Snow Texture: the making of “Remembering the Chief”

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“Remembering the Chief” – Wallowa Mts. OR – Pastel on MingART, 7.1×4.4″/18×11.1 cm

After I posted this painting of Chief Joseph Mountain, I was asked how I go about painting snow texture. Well, the texture has a lot to do with two factors, in this case: 1) the finely sanded surface of the MingART “Finest” paper, and 2) the ability to lightly, evenly drag a pastel pencil point across that surface.

Of course, between those two factors lie several steps that add realism to the snow. In a nutshell, though, I paint the most colorful parts first, which are the mid-value shadows, and then I work the highlights and darks, alternating between them. Most of the darks on the snowy mountain were done with deep Indigo. Virtually all of the highlights were done using Chinese White on top of the shadows. Texture is achieved by varying the pressure on the pastel pencil when painting the highlights. Most of the time, I’m using very subtle strokes.

Here are all the geeky details.

  1. Lightly (very lightly) lay down the varying hues that make up the sky and snow shadows. I completely ignore all details, focusing on the midrange values only. At this point, I don’t really differentiate between the snow, the clouds and the sky, except where the colors shift.
  2. Smooth the color transitions with finger blending. MingART Finest allows for blending without too much loss of skin! I add a little color where needed, again, paying no attention to the highlights or deep darks. Some of it rubs off, and that’s okay because I want to put down as little pastel as possible an still have some color. I actually rub my fingertip on a soft pastel and paint with my finger rather than applying the pastel directly. In some places, where the sun strikes, I leave the light gray paper showing through the color haze.
  3. Using a deep Indigo pastel pencil, faintly outline the left ridge and the upper shadows. Again, this is all about subtlety. Lay another line down to generally demarcate the middle ridge. Don’t finalize any of these lines.
  4. With a Chinese White pastel pencil, leave little tick marks to show where the uppermost highlights are, and then lightly establish the line of the brightly lit snow slope. I used less pressure to show where the clouds obscure the view.
  5. Using only Chinese White and varying amounts of pressure, establish only the brightest highlights on the upper third of the mountain. Now the drawing is sent and I can start working the details.
  6. Using deep Indigo, paint the exposed rocks and deepest shadows. With an image this small, I literally poke at the area I’m painting, hardly scratching the surface. The tip of a lightly held pastel pencil skidding across the sanded surface is sufficient to represent the rock bands on the upper right. I’m still saving the darkest darks for later, when the whole range of values is clear.
  7. Using the lights tint of Indigo, Ultramarine Blue and Dark Violet (Derwent’s names), I start working the snow highlights within the shadowed areas on the upper part of the mountain. I’m going for luminosity here, so I put warm and cool temperatures next to each other. The sanded paper allows for lots of layering without creating mud, so if I watch my pressure, I can put a warm violet over a cool blue and get a nice mix without blending. I can even paint the negative space between the exposed rocks, showing where the snow drifts and collects.
  8. With medium tints of the same three colors, I make sure the subtleties in the shadows are correct. To make certain shadows more luminous, I’ll add some Spectrum Blue and go over it subtly with a medium tint of Dark Violet to keep it from being too intense.
  9. Going back to Chinese White, I paint the lower highlights. With very delicate, even pressure, I paint the sunlit snowfields in the middle of the mountain, letting the texture of the paper catch just the slightest hint of white. These strokes are painted in the same direction as the slope, so we can see the curvature.
  10. As I do the highlights on the bottom of the mountain, I draw a thin line for the top of that low, backlit ridge, and then paint feathery strokes off of it from right to left to show the spindrift. I set my fingertip on the line and lightly drag it off, from right to left to pull that white into the shadowed area. If it’s too strong, I buff it in the opposite direction, pushing the shadow toward the spindrift. When that’s close enough, I reestablish the sunlit ridge line.
  11. Finish up the darkest darks, and then tweak the values throughout to ensure proper depth.
  12. For reflected light in the uppermost summit dome shadow, I put just a little French Gray in the lightest tint, which gave that area some warmth.
  13. In the middle ground, the shadowed snow is done by painting a middle tint of Ultramarine Blue in patches over a relatively heavier blended layer of Dark Gray (NuPastel) and deep Indigo (Derwent). I then reestablish the tree texture with the deep Indigo pastel pencil.
  14. The foreground dusting of snow is made by painting the moraine with Umber blended on top of deep Indigo, and then dragging a light tint of Indigo over it in the direction of the slope. The paper texture does the work.

Hope it explains what I did this time around. How do you do snow texture? I’d love to hear about it.

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New Clipboard Sketching Setup

SketchbookNew1Sketchbooks keep everything together in a book form, but I found them to be generally too thick and heavy. For a firm surface, I wanted a stiff backing sheet and cover (more weight). When the pages shifted, the graphite rubbed off. To save weight and preserve the artwork, I tore out completed drawings as soon as I got home. Then I had to trim off the ragged bits before scanning. If I was going to be on the road awhile, I might start a new sketchbook because the one I’m not-quite-finished-with may not have enough pages for the trip.  I sometimes reused the covers of an empty sketchbook, but more often I just recycled them.

SketchbookNew2After using up dozens of sketchbooks, I decided to try something a bit more “green”: a covered clipboard. This one is A5 size (half a sheet of letter-size paper), so it’s easily portable. I fold the cover all the way around to the back, so it’s no bigger than a normal sketchbook, and it’s plenty stiff. To keep the pencil digging into the paper below, I clip a thin, firm sheet of plastic under the current work-in-progress.

I’ve been using this setup for about a year now. The clipboard turned out to be even easier to hold than the old sketchbook, in either landscape or portrait orientation. It’s light, comfortable and unobtrusive. My 2mm/6B drafting pencil and .5mm/2B mechanical pencil work for everything from rough textures and dark shading to fine details. I use a small kneaded eraser to clean up smudges and pull out highlights. Sometimes I’ll use white charcoal for duotones. I’m considering ditching my retractable eraser, since I rarely use it. Maybe I can find a smaller pencil case.

SketchbookNew3Finished drawings are now put away inside a folded sheet of copy paper clipped in behind the paper stash. When I get home, I take them out, ready to scan. The clip holds everything firmly, so there is less shifting during transport. Very little graphite or white charcoal rubs off. These days, I carry a mix of loose sheets in a variety of colors and textures–just enough to give me options, and only as much as I need for the day. If I’m heading out on a longer trip, I keep an extra assortment in the suitcase. Finished work is removed from the clipboard and stored with the extra stash, and new sheets are added to the clipboard to replace the used ones.

This setup allows for more flexibility and it’s turned out to be less expensive (since I can buy loose sheets), thinner, lighter, and easier to use than a sketchbook. What about longevity? Well, back in 1995, I bought a covered clipboard for my legal pad at work. The “hinge” has split a few inches, but I still use it for writing. That’s a pretty good track record, I think.

Inktense Plein-Air Kit 2.0

DIY Inktense Plein-Air Kit

From the old “Mickey Mouse” Inktense Plein-Air Kit to the new TOBOT!

https://youtu.be/6p0IAkB7rO8

I’ve been working with Derwent’s Inktense ink blocks for years now. They’ve become my go-to medium for painting plein-air and they’ve gone all around the world with me. Since I’m often traveling with a group, I have to paint quickly (when I have time at all), so I need gear that is light and compact, and that takes 60 seconds to set up or pack away again.

I designed the first kit to allow me to use the ink blocks like pan watercolors. The drawback to my first design (encasing each block in clay) was that I found it difficult to get at every last bit of the ink. The little corners were hard to reach with the brush.

Replacing the fully-embedded blocks proved risky, too. I had some trouble surgically removing the nearly-empty section and replacing it with a new one.

The main difference in Version 2.0 is that I am setting the blocks on EDGE, with half of the block exposed. This way, I don’t have to try to clean so many corners in order to use all the ink.

I’ve also eliminated a couple of colors I didn’t use (including White). I’ll keep you posted on how it works for me. Check out the video to watch me put this kit together from scratch.

Color Correct Images #1: Shoot It Well

Art photographers are a special breed. Their ability to bring out the best in a painting or sculpture is  the product of carefully chosen equipment, well-honed skill and years of experience and experimentation. Not all of us have access to or budget for this kind of service, though, so how does one get a decent image? I’ve been working at this for years and, even with my basic tools, I’m getting some better results.

It all starts with the input. Use the best camera you have, with the sharpest lens available, at the highest possible resolution. My Cannon has two options for its highest resolution: one with “smoothing” (interpolation) and the other without. I have found that the smoothing is not useful in this application.

Mount the camera on a steady tripod, and aim it at the art so that the image fills as much of the frame as possible without being out of square. Essentially, you want the camera to be aiming directly at the center of the painting at a 90-degree angle to the surface, with all edges of the painting exactly parallel to the edges of the image frame. If you see a tetrahedron (i.e., one edge is longer than its opposite and the corners aren’t exactly square), adjust the camera angle or height until that effect is gone.

If your camera has a remote or an extension cable, use it. This will keep your hand from shaking the camera body as the shutter opens. I don’t have a remote, so I shoot my photos using the ten-second timer.

Color correction is one of the most difficult parts of getting an image to print or display correctly. Every sensor on every camera (or scanner) has a certain bias. My old Fuji leaned toward purple, my Sony was blue biased, and my Canon EOS Rebel XTi tends toward yellow. The white balance setting is the key to getting good color input.

Lighting is critical, and indirect natural light is best. If you can, shoot the image outside in open shade. The sun is really the only “full spectrum” light source available, so take advantage of it!

If you have to be inside, getting some natural light from the windows is good. Since I’m taking my pictures inside and I don’t have a good natural light source, I use a mix of warm and cool light bulbs to get the fullest possible spectrum of lighting on the painting.

Even with the mix of lighting, I cannot ensure a complete spectrum, so I take a series of pictures at different white balance settings: AWB (automatic), sun, shade, and cloudy. I skip the incandescent, tungsten and fluorescent settings since early experience showed them to be too extreme for my lighting setup.

At each of these settings, I “bracket” the exposure: I take one image that the light meter registers as “just right,” one at a single f/stop too dark, and another at a single f/stop too light. Over time, I have learned that I can count on certain settings to get the best image with the lighting I’m using, so I can reduce these steps somewhat.

That said, I’m still doing some work in GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program–a freeware Photoshop substitute) to get the right contrast and to tweak the color balance and saturation even further. I keep the painting close by so I can compare as I work. I’ll get into the details in the next post.

Understand, also, that your computer monitor is color biased, too, and is affected by the ambient lighting in the room–as is your cellphone, your friends’ phone, your laptop, your iPad…it’s truly endless.

High end print shops have sweated this sort of thing forever! An old pre-press supervisor told me how back in the 1960’s there was a huge argument about whether the fabric coming back from Italy was the color ordered by the designers in New York. It went to court, and they apparently decided that TRUE color can ONLY be seen when ALL of the following conditions are met:

  • You are standing on the steps of the Washington Monument
  • At high noon
  • On the summer solstice
  • Under a cloudless sky
Washington Monument, Obelisc, Washington Dc, Capital

This day is a “maybe.”