Color Charts

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Color mixing: the bread and butter of painting. Carpenters cut wood. Welders work with metal. Painters mix paint.

I finished a complete color chart of my current palette a few weeks ago and have been meaning to write a post about the process. It was funny for a little while – people would ask me what I was working on in my studio, and I would answer, “Mixing paint. Making color charts.” It sounded silly – why wasn’t I working on some epic new portfolio piece featuring my usual cast of fantasy characters? Well, making these color charts has actually become one of the most useful tools in my studio, so much so that I now reference them almost every painting session. Here’s a breakdown of what makes them so integral to my practice.

All 12 charts, on my studio wall for easy reference.

All 12 charts on my studio wall for easy reference.

Having all the charts behind me as I paint is incredibly useful. When trying to get a particular hue, I often would spend a lot of time mixing different colors on my palette, basically guessing until I found something that sort of worked for what I wanted. While mixing paint this way is very meditative and calming, it’s not particularly fast. Now when I’m stumped to figure out what I need, I simply glance behind me – and most of the time I can find what I’m looking for. How does this work?

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The mother color chart – every pure tube color, plus white.

I won’t take credit for this process – that would go to Richard Schmid, painter and author of Alla Prima. His technique regarding color was my inspiration for this entire project, so if you’re interested, the best way to do it yourself is to pick up a copy of his book.

The first step is to take all the colors in your current palette and mix them out to gradations of white, establishing a stepped scale of tints. Step 1 is the color straight from the tube – easy. Steps 2-5 are successive mixtures of Titanium White added to the color in a steadily lightening gradation, with Step 5 being the very lightest.

It immediately becomes obvious that as colors are lightened with white, they actually get much cooler in tone. The lightest tints are very cool. While I already knew this basic concept of mixing, having it so readily demonstrated is a great reminder of what white actually does. The cooling effect is subtle in the lower gradations, but it always happens.

The child palette. A specific color is mixed with every other color.

The child color chart for Cadmium Yellow Medium. A specific color is mixed with every other color in the palette.

The next step is to go through the palette and mix what I call the “children” charts. The above chart is for Cadmium Yellow Medium. For each column, Cadmium Yellow Medium is mixed with every other color in the palette with Cadmium Yellow Medium “predominating” in hue. Predominating means that the mixture is not overwhelmed by the other color – so the first mixture of Cadmium Yellow Medium and Radiant Lemon has more Cadmium Yellow Medium than Radiant Lemon, allowing its basic qualities to be the main hue in the mixture.

Next, that mixture is again gradated out with Titanium White, from steps 1-5 the same as was done for the mother chart. By repeating this tinting process, it becomes evident where the color mixtures have the greatest amount of individuality, right around steps 2-3 in hue. By the time it gets to step 5, the hue is so light that differences in mixtures are very subtle.

It was actually quite time consuming to get those stepped gradations just right. But once it’s all finished, the amount of information regarding color is astonishing. The chart above basically unlocks all the possible combinations of Cadmium Yellow Medium in two color mixtures plus white. This is incredibly useful information!

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The child color chart for Radiant Lemon.

I won’t discuss every child color chart in depth. Even I know that would get dull. But just look at the difference between the Cadmium Yellow Medium and Radiant Lemon child color charts. Both colors are yellow in hue. Cadmium Yellow packs an intense, warm punchy hue. In contrast, Radiant Lemon is so light and cool that its practically almost white when it is squeezed from the tube. It’s much more pastel in hue. There’s a reason why Cadmium Yellow Medium costs twice as much at the art store – just look how much more literal color there is in those mixtures!

Was this project worth it? Definitely. Each chart took me around 2.5 hours, so with all the panel prepping, taping and mixing, the project probably took around 32 hours. Now though, I have a complete guide for every color I use. Eventually, the time I’ve spent will be regained when I’ve eliminated the guesswork while trying to mix a particular color on my palette. If you’re curious, the rest of my charts are below. I highly suggest mixing your own. The investment is worth it!

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How to Build a Painting Rack

I recently constructed  a painting rack for my studio where my work can dry above the ground. Since I work on canvas mounted to gator board panels, I needed an easy way to store them without stacking them directly on top of each other where paintings could smudge or scratch each other. It was actually pretty easy and only took an afternoon. Here’s how I did it:

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I started with some reclaimed wood and measured it to be 12″ in width. Most of my work is around the 11″ by 14″ range to 18″ by 24″ range, so 12″ on the bottom was going to be the minimum I would need to be able to stack work onto the shelf and allow some overhang without it falling off. Next, I measured six intervals, and then used a hand saw to cut grooves into the wood.

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It was a crude job, but good enough. I just need the grooves to be deep and wide enough to fit some 1/8″ plexiglass dividers.

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Next, I scored plexiglass into 12″ right triangles and set them into the grooves. All that’s needed to keep them in place is a line of wood glue where each divider is placed. I like plexiglass because its durable and the transparent effect is nice too when I’m looking at paintings in a row.

The two sides of the rack, installed.

The two sides of the rack, installed.

I repeated this process again for a second rack. As you can see here, this wall in my studio has a dividing bit of molding, so in order to effectively use the space the rack goes on both sides of the molding. I have a very small studio, so I try to use every available bit of room.

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The rack in action!

The rack can actually hold quite a few paintings at once. Looking back, there is one design change I might make. The plexiglass dividers could use a bit more total area. As they are right triangles, there is actually not much that the paintings lean and the can tip to one side easily when bumped or jostled. I think I may use larger dividers in the future that do not come to a perfect right triangle but instead are larger trapezoidal shapes. This would give more structure to the dividers and the paintings wouldn’t be knocked around quite so easily. Even so, it’s a good solution – my work is off the dirty floor and I can see it all in one glance. A big improvement from stacks of panels on top of each other, leaning against the wall!

The Making of “Dana & Goliath”

Dana & Goliath - 24" by 18"

Dana & Goliath – 24″ by 18″

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Initial thumbnail sketches.

I promised a “making of” post for “Dana & Goliath” a little while ago – so here it is!

When I have a germ of a narrative idea for an illustration in my head, I always start out with very loose thumbs to establish a super basic composition. My sketchbook typically gets covered in scrawls that look very much like the above. I really wanted a strong gesture in the halfling swashbuckler as she defeats the ogre tyrant, and I finally landed on a sort of leaping, triumphant gesture that hit what I was looking for.

Digital grayscale value study.

Digital grayscale value study.

As this piece was turning into a pretty complex scene, I decided to fully flesh out a grayscale value study to really nail the parts where I wanted the most visual emphasis and establish elements that needed to fall back as supporting elements. I didn’t use to do this sort of preparatory work, but I’ve realized that it is a huge time saver on a piece like this. Working digitally lets me really tweak the contrast as much as necessary, and one of my favorite tricks is zooming way, way out on the piece to see if it still reads properly. The is a great test to see if a composition is working – if you can’t differentiate the major shapes at the size of a postage stamp, chances are it still won’t work when it’s enlarged to a double page spread.

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Still works!

Next step - shooting photo reference.

Next step – shooting photo reference.

All told, I used about 15 different photos that I composited together for the entire image. Some are just images I pull from online sources for a quick reference on how a rapier sword handle looks, or to how an aged wood barrel appears. I don’t copy these verbatim, but rather just look at them for quick notes on texture and form. Other references are much more literal, like the figures and also the castle interior itself.

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Its a little hard to tell here but this is a model constructed from gator board and drawing paper to get the proper perspective for the castle interior. I wanted the look of a medieval wine cellar, and this called for rough masonry walls and paved stone floors. Getting all those bricks in perspective was a tricky prospect, especially when they were so obscured by all the various objects in the room. The best solution turned out to be a physical model because I could control the lighting very easily. Some artists prefer 3D software like Maya for this, but I like getting crafty – it’s super fun and feels like I am really building an actual space.

Final sketch before painting.

Final sketch before painting.

After compositing all the reference together in Photoshop, I made a final drawing to really get details established. I didn’t bother with values because I had already established those in my earlier value study, and was mainly focusing on accurate proportions and proper perspective.

When I finally transferred this drawing to the board, I had almost already painted it in my mind because I had done so much preparatory work. That may sound bold but its how I actually feel sometimes when a piece requires this much reference shooting and model building. I worked on “Dana & Goliath” on and off over a period of three weeks in between other projects, and solid 20% of that was just the prep work.
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From sketch to final.

From sketch to final.

I hope you enjoyed this “Making Of” post as much as I enjoyed painting “Dana & Goliath”!

Creating Convincing Armor

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The Knight with Two Swords – 2012. Lots of armor issues here.

Fred Knee-Chee - Level 4 Dwarf Ranger - 2016

Fred Knee-Chee – Level 4 Dwarf Ranger – 2016. Getting better at armor!

Painting armor is really tough. There’s no getting around it.
To begin with, it’s very difficult to get good reference for a full suit of armor. Most artists don’t have the funds to go out and buy a period specific suit of full plate mail, so we have to do what we can with existing reference elsewhere. I’ve been knocking my head against this problem for a few years now, and have learned a few rules that seem to make it easier.

  1. Armor is an external architecture that wraps itself around the body.
    Basically, this means that wherever someone is wearing armor, it is an additional layer over their anatomy. Everything gets thicker because there is this armature that is adding to the girth of the chest, the groin and the appendages. Armor is designed to deflect blows, so it inherently has a convex shape that induces blades, arrows and other penetrating objects to bounce off of it. This further adds to this appearance of extra thickness. This is the fundamental problem with “boob armor”, but many other bloggers have gone on at length about this issue so I won’t dwell on it here.
  2. Armor is designed for movement.
    IMG_4241When knights were wearing armor in the middle ages, they not only needed it to protect themselves but also needed it to allow them to move sufficiently enough to swing their weapon, raise their shield and any number of other necessary maneuvers in combat. This means that anywhere that a limb needs to rotate, the armor needs to be flexible enough to allow a full range of movement.
    A great way to replicate this is to build armor yourself out of cardboard for reference purposes. You’ll quickly find that in order to lift your forearm, the bicep armor needs to have a sort of diagonal cut near the elbow joint that allows for movement.
  3. Form follows function.


    Although it is super fun to draw super buffed out knights with massive armor, it’s important to remember that armor is always designed for a specific purpose and that the amount of armor is always relative to the combat role of the soldier wearing it. Knights could wear full plate mail mainly because they rode on horseback, and didn’t need to worry as much about the weight of their gear. A footsoldier, on the other hand would quickly tire with all that weight so his armor is much lighter with more tactical placement that emphasized speed and agility over protection. Notice how the armor on the right protects the soldier’s head, chest cavity and neck – but not much else.
  4. Study, study, study!
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    Whenever you can, draw from real suits of armor in museums. There’s just no replacement for this kind of observation, as you can’t take that suit of armor home to photograph it in just the right pose. I always try to draw armor when I see it and take lots of reference pictures from all angles. Of course, the interwebs have a vast trove of reference to glean as well, but there’s nothing like your own notes.

Hope this was insightful, thanks for stopping by!

Portable Art

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With Amuna Laima at the Los Angeles Latvian Center, having a pop-up show in honor of Latvia’s 97th Day of Independence.

 

Recently, I’ve been showing my work at a lot of “pop-up” shows. I use this term to loosely describe any show that is short term, and as such I typically am not able to hang pieces on existing walls. There is truly an art to figuring out how to make a body of work portable enough for these shows. Here are three steps to being that guy that can show anywhere:

Step One:

Paint Small. It may seem obvious, but many beginning painters go through a “huge painting” phase. I was no exception. I remember starting out with oils for the first time, and going after that massive 4 foot by 8 foot canvas with reckless abandon. While it is a creative high to paint on a large scale, it is just not practical, and these days I rarely paint larger than 18″ by 24″. There’s never any problem with fitting the art into the car and storage is a snap.

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The edge of my paintings – canvas mounted onto gator board with a layer of gesso.

Step Two:

Use a light, sturdy surface. I paint on a material called “gator board“. It’s often used in the film industry to build models from. It’s basically like standard foamcore, but ten times more durable and just as light. To prep my surface, all I do is put down a layer of gesso onto the gator board with a mud knife, then lay a piece of pregessoed canvas right on top. After about 4 hours it’s totally dry and ready to paint on. The end result is a painting surface that is both ultra durable and extremely light – great for transporting, unlike stretched canvas that tends to get divots from other things in your car. I just can’t stand stretched canvas…

A great, lightweight easel that breaks down small and is easy to set up.

A great, lightweight easel that breaks down small and is easy to set up.

Step Three:

Find a good, lightweight display easel. There are a ton of options for display easels out there, so this is totally up to individual preference. I found this super cheap model on the Michael’s online store and found it to be satisfying. It breaks down to about 28″ long, and the simple black wood goes nicely with black frames. At the Illuxcon convention in October this year, I was surprised to look around me and find that nearly all the other artists were using exactly the same easel. Apparently the deal is pretty good 🙂 I actually added additional support to the two front legs to give it a little more staying power, but it’s not all that necessary if the painting on it isn’t over 7-8 pounds.

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The black easel + black frame combo – classy!

The Making of “Summertime”

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“Summertime” on display at the 97th Independence Day Celebration this past weekend at the Latvian Hall in Los Angeles.

I recently finished a painting inspired by traditional Latvian folkwear, titled “Summertime”. Many people responded positively to this piece at an popup show in LA this past weekend, so I thought it would be a great piece for a “Making Of” post.

With “Summertime”, I actually started by shooting a model in various poses before settling on any one particular idea. I knew from the outset that I wanted to paint a portrait that was inspired by traditional Latvian folkwear, but wasn’t sure on what potential pose would work the best for the concept. Dzoanna, the model and I had never worked together so I didn’t have a good idea of her character. I decided to let the photo session lead to a pose naturally instead of coming with a preconfigured idea of how I wanted her to look.

Luckily for me, Dzoanna did a great job and gave me a number of wonderful poses to work from. I went with the fourth photo but any of the previous three could have worked as well.

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I then used a grid process to draw the photo reference from my computer onto a 12″ by 16″ piece of sketch paper. Gridding is a common transfer method and I like it for a few reasons – it helps to keep the drawing proportions accurate and also forces me to pay attention to every individual gridded section of the piece. It’s very simple – by using a grid that’s overlaid on top of the photo, I simply match up the grid sections that in equal number and proportion on a piece of sketch paper, and then copy them by hand.

I find that I don’t ignore the random folds and drapery as much in favor of juicier areas like the face and hands when I use a grid method. It’s a little more laborious than other methods but I like the observation that it forces.

Underpainting stage.

Underpainting stage.

First layer of colors.

First layer of colors.

Second layer - focusing on primary elements like the face, hands, and also the background around the figure.

Second layer – focusing on primary elements like the face, hands, and also the background around the figure.

Adding refinements - pattern on sleeve, pattern on skirt hem, flowers. Another pass on the face and corrections to the hands.

Adding refinements – pattern on sleeve, pattern on skirt hem, flowers. Another pass on the face and corrections to the hands.

I believe this took around 4-5 sessions to complete. After I have the painting transferred, the process is a number of passes that go from an underpainting to successive layers of mostly opaque paints. I don’t use a lot of turpentine at all, and linseed oil is mostly reserved for the later refinements. I try to let the paint really handle the job and have been trying to avoid thinning it overmuch or using a lot of washes. This avoids both over-refining and lets me finish the painting in a relatively short period.

Summertime - 16" by 20"

Summertime – 16″ by 20″

Finally, the piece comes together as a finish and it’s ready to display. I had a fun time with the beautiful patterns on the sleeves and decided to break out of my normally quite somber range of colors with a burst of summer flowers that complement the bold palette of the skirt and sleeves. Weirdly enough, I am happiest with how the black skirt turned out. Black clothes are always a challenge, but I think this is the first time I’ve ever managed to paint them convincingly. Bring it on, black! I hope you enjoyed this post, stay tuned for more like these in the future 🙂

How to Build an Air Tight Palette

Let’s face it: oil paint is really expensive. There’s just no getting around it. Last week, I spent over $20 on a single small tube of cadmium yellow. Roughly multiply that cost for all the other colors in my palette and over time, that really adds up. Recently, I decided to finally build an airtight palette that can also fit into the mini fridge in my studio, and I’m already seeing the benefits.

I took an old French easel , pulled out the palette drawer, cut about 8 inches off the length, and then reattached the rear wall. I used to use this palette drawer to store my paints in but noticed that they would dry out Iin about 2 days as it wasn’t airtight. I cut off the extra length so it would fit in my studio mini fridge.

Here is the palette when closed. Two clamps on either side keep a plastic lid firmly fastened to the top of the drawer.

Part of the secret to getting the lid to stay on super tight is that I added weather stripping material to the top of the drawer. It’s the brown material in the picture above. When the plastic lid is clamped on, it squishes down on the weather stripping, creating a tight seal that lets in very little air.

The palette fits perfectly into a mini fridge for storage purposes. And there’s even room for a few beers 🙂 The two elements that really dry outoil paint  are heat and air. Eliminate those and you can prevent expensive oil paints from getting dry and tacky for weeks instead of days. Thanks for checking out my latest post on how to macgyver art equipment to your own ends 😉

Tools for Creating 3 Dimensional Reference

I was recently chatting with some other realist artists about how they find their reference for their work. It occurred to me that everyone has a different method- some people use themselves for literally every human being in their work, and others hire models specifically for every individual character. Reference is an incredibly personal sort of tool – everyone has their methodology and it’s unique to how they create their own illusion of reality. I find this sort of thing fascinating.

A couple of years ago, I discovered a little tool built by Google called Sketchup. It’s a free 3D drafting program and it’s an incredible tool for creating 3 dimensional reference. It’s much faster than drawing old fashioned perspective that takes hours of layout with a ruler and vanishing points the old fashioned way. Also, it’s great for getting specific views of popular vehicles and machines. Granted, it has a bit of a learning curve, but as far as these sorts of programs go its fairly intuitive.

For this painting, I needed a tank climbing the hill behind the main alien soldier character. Although it’s set in a science fiction world, I wanted to vehicle to communicate itself as a typical “tank” in the most obvious way- turret, treads, etc. So, I went to Google Sketchup and searched a typical modern tank, the M1-A1 Abrams in their 3D Warehouse. Hundreds of results came up, and I had my pick of the litter for a 3 dimensional tank model. Part of what is so cool about this tool is that the tank can be posed in any position, and I was even able to adjust the turret so that it was pointing in an angle away from the main direction of the body.

I changed the turret to include a sort of robotic periscope on top and gave it a few laser weapons as well. Obviously, SketchUp isn’t much good for lighting, so I also looked up a lot of photographic reference to give the vehicle some weight and to make it appear lit from behind. To avoid copyright problems, I always augment the images I pull off the web with others so that any one particular reference is not obvious.

I used a similar method for “Supernatural Disaster 2” in which several fighter jets were called for circling this great Chtulu-esque monster rising out of the depths. The F-16 Tomcat is one of my favorite fighter jets – I was taken with them at an early age from watching Top Gun way too much, so I decided to make an homage to that classic 80’s flick with this piece.

For the monster, I built a maquette out of Super Sculpey and posed in him in the proper lighting. This is always one of my absolutely favorite things to do! In Photoshop, I dropped in the plane models circling him. Since SketchUp allowed me to tilt the planes at any angle I wished, I posed them just so to appear as thought they are buzzing around the monster like pesky mosquitos- no match for this Elder One!

This method of mashing different reference together can take some getting used to- one of the toughest things is matching the lighting of all the separate elements in the scene. It certainly has saved me a lot of time and effort however. Can you imagine how hard it would be to find an F-16 laying around to photograph?

How to Make the Most of a Small Studio

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I’ve made a lot of subtle layout changes and adjustments to my studio space over the 3.5 years I’ve been there. It occurred to me one day while working there that it took a lot of trial and error to figure out how to make the very most out of my little spot. It’s roughly 10′ by 12′, so there really isn’t a whole lot of room for junk to lay around! If you’re an artist that lives in an urban environment, chances are that you’ve had to deal with the very same problem allocating a limited amount of space to art.

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Incredibly, I still have some pictures from when I first moved in to my studio space. This layout was completely wrong; it was a poor use of the space and there was no way to reach the storage cabinet in back.

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The key with this current layout is that everything is built to accommodate my right handedness. I extended my palette into my workspace by attaching a piece of wood to the table that acts as a countertop. I use an old MacBook for reference display purposes, and it’s at perfect eye level perched on top of a milk crate. I used to keep my turpentine jar on the counter, but noticed that it was inconvenient to have to keep backing up and pivoting in order to rinse a brush. The solution was to drill a hole into my easel and attach an reused yogurt container with some baling wire that acts as a holster for the turp jar. Also, I never have to worry about it spilling and causing a mess (the surest way to get you out of the zone!).

I’m especially proud of my tool wall. Another lesson in conserving space: use your walls as much as possible! Horizontal space gets filled up super fast, and I realized that I tend to toss my brushes and paper towels all over the counter when I’m working. If it’s already crowded with extraneous materials, it just makes more mess to lose the important tools in. I try to reserve that area for my paint box (actually a refurbished fishing tackle box), and a lamp for illuminating my palette. I keep all my extra brushes in coffee cans up top, accompanied by the coffee maker (key for those late nights), some mediums, gesso, and a couple handy art reference books like James Gurney’s “Color and Light.” That single book is one of the best $15 I’ve ever spent, hands down. If you’re wondering what that silver tube extending down from the ceiling is, it’s a custom turpentine exhaust system I built. I usually keep the door open to let fumes waft out so I’m not using it currently, but during the winter months it’s a godsend.

On another desk that extends off the tool counter sits an old french easel behind my reference laptop. I stole this trick from a blog post by the artist Dan Dos Santos. I use the palette from the french easel while I’m working, and at the end of the workday I slide the palette back inside the french easel to keep the oil paints from being exposed to the open air. It seems to extend their life by 1-2 extra days, which is super helpful when I’m painting multiple days in a row and need to conserve materials. I also keep my rice cooker back here for cooking up studio grub.

Lastly, I use rear wall behind my studio space as a place to put sketches and any extra reference materials. I found an old piece of corkboard and nailed it into the wall to make push pinning sketches easier, and the wall molding makes for a handy spot to hang T-squares. The room to the right of the rear wall is the workspace of another talented artist I share the room with, Lauren Szabo. She’s a truly inspiring studio mate!

And that’s the studio tour, all 120 square feet of it. It’s a small space, but it works- and that’s the most important thing!

Lethal Reference

I recently needed a double barreled shotgun for an illustration assignment. I could have applied for a permit, taken a gun course and bought the weapon… or I could have built one from scratch! I ended up going with the latter. Building reference props is actually one of my favorite things about illustration. It’s a nice break from the endless cycle of drawing and painting, and I always learn something new.

I often go to reuse and thrift stores when I’m looking to build this sort of thing to buy a base to work from. I was hoping to find a toy gun I could retrofit, but I ended up discovering an old field hockey stick instead. I realized it would be the perfect stock for the shotgun- just about the right size and the curved end kind of feels like the butt of the gun. And only $2.00 too!

From there, it was a simple step of cutting the stick down to size and attaching two cardboard tubes (I had saved them from an old roll of canvas) to serve as the barrels with duct tape. Lastly, I cut some foamcore and attached it on the back to make the butt shape more pronounced. And BANG! There it is! Needless to say, this weapon can’t really hurt anyone unless you tried to whack them over the head with it, and even then the cardboard would probably fall off. But it certainly works to get a correct perspective angle for reference purposes and that’s good enough for me.

Raw materials: a field hockey stick, some leftover cardboard tubes, duct tape and foamcore.


The finished gun.


Good enough for perspective! This sort of prop only needs to have the basic shape to be effective. The rest of the details can be referenced via the web or from books.


One of my favorite reference maquettes from a past project: a rocketship built from dowels, PVC pipe and foamcore.


A more elaborate maquette. I don’t make them this fancy anymore! Takes too much time and its not necessary to get the results I’m looking for in the illustration.