Wednesday, November 9, 2016

How to Paint the Figure in Trompe l'Oeil

Here is a detail from the finished painting, enlarged because I used very small brushes.

You can use any background you like. I used an old faux-painted limestone sample I had lying around, but you could just as easily do this on faux bois to imitate the look of carved wood. The only stipulation I'd make is that to get the best effect, your background should be no darker than mid-range on the value scale.

In the next image, you can see the brushes I used. One small pointy one, and another splayed out and busted one. When doing shadows, I'd paint with Mr. Pointy then stipple and soften with the busted one. I'm not very fussy about materials or brushes. When I was young, I used to read all those manuals and study hard to learn the "secret" materials that would give me the edge. The only secret, I learned, is your eyes.

Step 1
 If you look closely in Step 1, you can just make out the pencil lines I used to establish the basic design. I took a photo of a bas relief panel at the Met as my reference. This is actually the first time I've used a photograph of actual relief as reference material. Mostly, I'm either inventing relief or copying another trompe l'oeil painter's work (who probably also invented the relief). This was a great chance for me to exercise Rule # 1 in illusionistic painting: Paint what you see, not what you know. 

It's all too easy to fall back on what we "know" about Form rather than simply using the evidence presented before our eyes. "Shadows are dark; highlights are white; reflected light goes here; etc." These are all learned rather than observed truths. [Painters use old tricks such as flipping their image upside down, or examining their work in a mirror, to escape the natural tendency to paint what we think we see.]

Step 2
Step 2 shows the completed shadows. There are no highlights at all here. You can see that the effect is 99% complete already. We could easily leave it like this, and call it a day.

I build the shadows very slowly using Ultramarine and Raw Umber acrylic paint, mixed with a little matte varnish (which dries quickly so I can keep working) as a medium.

The shadows are built up in layers. I never try to establish the darkest dark in the first pass. It's much more tentative then that. I build up darks in translucent glazes, always erring on the lighter side. I tend to work back and forth all over the image, as opposed to finishing each area completely as I go.

Step 3
Step 3 is my first pass at highlights. They might be hard to detect on your screen, as they are very subtle, but they are there. I used an opaque white, mixed with yellow and a little purple. I've heard that some people like to shift the hue of their highlights in opposition to the background color in order to make them pop more. [In other words, if the background hue is yellow (as with mine), they might shift their highlights into purple so that they jump out at you.] I don't do this. I use a lighter value of the background.

Use highlights very sparingly! As subtle as mine might look to you, when I look at the opening detail image of this post, the highlights jump out at me as being too strong and brushy. The image looks like it's been dusted with snow.  The shadows are soft and muted, as they should be, but the highlights are harsh, overused and overly delineated. We want to avoid this at all costs. (It was too late for me).

Step 4
 In Step 4, the only difference is that I carefully glazed the chest, top of the head, and the right knee with a second highlight. I decided that those three areas should be a little more prominent than they were.

It will be easier to see the differences between stages if you view these images in slideshow mode, and scroll between them.

Step 5
 Step 5 might be hard to see, but I think it made a difference. Since all my highlights were already laid down, the only way I could make the relief pop a little more was by darkening the background. I explained the reasoning behind this in a separate post about relative value, here.

I certainly didn't want to add any more highlights, as mine were already too bright. Instead, I used a very washy ultramarine/raw umber glaze and stippled it all around the top right corner, outside the main figure.

I also used a glazed version of my highlight color and subtly lightened the bottom left corner (again, outside the figure only).


To give you an idea of how light/dark my values are, here is a chart that shows you (below)...

Along the top you see 3 swatches of color. These represent averaged tones taken directly from the finished piece. Directly underneath them, you see 3 grey values (A, B, and C). These are the same colors from the top line desaturated so as to see value only. Below that, I plotted A, B, and C against the Munsell value chart. You can see that the entirety of my painting occupies roughly three value steps on the Munsell chart (from 6 to 9). No white, and nothing at all on the lower half of the chart.

Some more detail photos...