Sunday, February 3, 2013

Portrait Workshop with Gregory Mortenson

As Ciana Pullen put it: "I just remembered, I have a blog." Oh, yeah, me too. (Ciana's is better.)

Back in October I took a three-day workshop at Redux with Gregory Mortenson, described as a "chance to develop a single portrait painting in oil [to] learn the fundamentals of painting the portrait with an emphasis on accurate observation and the Munsell Color System."  Greg studied with Jacob Collins and at Grand Central Academy (like Angela Cunningham) so I was very interested both in how he develops a painting and in how he uses Munsell to do it.

The Munsell System of color notation—used in many fields from interior design to soil science—first came to my attention five or six years ago through the Rational Painting forum, and I've followed it with interest since. RP exists to promote the use of Munsell terminology among artists and to explore the use of the Munsell model by painters. There's been a lot of negative chatter in the online art world about "Munsell," most of which seems idiotic to me:  Albert Munsell developed a way to describe vaguely potato-shaped color space that is precise, systematic, and expandable, in which colors are described in terms of their three attributes, hue, value and chroma (H V/C). RP has a wonderfully concise and clear explanation.

While firmly onboard theoretically, I've been lazy about studying color and beginning to apply a Munsell-based understanding to my own palette (both the literal and the figurative). My first foray was to buy the Munsell Student Set (a color theory book that includes a limited set of color chips) and start to read and do the exercises. Later I mixed and tubed a set of neutral oil paints calibrated to the chips in the Student Set. Having a string of consistent neutral grays on my palette streamlined and improved my color mixing dramatically. My paintings are often low in chroma (lots of grays and browns in non-Munsell-speak), and learning to lower chroma with neutrals rather than! Easy-peasy!

My next step was to buy a poster that shows (at least a version of) the Munsell gamut. Eventually I cut it into pieces and inserted them in negative sleeves in a little binder. The sleeves let me dab little bits of paint on the tiny little patches to check my mixes. Not as accurate as the "Big Book," my "little book" at least shows me how changing the value or chroma of a hue works, and how to create color strings as well as the neutral one—whether several values of a single hue and chroma, or a line of increasing chroma that holds the same hue and value (just mixing these can be a challenge).

So this is the background I brought to Greg's portrait workshop.  What I hoped for help with was arranging and efficiently using these strings on my palette—what do you mix? where do you put them? how do you line them up?—as well as the promised fundamentals of painting a portrait in oils. Greg had an ambitious agenda for three days: a full pencil block-in, explanation of the Munsell system, mixing strings of values 2-9 in neutrals and 7.5YR (halfway between 5YR and 5Y in the diagram above) at chroma 4, and then painting a full portrait head. Luckily for me, Greg's class built on Angela's portrait drawing class. I understood what he meant by "block-in," how to measure, and how the process was likely to go (slowly).

Here's my block-in, well, a photocopy of it (I guess I left my actual drawing at Redux).

One cool trick Greg taught us was for transferring the drawing to canvas.  Photocopy or scan-and-print the drawing (you can adjust the size then, too), then on the back scrape—really scraaaaape with a palette knife—a layer of raw umber oil paint. Position the copy on your canvas and tape it down, then trace the drawing with a red ballpoint pen. Ballpoint makes a good fine line and the red lets you see where you've been.  Raw umber dries so quickly you can paint the next morning without lifting your cartoon lines. It works great.

Here is my painting, with about 14 hours of actual painting from the model, Cassie, who was lovely and accomplished. You can see the transfer lines on the right side. We worked in a window-shading way, finishing one section before proceeding. I started on her temple and moved across her forehead then down her nose. On the last day I worked on her eyes and cheeks and then in the last half-hour slicked in her hair and lips and chin.

"Cassie" 16" x 18" oil on linen toned with umber

And my palette. The neutral string is on the bottom, then the 7.5YR string, then my mixing area with some yellows and red-oranges around the outside and a few extra colors on the left. (I used it rotated 90° so the neutrals were on the left.) For skin I often mix a string of 5YR/4, so I think I was adjusting toward red the more yellow string Greg had us mix, maybe because he's used to working in good north light. The lighting in the room wasn't great, a very yellowish theatrical spot on the model and fluorescent lights on our palettes and easels.

"French mistress" palette, walnut, made by my dad

Greg was a very good teacher, with an easy manner. Completely kind, earnest and accessible, and remarkably able to impart a lot of complex knowledge in a very short time. His own paintings are very beautiful, very skillful. His friend Angela Cunningham came down from her her new home in Asheville to hang out with him, paint, and help out as she could. It was a treat to see her again, too.


Munsell Color said...

Joyce, we can tell Greg is an excellent teacher because you've imparted some complex knowledge here too, for the beginner.

We love how you took us from intro to color theory to an actual project you worked on, using the Munsell Color Theory to set up your painting palette.

Please keep up the good work, and if you'd like, feel free to contact us about sharing your story at our blog, too.

JC said...

You never know who may be reading. Thanks!