Cover by Selina Fenech

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April 2008

April 2008 -- Unicorns

Gallery

Columns

  • Artist Spotlight:
    The Mystery of the Works of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516?)
  • Behind the Art:
    It's All Relative
  • Myths and Symbols:
    Fierce and Sweet
  • Healthy Green Artists:
    Down to the Wire
  • Wombat Droppings:
    CONundrums
  • EMG News:
    No Foolin'! April news

    Features

  • Learning to License

    Fiction

  • Fiction: The Wrong Kind of Snow
  • Poem: Alive Again
  • Fiction: Letting Go

    Comics

  • Falheria: Unicorns
  • Tomb of the King: The Map, Pt 3


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  • It's All Relative
    Behind the Art
    by Melissa Acker

    Another month, another article! This month will be a watercolor demonstration to go with our unicorn theme. We'll also cover what artists mean when they say 'color is relative', and how (and when) to use masking fluid.

    There are two different ways I approach a painting. Either I have a rather set idea and spend my preparation time figuring out how best to portray it, or I spend some time looking through my reference waiting for inspiration to strike. This time I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted, and so started looking through my reference to find the pose I wanted.

    So I've got my photo, and it's time to make sure I understand it. I don't need any surprises coming out at me!

    Sometimes I make a lot of different thumbnails that I can compare, and sometimes I'll just draw one that I fiddle with a lot. In this instance I drew one and re-drew the frame of reference a few times. Here, I decide that I want to draw the unicorn in long flowing grass. The thumbnail is rough but it gives me a general idea of what I'm going for.

    Then I sketch in the unicorn, playing with different features and trying to decide what I want it to look like. This is where I use the photo to get the musculature and proportions correct. Then it's time to start the painting!

    I don't usually trace or use a grid to draw onto my paper (or canvas); I just eyeball it. Comparing angles and negative space constantly keeps the drawing accurate. I draw in the unicorn first, as its placement in the painting is most important.

    Then it's time to start drawing the grass. Lately I've been playing a rather flat style, painting flat planes of foreground to contrast with the animal in the painting. It's not totally realistic and I'm not sure how far I'm gonna take it, but that's why I'm painting this the way I am.

    So I start drawing the grass, and this is actually the most time-consuming part of the painting! Drawing the grass took about two hours. I draw random blades going in different directions, then erase all the inside lines, so what I have is a flat shape that looks like long grass.

    Now it's time for the masking fluid. So let's talk about masking fluid.

    First off, I hate masking fluid. If I didn't have to use masking fluid, I wouldn't. I am using it in this case because I want to paint strong wet-in-wet washes, and there are too many blades to paint around. It would take too long to cut a physical mask, and wax is basically useless for this kind of work. So it has to be masking fluid.

    That being said, there are some things you can do to make the experience less painful. Under no circumstances should you use natural-bristle brushes. The masking fluid will immediately clump them and turn them into a terrible mess. Use only synthetic brushes. Buy a little bar of brush soap and use it exclusively for applying masking fluid. You also need a glass of water.

    First, wet your brush, then immerse the bristles in soap, then put it in the masking fluid. Then rinse it out in the glass of water and start over. It is very time consuming.

    You can see that in the top image I've masked all around the bottom plane of grass. Masking fluid turns yellowish when it's dry. Always wait until the mask is completely bone dry before you start to paint, or you'll end up with little bits of it everywhere, and they might not come off your paper. Waiting overnight is best.

    Then I use a spray bottle and a big brush to wet the area I'm working in (the foreground grass), and I start putting in color. Here I used a variety of greens, yellows, browns and blues. It's not terribly important for this painting what exact paints I use; I just want them to be transparent, so no cadmiums or any other opaque paint. I want to keep the values on the light side, because I am going to paint shadows behind them and I want them to stand out. I let the colors bleed into each other on their own. When I'm done applying color, I stand the board upright and let the extra paint drip off and leave it to dry.

    Once the paint is dry (again waiting overnight is best), I take the masking fluid off, and apply it over the blades of the grass I just painted, as well as around top edges of the middle-ground grass. Then it's time to wait for it to dry again. Lots of waiting. When I'm working on a painting like this, I usually have one or two other small pieces in the works so I don't have to twiddle my thumbs all day. Once dry, I wet the area I'm working in, and start putting in color. I use the same colors as before but concentrate on making the values darker, and use less yellow and more blue. Again I leave the board vertical to dry.

    Later I spend some time looking at the painting, and decide the middle ground isn't dark enough, so I do another wash using even more greens and blue-greens. Once dry I remove the masking fluid and the above picture is what it looks like.

    The grass is done to my satisfaction for now. Next is the sky. I remove all the masking fluid (again) and mask the top edge of all the grass that touches the sky and the whole unicorn. Then I wait for it to dry some more.

    I wet the whole sky area and start putting in color, ranging from oranges to blues and violets. While it is still wet, I splatter in some yellow ochre, and later spray it with a spray bottle to add some texture to the sky.

    After it is dry I spend some time looking at the painting, and think, 'Well, that sky is quite nice. Too bad it's going from orange to violet in the wrong direction!' That's right, I wasn't paying attention and put my light source in the completely wrong place. Now it's time to try and fix it.

    I don't usually use turquoise blue, but I use a pretty even wash of it over the whole sky, then spatter some ultramarine blue and yellow ochre in the upper corner to add more texture. I was thinking that it would end up implying floating blossoms on the wind or whatever the the viewer might imagine. Anyway now my sky looks like much less of a disaster.

    When I started this painting, I imagined a very sunny day, with strong shadows. But now it's almost looking a little overcast, maybe even like a storm could be brewing. But we're not done yet!

    All I've done here is block in the unicorn very roughly (and I've taken off all the masking fluid; I don't need it anymore!). Just putting in the cast shadows has immediately given us our sunny-day illusion back! Why has it done this, you may ask? Well that's because every element in your painting is relative to every other element.

    Every value is relative to every other value, every color is relative to every other color, every shape is relative to every other shape. If you make a greyscale drawing using only light and medium values, your eye would automatically make the medium value your 'darkest dark' and would understand the drawing in one way. If you then added a darker shadow somewhere, it would completely change the composition. That's why artists usually recommend 'working the whole painting at once'. You can adjust the painting to work with itself, rather than having to re-adjust everything all the time.

    For example, let's say I'm painting a still life of an apple and an orange in a bowl. I could work the whole painting in stages, or I could completely start and finish the apple, then start and finish the orange, then start and finish the bowl. Problem is, every time I finish a different part, I'd have to re-adjust everything I finished before it, because its color and value would have become different relative to what was also painted now. Make sense?

    Here's the finished piece. The differences between the two stages are pretty minor. I refined the detail on the unicorn and added more darks, as well as some reflected color on his belly. I spattered some red paint in the sky to further encourage the idea of 'blossoms in the wind'. I went back and tidied up the grass a bit, filling in some of the white areas and trying to match the colors as best I could. And I also added a shadow side to the blades of grass near the unicorn to give them some definition. That's basically it.

    And there you have it, another article all done! I hope you all learned something or at least saw a different way of working out a problem. Thanks for reading!

    Melissa Acker
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