Chester Martin's Art Blog: Number 3

Monday, April 22, 2019 last!    This year's long wait for Easter and Passover is behind us, and you are finally getting some freedom to think about art. Doesn't matter whether you actually got to your condo studio down at Myrtle Beach, or (like me) only to a corner of my breakfast table. I am supposing that you have already delved into the basic requirements (like colors, brushes, paper, or canvas), and that you have a rudimentary understanding of how they are all used.

Do not be intimidated by the wide selection of materials that you find in the art-supply stores and catalogs, as most are unneccessary - at least as you begin.

Your concerns as a beginner will start with such questions as "What color is best for skies?", or "How do I get the right shade of green for the grass?" Sand, if you WERE able to get to your Myrtle Beach condo, can also open up new questions also, as there is no color on your list that says "sand", just as there is no perfect color for either skies or grass. You will have to do some color experimentation and mixing of your own - which will be a pleasant challenge for most people, and when you don't get it right on the first try, you simply "try again!" Just don't take it too seriously, please.

I once watched a man, said to be recently retired from the Government in Washington, D.C., who was trying to copy a painting at the National Gallery of Art. He was using one of those ladder-easels that most world-class art museums keep on hand for serious art students to use while copying paintings. The painting was fairly high up, and he had done a magnificent job with all the proportions and blocking-in of all the shapes. It was a landscape with a lot of close-up greenery which, poor guy, he had totally failed to capture. The small group of us (maybe 5 or 6) who had stopped to watch him paint were well out of his view, as he was gazing forward most of the time toward his subject, while we were watching from slightly below and behind him.

I will never forget the puzzled look of frustration when we got an occasional glimpse of his face as he worked away, knowing full well that the greens of his work were in no way the greens of the masterpiece he was copying, and he had no idea how to correct the problem. I stood there wanting to tell him, "try mixing some Raw Umber" into those (garish) greens - but I held my tongue and went on my way through the Gallery. An hour or so later when I came back to his location he was still on his ladder - and with the same pained look of utter frustration as before - and no one else had whispered up to him about how to remedy his dilemma. He had probably futilely hunted for a tube of "grass green", or "tree green" to save him, never realizing that there is no such thing! He did not yet have enough experience to know how to redeem himself from failure by mixing colors, and there was no way he saw to pull himself out of his tailspin.

As a beginner, I am imagining that YOU might be a bit like the gentleman just described (I meant "only" a bit, of course!) who will need to learn a few "tricks" to get your colors right - which are not really tricks at all, but just the result of good analysis. For example, that man was unable to get anything but garish greens, straight from his tube which certainly had the word "green" on the label, but which had nothing to do with the greens of Planet Earth! IF the gentleman could have only added some "Raw Umber" pigment to his mix it would have calmed the entire garish quality out of existence and related his painting more beautifully to the true Mother Earth we all live on. Slight modifications with either a purer yellow - or even blue, might then have brought out the "right" green quality he was seeking. Controlling color is best learned by yourself; books and blogs (like mine) can give you some hints, but you absolutely have to learn it for yourself by trial and error!                         

Therefore I am assuming you will be painting a landscape, (or seascape) for starters....If a seascape, you will probably be showing more sky than in other types of painting, so the sky color becomes a critical issue. If you're doing a watercolor, and need a cloudless sky, then take a (clean) wide brush - even a house-painter's brush - and wet your paper from top to where the sky ends at bottom. Before this water base starts to dry, mix a little of either cerulean blue or cobalt blue, using the same wide brush you used for the sky, and - beginning again at the top with a fully charged brush - liberally washing either of those two colors (or a mixture of both, downward). Make sure you have leaned your watercolor's support at a good  angle to let the color run downhill - but not too fast. An old floppy pillow or cushion will work well for allowing you to control the flow of the water. Let the richer blue remain at the top and let it become gradually weaker as it flows down toward the horizon. Remember to paint this large area of sky while in a shady area (like a comfy porch at your beach cottage), letting it dry slowly to keep the color "even".  (It's best to have something else to work on while this watercolor background is drying, as thick, saturated watercolor paper can be slow to dry).

If you wanted a sky full of clouds, you could simply have left patches of white paper, so that when you floated the blue color downward from the top, it would simply skip over the white areas and leave puffy little white summer clouds. A secret of good watercolor painting is to leave lots of unexpected bits of white paper to give the impression of bright sunlight. All the rest of your painting should be treated much the same way. Try to find some Chinese watercolors either online for inspiration, or at your favorite Chinese restaurant, and you will most likely see what I mean. IF there is one thing the Chinese have mastered through the centuries, it is watercolor painting! If you're painting clouds into your sky remember to put the big clouds nearer the top, and smaller, skinnier clouds near the bottom. (This encourages your eye to move from foreground to background - a very desirable effect!)

Your "seascape" is now underway, and if you got the sky right, then it's okay to move on to the distant sand. If your sky is light and airy, as suggested, then you want to continue that same quality into all the rest of your painting. That means the sand must appear to be catching the same sunlight, and yellow is the best color, probably, to achieve that effect, but not PURE yellow! Try a weak mixture of either Raw Sienna and a brighter yellow (such as Cadmium Yellow Light), or Hansa Yellow, though it must be a tiny bit darker than your sky at the horizon.  Again, I must emphasize that there should be no "set" way (formula) to get the desired results. You must always keep experimenting so as to please yourself. Just bear in mind that most true landscapes (seascapes included) progress forward from lighter backgrounds (sky, sand, mountains), to darker foregrounds (individual trees, buildings, green pastures, flower-pots,  etc.)  So always try to keep your backgrounds lighter, whether done in watercolor, oils, acrylics, or pastels, saving the darker and richer colors for the foreground. Photography frequently sees the world differently, but even if you are copying a photo it is wise to observe the method outlined above for achieving "depth" in your painting.

As  backgrounds are frequently more "ethereal" (meaning pale blue and/or gray), then try to emphasize that fact. Keep those colors delicate so that, as you move forward from the background, you will save your richer and brighter colors for the foreground. Yes, there will be exceptions to that rule, but we are speaking in generalities here. Just try to remember those foggy mornings you have seen where the houses and trees across the street from your house seem very distant with a ghostly presence, and how they lose that quality altogether as the fog lifts and the grays all fade away. NATURE has a countless numbers of shades to play with, while YOU only have ten (as on the grayscale)! So just bear that fact in mind before you start any new painting in any medium.

A time-honored method for getting the above method right (by keeping foregrounds dark and backgrounds light) is to simply start with the foreground, painting it FIRST, before proceeding to the middle-ground and background. Such is more easily done in oils and acrylics than in watercolor. As a one-time watercolorist I always started with the background, painting the sky and distant mountains first using very thin washes of blue and/or gray, gradually working into the middle ground with slightly richer colors, and saving the warmest, darkest, and richest colors for the foreground. A bit of "tweaking" after all three of these planes (background, middle ground, and foreground) were finished could bring the whole together into one satisfying whole.

What I've described above is what the experts call "atmospheric perspective". It is what Nature itself teaches us. And we here in Chattanooga have it all around us most of the time: As we drive to work along I-24 of a morning we frequently see Lookout Mountain as a ghostly shape in the distance, but, as we approach it more closely the film of haze or fog becomes thinner to reveal it as the friendly and familiar shape we have loved since childhood. We also get the same effect coming down our "ridge cut" (going east) in the afternoon seeing layer upon layer of distant ridges - each successively a tiny bit lighter than the last, leading our eye further and further into the background. These are ideal, time-honored, "devices" the artist can use to lead the viewer's gaze anywhere desired in the painting. (Another such device is the "S"- curving roadway, or patches of light, which I personally feel is used too frequently, and is a bit trite - but I use it all the time anyway!) It certainly works to quickly lead the eye into a painting!

In this respect, we can think of backgrounds as being "cool" (in color), while foregrounds are "warm". I have seen many great paintings done where the artist has introduced pure reds into the foreground - where no red existed in the actual landscape (or still-life). It was done so skillfully that it was never even noticed by the casual viewer. The human eye loves having such tricks played on it. Warm, friendly colors are naturally attractive to the eye and bring such objects forward.

And so, dear Beach Vacationer, I am aware I taught you how to paint beaches and skies, but coyly evaded that main attraction which is the Great Atlantic Ocean!  Ha ha! I don't even know how to paint it myself, as I've never had the pleasure of living near the ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. That's why seascapes, especially, are known to be an "art unto themselves" and hard to master! As many times as I've attempted seascapes, I have never painted water the same way twice! It is always very elusive and I never see it the same way. If one of my readers should write me (at my email address, I might be inclined to tackle the subject. I might even throw in some ideas about how to paint seagulls and other beach stuff. Just please let me know of anything else I might have missed today and I'll try to get to it next time. 

Surely hope you had a nice Easter/Passover holiday, and I'll see ya soon again! Please do not  EVER let yourself get discouraged by your first steps at learning how to paint. Just remember the persistence of the man in the National Gallery, described above, who. although momentarily frustrated, probably eventually succeeded. I would wager that he did! (Have wondered about him for all these many years). But even Rembrandt and Picasso had to learn it all step by step!

ALSO: Please e-mail me ANY question you have about Art in general; will be happy to TRY and give you a worthy reply.  

Bye for now!

* * *

Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan of wide experience in the Arts, having designed and executed large 8' x 30' murals, as for the Mountain City Club of Chattanooga and two local banks. Educated at the former University of Chattanooga (now the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga) he found immediate employment in the Arts upon his 1961 graduation. While working as a Commercial Designer locally, he began entering art competitions, winning many awards: local, regional, and national. His most significant national award was for $10,000 from Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina (1983) where his bronze sculptural creation, titled, "The Sixth Day", remains in the Gardens' permanent collection. His winning design for the United Nations' World Food Day medal (1984) became his first work collected by both the British Museum and the Smithsonian. These stepping stones led to his employment by the United States Mint at Philadelphia, from where he is retired. The American Numismatic Association (Colorado Springs) presented him with their gold medal for lifetime achievement at their Baltimore convention in 1993. Never far from an artist's paintbrush or sculptors' clay, he continues to pursue his lifetime dream of being an artist - offering help to anyone who asks.

Mr. Martin can be reached at

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