The Art of Making Art column is usually about an artist’s process. But this column is different. I am recounting my current personal art-learning pursuit: painting in a studio with an art instructor.
I am happiest when I am doing something new or doing something I love while at the same time learning to do it better or differently. Recently a friend noted that my interest in art seems driven by the learning rather than the result. After a little self-examination, I decided she had hit the nail on the head. For instance, I often move from one style to the next even though I’m not quite confident in my prior results. I’m moving anyway because the learning aspect is no longer obvious to me.
While I am mostly self-taught in watercolor – with shout-outs to Chicago watercolorist Bill Bartelt and a good number of YouTube videos – and confident with that medium, I recently hit a neophyte’s wall using acrylic paints and knew I needed some help.
So, it was time to learn from an expert, and I signed up for studio time with Sarah Kaiser-Amaral, a well-known, highly qualified and experienced Evanston art instructor. I’ve been working with her once a week for four months, and each session has been an excellent, revealing learning experience!
During start-up discussions in September, I told Sarah that I really had no prior formal instruction. So initially she had me work on some basic techniques. For instance, she had me begin by learning to paint fully developed shapes, an onion for a circle and a stone block for a square. These models helped me better see shape, light and shadow. She explained color theory and showed me how to make a color wheel and how to blend to get different neutral colors. We discussed and made drawings focused on perspective. She also helped me understand the purpose of different mediums for creating transparency, for adding bulk and even for slowing the drying of the paint.
Located at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, Sarah’s studio, Studio 215, is a large sunny room filled with many examples of her work finished and in process as well as some student art. The room is large enough for students to have their own spaces to either sit or stand. While students are expected to have their own materials, Sarah is quick to offer brushes, acrylics, chalk, charcoals, palette paper, straight edges and tape so students can experience items they may not yet own. Her bookcase is stocked with references covering a variety of artists and techniques that she frequently opens while instructing to expand different ideas and concepts and demonstrate how other artists apply them.
I visit the studio weekly at a scheduled time for three hours. This particular class is one-on-one instruction, though more than one student is present. Sarah has every student arrive at a different time so that she can assist each to set up and decide on what to learn for the session. As a student, you can learn not just from what she explains but also what she discusses with other students, if you choose. Listening in and viewing what others are working on is encouraged but not forced. Opportunity for critique from other students is offered as well.
After working through some basic techniques in the early sessions, it was time to create my first acrylic painting with instruction. Given my lack of formal knowledge, Sarah started by teaching me with the traditional classical approach. From there we plan to move forward to other methods – but getting grounded in tradition has already been so helpful.
For the first step of the classical approach, we selected a photo of a scene that I was interested in. It was a village scene with four buildings, sky and a path into the village. Following instructions, I decided it would work best with the canvas in landscape position. Then I drew some pre-painting thumbnail sketches and left out some elements, a car and a hill, to make the image more pleasing to me. I also added a second section of the path to go between two of the buildings. In preparation, I needed to “tone” the canvas. Sarah showed me how to mix burnt sienna, an orange-brown, using my color wheel. We thought it would be a good unifying color for the painting. I toned the entire canvas with the paint. Going forward, this prevents any canvas showing through and enables the eye to judge value and color more accurately.
Next, I cut a piece of paper the size of the canvas. With charcoal, I began to sketch a drawing of the photo scene. I made many adjustments in spacing, perspective and even used some shading to see the image more fully. I kept working at it until the scene looked right, particularly focusing on perspective and location.
I cut a piece of transfer paper (carbon paper) large enough to cover the canvas and taped the drawing over the transfer paper finishing with a “sandwich” of canvas, transfer paper and the drawing. Then I used an ink pen to trace all the drawing’s fundamental lines. These were the main edges of things including the building walls, roofs, chimneys, windows, doors, a few chairs and the path.
After removing the drawing and the transfer paper, I saw the lines transferred to the canvas were very faint. I used a thin line of burnt umber paint to enhance each line. Next, I mixed several shades of burnt umber on my palette and added a significant amount of glazing medium to make each more transparent. I chose burnt umber because in some cases I wanted the later overpainting to optically mingle with the underpaint. I used these mixes for underpainting each dark, medium and light area based on the photo. The underpainting better enabled me to see the light and dark values I would be aiming for as I paint. In the classical tradition of underpainting, the single-color, multishaded palette has become known by its French name, grisaille.
These first steps reminded me so much of what I knew about master chefs. They use an idea called mis en place, French for “put in place.” They prep and measure all the ingredients in the recipe and place them in order of use. This allows them to then just concentrate on the cooking portion of the work. Sarah had taught me the same thing. Prep the canvas, get my paints out and ready and fully “describing” (i.e., thumbnail sketch, toning, draw, transfer, underpaint) the painting. “Now, all you have to do is paint!” she told me.
Next, I began to mix the colors on my palette for the elements farthest away, such as the sky and the remote tree line. The use of neutrals is important, as nature is full of neutrals. Using the color wheel, I would mix complementary colors to tone down or neutralize the color so it looked more natural. For instance, in the tree line, I added some red to the green to tone the green down so it did not look like a cartoon. And then I painted. Then I mixed color for more big spaces, and then painted. Over and over.
Occasionally it helps to step away from the painting and look at it from afar to see the image as I would if it were hanging on the wall. As the painting developed, I could see, with Sarah’s help, where the perspective was not true. In the past I might have just accepted that as “a beginner painter,” but with guidance I learned those adjustments can be made since I am working with acrylic paint that I can either completely cover prior strokes or glaze over them for small changes.
One technique I used on brick and on some grasses was to scrape down into the wet paint so that layers of paint below could show through, called sgraffito (Italian for scratched), adding texture to the image. I also learned that by adding a medium to the paint to give it more body, I could make the elements in the front “jump forward” and avoid flatness in the painting.
This first painting using this technique was certainly more complete than any other acrylic painting I had ever done. I feel a sense of satisfaction that I have not only learned but that I can use these techniques.
My work with Sarah is not done, however. In my next painting, I built on the techniques I learned, doing the mis en place, or preparation, at home, and used my studio time for the “all you have to do is paint” portion. For painting number three, I’m copying a master. I am looser and am doing more wet on wet painting where more of the paint mixing is done directly on the canvas.
As I have learned in interviewing the various artists for this column, there are many types of artists with many different processes. As a learner, I am so inspired to have a coach who is teaching me not just one process, because for me, learning is part of the art.