Gage Academy of Art was delighted to host Florence-based painter and instructor, Jordan Sokol, this August. Over the course of an intensive five-day workshop, students were able to immerse themselves in the basic principles of sight-size, blocking in, value, and a limited color palette.
Jordan at Work
Monday began by toning the canvas: six small drops of ivory black and six small drops of raw umber are placed evenly on the canvas, then thinned with a small bit of turpentine; toning as such creates a clean, strong foundation for subsequent paint layers. Utilizing the historic sight-size method, the drawing is blocked in with raw umber, which is thinned to a fluid, flexible consistency with turpentine and a touch of linseed oil. Focusing on large, general shapes allows the drawing to remain open, while broad, well-designed shadow shapes-- which later aid in the description of beautiful form --are lightly washed in and allow for the differentiation of light and dark.
Tuesday found the canvas dry to the touch, which led to the introduction of a limited palette:
L-R: Cremintz White, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red Medium, Cobalt Blue*, Raw Umber*, Ivory Black
*Cobalt Blue and Raw Umber both dry very quickly.
Only two colors are mixed at this stage: a general background and flesh color. For the flesh, one should use a goodly amount of white* and a bit of yellow ochre and cadmium red medium. The flesh color should match the value of the previous day's imprimatura (toned canvas) and can be neutralized or darkened with a bit of raw umber; the background color should be of the same value and can be mixed with a simple combination of black and white. For shadows, raw umber is all that is needed.
*It is important to remember that only cremintz-- not zinc or titanium --white should be used. Cremintz is a warm, lead-based white that lends a gorgeous luminosity to flesh tones. Zinc and titanium, which are cooler whites, can deaden flesh tones and/or make them overly "chalky."
Using three brushes-- one for each value --dipped lightly in turpentine, the background, then general lights of the flesh are drawn in with thin paint. It was important not to separate the idea of drawing and painting: shadow and light shapes are refined with a series of smaller angles, while the background color and shadow unify the figure with the rest of the piece.
At this point, the turning of form can begin to be suggested: the sense of form relates directly to the design of the shadow shapes and in relation to the contour lines of the subject.
Come Wednesday, the piece was pushed further with value and light. Value allows one to express the luminosity of the subject in paint-- and compressing values assists in copying the relationships of what can be seen with the human eye.
To key values, the lightest light and darkest dark must first be located: this establishes the parameters of the value scale within the painting. While squinting or viewing the subject in a black mirror, the values of the light are brought down one step and large, broad relationships of light and shadow can be established with greater ease. Beginning with the background and shadow, the lightest light can be triangulated.
Three colors are mixed at this stage of the painting:
Background (black, white, and a little blue)
Shadow (black and red)
Light (white, yellow ochre, and a touch of red)
Beginning by noting the lightest light of the subject and keeping the consistency of the paint a bit thicker-- but still not too thick --the background, shadow, and the previous day's neutral flesh color are used to further figure out proportions and relationships; being mindful of how the figure relates to the background assists in unifying the piece as a whole.
Thursday was a paint mixing extravaganza. While it isn't necessary to mix two flesh strings (a/k/a grey step scales with color accents) at this stage, it certainly doesn't hurt: a subtly yellow string can be used for the trunk of the body, while its subtly red sister can pay homage to the limbs and other extremities.
For the 8 value step string(s), a mixture of red and black is used for the shadow. Adding a little yellow (a slight bit more for the yellow string) and a little red (a slight bit more for the red string) to black create darkest value-- then adding a bit more red and yellow for each step takes one to value five, when white is added. Be careful with the addition of too much white: it is notorious for cooling down colors and making them "chalky" in appearance; conversely, a bit of black can be added if the value seems to be too colorful. When reaching value six, a bit of raw umber can be added to neutralize the color a bit. Mixing strings may seem daunting at first, but it becomes simpler with practice. Please remember that one needn't mix fresh strings each day-- paint can be frozen in an air-tight container to keep it fresh.
Diferences between yellow and red strings are quite subtle.
With pre-mixed strings, it is simple to organize values before mapping them onto the painting. Still drawing with the paint, it is important to understand what is going on with the values of the subject and how the light is falling via squinting or using a black mirror. Using paint that is a bit more opaque (but still on the thinner side), begin mapping the value one step below the established lightest light and establish a small bit of the darkest dark. The background color can also be mixed into the flesh in areas where it is reflected, helping to keep the entire piece harmonized.
At this phase of the painting, it is normal for some of the precision become lost and things may begin to look a bit messy: this allowing for the values to become correct, giving one relationships to work with... and the precision can always be regained in later stages of the piece.
Come Friday, edges and transitions began to be used in order to create form and suggest a more three-dimensional way of thinking; sharp edges will create a definitive area of focus and should be used carefully, while soft edges unify the subject with the background. Subtle halftone shapes-- which are given as much thoughtful design as shadow and contour --allow for a specific structure. Keeping the entire piece planar until this point allows for it to remain flexible until the very end, where subtle temperature shifts can finally be explored.
Bear in mind that this is by no means a finished piece for Jordan; rather, he has set up a framework for a painting that could take over 70 hours from start to completion. All in all, workshop attendees were provided with a solid foundation to explore the underpinnings of solidly observed and designed work.
A most special thank-you to Jordan for travelling overseas, educating with such thoroughness and passion, and braving the un-Summery Seattle climes.
All photos by Stephanie Johnson. Demonstration painting by Jordan Sokol.