Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Ode To Texture

Many years ago, I did a lot of photo retouching at Hallmark cards. This was back when Photoshop was in its infancy, and there was no one to train us how to use these new digital tools. The team I worked with did a lot of experimentation, and we quickly realized the importance of photo grain. We could look at an image and tell if it had been manipulated based on the photo grain. If an overzealous photo retoucher cleaned up an area without paying attention to the grain, a glassy effect drew our eyes right to that spot. I still see the problem when watching films. The story needs a photo of a character in an important situation from their past, but the grain of the actors face doesn't match the rest of the image. It all comes down to the importance of texture in an image.

Drawing, composition, value, color, temperature and texture - these are the elements I consider when painting, but not necessarily in that order. When I look at the paintings of Nicolai Fechin, Lucian Freud or Henry Ossawa Tanner, I can't imagine them without that rich textural quality. As a matter of fact, until I saw them in person, I hadn't really experienced them at all.

Nicolai Fechin. One of the most skilled at using texture in his paint.

Henry Ossawa Tanner. I've never seen a reproduction that did his work justice.

Lucian Freud

It starts with the surface. The texture of the painting surface can add excitement to the final painting and influence every step of the image creation. There was a time when I would work with prestretched and preprimed store bought canvas. My paintings tended to have a very uniform texture. You know the one, the rigid canvas weave that's all too perfect. In photographs of my work, the texture was even further enhanced and distracted from other aspects of the work. I often paint over old paintings, but before I do, I apply a thin layer of white alkyd with a palette knife. Once that's dry, the canvas surface tends to be hidden. I found that painting atop an old canvas yielded more exciting results. The brushstrokes were punchier, the surface even pulled the paint onto it with the slightest drag of the brush. That led me to start creating my own surfaces, whether it's canvas, hardboard, or even illustration board, I always prep the surface with enough gesso and/or paint to create a non-uniform surface. I'll do an entire surface prep post in the future.

My panel texture. Two coats of acrylic gesso applied with a brush, followed by one coat of white alkyd applied with a palette knife and then stained with a thin layer of burnt umber, wiped off.

Texture is just as important during the painting process. The difference between thick and thin paint application, the amount or type of medium, the quality of paint, the type of brush used (or even your finger), the pressure of your brush and the number of strokes all contribute to the final texture of a painting.

The viewers eye responds! Variations in texture guide them through the painting. Texture suggests detail that I haven't even painted.

I try different approaches. Pulling the brush, pushing the brush, dragging it so lightly over the surface that only small bits of paint are left behind. I stick to the fat over lean rule: while I paint very think at the beginning of a painting, I use almost no medium in the later stages. I drag wet paint through wet paint. I put two different colors on the brush without mixing on the palette and see how they combine on the surface. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Palette knives can remove all mistakes.

Thick and thin, scumbled, dragged - whatever works.
My biggest mistake in the past was overly blending paint on the surface. This created a glassy effect that acts the same as the photography issue I described earlier. If I put a stroke down, and it's the wrong value or color, going back over it with the same color on my brush is not going to fix it. Either remix the color and paint on top of it or scrape it down (yes, the palette knife again) and redo it.

Most importantly, I try not to overthink it and never use it as a gimmick. Too much is just as bad as too little. Let paint be paint. Beautiful things will happen that I couldn't possibly plan. A sky doesn't need to be perfectly smooth. Everything has texture. Embrace it.