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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

2 Great Painting Tips from Kevin MacPherson

"Alfred" - underpainting in progress - oil 9x12"
Just got back from a fantastic workshop in San Francisco with Kevin MacPherson. He is not only a masterful painter, he’s a great guy. He is passionate about teaching, lots of fun to learn from, and really knows what he’s talking about. Super worth studying from!

Though most of what he taught was not new to me - it was like taking all the value study work I’ve been doing for the last few years, paring it down even more - and launching from there.

The Power of Black and White

I’ve worked with doing pre-painting value studies before, but always including a midtone. With Kevin, we started every painting by doing a value study of our subject using only black and white to create the pattern that is light, and the pattern that is shadow.

It’s super challenging to simplify to this extent. What’s needed is a big sharpie marker and a willingess to abandon detail in service of design.

Once you feel the sweet spot of this approach, you cross into a new world of possibility. You become liberated from the idea that detail is needed to tell a powerful story.

Photo from Chinatown - San Francisco

Value study of above Chinatown photo

The Essential Truth About Light and Shadow

Once you begin painting, the trick is to move back in the other direction without going too far.

The biggest thing I got from Kevin was this: the way to preserve the compelling design you just created is to honor a fundamental truth. White in shadow is darker than black in light. Everything builds on that, no crossing the line.

You can deepen your comprehension of this principle by putting a piece of white and black cloth side by side in a direct light source - sunny window for example, and then casting a shadow across them. Now squint down and compare the values and you’ll see it. I've posted a photo as an example, but it’s great learning to do this yourself and see it live.

Cover everything except the white in shadow and the black in light and squint. You'll see that the black in light is lighter than the white in shadow.

What to Consider As You Bring Color Back In

The next thing is to decide if your painting is about the light or the shadow. A good place to explore when considering this is to ask which takes up the larger part of your picture plane.

Once you decide if the light or the shadow will be the star player - put your richest colour there.

If it is the shadow, then you have to create enough light in it to see the colour, which means you need to add a lot of white to your lights (to keep them lighter than the shadow) - and adding that white will be at the expense of pure colour.

On the other hand, if it is in the light where you want to have your richest colour, you will have to darken the darks to get the shadow family where it belongs, again at the expense of rich colour.

"Doorway" - underpainting in progress - oil 12x9"

Try this approach, stay out of the weeds of detail, and see what happens when you let strong design and skillful use of color become a foundation of your work.

Photo reference for "Alfred" painting at the top of the post.