Learning the Basics
Our first project that involved paint at Cobalt was all about the basics. It was important to go back to the basics. The foundation is the most important part of a house. It's what holds the rest of it up. I believe the fundamentals are the most important part of scene painting. They are the basement, the foundation. They make everything else make sense. They hold everything else upright. I was already familiar with much of what was being taught on this project. I think all of the students were familiar with a lot of the early material. The beauty of the Cobalt method, though is that the teaching is codified. There is a system. Each part in sequence.
I loved the Cobalt system. I asked Rachel and Kimb if I could 'steal' it for when I taught my class back home. They gave me permission. Painting the basics in this way sets the stage for subsequent projects. Everything builds off of previous projects. We needed a strong foundation.
I've taught for years that the five steps of every great scene painting job are:
We first covered flats with muslin, then we sized them, or primed them with starch. While we were waiting for the starch to dry, we sat at the desk and learned about geometry and how to use it in laying out large canvasses. There was no wasted time during the work day at Cobalt. That meant no wasted money.
The next thing we learned was two different kinds of base coats. A scumble and an ombré. We divided our flat lengthwise in half and painted an ombré on one half and a scumble on the other. An ombré is painted by taking one color and painting one side of the flat with strokes all going in the same direction. The paint is pulled about halfway across the work and then you start on the other side with a different color and do the same thing, pull the paint from the edge to the middle. Where the two colors meet, they blend over the middle third of the painting.
A scumble is a base coat that involves two or more colors that are laid down in patches and then are blended into each other. The middle of each of the patches remains the pure color, but the edges are blended. In a very fine scumble, it's difficult to tell where one color ends and the other begins. Some scumbles are broader and less blended. That's okay too. Depends on what look you are going for.
|Painting the ombré|
While we were waiting for the base coat to dry, we went to the desks and learned other things. That was a constant at Cobalt. Never a wasted moment. When the paint was dry, we divided the ombré in half lengthwise and also the scumble. Now we had four sections to work with.
On one section, we made our own ragrolls by taking fabric and wrapping it around a roller and attaching it with rubber bands. The rubber bands also served to break up the pattern in interesting ways.
Another section we took large brushes and spread the bristles out a bit and dragged a color along the length of the section. Almost like a drybrush technique, but with more paint.
Still another section we painted with sponge rollers.
The last section we took rollers that had been cut and shaved in interesting ways and painted a texture with them. Basically we were playing with many different textures.
|Painting with a ragroll roller|
|Dividing the panels with brown kraft paper|
|The four textures, top to bottom: Ragroll, Drag, Cut roller, Sponge roller|
The next step of the workup was three different kinds of spatter. The first one was a regular spatter, the second one was a wet spatter, where you spatter into a little bit of water and let the drops spread. The third version was more of a bath where you spatter into pools of standing water. Once again, we had stuff to do while the paint was drying.
The first part of the detail was some linework. We used a tool called a story stick that was a piece of brown kraft paper, folded in half with measured markings on it. The story stick is placed on the side of the flat, marks are made with charcoal corresponding to the marks on the story stick, then it's turned over and the same marks are placed on the other side of the work. After that, we used lining sticks and paintbrushes in the end of bamboo poles to make our lines. Some of the lines were what they called "fuzzy lines" which meant we put down a little water on one side of the line and when we brushed paint into it, it spread and got fuzzy. That's the basis for a lot of the trompe l'oeil we would do later in the session. Trompe l'oeil is a French term that means "to fool the eye."
The next part of the process was to use a pounce to lay out our cube, cone and cylinder. We also used a compass to lay out our sphere. A pounce is a piece of brown kraft paper which has been perforated with a particular shape. It is then attached temporarily to the work and a piece of muslin with powdered charcoal is then rubbed on the perforations to leave charcoal residue in the voids. When the pounce is lifted, the shapes appear.
Once the work has been pounced, we then inked the shapes with permanent marker.
|Using a pounce|
|What that looks like|
The next step was to lay in the local color. I used an angled Purdy sash brush for the job. The reason we used permanent marker was so the ink would bleed through the paint. There were several reference marks on the pounce that we would need later.
|Laying in the local color|
|Local color, notice the bleed through|
The next step was to lay out the shadows. We did this by chalking out indication lines, signifying the two directions the light was coming from, in other words light coming from the a axis and the b axis. The position of the sun has lateral direction as well as vertical direction.
Using the two directions, we were able to lay out the shadows of all the pieces.
|Chalk indicating direction of sunlight|
|Using geometry to lay out the shadow on the cube|
|and the cylinder|
|and the cone|
Camille Pisaro was a painter who theorized and standardized the painting of shapes. She believed that if you could paint a cone, a cube, a cylinder and a sphere you could paint anything. Those are the fundamental shapes found in everything.
While we were waiting for paint to dry, we went over and drew the Pisaro shapes and learned about the different elements used in painting them. In other words highlight and shadow.
Shadow-This refers to the shadow that is cast from an object
Shade-This refers to the main part of the object that is shaded because it isn't in the light
Dark Toner-This refers to a secondary shade on the other side of the piece
Highlight-This refers to the area of the object that is in the path of the light
Zinger-This refers to a small section in the center of the highlight that is much brighter. A flash.
Bounce Light-This refers to light that hits the object from a secondary light source
Cut Lines-This refers to sections of the object where it comes to rest on a surface.
The first thing we painted was the shade on all the objects. We used burnt umber mixed with ultramarine blue and thinned to transparent with water for our shade color. Where the shade fades out, we painted fuzzy lines. While we had that color, we added in our dark toner on the other side. The dark toner was just the shade color with a little extra water thrown in.
|Painted shade and dark toner|
The highlights were added next. Highlight is made by taking the local color and adding the color of the light and sometimes white. For me, I like highlights that are translucent, which is that ethereal place somewhere between transparent and opaque.
When the highlights were dry, we added the zinger, or the flash light. The flash light is opaque and it's the highlight color with white added. It's more like the highest part of the reflection.
|Highlight added to the top of the cube and cylinder|
|Highlight added to the sphere and cone|
|Laying the zinger down|
|More of the zinger|
The next step was to add the bounce light. Bounce light is light from a secondary light source. When Rachel was talking about it, she mentioned dance lighting and the bright colors of sidelight they use. She was hinting. Most everyone else went conservative with their bounce light. I went into the shop and found some florescent pink for mine. Rachel approved. I chose my bounce light direction from the floor to the left of the piece, so it would show up in the shade of the object.
The last step of this project is to add the cut line. The cut line is pure black, opaque with is a simple line where the object comes to rest on the ground. We painted them with a one inch Purdy angled sash brush because we could get the lines very thin with them.
|The cut line on the cylinder|
|The cut line on the cube|
|The cut line on the cone|
The sphere didn't get a cut line because it's floating.
|The finished piece|
I used this technique when I taught my scene painting class last fall. It was revelatory. As I taught the Cobalt method all semester, I realized that while some of my class may have been more talented than others, it seemed that every technique I taught, instead of the class sorting themselves into better and less better groups, everyone seemed to come along at the same rate of speed. The thing is, they all painted better and everyone was challenged.
This experience at Cobalt was awesome. I would love to go back for a second helping.