In February I've started a scary but exciting new journey -- I've taken up an oil painting class with the amazing artist David Cheifetz in Palo Alto. The beautiful thinly painted shadows, intriguing compositions and juicy, glowing colors together with the confidently executed brushwork in his painting lured me into this class -- before which I was seriously intimidated by the thought of taking up oil painting. But, after learning that he only started painting in oil in 2007 (!!!), I decided I have to study with him and steal the secrets... (;-P)
David was trained in the Schuler Atelier School in the classical lineage. His work was built on top of a solid foundation of brush drawing, but differs from (what I understand) classical still life in their confident brushwork (a lot classical oil paintings emphasize the rigorous blending of any brushwork) and dramatic lighting. He is also an equally great teacher -- I've only taken three classes with him so far, but I've learned a ton:
- A painting starts with straight-line block-in of main object shape, cast shadow and form shadow shape, which are sketched in before the painting part starts with Burnt Umber mixed with Gamblin Gamsol, normally on an umber-toned ground. David usually use Burnt Umber for his still life paintings, and Raw Umber for his figure paintings, since the cold greenish tinge of Raw Umber sets off the warm skin tones of the figure beautifully;
- After straight-line block-in of the shadow shapes, the entire shadow side (including the form shadows and cast shadows) are blocked in with flat Burnt Umber mixed with a little Gamsol, very thinly but dark enough to differentiate from the light side;
- The actual painting starts from areas around highlights -- where the color is the riches and most saturated. After that, highlights are immediately put in thickly -- now you have both the light, mid-tone and shadow values in an object. In this step, David would mix the color pigments with his favorite medium, Gamblin Neo-Meglip Gel Medium to allow more fluid brushstrokes;
- Slowly block in the various color-values in the light side of the object, studying each section carefully before putting brush to canvas/board, painting attention to both the value and the color of the brush work. David does not pre-mix, instead, he mix each brushstroke of color on the go using his filbert brush. Each color patch is carefully mixed, laid-in, then manipulated on canvas to create the corresponding edge effects: hard, soft, diffused...
- Only when the entire light side of the object is done would David move t the boundary between light and shadow, and lay a dark color swatch parallel to the edge of the shadow, partly in the light section and partly in shadow to connect the two. Then he would check the value steps between the most saturated color section and the edge of shadow, making sure the value transition is consistent with what's showing in the object you are painting;
- David emphasizes that making what he calls "Starts" to be the most important of this training process -- the detailed steps of which is described above, and ask his students to do one "Start" of each three-hour painting session. This is very critical to getting the most out of the training time, according to his opinion. He also ask us to pay close attention to the quality and accuracy of the block-in lines, the way brushstrokes are laid when painting, and the value of each stroke put on canvas/board (value is more important than color!). He is kind but strict, and does tons of hands-on demonstrations on our canvas to illustrate each point he emphasizes...
- At the end of each three-hour session, he suggests us to wipe-off any unfinished painting after taking a photo as a record of what we have done. This way would ensure we are not so attached to the painting itself and try to fiddle and finish it at home. "The next painting would always be better than the last one!" This is absolutely right -- I am reminded each time that the purpose of me coming to these classes is not to finish a painting and having something to show around, but to practice and exercise under the guidance of a master painting, and get the most out of it!
So, what have I produced so far? Not much -- I did one single-colored object for each of the three-hour sessions, first an orange, then a red chili pepper, finally a yellow bell pepper to explore how to paint shadows on yellow objects -- since yellow has such a short value range (as you can see, I am still obsesses with my yellow rose experiment... :-P).
The orange is my first attempt and a bit of a disaster -- I have no experience in oil painting, and the support I was using -- Ampersand Gesso Board is very slick. As a result, I have very thick paints on the board, and my brush is slipping around with no control of brushwork whatsoever. The highlight is painted as a single round dot -- no edge quality or shape accuracy. But, everything has to start somewhere!
Oil Painting Session 02/01/2012, on Ampersand Gesso Board
I got slightly better on the red chili pepper -- this is my second brush drawing and I wiped the whole drawing at least three times in frustration, but I did learn to control my brushes a little better, and finally learned the right quantity of pigment and Gamsol in the brush to make a thin, deliberate line. David showed me how to manipulate paint to create fussy edges of the intricate highlight shape, and I tried it on my own -- not too successfully, but definitely improving compared to my last attempt...
Oil Painting Session 02/06/2012, on Ampersand Gesso Board
The third time, I experimented with a different ground -- RayMar Fine Weave Linen Canvas Board, on which color is absorbed much more than the Gesso Board. They have a good grip on the brush which I like, but the color definitely is less brilliant compared to the Gesso Board. I also experimented with less pigment on the brush to avoid pigment pile-up on canvas. On some sections of this painting, the pigments seem to be spread too thin -- I am still struggling to find the right amount. But, I feel that my brush-handling has definitely improved. I am squinting more to look at the big value changes. And my initial block-in lines got much better! This "Starts" are really great exercises indeed...
Oil Painting Session 02/08/2012, on RayMar Fine Weave Linen Canvas Board
At the end of each session I wiped the painting straight up -- after taking these photo evidences. I will keep on trying -- maybe one day, there would be something worth keeping. But until then, I am going to be satisfied of being able to take the lessons learned and skills improved back home with me...