DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt

2009/03/23

Colorized

Paul, 2008, by Fred Hatt

Paul, 2008, by Fred Hatt

“Grisaille” is one of the classic “old master” painting techniques.  Essentially, this means painting in black and white.  Color can then be added by using layers of transparent color washes over the monochrome underpainting.  The idea is that the white paint, reflecting through veils of color, gives a luminous effect that cannot be achieved by mixing opaque colored pigments.  It also frees the artist to focus on form and light and shadow and to perfect these aspects of the image before turning to color.

I’ve often worked as a projectionist.  Once I was showing a VHS videotape on a large screen through a video projector, and noticed that the image appeared to be a fairly sharp black and white picture overlaid with very loose veils of color.  A person’s face would have all the important details but the color was a sort of pink smudge that blurred beyond the boundaries of the head.  Technically, because color television technology evolved from and needed to remain compatible with black and white television, the video signal is a black and white (luminance) signal with a separate channel of color information (chroma).  Particularly in a consumer format like VHS, the resolution level of the color information is very low, so the color distinctions are literally soft and blurry, but the sharp luminance signal makes it look fine, at least on a small screen.  Enlargement via projection revealed the trick.

Color drawing is obviously different from oil painting or video technology, but understanding these things informed my color drawing technique.  I saw the power of white to project light and black to define form, and I saw that if the brightness values of the image are well defined, the application of color can be extremely loose without damaging that definition.  In fact, a loose hand with color seemed to have an invigorating effect on the drawings.

I see both values and color as perceptually relative phenomena.  By that I mean that what matters is not the correspondence of the colors or values to some objective scale, but how much brighter or darker, warmer or cooler an area is in relation to its surroundings.  Josef Albers’ classic Interaction of Color is the most thorough exploration of this relativity from an artist’s point of view.

The drawing above is essentially a grisaille sketch, using black and white crayons on gray paper, to which I have begun to add loose color, using only an orange and a blue to push different areas towards relative warmth or coolness.   This could be further refined by adding layers of loose color, which would work like transparent washes, to tint the grays.  Here the warm tones around the cheeks and nose and the cooler tones under the eyes may indicate variances in blood flow, but the warm tones above the eyes were probably seen because the major light source in those shadowy areas is reflection from the cheeks.

Here’s this process carried further, with multiple goings-over with scribblings of quite a few different colored crayons, and “washes” of overall color:

Keryn, 2008, by Fred Hatt

Keryn, 2008, by Fred Hatt

Shadows are always filled with complex reflected light.  Some of it is bouncing off another part of the body, some of it is coming from secondary light sources or reflecting off floors, walls, or other surfaces in the area.  It’s incredibly subtle, but again here the relativistic conception of value and color is helpful.

Leticia, 2008, by Fred Hatt

Leticia, 2008, by Fred Hatt

A more abstract approach to the technique, exaggerating the differences by leaving the colors more separated and “pure”, and virtually eliminating the overall wash effect, is perhaps even more effective.  Viewed from a distance, the coloration looks strikingly realistic, considering that no conventional “flesh tones” have been used in the drawing above.

These portrait examples are from three hour sessions, so there’s ample time to play with color, but sometimes I apply the same principles to quicker figure sketches.

Colin standing back, 2009, by Fred Hatt

Colin standing back, 2009, by Fred Hatt

On the one above the background colors are also a very loose indication of the model’s environment, as he was standing on a warm-toned wooden floor in a room with cool-toned windowlight illuminating the walls.

The next example essentially ignores the surface colors of the body and uses intensified hues to depict the variations in the light illuminating the form.  There is white windowlight from above and behind the body, cool fill in the upper shadows, and warm reflections from the floor beneath her.

Reclining Izaskun, 2009, by Fred Hatt

Reclining Izaskun, 2009, by Fred Hatt

All the drawings shown in this post are made with Caran d’Ache aquarelle crayons on gray Fabriano paper, 70cm x 50 cm.

Powered by WordPress

Theme Tweaker by Unreal