint when I spotted a patch of sand that made an interesting contrast. Even windier than the last but very interesting to paint. 12in by 8in Oils.

Wales, Pembrokeshire, plein air, oil painting

Another day another cliff top. After a rough block in I kept my eye on the changing sun light sparkling on the sea, the whole key of the picture had to be organised so that the highlight would eventually be punchy enough.  This meant keeping the landscape tones within quite tight bounds. To much highlighting would have ruined the balance. Another very windy one it was only possible by backing up close to a wall. 14in by 10in Oils.

Llangrannog, Cardigan, plein air, oil painting

Yep it’s another windy beach! This is Llangrannog near Cardigan. Sight size again as it was convenient, it did help here in getting the drawing in quickly, the method makes drawing errors very easy to spot. Many pauses as the rain came down, though I loved the muted tones the foul weather created. I still far prefer painting on a stormy day than a bright sunny one. 14in by 10in Oils.

Newport, Wales, Dinas Head, plein air, oil painting

This is Dinas Head from Newport. Only a very quick sketch. The light was changing rapidly as the cloud shadows brightly lit or threw different areas into shade so I might do a studio one or over paint this one using the various photos I took as it changed as reference. 16in by 10in Oils.

Newport, parrog, Wales, plein air, oil painting

More Newport and more very muted light. I might chop this one down and frame it tighter. I loved the tone of the yellowy house, very hard to get right and I wiped and redid it at least 5 times. 16in by 10in Oils.

Porthgain, Wales, Pembrokeshire, oil painting

I took my time with this one, it is Porthgain which  would like to do more of as it has very interesting part ruined industrial buildings. I was nice to paint a calmer brighter moment with the storms over. 16in by 8in Oils.

For the visit to Wales I used a quite restricted palette heavy on the earth tones as follows: Cobalt Blue, Unbleached Titanium, Titanium White, Naples Yellow, Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna and a tiny bit of Cadmium Orange on the last one.

 

September 20, 2017

Seeing

Augmented reality, the media tells us, is the next big thing. They don’t seem to realise that the basic human being has it built in already. The light that bounces off and passes through our exterior world and the photons bouncing around inside our eyeballs have no idea what they might represent. There is no tree photon, or sky photon. They just have amplitudes and wavelengths which we call brightness and colour.

When we do what we call seeing everything obvious comes ready labelled by our image processing system. Houses are houses, trees trees and even things that are obscure are given tentative labels such as scrubland or hedge. We have all had the experience where our heads up display has got it wrong and we realise that there is a building in that clump of trees, or when walking home in the dark when the brain frantically relabels that dark blob as a parked car we are about to collide with rather than a hedge.

The image processing does not stop there. The shadows are lightened the brights are darkened so we can perceive details within those areas. You have all I expect noticed that your sky in a photograph will come out almost white and over exposed if you set the exposure to show detail in the shadows. 80% of the colour you see isn’t there, only a tiny part of the eye, the fovea, sees in colour. Our image processing software paints the rest in. If in tests a red light is put in the peripheral vision, with the subject fixing their attention straight ahead, when the light is changed to green the subject will continue to see it as red.

When looking at our fellow humans the process goes even further, our heads up is supplying age, sex and status information on the fly. It even supplies narrative guesses such as: that group is a family, or those two are a couple. We astonishingly can even work out the mood and emotional state of passers by from their general demeanour.

For the observational painter all this post processing this causes major problems. We see trees labelled as green when they are often a grey brown, we see the sky as blue when it is really a steely grey. As I have mentioned we see the darks as lighter and the brights as darker. The problem is that if you paint the post process version of your perception then when someone else looks at your picture they reprocess the whole thing again. So your darks which you painted too light appear even lighter and the light areas such as the sky duller and not as you had hoped luminous. Your brown trees, which you eyes have made you paint in phthalo green, get a further boost into luridness when viewed by another.

Paint manufacturers don’t help by selling us lots of very bright pigments which we put out on our palettes. Odd really as 95% of our picture is probably going to be brown or grey even if we are painting that day in a funfair. Digital camera manufacturers and before them film manufacturers did and do much the same thing. Most of our cameras process the images we snap so that the greens are a brighter green and the blues of our skies the expected pure bright blue. They also process contrast so that our images are punchy with dark darks and clean whites. What is called properly exposed… the real world is however often not properly exposed and it is that version we need to try to paint.

So if we are to observe the world for purpose of painting it we need to strip away the processing. We do not need to know that the tree is a tree or the house a house. They are just shapes that have a tone and a hue. This is not easy to learn how to do. Even harder is to strip out the tonal adjustments our perception systems make. The best way  I have found is to squint. If you progressively close your eyes down to the thinnest slit possible you will find that the image starts to break down into simple tonal areas. The shadows will coalesce into single areas without interior detail. If you make a small hole in a but of black card and squint through that it makes the process a little easier. Or you can take a snap on your phone with the image effect set to sepia or similar.

The other method I use is to make a small ring with my fingers to look through and flick it quickly between areas. This way you can quickly determine that the darkest colour in that threatening sky is still way brighter than the road that your eyes perceive as quite light. I advise going and getting bits of the world and plonking them on your palette next to the colour that you have mixed for it. This is especially disconcerting with greens. Go and get a leaf from that bright green tree you are painting, you may be surprised!

The aim of all this is to be able to paint the world so that the viewer of the painting does their usual post processing of the visual stimulus supplied by your picture without the overlay of the painter’s own visual system doubling everything up. This will produce a much more nuanced, lifelike and subtle perceptual experience when you picture is looked at.

Detail is another issue. We don’t actually see all that detail. The brain just puts in off the shelf wall paper to fill in the gaps. So that detailed city is not bespoke it is generic. Only if you concentrate on it as you do when painting do all the buildings take on individual character. Many people never actually see the world as it is only as they expect it to be. So when painting if you put in all that detail it looks unreal like a photograph rather than something seen by a living eye. What you need to do is find a generic language of marks that says buildings without being specific. You will be amazed when people compliment you on all that detail which isn’t actually there. So like in the real world their brains filled it in because that is what they expected from the clues you gave them.

The purpose of all this is to give your paintings the immediacy and mystery that looking at the real world through human eyes gives. Nobody after all stops in front of a real scene and says, “Ooh it’s just like a photograph!”

Wellington Clock, Swanage, Dorset, plein air, watercolour, painting

This is the Wellington Clocktower which once graced the end of London Bridge. It was found to be in the way of the traffic and got demolished and rebuilt by the shore in Swanage. We have had wonderful skies lately and this day was no exception. I took a fair few photos as it changed with the idea of doing a studio oil. 12in by 8in watercolour.

Swanage, wellington clocktower, Dorset, oil painting

Here it is. Watercolour is so good a luminosity, but oils are great for solidity and form. I tried to keep the touch light but not to ape a plein air work. One of those paintings that I felt “ho hum” about until it was in its frame where it sprang to life. I think it is paintings with very open edges such as this where a frame allows the feeling of more beyond. 20in by 12in Oils.

Swanage, Dorset, Plein air, oil painting, beach

I’m starting to get a taste for beach paintings, this is Swanage again. The mood has changed now that Autumn is looming and the schools have swept the children and families from the shore. I stretched the view a little left and right perspective wise as a camera would to accentuate the sense of space. I spent about 20min on the town and mid-ground and then battled for 40min doing the beach! Areas that have very little going on can be some of the hardest things to paint. 14in by 10in Oils.

Melbury Hill, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

This was a real quickie as the light faded. It is Melbury Hill from Shaftesbury. Dusk when the sun is below the horizon and there is a cloud cover as well is a very tricky mood to catch. I didn’t really manage it this time but it made me want to go back for another stab at it! 12in by 8in Oils.

Richmond, Thames, oil painting

This was started a couple of years ago when painting with the Wapping Group by the Thames in Richmond. I dug it out of a box and thought it had potential. I remember getting the young lady in and feeling pleased she worked so well even though her legs belonged to another! I then added a couple with a dog going the other way and it all fell apart. Luck has a big part in painting and the couple was obviously pushing mine too far. As soon as I saw it afresh I had the idea to simply remove the doggy couple and just have empty paving. A bit of tidying up and I was quite pleased with the result. 10in by 10in oils.

Weymouth, Dorset, esplanade, plein air, oil painting

To the seaside again! This is Weymouth on a wonderfully dramatic and showery day. A real struggle with the elements so the picture is a bit rough around the edges. On getting home I considered tidying it but decided best not. 10in by 12in Oils.

Weymouth bay, sea, storm, oil painting

Another one from the unfinished pile I am working through. The storm was painted looking across Weymouth Bay about a year ago, but I had tried to paint beach in the foreground and had given up halfway. However on this last visit I had taken a snap of the sea and a not too dissimilar sky which I whacked in across the bottom. Much better with this sea as it adds a touch of colour, the painted out one was rather grey . 14in by 8in Oils.

 

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