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.
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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″.
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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.
Dreams of Round Things, 2006, charcoal on Rives BFK, 26 x 19 inches.
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Rhythm a Beautiful Way to Organize Chaos by Michael Newberry
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.
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Oil Paint Glazing by Michael Newberry
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.
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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.
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Feeling the Form by Michael Newberry
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.
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Details Don’t Mean A Thing
If They Ain’t Got That Swing by Michael Newberry
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.
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Critiquing Art: Look for What is Alive by Michael Newberry
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?
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Composition in One Easy Lesson by Michael Newberry
Cezanne, Still-Life with Apples and Oranges, 1899
There are unlimited possibilities for what one can do with a composition; the combinations are countless. A composition is essentially the arrangement of objects/forms within the border of the canvas or paper. The aim of this tutorial is to illustrate that there is one essential ingredient to a superb composition.
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