Teaching; using paint cans as a lesson in dark and light shapes

Paint cans, no. 2, originally uploaded by ahtravis.

                           “Alix, I am very pleased when I look at the paint cans.  I think the exercise of looking at and painting the shadows first is a really good one. It results in something different that I cannot explain. Thanks, I will try more of this.“  Carol

“Saving the whites” is a difficult maneuver for the student of watercolor to comprehend and master. One must think of the white of the paper as another “color” available to the painter. The painter must “paint” with the white. Once the white of the paper is covered with paint it can NEVER be recovered. So, it must be saved.

The beginning student has difficulty visualizing what the lightest areas of the painting should be.  I used paint cans and “drawing” with a rigger (a long, thin, flexible brush, over which the painter has little control) as a way to practice seeing the subject of a still life as dark shapes and light shapes, rather than “paint can” shapes.

Using a weak cerulean and the rigger we lightly sketched the line of the shadows, those on the cans and cast by the cans.  We used the rigger to indicate the shapes of the dark sides of the cans and the shapes of any dark spaces behind the cans.  And using the same blue and a 1 ½ in wide wash brush we filled in those shapes only. Voila!  We had a dramatic painting of paint cans with their light surfaces vividly present without our ever having “painted” them. The whites or lights were saved.

At this point the painter can begin to adjust the values, making the darkest darks more dark; consequently the less dark is made less dark by contrast with the darkest darks.  In the same manner some lights may become less light by painting them. Now, however, it is easier to see the whites that must be saved and that the darker shapes and lighter shapes fit together to make a beautiful painting.

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