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Raising the Roof

The thought was thunk, the plans were drawn, the stage was set and the cast was assembled. But when, you ask, will any work actually be done?

And so, at long last, we get to the part where I actually show some technique.

Introduction to the process

I like to work from the background to the foreground. This has some disadvantages. The biggest one, in my opinion, being that you have to draw around all of the objects in the foreground. This can lead to problems later and interrupts the flow of shadows, textures, etc when you hit something thin crossing the background.

On the other hand, it lets me lay down the approximate values so that I can get the objects in the foreground right the first time. And more importantly for me, it saves the "fun" stuff for later. If I do the background first, I can have fun with it while still looking forward to the creatures in the foreground. If, on the other hand, I color the creatures first, I lose interest in the background before I start it.

Basically, it's a big psychological game, but recognizing it doesn't stop it from happening. The simple fact is that if I color the background first, I really enjoy it and don't rush it. The final word on order is that you have to work on your piece in the order that feels right for you. That said, it made sense to me to begin with the ceiling.

I ended up using five different colors in the ceiling. "Ended up," is perhaps misleading because I'm not actually done with the ceiling yet. It's good enough for now and I won't go back to it until I've finished the rest of the piece. Only then can I adjust the fine details of shadows and tone.

The five colors, in simple chart format:

In prismacolors from left to right: Indigo Blue, Tuscan Red, Dark Umber, Bronze (not metallic), and Yellow Ochre. (People familiar with standard oil or acrylic paints will know the first three as being fairly analogous to Prussian Blue, Alizarine Crimson and Burnt Umber)

A Five-Step Program

  1. I first laid down a layer of indigo blue.


    (Note: We're looking approximately at the region labeled 5 in Issue #3.)

    I used this step to figure out the details of the wood. I played around to create the basic grain and cracks. Then I went back and filled in the area between the major grain lines with "minor grain lines" that really only amount to lighter haphazard lines following the flow set down by the previous pass. Below is a close-up of this step in progress.

    .

  2. I had learned from oil painting that Prussian blue (indigo blue), alizarine crimson (tuscan red) and either pthalo green or burnt umber work really well together to make a close approximation of black. A "near-black" which is much richer than the flat, dead black obtained straight from a black pencil. So my next step was to go over the indigo blue with a layer of tuscan red.

    I went over the dark areas precisely, but only loosely went over the filler regions. This is basically because the smaller lines become the grain as more layers are put down, being imprecise actually helps create a more natural, semi-chaotic texture. As you can see in the detail below, the darks are still not black and the overall color is purple.

  3. As mentioned above, the ceiling still needs either a pthalo green or a dark umber layer. Because the ceiling is wood, brown seemed more appropriate. I went over the deep cracks once again, this time with dark umber, applying more pressure to intensify the darks.

    I also used the brown as a darker filler, genuinely coloring in the white areas. As you can see in the close-up below, this layer resulted in a deep, rich black in the cracks, as well as an overall brown base layer. The actual color of the wood is now starting to develop. It's important to note, however, that there is still plenty of white paper showing through.

  4. While the ceiling is looking more like wood, it's still very flat and monochromatic. At this point, I took out some scratch paper and tried laying different colors over the dark umber. After a few experiments, I found that I liked how bronze and yellow ochre looked. The next layer started with heavy bronze at the edges and a bronze-ochre mix in the middle. The result is a subtly warmer, lighter feel in the center of the ceiling, as you can see in the pic below.

    (Note the color "bronze" in this case does not refer to a metallic colored pencil (see the color chart above), but rather a greenish-brown hue.)

    In all the layers I kept my pencil moving in the direction of the wood grain. But starting with dark umber, I no longer worried about "drawing grain." The earlier, loose lines with indigo blue and tuscan red took care of that. The effect is only strengthened by consistent stroke direction throughout each step, including this one.

    It's also important to note that this layer is a burnishing layer. That means that I used a bit more pressure this time to really color in the white specks and create a smooth surface.

  5. Finally, I went back with another layer of indigo blue (already present in the picture above). This pass served two purposes. First, it re-emphasized the major cracks. Second, it darkened the left and right sides of the ceiling, giving the impression of shadows.

And at long last, the ceiling is done! (Well, okay, not really...)

If At First You Don't Succeed...

... and to be blunt, you won't succeed at first. To put it another way, you don't know how dark, light, yellow, or whatever, the ceiling needs to be in order to blend with the rest of the picture. Are the edges dark enough? Are the cracks too distinct? Even if you've done a full-blown grayscale layout of the patterns of dark and light, the white of the page around the ceiling will trick your eye into seeing a dark ceiling. So at this point, you simply have to accept that it's good enough for now. When the rest of the room is done, spots will need to be revisited, darkening portions, adding hints of blue here and yellow there, until it all fits. I already suspect that the ceiling needs to be darker. But how much darker can only be decided after I've filled in most of the rest of the piece.


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This document last updated Sun Oct 1 20:29:29 2006.