Gray Studies=Fun In The Studio

gs-stork

I’m back home after my Wyoming trip with no big juried show deadlines to paint for, so it’s my time of year to work on my painting process, in which I review the work I did over the last year thinking about what worked and what didn’t, what I might want to do in the coming year and how. I’m also going back to basics in a couple of areas to improve my skill set. One of those areas is contour drawing. I shared some of the those from the SKB workshop in last week’s post. Another is value studies or, as David Rankin, the nationally-known watercolorist who I studied with at the workshop, calls them, Gray Studies. You can find a number of his excellent tutorials on his Facebook page here and on his website here. (Go to “Watercolor Training Files” on the left hand side and then “Grey Studies Training Files”.

I spent quite a bit of time one afternoon at the workshop simply figuring out, with his help, how to put down a correct single tone watercolor wash (the *secret* is plenty of water) using a 1″ flat brush (I usually use rounds). The really important exercise was learning his four value “recipe” for doing gray studies by painting along with him as he did one.

Once back home in the studio I wanted to build on what I’d learned. I’ve done value studies as a preliminary step for my paintings for years and it was something I’d learned in art school. I’d done them as graphite drawings or very small oils and it always felt a bit time consuming, however necessary. But this way of doing them in watercolor was an eye-opener. So easy, really. Paint around the whites, covering everything else. Then add layers of middle values. Save the darkest dark, if there is one, for last. But it took some new thinking and seeing to be able to do it and know what I was doing.

So I’ve spent most of the week painting gray studies from my photo reference. It was fun to revisit some of my Kenya wildlife images. These are all in Payne’s Gray (which has a very nice blueish tone) on an Arches 140lb cold press watercolor block, using sometimes a flat and sometimes a round. None took more than an hour or so. The stork above was the second one. In order:

gs-bison

gs-hippo-buff-hyena

gs-warthog-rhino-gazelle-lion

At this point I felt that I understood the process enough to paint some that might become finished oils.

gs-sparrow-vulture-horse-camel

gs-horses

I did the quick preliminary drawings with a 9B Cretacolor Monolith pencil. It’s important not to labor over them, just indicate the basic shapes, plus where the white¬† of the paper will be. So there you have it…a quick and inexpensive way to try out art ideas and value patterns.

The *Value* of Value Studies & Some Examples

6x6" Horse studies
6×6″ Horse studies

I’m getting ready to begin my Fall Painting Season and decided to start by tweaking my working process. Every successful representational painting has two things: solid composition and a strong, well-thought out value pattern. Of course drawing, color and edges are important also, but one can make the case that the design and values are critical. So I’ve spent the last few days doing small value studies of reference photos that I’m thinking about painting. I’m working on the drawing part at the same time, too. None of them took more than an hour or so.

They are all done on various types of watercolor paper I already have on hand, experimenting to see which one serves my purpose best, and with one color…Winsor Newton Payne’s Gray. The brush is a Round No. 10 Prolene by ProArts. The study sizes run from 6×6″ to 7×10″, so not very big.

I got the idea to use watercolor for preliminary value studies (instead of, for instance, pencils or oils) from my friend and colleague, nationally-known watercolorist David Rankin. You can read his information about what he calls “Gray Studies” here.

I like it because it’s fast, effective, fun and let’s me practice with the media I use on location when I’m in Mongolia.

So, if your paintings are looking kind of flat or you’re finding that using color is confusing your values, I highly recommend that you get the simple set of materials listed below and try this. It may be a bit of a struggle at first to truly grasp the difference between color and value (the relative light and dark of something separate from its color) and to move away from your reference in order to get the right amount of contrast in the right places (a viewer’s eye is going to go first to the area of highest contrast, so you need to make a conscious decision about where your focal point is), but hang in there, just keep adjusting and experimenting and you’ll be rewarded by a visible improvement in your work.

Materials list:

1 tube Winsor Newton Payne’s Gray transparent watercolor

1 small dish or whatever you think will work for a palette.

Watercolor paper (I’m using “stock on hand”….small blocks of Art Lana Lanaquarelle hot press, Arches cold press and Saunders Waterford cold press; or you can get sheets of 300 lb, which doesn’t have to be stretched). If you buy sheets then you will need something to mount them to. I use a rectangular scrap of foamcore taped around the edges with clear packing tape and then use 1/2″ drafting tape to hold the corners of the paper to the board.

1 brush- Use at least a no. 10 round or 1/2” flat; your choice of brand (I like the Robert Simmons Sapphire synthetics, but also have a couple of the Prolene and Dick Blick rounds)

Reference photos with strong light and shadow patterns.

Here’s some more of what I’ve been doing:

Horses
Horses; I deliberately chose to put the darker wash along the contour of the left horse’s head, mane and back to make the white, lightest area pop out. Notice that it stops at the eye where the shadow area begins, so that part of the background was left lighter.
Short-tailed weasel or stoat
Short-tailed weasel or stoat; I learned from this one that my reference photo doesn’t have as much value contrast as it seemed when I picked it, so for this study I pushed the contrast between the weasel and the background. Still not happy with the shadow areas around the animal, so I’ll probably do another quick study just using shapes to get the values where I want them.
Mongolian yak
Mongolian yak
A more finished study of Siberian ibex
A more finished study of two Siberian ibex