Thursday, September 12, 2013

Edgewood -- 30 Paintings in 30 Days Challenge (Round Two), Day 11, and What I Have Learned from It about Underpainting

 Watercolor on Saunders Waterford #140 Cold Press paper, 10"h x 10"w, 2013 #62

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One of the consequence of painting landscape everyday for quite a few days is -- I start to crave to paint on slightly bigger pieces of paper and really allow the wet paint flow. This is something very hard to achieve on tiny formats such as 5" x 7" or 6" x 6" -- there is just not enough space for very wet washes to run, and the quantity of water has to be very strictly controlled so that you do not lose all precious white space after the first wash. And a few pieces that I liked after observing what such runny washes have done were further developed with glazes, including this one.

When applying the first layer of underpainting, sometimes I just apply a very simple all-over color tone to unify the future painting, giving it certain mood -- for example, a light yellow first layer can almost warm up the coldest, harshest paintings on top of it and gives a subtle sunny feeling to it. But most of the time, I would try to create soft-edged shapes with this first, very wet application of paint. Sometimes these shapes are related directly with the shapes, tones, directions, sizes, lines textures and colors which will follow, other times I just start with a rough idea, which means the first underpainting layer would only by partially, or approximately related to these aspects of the painting to come. And then, on other occasions, I've started with a blank mind not knowing what I'm going to paint on this piece of paper, and just apply very light colors an tones on soaking wet paper, and observe their movements -- which may give me some idea. I have even superimposed the value and color structure of another painting or other reference materials (instead of the one I am currently painting) in ghostly light versions as an underpainting, which means it would not at all correspond to the shapes, colors and values of the current painting that is to be developed on the same piece of paper -- and surprisingly, often enough, I have found that add a lot of surface interest instead of being a total disaster.

This has made me think why I have always liked to start with such a soft-edged, light underpainting layer, if it is not always to hint what's going to come. I believe underpaintings comes with its own advantages: It gives variations in the "white" section of the painting, and allow optical superimposition of color and tone. Since optical color is the synthesis made by our eye when seeing the underpainted color thought the overpainting, it is unlike any single layer and has its own mysterious "shine" or "glowing" quality when done right. An underpainting, especially when not totally correlated with the overpainting, often promotes an abstract quality of the image developed, and soft under hard edges usually makes a rich counterpoint and makes the pictorial experience more interesting and stimulating for the viewer. As long as one keeps the underpainting layer soft and light (usually lighter than midtone in value), allowing for final considerations and readjustment of edges and drawing during the overpainting process, it usually would not be too intrusive as to interfere with the viewer's experience with the overpainted image, just like the ambient sound of forest or ocean often do not interfere with our experience of music in such environment, although their rhythm or beat may not coincide with that of the music's.

For this particular painting, I have applied a very light, gradated magenta wash from top down, adding various greens, blues and purples toward the bottom, because I roughly had the idea that I wanted to paint a sunset  in the woods on a cold, snowy winter day. But I did not exactly draw out the trees, the rocks or the topography on the snow-covered field. Instead I have concentrated to vary the color temperature and value while applying this wet wash. As a result, I really liked the added interest this first layer has created on the otherwise all-white snowy field. And because of the dark woods and rock shapes developed in the overpainting, the light purple and blue areas at the bottom still read as "white" and "snow". One thing I wanted to improve on this is to add more color variations in the areas that I know will be very light (such as the sky) when doing the underpainting. I was a little timid about doing this when painting "Edgewood", and as a result, there is not a lot of color variations in the sky, and makes it a little bland compared with other areas of the image. Luckily, there are enough business in the woodland area directly below it, so that quiet patch of sky can actually give the viewer's eye some rest and relief. It was not planned, but I'm glad it worked out this way... What do you think, my friend?

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  1. It is interesting that your landscapes look different from your florals. I guess it's because of not too many hard edges. I love both! You have a great control in a difficult medium. I know. I used to be a watercolorist!


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