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Form painting demo

If you haven’t run across it already, I’d sug­gest you take a look at this demon­stra­tion of the “form paint­ing” method by Tony Ryder. It’s pretty close to the pro­ce­dure I learned from Den­nis Cheaney. Den­nis and Tony are both stu­dents of Ted Seth Jacobs. (I should be clear that I have no con­nec­tion to Tony Ryder what­so­ever, and I have only met Ted Seth Jacobs once.)

The method pro­ceeds through sev­eral stages.

Poster Study

This is a small paint­ing (5 × 7” or so) done quickly, to develop an over­all sense of what the final com­po­si­tion will look like. It is painted entirely in big blobs of color, with no detail and no gra­da­tions (i.e., no blend­ing). Each blob rep­re­sents the over­all aver­age color of a big shape, such as the hair of the sub­ject of a por­trait. It’s best to do a lot of squint­ing while com­plet­ing a poster study. Poster stud­ies never look good enough to dis­play as sep­a­rate works of art, as stud­ies by some artists do. If it looks that good, you didn’t do it right.

The poster study allows you to solve a lot of paint­ing prob­lems before­hand. You quickly come to under­stand your com­po­si­tion in a way that thumb­nail sketches do not allow. You see color har­monies evolve and fig­ure out how you are going to mix most of the col­ors you will need. Lots of mis­takes can be caught in this man­ner before you ever touch the final paint­ing. Once you start, the poster study becomes a ref­er­ence to refer to as the final paint­ing progresses.


The next stage is draw­ing the forms on the can­vas (which is white, not toned). Tony does this in vine char­coal, then inks in the under­draw­ing in diluted paint. Den­nis some­times also had us do this in dilute paint from the start. The idea behind the draw­ing is to lin­early delin­eate all of the impor­tant forms through­out the paint­ing, with a high degree of detail. All the impor­tant deci­sions about place­ment, shape, and struc­ture are made in this stage.

Note that you must be able to draw accu­rately for this to work. Then again, if you can’t draw well, there isn’t really much point to try­ing to paint realistically.

Color Wash

The next stage is what Den­nis calls the “color wash” and Tony calls the “wash in.” It involves appli­ca­tion of diluted paint to the can­vas, approx­i­mat­ing the final color. Although Tony doesn’t men­tion it, Den­nis empha­sized that you should never use white when doing the wash in. This is a trans­par­ent appli­ca­tion of paint in a man­ner sim­i­lar to water­color, in that the lights are gen­er­ated by the white of the can­vas. The entire can­vas is cov­ered in the wash-in, so that vir­tu­ally none of of it ends up pure white. While the level of detail is not as high as in the final paint­ing, the wash-in gets pretty detailed. In his demo, Tony says this:

The wash-in helps solve many of the prob­lems that we would oth­er­wise encounter if we were to paint a fin­ished paint­ing directly on white can­vas. One such prob­lem has to do with know­ing whether or not the col­ors we’re apply­ing to the paint­ing are indeed the ones we want. Col­ors, by them­selves, are never right or wrong. They can only be judged in their tonal con­text, i.e., in the paint­ing itself. That con­text is never fully real­ized until the paint­ing is done. Con­se­quently, while the paint­ing is in progress there is always a degree of uncer­tainty involved in the choice of col­ors. How­ever, we can take steps to lessen the degree of uncertainty.

Form Paint­ing

Den­nis also calls this “paint­ing opaquely.” Over the color wash, you start in one area and slowly cre­ate the final appear­ance of the pic­ture. You can now begin to use white, which is part of what makes this stage opaque (you also stop dilut­ing the paint to a watery con­sis­tency). This is called a “win­dow shade” tech­nique because you attempt to cre­ate the final appear­ance of one area of the paint­ing, move to an adja­cent area, do the same thing, and con­tinue. The paint­ing appears slowly, as if pulling up a win­dow shade. The pro­ce­dure is there­fore basi­cally a direct paint­ing method, applied over the wash-in (which has dried very quickly because it was applied so thinly). It may take many days to com­plete the paint­ing, but each sec­tion is fin­ished before you move on to the next. (Cor­rec­tions are allowed, of course, but the goal is to not have to do any.)

This is not how I actu­ally paint nowa­days, although there are strong sim­i­lar­i­ties. I am often too lazy to do a poster study, although it would be a good idea. My under­draw­ings are usu­ally done in paint, not char­coal. I almost always tone the sur­face rather than paint on a white ground. Because I don’t like to dilute paint to that degree (I am con­cerned about its tech­ni­cal sound­ness), I don’t do a color wash. I do at times delib­er­ately work in lay­ers rather than directly.

This is an effec­tive way to paint real­is­ti­cally, how­ever, and I may go back to these roots more over time.


30 Novem­ber 2008: I should also note the strong oppo­si­tion to work­ing from pho­tos that pro­po­nents of this approach espouse. All work is done from life or from the imag­i­na­tion, never with mechan­i­cal aids and never from pho­tos. I myself find pho­tos to be pretty bad sources of infor­ma­tion to use for real­ist art, although I am not nearly so opposed as Jacobs and his direct stu­dents are to “cheating.”

Posted in art technique, oil painting.

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2 Responses

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  1. Sarah says

    Thank you for writ­ing in such detail about your tech­niques and process. This is a valu­able tool for artists that’s dif­fi­cult to find out­side a class­room (and fairly dif­fi­cult to find inside one). Keep up the good work.

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