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A Painting Tutorial on Visualizing
with a spontaneous technique in oil or acrylic.

A Wash Technique for Oil or Acrylic Paintings (using the mind’s eye)

This tutorial is taken from my book "The Perceptions of Michael Csontos".

Note: With oils, the thinner would be either turpentine or any solvent recommended by the manufacturer of the particular brand of paint. A drier would help speed up the process if using oils. For this piece I decided to use a cobalt drier mixed with pure gum spirits of turpentine for the thiner. I refer to thinner as what is mixed with the paint color and solvent as the brush cleaner. The thinner and/or solvent with acrylics is water.

Wash #1 - Abstract Imagery - The very first wash is the most fun. Just put on a thin application (I use burnt umber) of shapes and strokes. Before you put paint on the brush, dip the brush into thinner. Not dripping wet but wet enough to be transparent. You’ll notice there is abstract imagery in a matter of minutes. Do not blanket the entire canvas with one color as that would leave no negative space to pull an image from. It would be the same as a white panel. This panel is 12” x 16” which I am using solely for this writing. The average panel I use is 24” x 36”. I have also started with a 3⁄4” medium stiff nylon bright (flat edge) brush as opposed to a 1” or 1 1⁄2” brush. Otherwise the procedure is exactly the same. Sometimes I seem to add a geometrical element (the circle) at this stage. Time: 5-10 minutes.
Wash #2 - Composition - After the first wash is dry, (10 minutes with acrylics) with the same brush, I first reduced the circle and moved it up. That instantly indicated a light source. Next I felt the brush strokes in the lower right indicated a perspective so that became a cliff going to the background. Other images fell into place as I continued to slide a paint wash around. So this wash is basically the compositional achievement. I now see the painting in my mind’s eye rather definitively even though you the viewer may not. Also this wash establishes the basic underlying values which will be further developed with the addition of color. An advantage to using washes is you can very easily change your mind with each succeeding wash. Time: 30 minutes.
Wash #3 - Establishing - Again the same brush and dipping the brush into the thinner before each brush load. This wash is the first color wash and establishes the theme rather firmly. Also as color has value it accents the light and shade. Now it might seem like the shade areas have been intensified but it is actually the covering of certain areas that are to become the lighter values that brings the shapes to life. This color wash may or may not be definite. Additional washes will add depth and the color will gradually change as the mood of the painting develops. Color is mood and mood will control your feeling of applicable color. I should add that I use three small jars of solvent for cleaning the brush between colors. One to get most of the color out and then I wipe the brush on a roll of paper towels and then the cleaner jar of solvent to get even more of the paint out. If you keep this brush cleaning procedure in mind all the time you will have less contamination of colors where you definitely don’t want them. Time: 45 minutes.
Wash #4 - Foundation - I have switched to a 1⁄2” medium stiff nylon bright brush. With this wash the foundations of color will be established and I will draw the edges to most of the objects using the 1⁄2” brush. I’ve decided to use a fine point sable to draw with burnt umber the flying horses and the lizard. With this wash I noticed myself keeping a mental thought on the geometrical under-structure of the mushrooms and ground bumps (domes), the planet and the sun (spheres), the mushroom stems (bent cylinders) and the receding curved perspective of the cliff wall. For the cliff I pictured myself inside a crater looking up and out. Still using the 1⁄2” brush. Time: 1 hour.
Wash #5 - Achieve Depth - I have switched to a softer 1⁄2” bright, more flexible brush. The bands of color in the sky were purposely put in to show that a large amount of premixed color is not desirable with this approach, as long as you are consistent with your application of color. In other words I mixed up only enough for two or three brush loads to a specific small area. Working down from the upper right (sky) at a slight angle laying in bands of color. I still have the color (just color, not really paint) on the pallet from each brush stroke so I know what to mix for the next brush load. This approach is done for all areas. Once again the brush is dipped into the thinner before into the color. On the large planet I will follow the curve with bands of color/value. To give another example of small mixed amounts - the darker band is in actuality only about 1” wide by 6” long yet was made with three different color mixes. Each color being the same approximate value. So my paint is mixed with the brush on the pallet in very small amounts to cover small areas. This is usually called color glazing and is the main reason depth of color is achieved. I paint every square inch of every painting this way and is why I call my work dynamic technical deliberation. The other reason I work this way is that the brush empties faster and when the brush is empty between reloading I pull areas of different values into each other to create the blends. I have decided that this wash is the last overall quick application as I have achieved the desired undercoating depth. Time: 1 hour.
Wash #6 - Pre Finish - I will now concentrate on individual areas and bring them to a pre finish. Still using a 1⁄2” soft bright. As I again lay in bands of more deliberate color washes that follow each form and then blend the color changes together with strokes that are perpendicular to the applied color. Then I do one more thing. I go back over the just done areas and very lightly brush with vertical brush strokes. This begins to remove the glare effect from overhead lighting because of constant layering. Also with this wash the brush is remixed into the current paint color on the pallet after it is dipped into the thinner cup. As I did the sky I pulled some of the lower sky color into areas that I wanted to have similar highlights. The mushroom tops, foreground bumps, parts of the cliff and the outer edge of the planet. Also dragging the brush into the planet to simulate ground terrain. I have also pulled the sky color into the edges of everything that touches the sky so that the sky will not have any missed areas when I finish everything else. For the cliff I switched to a 1⁄4” long bright brush, softer with a sharp edge for painting cracks and crevices. As I did the cliff I purposely stayed away from the top edge because I would definitely be adding another wash to the sky and if this wash on the cliff did not dry by the time I got to the sky the lighter yellow could get contaminated as I got down to the cliff. I have added a little more toning to the mushrooms, foreground bumps and the lizard using either the 1⁄2” or 1⁄4” brush. Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.
Wash # 7 - Final Layering - Bear with me on this one as I describe each area in order of being done. Another sky wash to start. Switching to a 1⁄2” filbert brush. A filbert is rounded and gives excellent blends with this technique. Same approach of mixing on the pallet with the brush. The differences this time is when I dip the brush into the thinner I want just a touch. You will know what I mean when you apply the brush to the canvas. If the paint slides around too much then you have too much thinner. If the brush feels like its dragging then your paint is too dry. Also all the brush strokes are vertical for the sky and just about everything else from here on. I concentrate on blending with this wash rather than just applying. Each wash for each area will take slightly longer as you utilize more control. Almost all my paintings are done with this technique. This wash actually becomes a transparent layer with only just enough thinner to make the paint flow from the brush and to make sure you have control over the painting process. Putting these procedures into words to describe exactly what I do is somewhat difficult but experience and practice on your part will make up for it. Another thing I do is I put a daub of white paint next to each mixing area on the pallet so the white does not become contaminated with other colors I’m not using at any one time. I also use a very limited amount of colors because I prefer to mix what I want from intense primaries. In this painting I have only used, cadmium red, cadmium yellow light, a speck of thalo blue, burnt umber and white. As I laid in the first of these less thinner washes I noticed the paint pulled more readily from the brush. Probably because this panel is a canvas panel (a slightly heavier texture) and not what I’m normally used to. I make my own panels from standard 1⁄4” hardboard by using a foam roller for the gesso. Anyhow I felt that one more layer on the sky would be adequate so I added it immediately. Therefore the sky in wash #7 actually has two layers. You can’t see it but there were ever so slight dark areas (from the original umber wash) between the planet and the large mushroom that the previous layer did not completely cover to my satisfaction. And I knew that with this additional sky wash I could finish the planet and the cliff so to do that I had to finish the sky first. Not to mention that using yellow as a base is a difficult thing to do because of the transparency. If I had of been using my regular fine textured panels these last two sky layers would of taken four which would of been a total of 10 for the sky (whew). The finer the panel texture, the more glazing of washes will be needed to achieve the opacity desired. In my opinion the results are worth it. The sky was the only area I used the 1⁄2” filbert brush on. I touched up the edge of the planet and added terrain detailing by bouncing back and forth with lights and darks and the 1⁄4” bright brush. I did not want to give it another overall wash because it would of looked too smooth and lost the effect of ground texture. The sun in the painting was my light source for the detail. The sun - one layer to the outside edge with yellow. Just inside the edge a layer of yellow/red. Inside that, back to yellow and the center a yellow/white. Using a very soft 1⁄4” filbert I blended the areas together. Clouds - first, one very thin dry application of white to define exactly where I wanted them to be and to define edges. Secondly a dry (just a breath of thinner) layer of off-white to finish them up. Adding a yellow-ish highlight to the tops and a darker off-white line to the bottoms. All with the 1⁄4” filbert. Ground and cliffs - made a small light to dark wash mixture of the color I wanted and bounced back and forth to finish off the rock edges. Wiping the brush off when changing from light to dark but not washing the brush out. Added white and yellow to the mix for the cliffs in the background to push them back. All with the 1⁄4” bright brush. As the paint wash dried out on the pallet I added small amounts of color and thinner. This way the color keeps changing slightly but stays harmonious with the previous color. Mushrooms - almost exactly the same as the cliffs but with a different color. Bounced back and forth and remixed as I went. All with the 1⁄4” bright brush. I used the corner of the brush and the very edge to get the sharper detail. At this point I did get out a few mushroom pictures to study the splotches on top and the fins underneath. I’ll use references but only after the theme, movement and negative space is defined. Added some cracks in the stalks to give it character. The lizard - the same procedure as the mushrooms. I did use a sable brush for some of the finer detail. For some reason my brain wanted to keep the lizard extremely subtle. Winged horses - a mid tone application, all with a sable brush, to define anatomy and shape, and to provide a base for the highlights and darker accents in the final wash.Total time for this wash was 2 hours and 15 minutes. The sky took two washes and one hour. The mushrooms were detailed, the planet, cliffs and the ground needed edging control.
Wash #8 - Final Touch-up - You’ll notice there’s not much difference in these last two washes. I brought the sky to a finish before so I could finish the everything else. The winged horses never received any paint in the 5th and 6th wash. The clouds, received about 30 seconds worth of paint in the 5th wash and nothing in the 6th. The sun took about 30 seconds in each of the washes except for the 7th. Winged horses - Light and dark accents to bring out the detail and shape. The ground, the mushroom tops and the lizard received a touch more highlighting. The signature finishes the painting. Time: 20-30 minutes. Total time for this painting was approximately 7 hours and 25 minutes from start to finish.

Elements of Design - Even though I am trying to show the wash technique all aspects of painting should be considered especially when using an autonomous approach. I will now go back to the beginning and describe the compositional form or elements of design I saw during washes #2 and #3. The curved perspective of the cliff which is immediately behind and to the side of the focal point of the mushrooms draws the eye into the background. The curve of the planet if enlarged and brought down would fit into the curve of the cliff and so repeats the curve of the cliff. The sun repeats the curve of the planet but in full circle. The mushrooms are various sizes and shapes of the same thing. The ground bumps repeat the dome shapes of the mushroom tops. The sky indicates depth by being a curved perspective in the negative space between the planet and the cliffs. The clouds cut through the sky in a radiating angle from the upper left so that the sky does not impose background dominance. And the flying horses further break up the large sky and add another element of interest or secondary focus. The mushrooms are the main focus.

In closing - This painting was done with a drier mix, which I do not use any more because I feel I finally learned how to paint without it. I hope this procedure gives you some insight to the technique of color glazing, washes and especially spontaneous visualizing. The washes do not have to be dripping wet for obvious reasons. Just wet enough to accomplish a layer of thought, so to speak.

This technique is in the back of the book "The Perceptions of Michael Csontos",
which is 'Perceptions I' in the menu border.