Student Post: Shanoor Seervai

18, November 2009 § 1 Comment

After spending a month in Italy looking at some of the greatest oil paintings in the world, I was both intimidated and inspired to start painting when we got to Paros. Learning to work with oil paints is something I have always wanted to do, and I am amazed at how much I have learned in just six weeks. I feel extremely grateful to be able to work with Jun and Jane: at each stage in a painting, their guidance has helped me to understand how to take the painting further and how to apply a range of techniques to my work.

We started with a monochromatic under-painting to set up the painting in terms of tonality. We used only black and white to paint in the first layer, paying attention to the relationships between the objects. In the next layer, we used the earth palette (ivory black, white, burnt sienna and yellow ochre) to further build up the objects. One of the most important things I am learning is to work on the painting in several layers. Instead of getting caught up in minute details in the first layer, I am learning to lay out general shapes and tones that provide a basis for the subsequent layers. While the first layer(s) are invariably covered up, if they are carefully applied, they glow through and enhance the following layers. If they are careless, they are detrimental and far more difficult to cover up in the future.

Using the earth palette has helped me to grasp the relationships between colors. For our second assignment, I placed a bright blue boot against a crimson bowl and an orange. With the limited earth palette, my challenge was to make the boot appear blue against the other objects. The “blue” I mixed using white and black did not match the color of the boot as I saw it, but the warm tones in the bowl and orange provided contrast and created a fairly convincing illusion of blue.

Incorporating reflective surfaces for our third painting helped me to observe objects more carefully so that I paint what I see instead of what I imagine. The transparent green glass of a wine bottle was luminous and filled with so many distinct colors and shapes that I needed to analyze individually and then bring back together so that the final product still looked like a transparent green bottle. I was anxious to paint the light and the dark details in the objects at the same time, but I am learning to be more patient and to use the first layers of my painting to give form and volume to objects instead of trying to do everything at once.

For “heightening with white”, we started with a dark imprimatura (a mixture of burnt sienna and black). We then used white to lighten areas on the canvas. Instead of starting with a white canvas and using dark paint in large areas, heightening with white allowed us to carefully use white to understand the interplay of light and dark. This technique has been used by several masters: we looked at work by Titian, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Velasquez as examples. I chose to copy a Velasquez painting, “Head of a Stag”. I was initially very nervous about how I would be able to accurately mimic Velasquez’s delicate brush strokes, especially in the fur. As I used white to lighten the canvas, I felt the form of the stag’s head emerging. After this layer was dry, I glazed back the dark areas using black and burnt sienna. The technique of glazing (using liquin and transparent colors to darken the painting) allowed me to draw attention to the subtle transitions in the dark fur. I loved working on this piece: it gave me the opportunity to study Velasquez’s painting in depth and gain a better understanding of his technique and brushwork.


We then shifted from the earth palette to the prismatic palette (cadmium yellow, bright red, ultramarine blue and white). We looked at the work of the French impressionists to understand how they used color and looser, more distinguishable brush strokes to paint. From the religious scenes and lifelike portraits of Renaissance art, the impressionists favored landscapes and scenes of ordinary life. I gathered my painting supplies and went up to one of my favorite sunset spots in Parikia. Painting outdoors is a challenge in itself, with the wind threatening to knock white spirit all over my work. Painting the sunset added a whole new dimension to the challenge because the light changes much faster than I can paint. This made it difficult to apply the colors on my canvas because every time I looked at the sky, the color I had just used had changed completely!

I write this after having spent a significant part of the weekend in my painting studio. I started this painting with an imprimatura using the prismatic palette and spreading the colors over the canvas at random. We then set up a still life with brightly colored objects (mostly fruits and vegetables). The bright and arbitrary imprimatura helps us to see colors we would not conventionally think of using to paint a particular object: for example, my still life has a blue vase that I am painting over a bright red and orange layer. I would never have noticed purple tones in the vase if I hadn’t been forced to see it against my red canvas. As I stare at a seemingly green piece of Broccoli, I find blues and purples and reds and yellows. Paying attention to these subtleties has helped me to paint with a greater likeness to reality instead of using flat colors. I am also enjoying working on the fabric in this painting because I feel as if I am beginning to understand how to depict folds and movement in cloth.

With each painting, I become more comfortable facing a blank canvas, setting up the painting with some drawings and the under-painting, and then going back to it several times to add more form, color and detail. I find that my brushstrokes are no longer arbitrary and uninformed: I am able to think about what I want my painting to look like and then work to get there. Most importantly, I am inspired to keep working and keep improving, because every day I feel overwhelmed with how much there is to learn.

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