Morning- demo using oil over gouache technique

Philip Howe Fine Art
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Fine Art - Figures,Portraits, Other Subjects
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Early work_ 1980's, 1990's
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This painting is all about color and light, so I pushed my usual palette to try and achieve a nice tonal effect that suggests the first light of morning, that magical time of only a few minutes where the cooler ambient glow gives way to warm sunlight.

On this piece I used an old technique of gouache, a water-soluable opaque medium, as an underpainting for the oil. I did a fairly loose drawing with pencil then spray fixed the drawing a few times with light coats. I took a 3" house painter's type brush and quickly blocked in all the major areas of color using a lot of gouache mixed in a plate as I progressed. The gouache drys very quickly and leaves stroke edges so to get a soft effect here and there, I used an airbrush with only water in it to mist areas then took a soft mop brush and simply blurred the areas. This leaves a nice, smooth base on a gessoed board or thick watercolor stock, but on canvas, it absorbs into the weave and is fairly stubborn about moving around the surface even with a heavier mist. For my purposes here, I just need a good color base that allows me to pull out the highlights and achieve quick chiaroscuro lighting. The gouache leaves a gritty pull, unlike acrylic or even oil washes, and is an ideal surface for pastel. I checked with a few conservators and they agreed that it makes a very good underpainting for oil and is very permanent, so long as you stay away from the fugitive processed colors which contain dyes for commercial purposes.

Same size concept rough
Gouache block in
Gouache subtracted or pulled out from soft color areas

The top image is the gouache fully brushed on and smoothed over with just a few highlights pulled out of the mountain area in the lower left. This is 'subtractive' painting, a technique used by many illustrators in various ways. One method is to do a very finished pencil drawing then coat the drawing with gouache or oil. This requires very little opaque work as the half-tone drawing beneath is simialr to a tinted photo and the realism is immediate. The value, or lightness and darkness of the image, is based more on the accuracy and completeness of the drawing rather than the color that goes over it. So I have always looked at subtractive work as more like colored draings than painted pieces, but the effect can look beautiful and rich since the colors are thin and often luminous. Some of my favorite illustrators use this approach. Its fast and easy and produces a beautiful effect once you learn how to control the thin color without opaquing for corrections. Once you opaque an area, it defeats the translucent effect, but you can let that dry and glaze over this area if needed. The lower image shows the full painting with pulled out areas to create highlights, using various wet brushes, Q-tips, rags or whatever else thats absorbent enough to pull off the dry color. The cool thing about subtractive painting is that the thin color over white, once pulled out, leaves a tint, or lighter natural highlight of the surrounding area. And the added benefit of the gouache is its reworkable, to a degree, simply by spraying more water over it and buffing the area again, I usually use oils over a tighter drawing, but the oil effect is a bit more time demanding to get right before it drys and gets sticky if you try spraying a solvent over it, like turps or mineral spirits (which you should never breath in anyway). Since most of my work is very inventive, as in the mountains, foreground, wing and sky here, I can work without rushing and worrying if the paint will dry too soon for me to play with the overall tone until I get it right as a base for the oils. With gouache, I can wait years and come back to this point and just keep going until I get the effect I want.

Gouache highlights pulled out of rock area

Above, the rocks are a natural area for contrast lighting and the subtractive approach. The highlights are simply stains left from pulling off the paint. With gouache, its very easy to add opaque hightlights, say a white here and there, by simply painting on opaque color. You can even easily airbrush a soft tone or if the panel is stiff enough as this one is here, canvas backed with masonite to keep it from flexing, I could add dry pastel for some nice drawn lines and color strokes, then seal it with fixative. You can also erase or even sand areas, depending on the surface worked on. You probably shouldn't sand canvas, but on masonite or a gessoed panel, this could create some interesting abstract texture effects. On the sides of the work, I flipped a wet brush and splashed on water then quickly pulled it off with a towell. I never use paper towells as this leaves paper fibres and lint. Water based paints can add a lot of interesting techniques to keep the painting process interesting and the advantage of gouache allows for an much longer working time for certain effects than oils or acrylics.

Oil over fixed gouache, first coat
Oil for body base over gouache underpainting
Glazed yellow coloring over white contrast underpainting

The top image shows the additional white gouache highlights I painted in opaqely, just prior to spray fixing the gouache and adding any oil. The rich tone that immediately comes through from the oil enhances the gouache base and builds a solid color look without much additional effort. Over this I added additional glazes to build up the gold tones until I felt it had a solid feeling overall without loosing the ethereal quality I prefer.

Working on toning down the wing area

Above, the figure is nearly finished but the wing still looks too heavy, or gaudy. I want it to fade back more so here I plan to use complemetary color in semi-opaque layers to force the wing to recede and lighten up a bit. A disadvantage to the gouache base is the tendency to use bright colors and wash in color too hot for the intended area. I used to teach this technique to enthusiastic students wanting to jump into color after sealing a tight drawing on illustration board or gessoed panel. The interesting thing is that nearly every student, out of hundreds, would invariable go for hot, even bright colors without considering atmosphere or natural color harmony to create a realistic painting from. I think thats part of the lure of gouache- these small tubes of rich, opaque color that easily flood the surface and look very illustrative. Bright, hot color may help sell illustrations for book covers but it takes a more sophisticated approach to control a more grayed palette. This is why I use a plate as a gouache palette, with cool hues on one side and warm ones on the other- the more saturated colors are easily muted and grayed down by simply smearing warm into cool or vice versa. I have to remind myself to do this on the palette, as unlike oil, once the color is down, you can't simply mix the paint around on the canvas. The best gouache painters seem to know this and put well calculated strokes down opaquely. Gouache on canvas is difficult to blend, but gouache on a paper surface is very easy with a soft, wet brush stroke in a scratching motion and a light touch.

Final toned down wing area
Lower right side showing gouache through oil glazing

Above, the lower right rock area came out well. I think I like this area as more of the gouache base shows through and you can see the pulled out area where I played with the paint, pushing it around and freely drawing forms from the stained area. This is similar in appearance to a fully glazed oil on canvas, but the look here comes primarily from the gouache with one two thin glazes on top for additional color. This shot of the final, below, is fairly accurate, showing rich coloring and an overall wash of light cascading across from the left. I had first mounted the canvas on a 1/4' masonite panel using glue, and on the back, thin wood strips for additional support along the outer edge. The framing, which I prefer to do in my studio, should be easy to fit because the edge is somewhat thnnner than streched canvas. In the future, however, I may glue thin strips to the back of masonite or find a lighter weight support thats acid free, then simply stretch the canvas around the board so that it can be removed easier if need be.

Morning final gouache/oil on canvas mounted to masonite 4x5'
Final head detail

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