Hunt for Steel
Preface & Reader Response
"Painting is a Zen activity for me and I could do it every day all day if allowed."
PAINTING A WAY
by Gail Nicholson
My approach is the same whether painting a still life, a portrait, a landscape, or a figure.
To prime my canvas, I put a light wash of a neutral earth tone on the canvas several days before using – imprimatura – usually burnt umber and mineral spirits. It gives underlying unity and cuts the white, making it easier to judge values.
Drawing is 99.9% of a good painting. You can't fix a bad drawing with paint. I use vine charcoal (forgiving and easy to wipe out). Make positive versus negative space interesting. Look for the essential gesture of the subject – what is distinctive. Drawing is large to small: big shape to smaller (as is painting) – not just positive objects but shadows. Squint and find value patterns. The value of a cup may include shadow behind, below. A tree and a house may have the same value against a brighter area in the landscape. On a face, the light on one side may travel down the neck over the shoulder. The flow of light across objects is beautiful and captivating to look at.
The drawing is simple, no detail. But get it right in proportion angles. Look at how things relate: if you dropped a plumb line from the corner of the eye, where does it hit the mouth, the chin? Always check your drawing at every stage. When you have it, fix it by using a small drawing brush and burnt umber. Check it as you trace it. Wipe away that charcoal.
Values are huge. Squint and break them down to darks and lights. Using your burnt umber and mineral spirits, lay in your values – grisaille – darkest to lightest – large areas first, then small. Note that this method really results in a complete work at each stage. Many grisaille paintings are so compelling that you may choose to stop there and forget about color.
I use Grumbacher or Winsor Newton (not Winton) for my colors. I use only mineral spirits. I like Robert Simmons Signet filbert brushes.
My portrait palette is ivory black, burnt sienna, yellow ochre, cadmium red light, cadmium yellow light, titanium white, alizarin crimson, ultra marine blue. For landscapes add chromium oxide, cerulean, cadmium yellow deep. Viridian and thalo green are very dominant, use sparingly.
This palette is completely versatile and the colors work together. By limiting your palette, you can truly learn and master color.
When you start painting, watch the values in a given object. Lay in middle tones and come back over with lights and darks. Look and set it down. Don't pat it and beat it to death. If it is wrong, take it out and do it again (as many times as it takes). This keeps colors fresh. Do not hold your brush like a pencil: hold it between your first two fingers and your thumb as far up the ferrule as you can. This gives you control and flow. Move your arm not your wrist.
Watch edges. A hard edge draws the eye and should be used sparingly. Keep edges soft. Lose the edges whenever possible to create mystery – chiaroscuro. Hair disappears in the shadows.
For a great background color, mix yellow ochre, black, and white. This can range from a warm white to a deep rich warm charcoal. It is very versatile. I call this color "trout."
Consult good reference books: Oil Painting Secrets From a Master by Linda Cateura. An Artist Teaches by David Leffel. Both are about Leffel, who teaches at the Art Students League of New York. I have taken his class. His paintings are fabulous.
I like to paint in one session. If you don't, use retouch varnish to get your colors back up and allow you to paint wet into wet.
When the painting is done, after a few days paint over with retouch varnish to brighten it. After six months or so, put permanent varnish on it.
* * *
Dell Weller was my instructor at the New Orleans Academy of Art for probably eight years. His ongoing fight with cancer caused him to quit formal teaching, something he loved and was very good at.
He and I have always been kindred spirits. He loves Shakespeare, music, and classic movies. After he left the academy, I kept in touch and finally he invited me to his home to paint one Saturday. He lives in a perfect little creole cottage with a lush enclosed garden in the back and a separate entrance for his studio.
The studio is heaven. He probably has 60 paintings on the walls and literally hundreds of classical and jazz recordings. His painting area is meticulous.
Dell's wife of 67 years, Nancy, is a lagniappe. She is a small pretty woman who is super bright and a talented seamstress and gardener.
I arrive at 9 a.m. on Saturday, usually with pastries, and we have coffee for 45 minutes or so and bemoan what the museums are showing as art or something. I express my true love for Obama so that I can watch Dell froth at the mouth for a while.
Then we retire to the studio where he has a project for me, sometimes a still life, sometimes a portrait, and he sits behind me in a big chair and observes my attack. He stops me if I am headed off track and sometimes jumps in to show me how it is done.
He chooses the music and has vastly expanded my exposure to legendary opera voices as well as jazz singers I never knew of.
We paint for an hour plus. Then he announces that it is tea time and he goes and makes us mint tea and harasses me if I am not properly appreciative of how delectable his tea is. We paint more, usually till 12:30 or 1 p.m. He periodically goes to the door to report what kind of birds are at his feeder or to shoot his BB gun at an interloping squirrel. If his beloved LSU is playing, my ass is on the curb.
We have found each other. Dell gets tremendous satisfaction from teaching and I am mesmerized by the beauty of oil paint. I valued him before Chet's death, but he may have saved my life this past grief-ridden year.
Dell loves the world. He is 87 and has fought the cancer wars and prevailed. He loves his wife, his children, and the proven culture of Shakespeare, Beethoven, Rembrandt, and Chardin.
He has never painted for others, for galleries, or for critics. I have never met a more authentic person. His children are all creative, centered adults. His life is very good. His paintings are rich and the color is clean and full of life – just as he is.
1. The object of this study was to paint red things of different light. I painted two apples with a ruby translucent goblet in the center.
Painting is a Zen activity for me and I could do it every day all day if allowed. I used to think that painters found exquisite objects to paint. Now I know that everyday objects become exquisite when you study them and find their essence. Same thing with people. The most ordinary person has the divine spark that reveals itself in a study.