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Fifty shades of Grey

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I am an abstract artist. My medium is oil painting, often painting on primed board. My wife and I live in San Diego, California.

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As the story goes when John Singer Sargeant was painting outdoors in Paris with Manet he asked his friend for black to which Manet replied, “I have none, I never paint with black”.  Singer then replied, “ah well, then I cannot paint.”  True or not, it speaks to how we perceive shadow and shaded items.  There probably are fifty shades of grey and not attained just by gradations of white and black but infinite variations that may include, for example French Ultramarine, Hookers Green Deep and Cadmium red mixed of course with Raw Umber.  It is my guess that Sargeant could have done well enough with Raw umber.DSC03317

When one studies Rembrandt’s portraits we rarely see true black in the dark shadows of the face (the side opposite the source of light) but very deep shades of violet.  He seemed to retain black itself for the rich, velvet black sateen that men often wore in those days as capes and such.  Indeed, by using French Ultramarine which inherently has a violet cast, Raw Umber and Cadmium red deep, one can mix tones deep enough to emulate black.  These three pigments in fact lend a certain luminosity to shadows that black cannot match.

In landscapes where foliage in shadows becomes very deep and dark, adding in Hooker’s Green deep to the Raw Umber and to the Ultramarine Blue/Cadmium mix seems to bend the shadows tone nicely towards the other, lighter greens in the landscape.  Veridian I find is just too brilliant to use in shadow.  There is a new tube grey out now called Torrit Grey which I bought as a whim and I like how they have bent it towards a dark, green grey.  Adding white gives it a pleasant transition hue – a quicker way to achieve a grey/green tone.  This is by the way distinctly different than Payne’s grey which leans markedly towards dark blue.  When we think of Van Gogh’s work we think of very bright, rich pigments but his famous painting the Potato Eaters was somber in tone, extensively using deep shadows for effect and of a predominate green cast with gradations towards blue greys.  His winter landscapes I think are his best work where he carefully picked his way through subtle shades of greys within the snowy fields and shadows of trees, walls and figures along the road.

Of course every painter will eventually discover that various shades of grey carefully mixed and rendered adds an important ‘base’ to a painting – even one titled White Line by Kandinsky.  The stark bent, white line gains importance vibrating in front of the beautiful green, umber and blue greys that border the painting.  Some painters even prefer to paint the entire canvas grey before beginning.  This deep tone provides an entirely new reference than stark white when first starting a new painting.

michael wilson

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