Title: Smooth Transition: Bridging the gap from Drawing to Painting
By: Matthew Marchant
“For all artists, taking that leap from Drawing to Painting can be an intimidating and daunting challenge. With his Monochromatic Painting workshop, Southern California Artist Aaron Westerberg is offering students the tools and techniques necessary in making it a smooth transition!”
Aaron Westerberg has become known for his monochromatic “Red” paintings, as he calls them. The 2007 publication “Strokes of Genius” featured his Monochromatic Painting “Belena” on the cover; “Belena” was also the first painting Aaron ever sold nearly ten years ago. This coupled with the fact that his “red” paintings are noticeably sensitive and delicate has made them popular amongst fans of figurative art, and students looking for that edge in training!
Westerberg learned this technique and approach to creating “under-paintings” as a student of the Watts Atelier from Instructor Jeffrey Watts. An under-painting is the initial layer of paint applied to the ground, which serves as the base for subsequent layers, under-paintings are usually monochromatic and help the artist define values for the final painting. Watts Atelier being a school more focused on Illustration at the time, taught this as a method for creating paintings quickly and efficiently. By using an Open Grisaille under-painting Aaron was taught that he could solve his value scheme and structure of the drawing, therefore having the problems solved with value, composition, and drawing before simply tiling the color palette onto the piece.
The warm atmosphere and energy in the studio as Aaron Westerberg’s recent two-day monochromatic workshop was about to begin, was in stark contrast to the cold and rainy day students struggled through in getting there. Needless to say everyone involved was happy to be inside and enthusiastic to begin the creative process.
Since this is the first step into painting for many of these students, Aaron made them feel comfortable about the tools and the process right away. Aaron has a way of putting his students at ease throughout the process, “anyone can do this, it’s just drawing with a brush!” He doesn’t take himself too seriously and keeps the mood light. Which was great for the beginning students in the course as they worked their way into painting. One student who is a beginning painter, Ruth Ann said “ I was very impressed by Aaron’s ability to address every level of artist in the workshop, for a new artist like myself it’s a whole new terminology as well as body of information that many accomplished artists forget to address, and Aaron did a fabulous job of simplifying it all. I believe the key for all artists is to simplify!” It’s this ability to simplify and communicate clearly that has made Aaron a great Teacher for the past ten years, since his start with California Art Institute in 2000 “He has a few little tricks to just make you feel a little less awkward and comfortable and now I’m excited to go home and start practicing more.”
Aaron started the workshop by introducing the students to the tools they would be using. He had “keyed” or toned his canvas with a thin wash of Terra Rosa two days earlier. He then had all of the students stain their canvas with the Terra Rosa key, so that it would be ready to paint on in the afternoon. Aaron stated, “It is very important that you simply stain the canvas with this keying and keep it light.” Aaron would use this Mantra of “keep it light” throughout the workshop. After introducing the students to the canvas preparation and the brushes, he talked about the colors to be used. Aaron explained when he first started using this technique as a student transitioning into painting himself he was taught what he now knows as “Open Grisaille” method. He would use Burnt Umber alone to copy Frank Frazetta illustrations, because this was the method used by Frazetta in creating his finished illustrations. Aaron explained open and closed grisaille to the class. Open and Closed Grisaille painting are two of the earliest traditional methods for creating under-paintings. Open Grisaille uses thin transparent washes and the white of the canvas, while Closed Grisaille uses white mixed with umbers and black to create an opaque monochromatic value scale, or as Aaron also put it simply “Open is transparent and doesn’t use white, closed is opaque and uses white.” Aaron told the students this, “Open Grisaille (if you want to get technical) is the way I was taught to paint, and I did tons of these before ever attempting to step into color.”
For the purposes of this workshop students were instructed to use an Open Grisaille method. Using Winsor Newton Terra Rosa as their warm red and Winsor Newton Venetian Red as their cool red for dark accents, while using the keying of the canvas for their mid-tones and using kneaded erasers to erase out their highlights. Aaron explained to the students how this technique would keep them focused on the understanding of brushwork and value structure without muddling it with too much white, which only offers more opportunities to fail by creating mud. “This technique is really more about drawing than painting, and more about pressure control and brush technique than closed grisaille which is more about tiles of value turning form,” Aaron instructed. With Closed Grisaille students would be asked to do a much more basic drawing and get into value shapes quicker and focus more on texture and variation, where as in Open Grisaille the drawing is everything. Open Grisaille is really about bridging that gap from drawing to painting, where you are working on things like controlling a brush instead of a pencil, scumbling more than applying tiles of color, and refining your lost and found edges.
After describing the tools Aaron explained the origin of the Open Grisaille red paintings he would be demonstrating and how he began working this way. The figurative artist Titian was Aaron’s earliest influence in using this method of warm and cool reds to create a solid value scaled under-painting. Aaron was inspired by this method and incorporated it into his own under-paintings. Westerberg also showed the class John William Waterhouse’s studies where he would use warm and cool red Conte’ pencils in order to get the same effect, using his warms for the base of the drawing and the cool red was used mostly for the dark accents. The purpose of using the warm and cool reds is to create color vibration just as you would in a full palette painting but in a very limited way in order to make the learning process easier for the student. Though Waterhouse wasn’t actually painting on top of his value studies they were still used in the same way in order to work out the issues before going to full color.
Westerberg told the students, “When you achieve a balance with the two reds and a harmony in value, you can get color vibration and really get the painting to sing, with just two colors.” Another important thing he told the students to remember before starting this method is “we are restricting the value limit, and since we will not be able to achieve black with our darkest dark we must keep in mind that we are keying all of our values higher.” What that means is the half-tones will be much lighter than you may think they should be. Aaron showed students examples of under-paintings that used Open Grisaille, by Frank Duvaneck, and Waterhouse, and Closed Grisaille by Odd Nerdrum and Rembrandt to give them a solid example of what the differences are.
A major influence for Aaron is the artist Velazquez, Aaron explained to the class that some of Velazquez’ most famous paintings were “nearly 90% Open Grisaille under-painting and he was a master of simply painting the light opaque’s onto his transparent Open Grisaille under-painting, Frazetta would mimic this with his Illustrations!”
Aaron’s wealth of knowledge in Art History is apparent as he talks about his favorite artists, from Andrew Loomis, Dennis Miller Bunker, John Singer Sargent, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, and P.S. Kroyer to contemporaries such as Phil Hale, William Wray, and John Asaro… Offering fun factoids about each artist as he talks to the class. His enthusiasm for art is infectious as he goes off on tangents, many of the students looked eager to know more and feel the way he does about the art he loves. After working up in a frenzy over the art he loves, he puts his hands together and looks to the students all looking back waiting for the next anecdotal piece of information and says to them “O.K. Now I’m ready to paint!”
To start the demonstration Aaron used a Robert Simmons “Signet” filbert #4 bristle brush. He told the class to “Impregnate the brush with Terra Rosa and then pinch it with the paper towel, removing most of the pigment.” Aaron also made it very clear that it was important to stay as light as possible during this beginning blocking in stage. Aaron talked about the big shape of the model and her pose and said, “this is really just drawing with a paint brush, so all the principles of drawing still apply, start with big shapes ” Westerberg instructed the class that it was necessary to find the focal point and decide what his “area of interest” was, “right off the bat.” In the case of this demonstration it was the torso of the figure. He explained that the composition of the figure on the canvas is important in getting across your goal as well. Aaron instructed the students to the fact that every line that is put down in the drawing is like lines in a story and each one is helping you say what you want to with your piece.
As Aaron started applying the paint he said to the class “ pop quiz, what’s the first thing you do when you are painting?” A student answered, “The hair?” “Bingo, A+” quipped Aaron, “You always start the painting with your darkest darks.” He then explained how he likes to go to richest most dominant color next and then to the lightest light third. “This way your painting has a value scale for you to work within.”
For the under-painting Aaron is describing all of his values in the finished piece and as he said, this is simply “drawing with the brush”, as he worked he talked about how he would finish the painting by laying opaque color as needed while still allowing the under-painting’s transparent loose quality come through. A student asked, well how do you allow transparent to come through when you’re covering with opaque paints. To this Westerberg answered, “I just won’t paint the areas I want to show and sometimes after I’ve painted over it, I will dry brush out the areas I want to show.” Aaron told the students, “It’s all artistic choice, that’s what makes you an artist is those choices you make in variation... variation of color, texture, line, edges, values, etcetera. Most great artists, we like their work because of what they leave out… It’s their artistic interpretation or choices in variation and selectiveness that separate them.”
Aaron went on to say, “In all artistic endeavors the main question on your mind should be. How do I say more with less? As you gain more experience you can learn from your mistakes in the past and know what works and what doesn’t. But it is always a constant trial and error.”
During this drawing stage of the demonstration Aaron used two Robert Simmons Signet brushes, one to apply color, and one he used as a dry brush to scumble and add texture in some areas. “I am using mostly bristle brushes, I may use some sables or synthetics for line variation. While drawing I’m thinking of rhythms in form. One Artist who has amazing rhythmic understanding of the figure is Bernini. The hair of a Bernini sculpture is an amazingly beautiful example of rhythmic understanding.” Aaron started with the basic rhythms of the drawing and blocked in the figure, using mostly straight delicate lines. Defining all of the big shapes of the drawing. When Aaron applies the paint to the brush he uses very little. He instructed them to keep the drawing lines very light in the beginning of the painting. “The key to keeping control of your drawing with paint is to keep the amount of paint on the brush very limited.”
As Aaron worked on his demonstration he kept reminding the students of basic drawing fundamentals. “Focus on big shapes, the entire thing is simply shapes of different value.” He told the students to simplify the whole and build up their value scale. He repeated, “Keep it light” it is important to be as ginger as possible with your application of paint. Aaron told the group that he is constantly asking himself, “does this detract from what I’m trying to say?” He stressed the importance of never losing sight of what it is you want to convey to your viewer.
During model breaks Aaron wouldn’t take breaks himself, his enthusiasm for what he’s doing is so strong that he would simply go to his corner of books and examples he had brought in and start showing students little things that could help them with their process. Aaron is very giving with these nuggets of artistic wisdom and inspiration!
As Aaron progressed through the painting he noted that he was simply working within his value range and as long as his big statements of light and dark are there from the beginning he’s fine and knows he won’t be lost as he moves along. Letting the students know, “Drawing and Painting are all about the preparation. Every stage is easier if you’ve prepared for it during the previous stage.” So Aaron went between his darkest dark and his highlight refining the shapes and values.
Aaron had displays to show the students the subtleties of value separation and illustrated the idea of values being relative to one another within the painting.
About his work Aaron said, “I want it to look organic, like nature. I want it to seem as if it was grown, and take the person who created it out of it. I want the brush strokes to mimic the variation of life.” and after his Zen like take on his work, he goes right back to the standard academic principles that make it solid. “With the drawing all I am thinking about is simple shape design. I am trying to stay away from line. Value separation. Simplify!”
During the entire process Aaron is bouncing between telling the class basic drawing principles and what it means to create art and be an artist. Giving students techniques like “In order to pull out my lights I use a kneaded eraser and dab the areas I want to lighten. I am thinking about all of the planes of the form and keeping in mind that every plane should have a different value, no matter how slight the variation. Follow what you see, not what you know.” While offering his philosophy, “I know I have a good painting when I want to hang it on my wall. I am looking to paint something I would want to have in my home.” It’s this free-form nature Aaron teaches with that lightens the mood and gives his students the comfort ability to create and feel loose and unstinted.
The principles of academic drawing are Aaron’s base which he builds upon in creating his work, but he doesn’t lose site of the fact that “this is Art, it’s up to me to make it something someone wants, that’s my job as an artist.” Once Aaron had a solid drawing with a full range of values he placed some “cool” dark accents using the Venetian Red color, keeping it varied and not “overdoing it” with too many dark accents bringing that color vibration he had spoken of earlier.
After getting his demonstration to the level of finish he was comfortable with, Aaron instructed the students to start on their own piece. He called out a few last minute notes for them as they prepared to start. He told them to start with a basic thumbnail value sketch in order to prepare their composition and value scale. Aaron also made it clear to stay away from turpentine or mineral spirits completely because doing so would pull up the keyed background. While students worked, Aaron excitedly went from one student to the next, laughing with them, sharing stories and helping them with their work.
Aaron focused on the value structure of the pieces. Before the last set of day one he instructed the students to finish getting in their basic composition and to keep the drawing light because they would be working on the same piece the next day and they needed to ensure they would be able to establish the values by building up tone in the second sitting. Aaron told one student, “Look for rhythms, remember the simple shapes make up the whole, start with big shapes and refine to smaller ones. Remember, simple graphic shapes in the right spot tell the right story.” With the students Aaron addressed basic drawing issues.
On the second day Aaron started by showing the students a series of Velazquez paintings from two books (“Velazquez catalogue Raisonne’ Werkverzeichnis” and “Velazquez Painter of Painters” both by Jose Lopez-Rey.) Aaron discussed Velazquez’ influence on artists who came after him and of the way he used his under-paintings to tell most of the story and would simply add the opaque lights as needed. Aaron showed how Velazquez corrected and changed his under paintings throughout the portraiture process in a couple paintings of King Philip IV Aaron showed how Velazquez started with what he saw and was obviously asked to idealize King Philip. Aaron analyzed a few of Velazquez’ paintings and showed the students what made his paintings a success, from composition, to design, brush strokes, and paint application. Aaron enthusiastically talked about one of his favorite artist’s with a sort of child-like excitement that you couldn’t help but smile. After getting the students excited and inspired Aaron sent them back to their easels. Students painted from the model for the entire second day.
One student Deirdre said about Aaron’s approach to teaching that “He is great because he is clear and very easy to understand, he’s just very sweet.” She also talked about the importance of studying this monochromatic under-painting technique saying, “you know when you go to a gallery or a museum the work that stands out has the best value structure and this workshop has prepared me to create better value studies before starting my finished painting. ” Another student named Jeroen, who had only painted two paintings before the class, said, “I feel like I know how to start a painting now, and how to go from a drawing to painting.” He also said about Aaron, “he is inspiring and it’s fun to just listen to his stories and little ideas he has for you as a beginner.”
So the workshop ended with a group of students better prepared to take that next step into painting. They learned that the secret to all believable representational work is solid value structure and a grasp of the basic drawing fundamentals. Aaron simply put it, “As a teacher of this technique the main goal is to provide the students a bridge to painting from drawing. You need to become familiar with your tools and how to apply paint as you are experimenting with all of these tools and techniques in a very limited range of color. That is one part, but you are also learning the techniques for under painting which most artists use with all of their studio paintings”, and hopefully these students will as well!