There are several ways of painting. But in starting out to study the craft there is nothing better than simple, direct painting. This method has the great advantage of permitting changes and corrections as you proceed. Later you can experiment with the indirect method, in which an underpainting of your subject is permitted to dry, then covered with transparent glazes, scumblings, etc. Direct painting, however, will give you the fundamentals of your craft and will lay a sound foundation for your future work.
Begin by selecting a suitable subject. A still life, an arrangement of flowers, a bowl of fruit, a pile of books, a radio set, a group of military objects are all good. In arranging the objects, use your imagination. Think of them in terms of contrasting shapes, textures and colors; move them around until they make a design of some interest. Then place them in a strong light against a medium toned background. Make sure that there are clearly defined lights and shadows. Daylight is best, but artificial light will do.
Spend some time in studying your subject before you begin. Nothing is done on canvas that is not conceived in the mind beforehand. Considering your subject as an arrangement of masses, you will observe varying degrees of lightness and darkness. Between the darkest mass and the lightest mass you will observe many intermediate tones. These tone masses are highly important. Paint them in their correct relation to each other. As you work, remember always that the middle tones must come first. Don't make the mistake of many new painters. Their eyes are attracted to the accents of extreme lights and darks, and they can't resist putting them in at once. In painting you must leave the dominant accents, which attract the eye first, until you have constructed the other parts around them. There is no short cut to this method.
For instructional purposes we have selected a cast of a horse's head made of plaster (fig. 244).
The masses are clearly defined and there is a minimum of confusing detail. Let's assume that you are painting it in monochrome, or one color, so that you can concentrate on the tone values. Raw umber is a good color to use. It has body, works well and is an excellent dryer.
Begin by blocking out the general shape of the principal masses in charcoal. This should be done roughly and should not be carried too far, as we will achieve our tone masses chiefly with paint.
Now settle what amount of the scale from dark to light you are going to use. The highest light will be very near pure white, and the darkest part (the base) requires the straight raw umber. If the cast did not have a black base, the shadow behind the horses's nose might be the darkest note. Having found the two extreme tones, place a dab of each on your canvas in the spots which they occupy. Then you can judge all the other tones by these two extremes.
Now paint in the mass of the background. Take great care to get the right degree of tone. If your paint is too stiff for free handling, mix in a little linseed oil with an equal part of turpentine. The first lay-in should go on easily and solidly, but no thicker than need be. Paint the background as evenly as possible. A brush too full of paint is difficult to control. Paint up to the commencement line of the shadows and well up to the edge of the masses of the head. Avoid "paint-in" parallel streaks. In tin-case of a background it is well to let the brush-work go in various directions.
After the background, do the ground, that is, the table top on which the cast rests. Now paint the general tone of the shadow thrown by the head on ground and background, and also the shadow thrown by any object not in the picture. There may be some variety in the tone of these shadows, but ignore this at present. Paint the general average of tone that may be found by half closing your eyes. The varieties can be worked in later.
Having laid these tones as evenly as possible, turn to the edges where the shadows come against the ground and background. Study these carefully and paint them as completely as you can. In these early stages, keep the tones simple and empty, but not the edges. Complete the edges with all variety and shape. Work with as large a brush as possible and hold it far up on the handle for better control.
Now lay in the base with a simple flat tone. Note the shape of its silhouette and its accents. At this point, the most difficult part commences. How to see the head in a simple statement of tones? What to ignore and what to put in is a problem at first. Half closing the eyes will be helpful. Leave out the details and reduce it to the simplest possible statement. Usually tones can be divided into three degrees: the lights, the half tones, and the shadows. Paint the average range of each of these three in perfectly flat tones (fig. 245).
As you work down toward the end of the horse's nose, you will find that its outer edge is completely lost in the shadow on the background. It is not the edge of the object, but the edges of the tone masses which make up the visual impression.
In painting the back of the head, which stands out against the darker background at the left, notice that its light edge is slightly darker at the top and not as pronounced as below. On this side the background has been painted well up to the edge and loosely across it. This is better than painting along the contour, as it avoids ridges of paint. Thick painting on the background destroys any sense of depth, though it may be used on the object itself.
If all the tones are the right shape and have been placed correctly, the details in the lights and shadows can now be added. But if you have made some mistakes, this is the time to correct them. Suppose, for example, that the edge of the shadow on the cheek bone is not in the right place. It will be much easier to move it if none of the detail around the mouth has been put in to interfere with a free sweep of the brush. If small details are in the way the modeling of the mass is wrong, it is best to scrape the whole area out with a palette knife and start over again.
In finishing the picture, guard against the tendency of the paint to come off the brush in an uneven, varied tone. Practice will do much to overcome this, although it is often due to the slippery, soapy surface of some canvases. The quality of "tooth" in a good* canvas serves to pick the paint off the brush evenly. If the paint is properly mixed, with no light and dark streaks in it, and you learn to use just the right quantity on the brush, you will be well on the road to good painting.