The secret of a good painting is not only in the artist’s skill but also in choosing an amazing subject. I began this work with a wonderful photo that showed the personalities of two Clydesdales.
Maimeri Puro artist-quality oil paint; archival-quality Belgian-linen stretched canvas; artist-quality, round Chungking hog-hair brushes, size 2, 8 and 12; one synthetic rigger brush, size 1 and one 000 sable signature brush; a disposable palette.
Because the small photo of the Clydesdales needed to be enlarged, it was carefully drafted to scale as a line drawing onto canvas, using a soft charcoal stick. The charcoal dusted away as I applied the paint. I only use this drawing technique if I need to enlarge a photo. When painting sight-size, I usually work without a preliminary drawing.
Plan every aspect of the painting—especially the colour harmony—before beginning to paint. A split-opposite colour harmony of red-orange, yellow-orange and blue-orange (blue is the opposite colour to orange) was chosen for this painting.
I’ve never compromised on paint quality. I advise my students to use the best equipment they can afford. Most of my students choose to buy professional-quality materials right from the start. As a result, many have achieved great results from their paintings and have done so faster than those who struggle to work with student-grade paints and brushes.
I put out on the pallet above low- and high-chroma (colour intensity) versions of red-orange, yellow-orange, titanium white and light and dark tonal-value blues.
I didn’t use black from a tube but achieved a tone as dark as black by mixing dark orange, burnt sienna, and dark blue (ultramarine dark) together. Using opposite colours on the colour wheel in a mixture creates luminous and variable greys. If the colours are of the darkest tone, these muted-chroma combinations will appear as dark as black in the painting without the flatness of black.
You are only able to achieve tones as dark as black when you work with the world’s best artist-quality paints with a high concentration of pigments. Paint manufacturers may use ground-up plasterboard off-cuts and similar fillers or additional oil to bulk up the contents of a tube of student-grade paint. There are fewer fillers and a lot more pigment in the professional-grade paints.
Paint manufacturers do not always make it easy for you to determine which are quality paints and which aren’t. One oil-paint brand on the market lists one grade of its paint as ‘Paint for Artists’ and another as ‘Artist’s Oil Paint.’ One of these paints is said to be an inferior student-grade product and the other of professional quality. Since I do not use that particular brand, even I, a professional, would be confused by that labelling. I like clear labelling and vote with my buyer’s opinion about deceptive labelling. I chose the Australian brand Art Spectrum initially because it only makes a quality product. Then I moved on to use the world’s best paint, Maimeri Puro, from Italy. I love that paint. It is costly; this is expected as it contains more pigment than other brands. If you want your work to be of a professional standard, this paint is worth the expense for the clarity of colour it provides.
Since the quality of the paint will make such a difference to your work, you need to be able to determine which is the professional artist-quality product. This is where a trained staff member in a good art supply store can become your adviser, and you will hopefully support their business with a purchase. That is the only way to keep stores employing product-trained staff.
If there is too much filler and oil in the paint, as in the student-quality paint range, you cannot create good dark colours without resorting to black paint.
Student-grade paints are inexpensive for a reason. The cheap filler material in the tube reduces the pigment (colour) intensity. If you use these student-grade paints, your painting will appear bland, and many colours will seem to be unnatural, as the contrasts of light and shade also deteriorate as the painting dries. No amount of varnishing will make student paint take on the appearance of full-pigmented professional artist paint.
If you use student-grade oil paint, the dark colours will eventually fade as the oil yellows with age, thus altering the pigment colour. Treat yourself to the best materials for the job. If you sell your work, give your paying customer what they have a right to expect. Using quality materials will ensure that the work will last.
One way you can select a good art tutor from a hobby class is based upon the type of paint that he recommends to you. If your tutor advises you to purchase student-grade paint, then he is telling you at the beginning that he wants you as a permanent student. If he were actually striving to make a good artist out of you, the first thing he would insist on is that you purchase quality materials to produce quality work. Which sort of tutor do you prefer?
Preliminary Painting Step
I chose a relaxed, easy, non-stressful place to start with this painting and blocked in a medium blue-sky background. I mixed ultramarine blue and titanium white with a small amount of orange-red to make the colour more muted. I didn't completely mix the colours on the pallet, preferring instead to mix as I painted this work. With a size-12-bristle round brush, I made the background slightly mottled in appearance; this was more interesting than a single-tone and single-colour sky would have been.
I didn’t begin this painting at the traditional starting point, which would be to work from dark to light, as I show in the tonal painting lessons in the Kathy Shell, Studio 2, Rose Art eBook. Sometimes you might choose to apply the lightest-tone paint first, as was done with this work to ensure that there wasn’t any contamination of the lightest area of the painting with a small particle of a darker pigment accidentally picked up on the brush. Yes, even experienced painters can do that if they don’t take precautions.
Step Two of the Clydesdales' Painting Block-in
To ensure the lightest area of the painting did not become accidentally contaminated by another pigment, I painted the lightest section of the painting next, before there was pigment in place beside it. I am repeating this information as it is important. Mud is the easiest colour for a student to end up with in a painting, and it happens through allowing an adjoining colour to contaminate your brush as you work beside it. Don’t allow your light colours to get muddy. It is important that the brush does not touch and pick up any darker tone. If it does touch a darker paint tone, it will make the light paint appear muted or muddied.
If you miss this step and the lightest light section of the artwork is contaminated with even a tad of pigment, it might grey the final effect. The result will be the loss of the all-important feeling of sunlight on the horse’s face.
To fail to capture the essence of light and shade in a painting is to paint like an amateur. I want to help make you a professional-standard artist by stressing the importance of getting your darkest darks in with intense dark pigment and your lightest lights in bright and clean. This isn’t something you can fix at the end by over-painting what you have already created.
Did you know that dark paint will always bleed through into light paint? I’ll bet a few parents have discovered this when they painted over a child’s drawing on the wall without removing it first.
Did you know that if you paint darker paint over lighter paint, the darker paint is likely to crack? The dark pigment absorbs more heat than light pigment, as it contains a different amount of oil and it will expand and contract at a different rate to the underlying lighter paint. As a result of this, the dark topcoat paint will be unstable. Cracks will begin to form from six months on, as soon as the painting becomes technically dry. This is why it is important to get down onto you painting support the exact tone you need right at the block-in phase. Don’t succumb to the temptation to fiddle as an amateur does and constantly change the work by altering tones after the painting is dry.
When you need clean, bright colour or tone while working with wet paint next to wet paint, apply the lightest tone first. This contradicts the tonal painting rule to work from dark to light. Sometimes rules are made to be broken.
There is no need to dogmatically follow anyone’s method of painting; art allows for self-expression. Consider the rules to be guidelines—lessons from the past masters for what is known to work. In my opinion, this also applies to the art and craft of writing, as one of the rules of writing is not to repeat what you have just said. Despite this rule, I have lingered on this point as I know what a difference it will make to your work if you can understand the importance of creating clean, bright lights and intense, strong darks. Get them in place correctly at the start; don’t fiddle with them; don’t over-paint them or contaminate their intensity.’
Use Contrast Where You Need To Accentuate
To make something appear lighter, place it against something that is darker.
As soon as I applied the lightest tone to the horses’ noses, I could tell that the medium-tone background was not dark enough to make that light area appear as light as it needed to be. I rubbed away some of the medium-tone paint and then painted a medium-dark tone of the same colour in its place. That alteration made the lightest light area appear lighter than it had before.
To make something dark appear darker, place it beside something that is lighter. In this way, you are able to draw attention to your focal points in a painting.
With the medium-dark blue colour on the brush, dip into a little medium-dark red-orange. Deepen the tone and mute the colour of the background area between the horses’ heads so there is a subtle blending of the edges in this area of the painting. This will ensure that the light on the horses’ faces and the contrast of tonal value (light and shade) emphasise their expressions and show their personalities. It is the expressions on these horses’ faces that ‘tell the story.’ These expressions (or stories) will be the first aspect of a painting that will be noticed.
It isn’t enough to paint the work well in brush-stroke technique; the painting has to ‘speak’ to the viewer. This needs to be carefully thought out in the planning phase and kept in mind through the painting block-in. Never lose track of your intended focal point for the story of your painting.
No hard edges. No details. This is still the blocking-in stage, so keep everything as loose as possible for as long as possible. Painting this way for fifty years was excellent training for my transition from brush to pen. During the first draft, keep your inner editor out of the painting. This is not the time for fiddly little brushwork and detail.
Then block-in the mid-tones of the painting, working from medium-dark through mid-tone. The medium-light tones are the last to be applied. The brush strokes should still be applied loosely with a large-size 12-bristle Chungking hog-bristle brush.
Chungking hog-bristle brushes are used because of their superior quality compared to regular hog bristles. They are naturally white and have not been damaged by bleaching, as have inferior hog bristles.
With my dark, medium-dark, mid-tones, medium-lights and lights all blocked in, I am ready to begin the refining stage of the painting. If you have been painting en plein air (on location or in the open air), you might, at some stage, need to pick out the grass seed and dust that the wind blew into your work. Also, if you are using new or poor-quality brushes, you may need to lift out the loose brush hairs in the paint. These aspects of painting are definitely all a part of the ‘refinement stage.’
Hold a stretched canvas up to the light. By doing so, you will be able to see any areas of the canvas where there isn’t any paint. Unless there was a reason you did not apply paint to a particular area, turn the painting around again and cover the canvas where there isn’t any paint. Once you begin to refine, use a range of brush sizes, from size twelve down to a size two. Work from larger brushes to smaller and choose the size to suit the space you are painting—a large area requires a large brush; a small area requires a small brush.
Summary of the First Three Stages of the Painting
1) The Planning Stage
Involves the creation of the preliminary sketch, colour harmony and compositional plan.
2) Block-In Stage
Comprises the use of bold, confident, large brushwork and the loose block-in of the dark, medium-dark, medium, medium-light and lightest tones.
3) Refinement Stage
Focuses on the refinement of the painting to eliminate any obvious blemishes that are detrimental to the finished effect; removes blemishes; smooths any area where texture is distracting from the image; fills in any obviously missed areas. Do not over fiddle at this stage. This is a remedial stage, like an edit in writing; it is not the place for adding more material into the artwork.
The final stage of painting involves detailing the artwork. This is the part that the amateur wants to do first. If you have gotten this far without stopping to detail, bravo; you are working as a professional artist does.
When I detail a painting, I go back over areas already loosely painted and develop the contrast of light and shade in the focal-point areas. To do this, I might rub out and repaint small sections and add those small details that require a small brush. I work firstly with my size-6 brushes for medium-sized areas of work and then work with a size-2 round Chungking hog-bristle brush for the small details.
Brushes can be round, filbright or flat in shape. There is no right or wrong shape for a brush. Your selection should simply be based on personal preference. I prefer filbright (round on the top and flat along the sides) and flat brushes for landscape and round brushes for portraiture. Horse painting is portraiture. ‘Bright’ brushes are short in length compared to flat brushes, and they are not as good at applying paint, so I do not use them.
Notice how the background has been lightened behind the darkest area of the focal point of the horses’ heads.
Darkening the background behind the light area of the horses’ heads in the foreground increased the contrast. This made the dark appear darker and the lights appear lighter. As a result, the horses’ expressions came into sharper focus.
The focus of the painting is the expression on the horses’ faces, not just a painting of two horses’ heads. While creating this painting, it was hoped that capturing the horses’ expression would create a talking point with viewers of the artwork, causing them to speculate about what the horses are communicating to each other. Asking art-loving friends and clients to suggest what these horses were saying to each other resulted in some fun replies, which were incorporated into the art-print crafts.
In regards to composition once more, I darkened and muted the colour of a section of sky, thus blurring the edge of the horse’s neck on the right-hand side. I focused on the amazingly cheeky expressions on the horses’ faces. I always plan for the viewer’s eye to wander around within the painting. I strive not to have strong contrasting lines lead the viewer’s eye out of an artwork.
I used a new brush for every tone and colour of that tone that I used in this painting. There was no stopping to clean brushes. This does not mean that you shouldn’t; I was just on a roll and didn’t want to stop.
For health and safety reasons, I do not allow thinners to be used inside my studio. Dirty brushes that I use for the day stand with brush tips upward until I am ready to wipe them clean. I then clean them by means of a slower method that does not make use of a solvent.
Once I have finished work for the day, I might put my day’s brushes into canola oil to stop the paint in them from drying out. You can also use baby oil, but this is a little more costly.
All the paint and oil needs to be removed from these brushes before you can paint with them again.
At this stage of the painting process, more detailing should be completed to subtly draw the viewer’s eye to the focal point. After having worked with the large brushes in the block-in phase, the detail stage can seem to be a slow process.
Good composition demanded that the contrast of light and shade on the outer corners of the artwork be reduced to stop the viewer’s eye from going out of the painting.
Can you see how the fence post has been blurred on the lower left-hand side of the painting? It merges with the background. It is still visible but does not have a hard edge. The blurred fence post does not draw the eye away from the main focal point, which is not the horses themselves but the interaction in expression and pose of the horses. I feel as if they are in conversation—a somewhat cheeky one at that.
These horses make me smile.
I love this painting and enjoyed working on it and sharing the painting steps with you.
The completed painting of Roscoe and Rusty is shown in the next photo. I heard that the horses were delinquents, taken off the working team for ‘mucking up,’ and kept as beloved star attractions in the paddock and as beloved pets. They were one of my most fun commissioned assignments. I was commissioned to produce the art prints from the work. The original is still in my private collection.