Take out those dark pastels and get ready to paint the night!! I’m excited to have Chris Ivers as a guest blogger this month. I’ve been in awe of Chris’s night paintings for some time now and featured her work in one of my monthly-roundups. I hoped she’d accept my invitation to be a guest and yay! here she is! By the way, Chris has also included in her post some great step-by-step instructions on how to scale up your photo.
In case you don’t know her work, here are a couple pieces to get your night time juices flowing! (The first I had to include having recently been in Venice for the first time. It brought back memories of wandering about late at night with hardly another soul in sight!)
Chris Ivers Bio
Chris Ivers, PSA-MP, IAPS/MC, is the current Vice President of the International Association of Pastel Societies (IAPS) and a former Board of Governors Member at Pastel Society of America (PSA). She loves to teach and admits to being a pastel junkie who loves to encourage anyone to pick up a stick and try this wonderful medium. Known for her nocturnal paintings (she calls them her “NightScapes”), she makes her own surfaces and enjoys “playing in the dark.” For more about Chris go to her website.
Chris Ivers on Painting the Dark Side in Pastel
I’ve been asked by my friend Gail to write a blog for How To Pastel on how I approach painting complicated nocturnal scenes and why I enjoy “playing in the dark” with my pastels.
First off, let it be known that I am a Pastel Junkie!!! So with that being said I begin this story with my first night painting. To be totally honest with you, it was a complete accident that I fell into one night after having dinner with my family at a local Italian restaurant where one of my daughters waitressed.
It had been raining and I was toting my big SLR camera (I was still working the ad agency so I regularly dragged the thing around) and when we came out of the restaurant it seemed as if everything was gleaming! The street and sidewalks were reflecting streetlamps and headlights and it was an incredible sight. The cars glistened and because the building was yellow it was gorgeous. To add to the fun of the scene I had actually designed the logo and signage for the restaurant! I ran across the street and took cover under an awning to take a few photos of the scene and when I came home it was all I could do to get started painting this “NightScape.”
I was pretty pleased with this painting and still have it today to always remind me where I started to get the bug to paint the night. And that started a long line of paintings that to this day still allow me to explore the night with pastels.
Many artists ask me how I can capture such complicated information in a painting and still get the proportions correct from the photo to the paper or panel that I’m working on. (Yes, I work from photos!) So I’m going to bring you through the steps that I use to get to a finished painting starting with a grid that we used to use in my ad agency to make sure the scale of any photo we were enlarging for a sign would be correct.
This scaling method can be used to scale correct proportions up or down depending on what you are working from. This “grid” is simple and can be created in less than two minutes once you learn it and it can be created without measuring a thing! In the videos that I recorded for F+W Media that you can now stream from Artists University Network, I made sure that I didn’t use a marked ruler. Instead, I used a piece of furring strip that I got from a hardware store.
Finding the correct “Live Area” of your painting
So the first thing to do is choose your photo and print it once in color and once in gray scale (black and white). Get yourself a yardstick or any straight edge, a pastel pencil and a Sharpie. In this example, I am working off of an 11 x 8 1/2 inch photo and will be transferring that photo to a 24 x 18 inch prepared black Gator Board. The board has been coated with black gesso pumice that I either make or buy already prepared.
Once the board is dry I start the process of scaling the photo to the board. I place the photo in one corner of the board and lay a yardstick diagonally from one corner of the photo to the opposite corner. I then take a pastel pencil and lightly run it across the board.
As you can see the diagonal line doesn’t quite run to the corner of the board. This tells me that I will have to add to the painting or cut the board. Since I pretty much paint to frame these days I will always opt to add to the painting instead of paying the premium for a custom built frame.
After removing the photo and continuing the line to the opposite corner I then drop a line to indicate the area of the painting that I will have to add to the painting.
Next I draw the other diagonal to complete an “X.” This will be my “Live Area.”
The completed “X” lets me know the correct proportion for the scaling up of the photo.
By laying the ruler or straightedge flush to the bottom of the board I place it right next to the center of the “X” and put a mark on the ruler. I DON’T MEASURE A THING! I simply make a “note” as to the center of that board which means you could conceivably use any size paper or board and find the center without calculating a bunch of numbers.
Then I just use that mark to place a dot somewhere outside of the “X” which gives me a guide to make another line. Since two points make a line I just connect the dot to the center of the “X.”
I repeat this mark making to find the center of the vertical line also just by marking the straightedge with the pastel pencil. I then draw the vertical line.
Next I connect the vertical and horizontal center lines to make a diamond. Again, no measuring necessary!
Next I connect the center “dots” of each of the small “X’s” to complete the grid system I use.
Since I work on prepared Gator Board I can easily flip the board to the smooth side and mimic the grid system by using the same steps on the photo I plan to paint. I mark the grid on both the black and white photo and the color photo. What I might not be able to see on one I usually can pick up from the other.
Note that I have two black and white versions of this photo. That’s because I wanted to see as much detail as possible to recreate the scene and the first black and white seemed too dark. This is easily done with any photo-editing program and can save you a lot of angst while drawing.
I use a pointed black Sharpie to draw the grid on both photos. This allows me to see better than anything when it comes to picking up detail.
Now I am ready to transfer the drawing using the grids as my guide. This is a complicated perspective so following the grid in this case will help in a big way.
Here is the completed drawing. In some cases I use a different color pastel pencil so as not to be confused by the grid. If I make a mistake I will also use a different color pencil to correct the issue and to make sure I am aware of the drawing mistake.
Now I’m ready to paint!
I usually make a point of placing all of the high key colors in first. From the street lamps and reflections to windows that might be picking up light from various sources, I lay in all the bright light colors first. This is because it is easier to keep them bright from the beginning on any surface that I work on than to try to capture that vibrancy after the fact. Many times I start my work from the top with a lighter night sky or lamps so that the lighter pigments won’t drift over the darker pigment that is usually closer to the foreground.
Using an array of pastels by many different manufacturers I have never been one to worry about whether I am using a hard stick for my foundation or using a soft stick as my final layer. I always look for the color! Whatever works is what I use. I love to leave a lot of my crazy texture showing to give the painting a little bit of an edge. And, of course, I’m looking to tell a story in the dark. At this point you can still see some of the drawing peaking through the layers I have added.
After blocking in large masses of flat color I can start to blend the cools and warms that will give depth to the painting. As a teacher, I have always found explaining color temperature to be the most difficult to get across to new painters and even those who have worked for years with this medium or others. The difficulty results from the fact that while one color looks cool next to another, in a different setting that cool color could look warm next to pigment that is actually cooler. Called simultaneous contrast, it is the relativity of any one color situated next to another and how it changes its behavior. Understanding color temperature is as important as having a good drawing to start with. It can push and pull locations in any painting and it allows us, as illusionists, to make a two-dimensional surface seem three-dimensional to our viewers. I love playing with the warms and cools within the same value range in order to make the larger blocked in areas vibrate.
I am often asked if I use fixative on my work. I never use it!!! I destroyed a commissioned portrait early on when the fixative darkened every color on the piece. I was under deadline and I had to do the whole thing over from scratch. I wasn’t a happy camper.
Since I work on the stiff surface of Gator Board I have developed a system to keep my paintings from “shedding” pigment. I take my paintings out into my driveway, and while holding them firmly at the edges, bang them on the pavement upside down to release any loose pastel. My driveway is sometimes multicolored, but I never have to worry about the dreaded “drifting” pigment when I frame or when I ship. Then I just pop the ridged board into a frame and voila! Done and ready to go.
So I hope this little blog gives you some insight into how I handle drawing my complicated NightScapes. I want to thank Gail for giving me the opportunity to share some of my ideas and methods.
As always, happy painting!
Thanks so much Chris for the helpful tips on scaling up your work. So helpful seeing it step by step!! And loved seeing more of your night paintings.
Now we want to know what you think so please leave us a comment!!
Until next time,
PS. Here’s a wee video of Chris Ivers that I recorded at IAPS in 2017.
And if you’d like to see all the other videos I made, they are all gathered here.
27 March 2018 – just came across this video of Chris Ivers preparing gatorboard!