Artist at Work: Color as Shape
Illustration by John Hersey
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Establishing shape


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Artist at Work: Color as Shape

with Mary Jane Begin

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Video: Establishing shape

For me, the way to make a more interesting picture is really to think about the balance of the shapes, so that everything that I'm creating isn't exactly the same size or weight. So with that in mind I'll start with what I always start with, which is the ground color. And in this case I'll be doing something that may seem strange or odd to the eye. And that is I'm going to start this with a base of color that is lime green. And I've done this with my students at RISD, much to their chagrin.
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  1. 1h 9m
    1. Introduction
      2m 56s
    2. Establishing shape
      5m 45s
    3. Highlights
      11m 17s
    4. Color blocking
      23m 28s
    5. Color blocking the face
      11m 1s
    6. Adding final details
      15m 5s

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Watch the Online Video Course Artist at Work: Color as Shape
1h 9m Beginner Jan 28, 2014

Viewers: in countries Watching now:

Composing an image is like solving a puzzle; if you can imagine your elements as a group of colored shapes, you can make all the pieces fit. In this course, Mary Jane Begin shows you how to see shape before detail and develop a portrait step-by-step, using reference images, a color composite, and foundational shapes. The course will review color balance, color blocking, use of diagonal shapes for dynamic compositions, tension between edges, focal points, space, and hierarchy of shape.

Mary Jane uses the following materials in this course:

  • Arches 140 lb hot press paper
  • Tube watercolors- Winsor & Newton Cotman brand
  • Paper stumps for blending
  • Pastels- a variety of stick and pencil forms (including Conte pastel pencils)
  • Short, fat, fine-bristle Winsor & Newton #2 and #4 brushes (for scrubbing color off)
  • Sceptre Gold II sable/synthetic blend #3, #6, and #10 brushes
  • Winsor & Newton Cotman brand 25 mm/1 in. flat brush (for washes)

Subject:
Design
Author:
Mary Jane Begin

Establishing shape

For me, the way to make a more interesting picture is really to think about the balance of the shapes, so that everything that I'm creating isn't exactly the same size or weight. So with that in mind I'll start with what I always start with, which is the ground color. And in this case I'll be doing something that may seem strange or odd to the eye. And that is I'm going to start this with a base of color that is lime green. And I've done this with my students at RISD, much to their chagrin.

Initially at least. I paint with this color because it helps, especially when you're painting flesh tones. It's a trick that the renaissance painters used, which is, to start with a base of green, because it reacts to the warmth of the color of the skin that you put on top of it. It either creates a neutral color in shadows, or with opaque pinks and things it pops off of that green ground. So I'm going to start with that here and this may seem very vibrant to the eye, but it'll actually help make the skin tones look more like skin.

I'm also going to paint with the green because, I looked at this picture and saw a lot of like cools and purples and warms and I thought they would really well to their compliment, the green ground. So I'll coat this whole picture with the green, and then I'll tone it down a little bit with a neutralizing color of raw umber. But this is a common device used in the Renaissance or was and for me it's something that also gives me a point of reaction, for opposite colors on top. So I'll get this ground down and then I'll lay the raw umber on top.

I'm bearing in mind that the most important shape is the focal point the face. And what will react is a pink face against a green ground. And his face is fairly pink in tone. He's young. So I'm keeping that in mind as a really potent reactionary point for this green ground. I'll get to the bottom and it's getting a little bit dry. Even though I wet this surface it dries out pretty quickly. And then I'll coat in the raw umber. So now that we've let the lime green dry, I'm going to add raw umber to this, and the reason why I'll do that is just to kind of knock back this vibrancy a little bit so it's easier to work with.

Sometimes when you have an overly vibrant color the first thing you should do is start just neutralizing the color just a bit so it's not too much for the eye to take. So I'll add a layer of a green brown, which is the raw umber color, as a kind of neutralizer. But I want to be careful not to just kill that green. Especially in the face where it's most important. Its main purpose is really for the flesh tone, the focal point. To make sure that green shows through. So I'll just layer a thin layer of raw umber, and you'll see that it's still nice and green, but not, just not quite as vibrant as it started out.

And, I had to make sure that the color was dry before I layered this on, because with a medium like watercolor, if the color is is too wet when you're laying the second color on top. The brush will just pick up that color, and that's not ideal. So I'm going to wet the surface a little bit more, because as I'm looking at this, I'm seeing a little bit of streak, and I don't want streak in this ground, I want it to be really smooth. When you add water to the surface before you lay the pigment in, what happens is, it moves the color around more effectively.

The brush has hairs on, it's made of hairs, so it tends to create, more of a streak effect, which can be great, but if that's not what you want, then it isn't great. So I'm just going to add a little more of this umber tone to create a sort of even surface for our ground before we start blocking in the color and when I say blocking I just mean breaking down the whole painting into shape. But we can't do that until we have a binder color, the ground color.

And when I say ground I simply mean the surface of color that I'm working on. And the ground can be white, some people like to work on white. I like to work on color, because it gives me something to react to and it's fun to have something to react to. I think I'd like to go a little deeper with this color so there's a stronger reaction when I go to the next stage. So I'll just layer one more layer of the raw umber, in this case. Mixed with the lime green. When I mix the two colors together they're a little more neutral than if they were layered one on top of the other, but that's okay.

The color is exactly where I want it to be, and I want there to be a really nice color reaction. When I start to, think of this as a color system with shape. And I'll do that by pulling out highlights, and then blocking in the colors. But first I want this ground to be just a little bit deeper in value and really just a little bit richer iIn this greener color. And hopefully you can still see the drawing underneath.

I hope for myself, too, so I can see what I'm painting. Just a little bit more, keeping it fairly light as a layer, but deepening the, the whole picture. So what I'll do is just let this dry before we continue.

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