The Cobalt Method
Just a note about the teaching style at Cobalt, The early projects involved a lot of demonstration. The teachers would demonstrate and we would copy. As the time went on, there was less demonstration and more of us having to take what we learned and fill in the blanks. By the last projects we were mentored through the projects but there was no demonstration. I thought that was a great teaching method. It ensured that everyone started out with all the proper information and then there was a certain accountability required to finish. I liked that a great deal and have incorporated it into my pedagogy.
After the basics assignment, we went directly into woodgrain. We did two projects simultaneously, so we didn't have to wait for dry time. For the purpose of the blog, though, I'll separate the two in different posts.
We were first shown some photos of old barn wood. I find there is no substitute for visual reference. I always encourage my students to have a paintbrush in one hand and the visual reference or the paint elevation in the other. Typically, when I see scenic artists make mistakes it's when they are painting and the visual reference is somewhere else. Thirty feet away or so.
Step #1: Cartooning
Rachel demonstrated this piece. The first thing we did was take a piece of charcoal in a bamboo pole (which from this point on I will reference only as 'a bamboo') and cartooned the wood planks and the doorway we wished to paint. Charcoal is notorious for leaving 90% more material on your work than you need to make a mark, so when we were done with this step we flogged off the excess charcoal. A flogger is made by taking a piece of wood about two feet or two foot, six inches long and adding a bunch of muslin strips to one end. A flogger is an important tool for the scenic artist. It's like a magic eraser. Flogging removes most of the charcoal and leaves only enough to see the lines but not so much that it changes the color of wet paint.
When we had flogged off the work, we then inked the lines with a permanent marker in a bamboo. We did this freehand without a lining stick. We used the permanent marker for the very reason people say don't use a permanent marker. It bleeds through a few layers of paint. We wanted our indication lines to project through to guide us later. I've found that there are very few absolutes in the world. Don't do this....except in certain situations.
|Inked with a blue permanent marker|
Step #2: Base Coat
The base coat is a wet on wet process that goes on quite fast. We used a grey and a brown as our two colors. To be fair, the brown was kind of a grey brown. We laid the first color down in irregular stripes on the door section. When doing this, it is extremely important to orient your stripes in the direction of the woodgrain. Vertical stripes for vertical pieces of wood, horizontal stripes for horizontal pieces of wood. Since this is a wet on wet technique, and you are painting it very quickly, it's okay, in fact it's better for you to paint just outside the lines. You can clean that up when you paint the next board.
We put the second color down between the stripes of the first color and blended the edges just a little. Once the door piece was based, we then dragged our brushes along the diagonal piece and the two horizontal pieces to give the proper direction to the boards. If you do this quick, while the paint is still wet, you don't have to introduce a lot of new paint for this. Just use what is already there.
|First color, irregular stripes|
|Second color blended, kind of|
|Door section painted with diagonal and horizontals dragged through|
Then we did the same thing for the other boards. It's like a puzzle. You have to place the right piece at the right time for it to work properly. On the piece above, the two horizontal boards that are not yet painted would be first. If the paint ends up on the vertical board at the left, no big deal because you can clean that up momentarily. If you paint the vertical one first then you have to paint with much greater care on the two horizontal pieces. It's important to figure all of that out before you begin painting. Which piece gets painted first and the order etc...
|Base coat complete|
Step #3: Graining
While we were waiting for the paint to dry, we did two things. First we base coated the other side of our flats for the more refined woodgrain. Second, we went to the classroom and looked at different kinds of woodgrain, received a handout with illustrations, and then we practiced painting woodgrain on the bogus paper floor. Bogus paper is an absorbent paper that scenic artists like to lay down beneath their work. Helps keep everything clean and orderly. Cobalt was the first time I had ever painted on bogus paper. It won't be the last. I really liked painting on the bogus paper.
Rachel then told us to pick out three or four boards on our piece and do different woodgrain techniques on them.
After that, we found old ratty paintbrushes whose bristles were splayed and did a simple drag through the rest of the boards. It was looking pretty ugly by this point. My mantra to my students over the years has been, "The last thing you do is the only thing they see." I have seen students get upset and want to quit on projects at this point because they don't look beautiful. Many projects have to go through an"ugly duckling phase" before the become beautiful. But don't worry, this one will get uglier before it gets prettier.
Notice in the images below that the paint has dried lighter than it was when it was wet. Sometimes paint dries lighter sometimes it dries darker. I believe this is directly related to whether or not white was mixed into the color.
|Graining a few boards|
|The rest are dragged|
Step #4: Spatter and Drag
As the name would suggest, the next step involves spattering sections of the piece and then dragging with a dry brush through the wet spatter. This is done in small sections so the paint doesn't dry before it can get smeared. It is also important to drag along the direction of the board you are painting. As I mentioned earlier, this project gets uglier before it becomes beautiful. This step is the paint job at it's ugliest. The thing about good scenic artists, though is that they can see the end from the beginning. They know it has to go through this step before it can become beautiful.
|Spatter and drag|
Step #5: Details
Since each of these boards are supposed to look like they are sitting on a different plane, it's important to identify which boards set higher than others. This is designated by writing numbers on boards based on how many inches they set above the base. The base is given the designation "0". In this case the door is the lowest point and the vertical boards in the door would be marked "0". The horizontal boards and the diagonal board on the door would be designated "1" because it is one inch above "0", and so on and so forth. This is done with charcoal, which will be flogged off later.
|I added charcoal lines around the door just to help me see where my shadows went|
Once the designations have been determined, the next step is to add cast shadow. The cast shadow is made by mixing ultramarine blue and black. In other words, Payne's Grey. Using the designations as a guide, we then took a one inch Purdy angled sash brush on a bamboo and painted in our cast shadows. Notice the shadows that fall across boards that are vertical are jagged on the bottom, because weathered wood ends up having grooves because some of the rings in the tree are harder than others and the softer ones recede as it weathers.
The most important thing to remember when painting shadows and highlights is Light Source. Where is the light coming from? Always think about that when doing any of the trompe l'oeil techniques. The thing that will make your work look either good or amateurish more than anything is how well you understand light source.
We did use straight edges for the shadow work, by the way. If a board has a designation of "1" and it is adjacent to a board that has a designation of "0", the shadow would be one inch thick. If, however, a board had a designation of "2" and it was adjacent to a board that had a designation of "0" the shadow would be 2 inches thick. In other words you have to do math. It gets tricky when shadowing the door because part of the shadow is two inches thick and the other parts are only one inch thick. I'll show that on the photos.
When the shadows are dry, the next step is the highlights. Highlights are made by mixing the local color with whatever color the "light" is supposed to be. In other words don't just use white paint to make a highlight. If the color of the light is yellow, then that is your mixing color. If it is pink or blue then use that. That being said, it's not inappropriate to lighten your highlight with a little white, so long as you have the color of the light as well.
When painting the highlights, we used a one inch Purdy (from this point on, if I mention a one inch Purdy, it refers to the angled sash brush). I like highlights that come and go. They don't necessarily have to be full length to look convincing. Place highlights on the edge of the board that light would naturally strike it. In other words, if the light is coming from the left, the leading edge of the board is the left edge and that is where you would highlight. Shadows are just the opposite. They flee from the light.
|First batch of shadows laid in|
|Charcoal flogged off at this point|
|More shadows and highlights. Notice the shadows on the "Z". Two inches, then one inch then two then one then two...|
Step #6: The Last Thing
The final bit of detail is the cut line. For this we used Rosco Velour Black. Rachel calls it "The Cadillac of Black." Cast shadow is a transparent shadow that casts from one thing to another. Velour black is what we used to create voids, such as where the boards end and it's completely dark beyond. The jagged edge of the bottom of the door, or the space between boards were painted with velour black. We also used a one inch Purdy to create a cut line right where the shadow begins when it's casting from a higher surface to a lower surface. Having just a little darker hard line right there brings the whole piece into focus.
|Cut line and voids filled in with velour black|
|The finished piece|
This was a rewarding experience. I enjoyed painting weathered wood. You have to really see the end from the beginning on this project. I really liked how Rachel combined techniques to paint not only the weathered wood, but also the trompe l'oeil. I love the way she has codified the teaching of scenic art.