Monday, March 7, 2016

Man in Black: A Monochromatic Study in Gouache

Color Theory. Studying monochromatic color harmony in gouache. Having chosen a portrait of middle aged Johnny Cash, I felt Ultramarine Blue best captured him. Now, for the assignment, I had to print the original image, then use tracing paper to separate the basic shapes made by the different values. Some people just opened the image in Photoshop and hit "posterize." In art school you hear a lot about focusing on the shapes, not the whole image. This certainly helps in the beginning, when a student is breaking down value, tone, shade, and color harmony; learning to recognize them and be able to break them down. Many are also advised this way when they are intimidated by the subject of the assignment, such as a portrait, initially disheartening themselves by believing already that they have no talent for faces. These same students are also often told to work on their piece upside down, so they can look past the face and see the shapes.

The biggest deal with this project is the value scale. On either end you have black and white. Somewhere in the middle lies your chosen color straight out of the tube. I like sticking with an 8x8 inch final painting, so use 16 1/2 inch strips where I steadily mixed white into the blue, then blue to white, until I reached a smooth transition from white to the solid blue. I then approached the black in exactly the same way. I also did a separate scale using just black and white.

From here, I looked for the shapes on my reference photo and assigned them a value by comparing them to my scale.

Approaching my first real painting in gouache, I was unsure where to begin. Accustomed to watercolor, one would start with the lightest value, then work toward the darkest. For oil, it is the opposite. I eventually decided to start with my blue straight from the tube, which turned out to be my median value and, coincidentally, the dominant value as well. It didn't take long to discover this wasn't the best approach, but I had already started, so I just continued on testing darker on top of lighter value and visa versa to see how well they did or didn't layer. It's funny, because I was working on my first vector portrait in my Digital Art class at the same time, and ended up running into the same problem. With the vector piece, however, it wasn't nearly as big a deal to start over and work straight from light to dark. The lighter values simply weren't opaque enough since I was working with more watered down paint. I tested the strictly light to dark approach on my next project with great success. I wasted considerably less paint to boot, since I was just adding color to my initial mix.
The highlights on this were not as clean as I had wanted, since some ended up on top of darker values and I had to layer several times for some and ended up making them larger shapes than they should have been and began to show more brush strokes and look sloppy.

I am still satisfied with the final result as a first piece. This was definitely a learning experience. Bear that in mind when trying this project for yourself. Enjoy the experience, and don't be too hard on yourself. This is merely a familiarity exercise.

After cutting out the painting itself into an 8x8 square, I lined up my value strips and trimmed them to 2" pieces and mounted them neatly on a sheet of 11x14 Bristol board.


Designer's gouache (any primary or secondary color works best )
Cyan Blue
Ultramarine Blue
Permanent Red
Permanent Green (middle)
Permanent Orange
Permanent Yellow
Jet Black
Straight edge ruler (at least 18" with cork backing)
Bristol board 11x14
Tracing paper 11x14
Watercolor brushes (varying sizes)
Small spritz bottle (optional, though I find it helps the paint lay more smoothly and give you a bit more work time)
Pallet knife
Pallet (disposable pad works great)

Value scale

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