Transparency – A Key to Spatial Depth in Painting Part 1, Black/White

Art Tutorial
Transparency – A Key to Spatial Depth in Painting
Part 1, Black/White

This online tutorial is a transcription from a 2002 lecture I gave at the Courage of Your Perceptions Conference (Satellite to the EC’s Vision Scientists’ Conference) in Glasgow, Scotland.

We have examples of artworks from 30,000 years ago to the present in which artists have worked with spatial depth in their drawings and paintings. I have been fascinated by this phenomenon and, for years, I have asked myself how did these artists achieve these startling effects. The result of my query is the formulation of the concept that:
Given a two-dimensional surface, transparency and contrast are the means to place forms in spatial depth.

Transparency will place the forms in depth away from us, and contrast will raise them towards us.

Great artists are doing other spatial things as well: lighting, modeling form, and perspective drawing. But for this talk, I will focus on this transparency issue.
The first figure shows a gradation of light to dark stripes on a white background. The stripes ascend like steps towards us as they get darker. The darkest “pops” out in contrast to the white background. Conversely, the lightest of the stripes recedes into the distance of the white surface.


 Similarly, the discs “move” through space because of their relative lightness or darkness to the background and each other. The big black disc jumps forward.


Notice what happens when the large disc changes to light gray, it recedes significantly beyond the small black one.


Chauvet Cave, 30,000 B.C.
Horses’ Heads from the Chauvet Cave dated 30,000 years ago. Notice the gray scale of the receding heads and the black modeling of the head closest to us. Also, notice how the light gray of the surface also comes through the receding heads literally making them transparent.

Monet, The Thames at Westminster, 1871
Oil on canvas, 47 x 72.5 cm (18 1/2 x 28 1/2″)
National Gallery, London

This Monet is an excellent example of this idea. We first see the blackness of the pylons, and the other objects dance back into space by the degree of how transparent they become, how close to the gray of the background they match.


When the background changes to black, the principle of transparency still holds true. The closer to a black tone the background becomes the discs further recede; the white pops forward.


Here we have two white discs, a large and a small one; now we have an example of perspective; the bigger one comes a bit more forward than the small one.



Rembrandt, Hendrickje Bathing in a River, 1654
Oil on panel, 61.8 x 47 cm
National Gallery, London
Due to the extreme lightness of her body, she comes forward off the background off the dark background. Notice the transparency of her left shoulder; it sends her left arm back away from her chest. Rembrandt is working with a gray/brown/black scale, not with a full range of color. He sets objects back by making them merge to this dark tone. Compare the brilliant lightness of her shift to the middle tone glow of the material behind her on the bank. Her lightness is popping her forward.


Here we have a gray background, the discs that come forward have become either more white or black respectively.


Michelangelo, Christ on the Cross

In Michelangelo’s Christ the closest part of his body to us is his right knee, then it would be his right big toe, and then his left chest. These areas have the greatest contrast between light and dark. Compare the high contrast of tone of his right foot to the more muted left foot behind. Or compare the transparent area of his left knee to the intense light and dark of his right knee. Also, notice that his arms share a depth of space and have an equal range of tonal value that is less high in contrast as his forward knee. Also, notice how delicately transparent the background figures are.

I hope you enjoyed Part 1 of Transparency – A Key to Spatial Depth in Painting. Part 2 will cover how this theory works with color.
Michael Newberry
New York, May 2006

Pastel on Dark Paper – Just Add Light

Pastel on Dark Paper – Just Add Light by Michael Newberry

Pastel and dark paper are a great combo to create light effects.

Whenever I am a little stressed or some of my big projects weigh on my mind I get out pastels and some nice black or beautifully dark paper, like a Cansons, and go to town.

I love working pastel on dark paper for one important reason: the pastel being lighter than the paper directly creates a pure colored light.

I remember being in a kind of down mood and when Kimberly arrived to model I wanted to shake off that mood and feel free. We collaborated on this pose, one quite difficult to hold for more than 2 or 3 minutes.

The paper is black Cansons, 19 x 26″.

Pastel on Dark Paper

You can start with any color you like, but it is important that the tone of the pastel is only one notch lighter than the paper–just enough so that you can see your marks. The blue outlines here are Prussian Blue, one of the darker blues

In this image, I am beginning to block out the entire paper. The background walls in reality are white and the floor is a wood floor. When I work with pastel, on of the things I ask myself is whether the color is warmer or cooler. The white of the wall is cool and the orange of the floor is warm. Then taking a cool dark color, almost any kind of blue or green, which is one step lighter than the paper, I blocked out the background wall. Then, with the same idea, yet with a warm color, a dark burnt orange, I did the floor, her body, and the shadow of the cloth.

My particular style of mark making with pastel is hatching. I like to keep the color as pure and direct as possible and layer different colors one on top of another to create nuance.

It’s also important to leave some space between the hatching, to let the paper come through. There is limited “tooth” to the paper and if you solidly cover the paper, after 10 steps down the road, the pastel won’t “take” anymore. In other words, there is nothing there for the pastel to adhere to and nothing happens.

Pastel on Dark Paper

The idea is to gradually add light and color one tone at a time starting with those dark tones just one step lighter than the paper.

Here is the completed, blocked out image. The cloth in real life is Canary Yellow, and I blocked it in with a dark orange about two tones lighter than the paper – I knew it was going to have more layers of color added to it.

Pastel on Dark Paper

Now comes the light part. My focus here is to add another layer of color in the light areas, one step lighter than what came before. Parts of background wall and floor are in dark shadow, I am leaving them alone.

I like to add one layer of light in an area, careful to step up the tone slowly, then stop and go to another area. Here I brought up the yellow cloth, then I went to the floor and to her body. Then I added a third light to the cloth and to her body. Notice the slight pinkish quality of her chest in contrast to the gold of the cloth.

One technique of looking I cannot stress enough is squinting your eyes to look about you–squint and compare with your drawing. Squinting keeps your focus on the essential tones of the light and shadow. In other words, it keeps your focus on the forest and not on the individual trees.

Note about mistakes: if you find that you messed up an area, there are two quick solutions to that. One is to totally wipe out the area with a paper towel going all the way back to the original tone of the paper. Or, take a pastel that is the same color of the paper and gingerly hatch a few strokes of that in the area and it should refresh the area considerably.

Pastel on Dark Paper

Here I stepped back to re-assess where I was in the drawing. I went back into the background realizing its darkest area was lighter than the darkest area on the floor. I added more light to the cloth and added more detail to the light hitting Kimberly’s body. And I add some hot color, red, to her left arm’s cast shadow.

Pastel on Dark Paper

Our session was winding down. At this point, Kimberly could only hold up the cloth for about 20 seconds.

Now I got to blast the highlights! It takes some discipline to wait on the highlights, after all they are the first thing I was attracted to in the image. But, trust me, it is worth it.

The biggest mistake artists make is after they get one great effect with a highlight they indiscriminately highlight other areas with the same tone and color. Mistake! Don’t do that. It kills the eyes’ interest.

It is imperative that you distinguish the color, intensity, and brightness of your highlighted areas. Here, the light on her breast was the lightest area, slightly pinkish. Next was the intense yellow highlight just left of her right breast. The third brightest was the deep yellow of the cloth above her head. And the fourth was the less intense yellow under her left armpit.

This is not a finished piece, but I find it a wonderful color sketch that I had a lot of fun doing–and it totally shook off the ill mood I had before we began the session.

Pastel on Dark Paper

Pastel on dark paper will help you see light in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry
New York, May 2006

Lights and Darks in 3’s

Lights and Darks in 3’s by Michael Newberry
One big problem that artists face when developing light and shadow in a work is that they tend to have the exact same darks and lights scattered around the surface. The result is that it kills the life out of the drawing!

A great way to solve that problem is to celebrate a hierarchy of lights and darks. The simplest way to do that is to focus on three different tones of lights and darks.

Here I will take you through what I mean.

Female Nude, Lights and Darks
Dreams of Round Things, 2006, charcoal on Rives BFK, 26 x 19 inches.

After I had lined up the proportions of Kelly, I was ready to organize my tones.

Female Nude, Lights and Darks

The real-life background was a dark, cobalt blue felt air mattress. Since the darkest object was going to be her hair, I chose the mattress as my 2nd darkest object.
Female Nude, Lights and Darks
Here I have two things blocked out–her dark hair and the background.

Female Nude, Lights and Darks
Here I added my third dark–her cast shadow on the floor. Next, I started on the lights. The highlight on the wood floor was going to be my least brightest of the lights.

Female Nude, Lights and Darks

My choice for tones was not arbitrary. I compared and contrasted all the tones in my field of vision. Kelly has a lovely light skin, so I knew she was going to be the lightest thing in the drawing, even though she was predominately in shadow.

After I mildly block out the light of the floor I was ready to start on her. The light on her leg looks almost shockingly bright, but, technically, I knew that brighter whites were to me.

For you artists, I was using soft charcoal pencils and a kneaded eraser. The kneaded erasers are wonderful for lightening the paper, yet it takes some hard erasers to bring out the brightest whites.

Female Nude, Lights and Darks
Here everything is blocked out. I clearly have dark, darker, and darkest : the cast shadow, the background, and her hair.

For the lights, the highlights on her shoulder, breast, and forearm are the brightest. The rest of her body is the second brightest while the surface of the floor is the least bright.

Female Nude, Lights and Darks
For the rest of the drawing, I am molding, tweaking, and detailing her and the background–being careful to be well aware of my hierarchy of lights and darks.

Female Nude, Lights and Darks

Female Nude, Lights and Darks

Towards the end of the drawing is the easiest place to lose sight of your hierarchy of the lights and darks. For example, I began to add the details of the shadows and highlights of the mattress’ circular cushions. There were many really dark shadows, and, of course, the mistake would have been to make them as dark as her hair. So it took some discipline to make them as dark as possible without stepping over the boundary to my darkest black.

Female Nude, Lights and Darks

The consequence is that her hair has a kind of brilliant, rich freshness to it that would have been lost otherwise.

It should be a lot of fun for you to try this technique out–or to look for a hierarchy of lights and darks in other artists’ works. Enjoy.

Michael Newberry
New York, September 17th, 2006

Rhythm a Beautiful Way to Organize Chaos

Rhythm a Beautiful Way to Organize Chaos by Michael Newberry

Joseph Castro, acrylic on canvas panel, 16 x 12 inches

Joseph, acrylic, 16 x 12 inches.

This is a portrait of a friend, architect Joseph Castro, with dark brown leather as the backdrop.

Any complex subject is visually chaotic; with incongruent shapes and lots of details. When you look at something like a person’s face or a panoramic landscape there are a million things to look at – out of all that stuff which do you draw/paint? One of the fun and great challenges for an artist is to organize this chaos in a meaningful way through the use of visual rhythms.

Joseph Castro, acrylic on canvas panel, 16 x 12 inches

Joseph in conversation would often raise his eyebrow and curl his lip. I noticed how these two things curved into arches, and arches would become the visual theme.

Visual rhythms are made up of similar or complementary angles, contours, or lines.

In the process of composing painting I was looking for shapes and lights that could “double” for an “arch.” Was it possible that I could accent an arch of the lip, nose, brow, collar, or ear?

Joseph Castro, acrylic on canvas panel, 16 x 12 inches

The more I looked for them the more I saw “arches” everywhere. A consequence of looking for rhythms is that you don’t get lost in details but are constantly looking over the whole painting.

Joseph Castro, acrylic on canvas panel, 16 x 12 inches

Here you can see all the rhythms of detail of shapes and light I was seeing in his face. I would like to mention that I was not making them up where I did not see them in real life.

Joseph Castro, acrylic on canvas panel, 16 x 12 inches

The folds in the leather background were perfect for finding more “arches” to accent and to integrate the whole painting.
Michael Newberry

Oil Paint Glazing

Oil Paint Glazing by Michael Newberry

Glazing Technique Demo

Glazing is one of the greatest tools in the artists’ repertory that no artist should be without. It is relatively easy to do, creates beautiful luminosity, and can free a painter’s inhibitions.

There are many variations on glazing, but I would like to show you the method I like best.

For this demo, I am only glazing, but glazing also works great in combination with other painting techniques, and for delicate finishing touches.

Start here by drawing the composition with a soft and sharp charcoal pencil.

Glazing Technique Demo

Blend a little mars black and raw umber with lots of painting medium to create a fairly drippy consistency, and start painting from light to dark.


Years ago I used the classic oil painting medium of 1/3 dammar varnish, 1/3 turpenoid, and 1/3 stand linseed oil. Since then I have cut out the varnish and turpenoid because it toxic and I paint every day, and those toxins add up. I love to paint with medium and do so outdoors while painting plein air. The one other new info I have is to use Safflower oil, it is the best medium for true color and no yellowing.

Note: This glazing technique also works great with acrylic paints, substituting water for the oil.

The glaze application should be transparent, almost runny. The idea is that it should tint or stain the canvas, creating see-through layers. For those of you familiar with watercolor, the oil paint glaze should look similar.

Glazing Technique Demo

Watercolor Effect

As with watercolor, you want to apply the tones in one or two goes. And you can blend in a little oil paint directly on the canvas to make an area darker.

Warning: don’t fiddle too much with the wet paint, because at some point the paint will not adhere to the canvas. If this happens, simply let the canvas dry then resume painting.

Glazing Technique Demo

Glazing Technique Demo

Glazing Technique Demo

To create the subtle effects of light, it is important to tone the entire canvas, then add lights.

Glazing Technique Demo

Wipe the area with a cloth or paper towel, blue shop towels are the best! I can’t say enough great things about this wiping method – it is intuitive and gives a lot of feeling to your image.

Glazing Technique Demo

If it needs to be even lighter, dip a clean brush in medium and apply it directly to an area, diluting it, then use a paper towel to wipe off the excess medium and paint.

Glazing Technique Demo

Now we have a finished stage of painting using glazing.

For a more realistic effect, let this dry and continue glazing for darker areas and details. But, to lighten areas and details, switch techniques to scumbling.

You can continue to glaze and scumble for countless layers. But, remember that the painting medium can act as a solvent, just as water does for a watercolor. So, only paint one layer at a time, let it dry, and then resume.

Final note: glazing works incredibly well with color. Look for that has an upcoming tutorial.

I hope you enjoyed seeing technique in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry
Santa Monica, June 2009

Ellipses: Don’t Start a Still-life Without ‘Em

Ellipses: Don’t Start a Still-life Without ‘Em by Michael Newberry

Ellipses make or break any drawn plate, glass, or bottle. When beautifully done they transport the viewer to experience serene harmony. It’s rare not to have a man-made cylindrical object in a still life.

It should not be surprising that da Vinci painted/drew beautiful ellipses. This detail is a from The Last Supper–it is the plate in front of Christ.

Ellipse demo Da Vinci

The outer side, top, and bottom edges of the ellipses are always perfectly aligned: straight up and down and straight across on the horizontal. Think of a “+” sign.

Below, I overlaid the plate with a “+” in purple. This process is really pure math. Most artists make either the right or left side unbalanced and fail to keep the two outer edges on the same horizontal plane.

The exception to this would be if the surface that the plate is on or the plate itself is tilted. Then you would tilt the “+” to correspond with the tilt of the object.

Ellipse demo Da Vinci

A tricky part about ellipses is that there is a slight discrepancy in size between the back half of the plate and the front half. Notice that the top half of the green box is smaller than the bottom half.

In perspective, as objects are further away from us, they shrink; and as they are closer to us, they expand. Hence the difference between the front and back halves of the plate.

Ellipse demo Da Vinci

In The Last Supper, the edge of the table is also horizontal which might confuse us about the ellipse’s horizontal. But if the table is on a flat surface and not tilted, the plate would always be perfectly horizontal no matter what perspective we have of the table.

Ellipse demo Da Vinci

Here, for example, I have changed the angle of the table. The plate would still remain horizontal.

Ellipse demo Da Vinci

The last very important thing about ellipses is that the rim gets rounder, more circular, the further they are placed either above or below our eye level.

“Eye level” is literally the horizontal plane which is the same height as our eye, hence the term “eye level”.

In the diagram below, the blue line represents our eye level. The green ellipses get progressively rounder and open more as they get further way from our eye level.

For example, if you were looking across to a book shelf that had several shelves containing plates, the closest plate to the height of our eye level would have a very narrow rim, and a very wide rim on the lowest shelf.

If the bookshelf were up to the height of the ceiling and way above our eye level, the same thing would occur-except that we wouldn’t see on top of the plate, rather we would see it from below. This means we would only see the front half of the rim, as the orange rims suggest. This means we would only see the front half of the rim, as the orange rims suggest.

Ellipse demo Da Vinci
Here is an example of ellipses from a recent charcoal drawing of mine. The eye level is somewhere near the top of the paper. There are three bowls and one plate; all on different heights below eye level.

The highest bowl has a very narrow rim and the black plate at the bottom of the paper has the roundest rim.

I hope you enjoyed seeing, in a fresh way, this very technical and mathematical side to the still-life.

Himalayan Flight by Newberry
Newberry, Himalayan Flight, 2006, charcoal on Rives BFK, 19 x 26 inches

Michael Newberry
New York, August 30th, 2006

Feeling the Form

Feeling the Form by Michael Newberry

Feeling Form demo

If the artist is going to convey reality, getting the forms right are absolutely essential. The realist artist is also at a disadvantage, in that if they present real objects, these objects have to have believable forms. As simple as forms look in art, they are one of the most difficult things to accomplish.

For example, no spectator is going to believe that the woman’s breasts were concaved, or that the sphere was flat.

You might have heard it said that if you can draw an egg, you can draw anything. There is quite a bit of truth to that statement. So, let’s start with an egg.

Feeling Form demo

For this demo, I used a real egg as the model. I outlined it in a middle-gray tone, not in black.

Many amateur artists outline the edges of objects with very dark lines and forget about the form that made the edge; the result is that it flattens the shape, almost irreparably.

Feeling Form demo

If artists can hold in their minds that the edge is the completion of the form, it will help them a great deal.

To show you what I mean, I have taken the outlined egg and stuck it inside of a transparent box.

The “X’s” mark the points where the egg meets the sides, top, and bottom of the box. The bold “X” is the closest to us, and the other 4 “X’s” are half-way to the back of the box.

I marked the closer edges of the box much darker than the outline of the egg in order to show that the sides of the egg are further away than the front.

The first thing to grasp about round forms is that the edges on the side are further away from us. It is what is in-between the edges that expands and comes towards us.

Feeling Form demo

Here is a bird’s eye view of the box and egg. We are looking down as if at a floor plan.

Feeling Form demo

A great tool to “see” form is to imagine reaching out with your hand and figuring what are spatially the first, second, and third things you will touch.

In this case, it is the center of the egg that is the closest to the hand, marked with an “X”.

Once you can see how forms expand towards us, you have mastered part of the form problem.

Feeling Form demo

Now the really hard part begins. Molding the egg with line or tone is really difficult. Here you can see that I am using a cross-hatching technique. The lines (mark making) go around the form, sometimes overlapping (cross-hatching).

There is no sure-fire way to make these lines successful, but I find the best way to do this is to imagine that you are massaging the egg, or whatever form it is, with your thumb.

Feeling Form demo

I literally will hold out my thumb and imagine it gliding gently over the forms. Whatever direction my thumb takes, I will make my drawing marks go in the same direction.

There is a point when drawing feels like literally caressing the form, and not merely scratching the paper.

When I have taught this massaging technique to classes, of up to 22 students, I have always gotten amazing results. Aside from understanding how to draw forms, the students have drawn the forms in their unique “voice.” I am convinced that when they concentrated on massaging the form, the pencil’s touch became personal.

Give this technique a go and I am sure you will benefit from it.

Michael Newberry
New York, January 14th, 2007

Details Don’t Mean A Thing If They Ain’t Got That Swing

Details Don’t Mean A Thing
If They Ain’t Got That Swing by Michael Newberry

da Vinci detail

Artists often agonize over the completion of a painting. The bugaboo for many realists is the detailing. Details are the crowning touches and yet, more often than not, they can rob the painting of its vitality.There are many great artists that manage to solve the “detail” problem. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is brimming with life and her famous smile is one of the most detailed details of any painting. I have viewed her close up and have seen how da Vinci has broken down the form of her lips into hundreds of tiny planes.So why is it that when other artists pay special attention to details, they do not come up the same results? I believe the answer lies in the swing of the big forms. In other words, details only work when they maintain the integrity of the big forms and their place in space.

da Vinci

Da Vinci, Mona Lisa

Stepping back and looking at the Mona Lisa as a whole, you can see that her head “sits” in the middle foreground, while her chest and hands rotate towards us, “locking into” the foreground.

da Vinci demo

Here you can get a sense of “leap-frogging” from her hand in the immediate foreground, to the corner of her breast, and then further back to her lips.If da Vinci had painted too strong of contrasts or gave too much, or too little, volume to her lips, he would have killed the lively dynamic of the swing of the forms through space.

There is no simple technique for placing objects in space. The contrast of light, dark, and color play a role, as well as high definition, perspective, and expanding the forms. All of these contribute to bringing objects forward. Transparency, less contrast, and blurring help make forms recede.

Rembrandt, Young Woman at the Window

Very similar in the setup as the Mona Lisa is this Rembrandt. Her head “sits” in the middle foreground and the corner of the breast comes forward.

Rembrandt demo

If you look for it, you will see how Rembrandt is wrapping the figure in light; he is swinging the light current around, behind, and up front on her form.

Rembrandt detail

Notice the meticulous detail of the leather cord and metal key around her neck.

Rembrandt detail

The earring also has extremely fine detailing, yet it occupies space way behind that of the cord and key.

Picasso woman_and_child
Picasso, Mother and Child

An interesting contrast to the above paintings is this Picasso. It is all form with very little detail. It is extremely deceptive in its simplicity. All the forms work in space as they do in the Rembrandt and da Vinci.

It only takes a little painting experience to discover that details are time exhaustive. Picasso opted to save time and sacrifice details.

If you are detail orientated, try to establish the big forms, like Picasso, has done above, and then embellish the forms with as much detail you like. Be careful not to flatten the form!


Beert, @1600, Still Life of Flowers

Here is a 16th/17th Century Flemish still-life. It is loaded with detail, but it is a flat painting. It is as if the flowers have been compressed and share a two-inch space of depth; as if the flowers have been painted from side to side, but not front to back. I would call this an example of indiscriminate detailing. The artist is not considering the interrelationship of the flowers’ positions nor their forms, hence, sacrificing the vitality of depth for superficial decoration.

The swing of forms through space excite eye movement and, for many observers, this creates an emotional response. Details that embellish and complete the forms bring with them an irresistible reality. Adding details to big forms is a tour de force of artistic skill.I hope you enjoyed seeing art in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry
New York, November 18th, 2006

Critiquing Art: Look for What is Alive

Critiquing Art: Look for What is Alive by Michael Newberry

Courbet, The Painter's Studio, 1855, oil on canvas, 12 x 20 feet
Courbet, The Painter’s Studio, 1855, oil on canvas, 12 x 20 feet

Representational art students are taught to be critical. During critiques, the stress is on the work’s problems. It is not uncommon to see students turning red with embarrassment or anger. Sometimes one will cry. Aside from a bully or two, most of them will accept the critiques as a necessary evil. “Grow a tough skin” is said to oneself and others. In the art world, only the tough survive, at least that is the idea.

Alone and long after college artists agonize over their work by aggressively focusing on their mistakes. This activity does at least demonstrate that the artist knows what is wrong, but it also serves to crush their spirit. The process doesn’t address the one question that matters most: what makes an artwork alive?

Artists could forget the primitive formal critique, let it go and change their perspective towards an inspiring way. Though this is demanding because one has to focus on solutions, understand what works, keep their eye on the big picture, and remind themselves that they are creating.

Some years ago, when I was teaching life drawing, I changed the format of the critiquing process. The artist introducing his/her work would explain what they did, and what they would add given more time. The critiquing students were required to comment on the successful parts of the drawing. A strange thing happened, the group became more confident, enjoyed the process more, and were much more supportive of one another.

Looking for blemishes in an artwork is the default response, but by focusing on what is alive, we will vitalize the critique process, open doors, and fortify artists’ creativity.

Michael Newberry
Revised, Idyllwild, April ’16