The Sphere Project, Year Two

Here we are, another year older another year wiser and off we go again to slay the dragon.

For those who don’t remember last year’s sphere project you can skim this post first. Instead of charcoal, I’m doing this project again in paint.

This is a good time to relate the two main ideas of Year Two in the classical painting atelier:

One. Modeling, rendering, turning form. I apologize in advance for using these three terms interchangeably, I hope it’s not confusing. Modeling is the technique that uses shading to make a line drawing look 3D enough to take a bite out of it. Basically this whole year focuses on mastering modeling in grayscale paint, otherwise known as form painting.

And two. Grisaille value underpaintings. These are what I’ll be making all year. Let’s break this down into its three essential parts. “Grisaille” is the French word for grey. In art it means a painting made in monochrome, one color with white added to lighten it. Typically the color is black, dark brown or a mix of those. The paintings end up neutral in color, sometimes more greyish blue and sometimes more creamy brown.

“Value” is another important concept and it refers to lightness or darkness. The value scale we use is nine squares: black on one end (#9) and white on the other (#1). The squares in between fall into darks, midtones, and lights. Bringing up the value means to lighten and bringing down the value means to darken.

Finally the last part of the term,”underpainting” is an awesome technique that was developed by the old Flemish school of painting and adopted early on by the Venetian school. It was used by the likes of Da Vinci and Rembrandt, and continued all the way through the 19th century until it fell out of vogue. Twentieth century modernism favored alla prima (all at once) painting and didn’t promote the slower methods of the old masters.
In underpaintings, you model the whole painting in grisaille on top of the drawing before using any color. Many great painters believed value composition to be vital to the success of a painting. This skill was almost lost in the last century but classical realist ateliers are popularizing it again. Once you have a complete underpainting, you can go back over it with color unworried about wrestling with larger questions of value. Or at least that’s the hope!

So back to the sphere project and why it’s such a beast. Because it’s a perfectly round form, the modeling has to be perfect for it to look right. With this sphere project we were introduced to the “tiling method.” Tiling is maybe the most tedious way to turn form one could invent, but with discipline and patience it creates a beautiful effect. Again, we can thank the old Dutch masters for this technique. Are you ready for the explanation? Here goes. You mix your nine (or however many) piles of value on your palate, then take your brush and dip it in the darkest value you want to use on that part of the painting and lay down a stroke on the canvas. Then you wipe off the brush. Then you take the next lightest value you need, lay it down on the canvas right next to the last value and wipe off your brush. You repeat this, one value per stroke at a time until you’ve created a little path one stroke wide from the darkest to the lightest value of the section of the painting you are working on. Then you create a new path all over again just above or below your first path so that you are knitting together rows of paths of value. If you were lost several sentences ago, so were we all.

Some made several practice attempts, others experimented with the concept of tilling on scraps of canvas while a couple of us decided to give into the tedium. I channelled Katie Whipple’s words from the workshop in August, “By slowing down, you actually speed up because you make fewer mistakes.” I planted myself in a chair with lots of towels for brush wiping and plenty of mixed paint. Some steady breathing, some mental coaching and eight hours later, I emerged with an imperfect orb and some shadow issues but lo and behold! I turned form in grisaille.

The next challenge is to use tiling in the life room.

(Featured image: my Sphere in Grisaille, October 2015)

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