Sunday, October 28, 2012

How the Old Masters created the look of Gold in Painting

The detail (above) from Van Loo's painting, Marie Leszczinska Queen of France, is fascinating to me. I've been trying to figure out why I think his rendering of the gold table is unsuccessful. Though he's obviously a meticulous craftsman and clearly spent ages with a magnifying glass in one hand and a paintbrush in the other, there's something overwrought about the brushwork. His table looks plastic, but it took me a while to figure out why

Charles de Solier, Hans Holbein the Younger

Holbein was, of course, a master at painting the detailed effects of light and shade on any number of textures. I examined his Portrait of Charles de Solier (above) for clues as to his technique for painting gold.

Local color and value are notoriously hard to read, so I took color samples from the sword handle, (a) through (e) above, and then de-saturated them to get their values. Applying these five values against Munsell's value chart shows some interesting results.

The values are all gathered tightly around the bottom of the spectrum, between Value 1 and 3. There is nothing at all in the mid-tones from 3 all the way to 6, when all of a sudden we have our one and only highlight, (e). What surprised me was just how dark everything was. Even the brightest highlight on gold is only a 6, yet the highlight still jumped a full three values from its closest neighbor.

I knew that medieval painters, when planning to include gilding in a painting (say, on a halo), would map out their value composition as if the gold leaf was a dark element. This initially seems counter-intuitive - Gold isn't dark! - but when we see how dark the overall value scheme of gold is in the Holbein painting we can see why it works.

I tried the same experiment on another sample, this time a much brighter 'gold', taken from Le Brun's Hall of Mirrors painting in Versailles...

Firstly, it's interesting to note the palette swatches taken from the 'gold': They're kind of a dull brown, and not very gold at all. Again, regarding the values, we see that the majority of values are between 2 and 5, and the highlight jumps three values but is still no more than an 8.

Le Brun has used a mid-tone (d) on the circular frame, but the egg-and-dart molding has no (d) tone; it makes the 3-value-jump from dark tones straight to highlight just as in the Holbein painting, and is very successful for it.

Why is it that Van Loo's painting is unsuccessful?

Yikes! The first thing that stands out is the number of colors. Van Loo went a little overboard unnecessarily. The more colors you lay down on a space, the more you're making me stare at that area in order to figure out what's going on. Don't make me focus too much on a background object: the focus should be on the main subject.

Let's look at it more closely. Seen as black-and-white value reductions, the spread across the spectrum is much more evenly spaced than the (better painted) Holbein. Specular highlights on metallic objects are supposed to jump out at us. Van Loo's spectrum looks more like that of diffuse light, not specular.

If you want to represent specular highlights on metallic objects, you need to jump at least three values beyond your mid-tones. The way to do that is not to brighten the highlights, it's to darken everything else. Van Loo had nowhere to go from Value 7.5, as Value 10 is pure white, and as such is a purely theoretical limit.

It's like in Spinal Tap. When you turn the volume all the way, where do you go from there?

Spinal Tap, "This one goes to 11" scene [video link]

Justice Punishing (detail), Noel Coypel
In this detail from Justice Punishing, by Noel Coypel, we can see how effective hatching is at representing highlights on metallic surfaces. The hard jump in value from dark mid-tone to highlight works really well to suggest gold. Van Loo's smooth gradations look too soft by comparison. [Incidentally, Coypel's painting is also an excellent reference for the structure of the acanthus leaf].

David Briggs wrote a very concise description of diffuse and specular light, and explains exactly where we should place specular light reflections. Make sure to read all three pages.

Coving, the Nef (vessel) of Louis XIV (detail), René Antoine Houasse
Houasse's fresco from the Abundance Salon, Versailles, shows (along the bottom) gold embroidered cloth using a similar technique. But this time, instead of hatching, he's used dots to simulate the threads.

Look at these examples from other painters to get an idea of their method. Notice the jump from darks straight to highlight in the Rembrandt details. I love the way he painted light on metal. You might conclude that the bigger the gap in value between shadow and specular highlight, the more successful the illusion.

Rape of Prosperine (detail), Rembrandt van Rijn
Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem (Detail), Rembrandt van Rijn 
Portrait of Pope Leo X (detail) , Raffaello Sanzio

Madame de Haussonville, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

Ingres' detail shows the exact same phenomenon in the values on the painted gold frame. Even though the frame is in the background and the spread of values is not as great [he has rightly reserved his highest and lowest values for the main subject in the foreground], his specular reflections make the same jump.

Still Life with Silver Jug (detail), Willem Kalf

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Etchings of Anders Zorn

Anders Zorn pursued light as the guiding principle of his art. Whether it was oil paint, watercolor, or etching, the expression of light on the human form and his beloved homeland of Sweden was the foundation of his work, and drove him with an intensity visible in the detail (above) from his self-portrait. 

Zorn and his Wife, Anders Zorn

These incredible etchings are from a second-hand book from 1925 that I picked up, and I hope that you will download them at their largest and enjoy his line as much as I do. 

"It was in the delightful Zorn and his Wife that he marked the year 1890 with a really important advance in his art as etcher, and here his own linear technique seems to be definitely established with its independence of outline. It is a charmingly homely scene : the happy young artist at work, his eyes intent on the mirror in front of him to catch the reflection of himself, with his wife standing companionably at his elbow, her eyes focussed where his are, his needle in his hand poised for immediate response to the right moment of visual conception. 

The light and shade are distributed with happy pictorial balance, and the effect of spontaneity is not in any way overruled by the firmness of the design." [Salaman]

The Toast (detail), Anders Zorn

Judging by the expression on his face, the huge glass he's holding was probably full when he started his speech. Fortunately for us though, he rambled on long enough for Zorn to capture this incredible portrait. Okay, maybe it was from a photo but I can almost smell the cigar smoke and booze. The way Zorn establishes planes and form with his line is masterful, the eyes being studies in the perfection of the art.

The Toast, Anders Zorn

Une Premiere (detail), Anders Zorn

From an essay by Malcolm C. Salaman (1925):

"Une Premiere was the earliest of his plates in which the etcher depicted the nude female form disporting in sea or river, and here, in this tenderly charming picture of the mother guiding protectively her timid child through the wavelets out into the shallows, we see their bodies, softly enveloped by the shimmering atmosphere, silhouetted, as it were, against the glistening mass of water between them and the horizon, and this by the mere suggestive power of drawing with closely-laid parallel lines that carry their own illusion of form. 

Here, then, was the etcher, with developing individuality of style, commanding a new phase of expression on the copper which was to become one of his most distinctive, the expression of his passionate delight in the beauty of woman's form in healthy life."

Une Premiere, Anders Zorn

Au Piano, Anders Zorn
Mona, Anders Zorn

Sappho, Anders Zorn

Vicke, Anders Zorn

The Waltz, Anders Zorn

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Xavier Mader, Piat Sauvage, and Reflected Light

CGI studios have a standard trick used for establishing the reflected light on digitally created images for movies. A large mirrored or matte ball on a stick is placed prominently in the shot. They use this because the ground and sky are not always visible in the finished shot, but CGI artists need to know the color of each so that they can correctly judge the reflected light cast on the digitally created element in the shot.

RGB readings (above) from a matte-finished grey reference globe positioned in the set give accurate colors and lighting positions for CGI artists to base their digital 3D paintings upon. You can see from the six RGB numbers taken from this photo that there is a lot of information to consider regarding light, either reflected or direct.

Still frame of test ball flying through cavern in Lord of the Rings

In the still from WETA Workshop (above) “the ball is lit by a blue light from above, and a weaker orange light from below. During the test video, the lighting changed throughout the course of the fly-through. If you wanted to animate a digital creature flying into those caverns, the forms of the creature would have to respond to the same lights that are lighting the gray ball. Digital lighters can unwrap the data from the gray ball or the mirror ball into a spherical environment map.” [Source]

The good news as far as illusionistically painted architecture is that we don’t concern ourselves with this level of detail. It’s good to understand the reality, but it would take way too long to paint. For the most part, reflected light is rendered in one tone only. In fact, simply leaving the mid-toned background showing along a crescent strip – and not adding any extra painted step - often suffices for the representation of reflected light on architectural ornamentation. Decorative painting is all about developing shorthand, and any step that can be cut out means less time spent (and more money in your pocket).

The standard rule for reflected light is that the lightest dark in the shadows should never be lighter than the darkest light in the lights. It sounds confusing at first, but it makes sense if you think about it. There is a tendency to overdo reflected light. Sometimes the reflected light looks too bright, and the successful modeling of form is compromised. Generally speaking, keep any reflected light relatively dark.

An Allegory, by Piat Sauvage

Piat Sauvage was a master at painting grisaille bas-relief imités, but his use of exaggerated reflected light on the right side of the naked woman in “An Allegory” (above) illustrates my point. The overly emphasized light bouncing back onto the legs and torso [from what source exactly?] ruins the illusion of three-dimensionality, and gives the game away that it is paint, not plaster, that we are looking at.

Section of woodblock printed wallpaper, by Xavier Mader
The section of molding in the wallpaper by Xavier Mader (above) demonstrates my point about reflected light as it is normally rendered in decorative painting. You can see that the area of reflected light is created by simply shifting the darkest shadow away from the lower edge of the ornament, leaving an area of dark mid-tone showing.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

How to Draw a Perfect Circle Freehand

I came across Vasari's text below and figured I'd make a quick video showing you how to "surpass greatly all other painters". Well, not all the posts can be long and well thought out.

(link to video)
Giotto draws a perfect circle for the Pope, told by Vasari:
Pope Benedict sent one of his courtiers into Tuscany to see what sort of a man he was and what his works were like, for the Pope was planning to have some paintings made in S Peter's. This courtier, on his way to see Giotto and to find out what other masters of painting and mosaic there were in Florence, spoke with many masters in Sienna, and then, having received some drawings from them, he came to Florence. And one morning going into the workshop of Giotto, who was at his labours, he showed him the mind of the Pope, and at last asked him to give him a little drawing to send to his Holiness. Giotto, who was a man of courteous manners, immediately took a sheet of paper, and with a pen dipped in red, fixing his arm firmly against his side to make a compass of it, with a turn of his hand he made a circle so perfect that it was a marvel to see it Having done it, he turned smiling to the courtier and said, "Here is the drawing." But he, thinking he was being laughed at, asked, "Am I to have no other drawing than this?" "This is enough and too much," replied Giotto, "send it with the others and see if it will be understood." The messenger, seeing that he could get nothing else, departed ill pleased, not doubting that he had been made a fool of. However, sending the other drawings to the Pope with the names of those who had made them, he sent also Giotto's, relating how he had made the circle without moving his arm and without compasses, which when the Pope and many of his courtiers understood, they saw that Giotto must surpass greatly all the other painters of his time.