February and the Shadow Side

(Featured image: Study of a Male Nude by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1801)

A week ago I finished my second figure painting using a limited color palette. I used red, yellow, orange, blue, brown and white (Venetian red, yellow ocher, transparent earth orange, ultramarine blue, burnt umber and flake white). This experience was particularly character-building. Transitioning from grisaille to color is the adolescence of learning to paint. And as Juliette says, no one can prepare you for adolescence. It will be awkward, moody, and it will feel like it took forever but, she promises, it really passes in a blink.

The figure painting was a four-week pose, which also means it was exactly the length of February, the hardest month of both the calendar and school year. Calendar-wise, it’s cold. And in Seattle it’s so soggy the moss is growing moss. For the rest of the year inclement weather makes me excited to tuck myself away in a warm studio and paint, but by February winter is sounding its death knell and one begins to feel desperate for a spring day. School-year-wise, the end-of-year countdown starts to rearrange your life. Right now it’s mid-March, the Aristides Atelier show is the third week of May and the Best of Gage Show is the third week of June. Believe me when I say I have every single day accounted for between now and those dates.

The atelier curriculum is structured around large concepts tackled each year (first year is drawing, second year is grisaille and warm/cool palette, etc.) and each year has a list of exercises and projects to help us learn these concepts. We only have time to complete a handful of these projects so it’s our responsibility to strategize ways to squeeze as much learning out of each year as possible. When the year is up, we must move on to the next.

So time pressure is one challenge. Another challenge is the adolescence phase. We spend the whole fall learning new concepts and doing small exercises. For example, last fall I began the second year learning about value painting in grisaille and did a bunch of black and white poster studies. Then I learned to render by turning form on a simple sphere. Just before winter break we learned about the  warm/cool palette and started using it for still life studies in January. February is when playtime is over. No more exercises. It’s time to crank out finished works that can take four to six weeks a peice. So there’s a lot of trying really hard and failing really hard all spring, but especially in February. February is full of face-plants. However, since I’m a glass half-full kinda person, I have to thank February for the kind of crappy weather that inspired thirteen-hour work days and fully dedicated weekends.

(Don’t worry we know how to chase the sun beyond the rain shadow when we need to:)


From the post before last, you know I finished the “Cup and Scone” piece, which for the most part was a nicely focused, prolonged experience of painting and learning. The figure was another story entirely. It was miserable. I wasn’t sure if I was sinking or swimming, but it surly felt like sinking. Still life and figure paintings are made with different approaches, which I’ll save for a later post when I understand it well enough to articulate (this might take me ten years). The approaches are different enough that succeeding in one often means struggling in the other. It’s common to be nailing it in the life room and making a total mess in the afternoon still life hours or vice versa. My “Cup and Scone” was holding together, my figure painting was falling apart.

There are so many reasons that we learn to paint and draw the figure from life, a major one is that flesh does not look believable when it is painted totally opaquely. Skin has a translucent quality that must be captured to create realistic images. Look back at that Ingres painting at the top. See how the lights are more thickly painted and carefully rendered while the part of the figure in shadow appears flatter and more thinly painted. In Ingres’ paintings, the shadows often show ground color, the (probably) warm brown wash that the painter first used to cover the white of the canvas. My goal was to learn how to paint shadows on the figure.

There are many ways to paint shadows that make no sense when they are explained to you. It sounds like “don’t paint them” or “paint them but do it transparently.” In the end it’s really an effect that you have to achieve through lots of trial and error. And of course, there’s no one approach that fits all cases. As ever, we must look, observe, see and then finally attempt.

From my position in the room, the figure was half in shadow. I finished the drawing at a good pace that would have given me plenty of time to paint the whole figure with care. But the weeks went by and over and over again my approaches failed and I wiped away or painted over them. I just couldn’t get it to look right. I looked at old paintings, received lots of advice from teachers but there was no formula. Of course I finally had a breakthrough of vision and comprehension with two days left in the pose. I will not post pictures from the wreckage, but after weeks of swimming I finally caught some land. If I had another week on this pose, the pose I had all but given up on a day earlier, I think I might have actually had something resembling a showably finished figure painting. I know that doesn’t sound like a reason to celebrate. But in atelier life the biggest victory is not the best completed painting, it’s the painting before that where you failed miserably for a long time until you started getting something right.

Here’s “Noah”:

And as a parting photo, here’s my sweet studio: