Quick color temperature

Pastel and chalk on toned paper
Pastel and chalk on toned paper

This year at the atelier I learned modeling using color temperature—we used a limited palette of 4 earth-toned pastel pencils, charcoal and white chalk, and toned paper to create form and shadow.

This method is about intellectualizing your drawing. It’s about making a conscious plan rather than just grabbing a color and hoping it will work. We drew value scales in color to denote the color temperature of highlight, strong light, midtones and shadows, paying close attention to warm and cool color temperature and where it was placed in the scale. This is agony for me. I don’t do it well. Scales suck.

Since I am also a musician, I know the value of scales. I think of them as athletic training, like the drills that prepare the football player for that winning 100-yard dash. Playing scales prepare the musician for a blindingly brilliant set. Playing the actual notes become muscle memory, the body goes on automatic pilot and the musician’s  intuitive brain is free to choose the music she hears in her head.

I figure it must be the same for the style of painting I’m yearning to do. Once I’ve internalized color temperature theory, I’ll be more able to make intuitive choices that are based on logic.  That’s when I think true creativity can emerge.

Value chart for warm light
Value chart for warm light

So I drew value scales religiously for each of my drawings this year. They helped. It’s surprising how far astray you can go from your original values over the course of a long pose. I leaned heavily on those value scales to re-orient myself and to overcome frustration. I know I frequently muttered things like, “strong light is cool. Cool, dammit!”

But on the last day of class this year I decided to whip out a drawing using the color temperature principles without agonizing over a value scale. The drawings at the top of the post were of ten minute poses each on toned paper. I did have to write the color temperatures down so I could remember which shadow was cool, which highlight was warm, but I didn’t need to draw a value scale. I was pleased that the concept is beginning to integrate into the way I choose color.

The question of perfection

Fluteplayer <br />  <br>© 2009 Margaret Sloan<br /> <i>Graphite </i>
Flute player © 2009 Margaret Sloan

I’ve been working on this painting for something like a month now, doing color roughs and composition studies. Of course, I don’t work on it every day (the day job, much as I love it, cuts considerably into time for painting and drawing), so I have some (lame) excuses for my slow pace.

This is the drawing for the for the final painting.  It’s given me quite a lot of trouble, because I have been picky about it. Teacher Steve has said, “you’re splitting hairs. I know that’s your working method, but you need to get on with painting!” I know he’s got a point: the piece can get too precious. But I know also that I need to get the base drawing right in order to convey what I have to say in this painting.

First of all, I needed to get the tilt of the flute player’s head as she bends forward to meet her flute. The head is down, the chin tilted to the left, and the body curls around the instrument. (This  flute posture is actually a position I’m trying to modify in my Alexander Technique classes, as playing the flute tends to give me terrible stiff necks and headaches.)

I struggled until I was ready to bite the pencil; the drawing kept looking like a profile, until Steve pointed out that when you look down on a persons face, there are certain cues that tell us the tilt of the head. The brow line curves down  and covers the top of the eye. You can see more of the inside of the bottom eye lid. And you can see more of the top of the head. Yeah, I know that already, but sometimes we’re blinded to the simplest mistakes while drawing. I made those changes, and—shazaam!—the tilt was there.

I also want to convey her age (young) which means her features are rounded, slightly blunt, and soft (I’ll use color also as a symbol of her age, when I do finally start painting). I had to measure the drawing carefully, because her chin and nose kept growing in the drawing, giving her that kind of solid jaw-bone look of grown ups.

But the most important thing I want to convey is the way she’s  listening hard to the tune in her head and reaching into her flute to pull out the music and send it into the world. That’s going to be the magical thing that makes this painting work.

This is to to be a larger size painting than I usually work in, on 12 x 16 Arches watercolor block—blocks being the easiest thing to schlepp back and forth to the Pacific Art League watercolor class, where I do most of my watercolor painting.

Vermeer with a limited color palette

Vermeer copy Charcoal and pastel chalk on toned paper

This is the results of the first 5 hours into my homework (copy a part of an old master, once as if under warm light and once as if under cool light)  for the Atelier. Vermeer’s guitar player  looks spooky with no eyes, but they’ll go in last, to keep me from focusing on them and nothing else. Her nose is not long enough and her mouth is too high; I’ll fix that later as well.

ValueChartWarmMaestro Rob has allowed us to use a limited color palette—charcoal, white chalk, gray chalk, and 5 earth-toned chalks. We’re working with color temperature and value to build form. At left you can see my value chart. This drawing is imagined to be under warm light, which, according to the way David and Rob teach color temperature theory, makes cool highlights and shadow, alternating cool and warm in all the steps in between.

This drawing will have to go on the back burner for now, as I still have to attempt the other part of the assignment in two evenings, that of the same drawing as if under cool light. That will mean warm highlights, warm shadows.

It’s a lot of work, to be sure, learning to draw and see effectively, but it’s been worth it. 3 years ago I couldn’t even imagine doing this kind of work. I still have trouble imagining that I can do it, and still am never satisfied.

Vermeer cropped original

Human anatomy (look Ma, those drawings got no skin!)


I have to admit to being a little bit of an anatomy book junkie. Human anatomy fascinates me. Yes, I know that certain parts of human anatomy—the twiddly bits— fascinate everyone. But if that’s what you’re thinking I’m on about, then shame on you. I’m telling you, we’re not going down that road. Not without a bottle of wine and a beachfront room in Maui full of roses.

I’m talking anatomy for artists. I collect books on the topic. And it turns out my teacher, Rob Anderson, at the Atelier School of Classical Realism, knows the author of  Classic Human Anatomy by Valerie L. Winslow. He thinks highly of the book, so I bought one.

I’m happy I did. Subtitled The Artist’s Guide to Form, Function, and Movement, it’s full of  beautiful drawings. Not just drawings of muscles and skeletons, but also drawings that show important things like the action of individual muscles, how to draw the torso (Rob says, always get the torso right before anything else), and the rhythm of form (although I wish she’d spent a few more pages on this subject.)

If you’re interested in life drawing, you’ll want to check this book out.


Late at night we dream of mice

Symbols in the wee small hours
Dreaming of mice
© 2009 Margaret Sloan

I watched a lot of b-grade horror flicks when I was a kid. My dad loved Creature Features, and he and I would stay up late together watching the old movies. We didn’t agree on much else in those days, but we both loved Dracula.

The thing the mouse is pulling is a symbol. It appeared in a dream that woke me very early one morning. I’m well acquainted with the small hours of the morning; I’ve never slept soundly, and I wake often. Not because I want to, but because anxiety drives me from the mattress  to the drawing table. It’s a perfect setting for a monster movie scene.

I imagine this frantic mouse is bringing light to a corner of an old stone kitchen. Christopher Lee has just commanded, “Light, quickly! She’s fainted.” The beautiful ingenue is slumped gracefully into a carved wooden chair. The mouse sits up,  chittering in worry while dreadful shadows leap across the kitchen walls. They assume shapes we can only just recognize. She wakes, screams, then faints again. A window bangs open. The candle is extinguished by a damp wind.

Cut to a commercial.

Every day in May

everyday_smallI ran across an internet challenge called Every day in May on a blog called French Toast Girl. You are supposed to do something creative every day during the month of May. Some people post their results to a  Flickr site.

I generally do something creative every day. It’s my job! But I’m going to take French Toast Girl’s challenge, or invitation, or whatever she’s calling it, and I’m going to try to post something to this blog every day in May. I know not how, or if I’ll make it to the end of the month, or if all the posts will be useful or even interesting. They may not be.

I’m a little late on the upswing (as usual). I’m not an early adopter, learn about things way late, and am usually dragged kicking and screaming into new technology. Which I then adopt ferociously. Good Lord, wait until I figure out Twitter!

This counts as a post. Right? Right. Ready, set, go!

Anxiety and accordions

Last night I was waylaid by anxiety. You know the feeling: heart racing, mind jumping like a monkey shrieking at each imagined worse case scenario.

It felt something like this:

Colored markers on slick paper
Colored markers on slick paper

Well, I wasn’t actually feeling quite this armageddon-ish, despite world events cascading towards something scary in a most remarkable manner. Instead,  my anxiety was of a personal nature, stemming from the feeling of falling behind, of not painting enough, of not moving fast enough towards my goal, of being too lax, too lazy.

Part of this stems from late night reading of artist blogs, stories like Middle of Nowhere, about a toymaker in the UK, or Andrea Joseph’s sketch blog, that has lovely drawings in such a beautiful style. I admire these artists, and  they give me something to stretch for, to be sure, but also they make me feel so far behind.

So, since the bed was making me feel prickly and itchy, I got up at 1 a.m. and drew this fellow.

Accordion player number 1
Accordion player number 1

It’s my first pass at a painting I want to make of a Morris accordion player on May Day. However, this fellow looks too innocent. Too farmboy to play a diabolical instrument like the accordion.

This is better. I like his smirk. I like that he looks like a magician. The Morris dancers say they dance to keep the sun coming up on May Day. Some days I think it takes a magician to do that. I’ll start painting him this evening.

Accordion player number 2
Accordion player number 2

Drawing in three colors

Neck study  Charcoal, chalk, sanguine on toned paper
Neck study
Charcoal, chalk, sanguine on toned paper

At the Atelier  School of Classical Realism, we’ve graduated from using only charcoal and white chalk. We’ve added a third chalk: red-hued sanguine. Boy, what a difference! With charcoal, white chalk, sanguine, and the toned paper, we’re actually working with four colors, and it’s amazing how many variations in value and hue we can mix.

At the bottom left of the drawing above, you can see my value chart. Working out your values before you start adding tone is absolutely the way to go. It doesn’t pay to be lazy in this regard; you’ll end up either working harder in the end, or just giving up on the drawing.

This drawing was done in about 3.5 hours, and with this limited amount of time (we do lo-o-o-ng poses in this class. I’ve worked on drawings up to 15-20 hours, so 3.5 hours was brief for me) I chose to do a study of a neck because Rob had just given us a terrific lecture on how to stick the head on the torso (always an important thing!) and I wanted to try out his ideas.

The key to getting the head on right is placing the neck properly. And the key to placing the neck is to think of it as a column emerging from top of the torso.

Sounds simple, but it’s not.