Saturday, August 11, 2012

Berkey House Portraits

Here are two Victorian house portraits by John Berkey (1932-2008). They're notable not only for the disciplined color gamuts, but also for a particular way of painting with opaque paints which works really well for architecture, hardware, spacecraft, and products.

(Click on the image to see them full-frame) It's really quite similar to the way Canaletto painted, except Berkey was using casein instead of oil. Gouache is perfect for this sort of method. Acrylic usually isn't opaque enough. The method involves doing a careful preliminary drawing, but then being willing to lose parts of your drawing under the paint. Canaletto would scribe lines into the canvas so that he could find his placement lines again.

Start with large brushes at the outset, especially flats. Each edge is cut over background areas, coming forward from the background to the front wall, and then forward again from the front wall to the window bays. Small details like clapboards come last.

For each window, you would paint first the room color, then the curtain, then the shade, then the framing. Each area is painted past the guidelines, so that when you cut edges, they are always clean. 

Beginning painters tend to be afraid of painting over the lines of their underdrawing, but once you get rid of the fear, painting becomes a lot more fun. You can always find details, and correct them, in the paint. In Berkey's case, he often started with little more than a few quick perspective lines, and found the whole painting in the paint.

For this kind of painting, you also need to have a mahl stick or straight edge or bridge that floats at an even height over the painting surface. There are various ways to do that, so that's a good subject for a future post.

17 comments:

Tim said...

I wouldn't be surprised if the reluctance to paint past the lines is left over from all those years as kids spent with colouring books, learning to keep the colours in the lines. That's how I feel sometimes when I'm working, like there's a kindergarten art teacher over my shoulder chastising my sloppy colouring.
Tsk tsk! Keep it in the lines, young man!
Trying to move past that can be very hard indeed.

DesB said...

The reluctance to paint past the lines is deep rooted in an individuals psychology. There is a real sense of panic created by the need to go beyond the area of containment.

JonInFrance said...

"It's really quite similar to the way Canaletto painted... ...Canaletto would scribe lines into the canvas so that he could find his placement lines again"

Of course, of course, :( sheez, how do you know all this stuff, Jim?!

Rafi said...

Interesting post - thanks.
You mentioned gouache is more opaque than acrylic. Are there any other major differences between these 2 mediums? Oil and watercolor are obviously unique and both are very different from acrylic, but I could never really understand the difference between gouache and acrylic and for what each of these mediums is better suited.

Janet Oliver said...

This is very helpful. I've been making a series of oil paintings of LEGO buildings that my sons built when they were young, and the temptation to paint within the lines is very strong, but I've found that I can easily redraw those lines with either a graphite pencil or an oil pencil. My real problem is what James calls a "floating bridge" or straight edge. I don't have one, but I understand the value of one - my plastic straight edge smudges the redrawn lines so that I end up with little graphite schmutzes over the surface of the painting. What is the best way to make such a floating bridge - one that is not too far off the surface?

James Gurney said...

Janet, it's a good question, and if I may, I'd like to wait and answer it in a future post.

Janet Oliver said...

I will be happy to wait! I'm already using your technique for putting VP lines in my paintings, around the edges. It works extremely well. And I also started using Liquin, for fine details, recently. I actually like the matte finish of it, and won't glaze the final painting.

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Lester Yocum said...

Excellent post, as usual. I have this horror of painting architecture, as straight lines seem impossible to me. Using oils, I'll even put low-tack artists tape over a background area then paint along that to come up with a straight line, but inevitably I'll have to paint up against it with another color and will blob the edge, no matter the size of brush, whether I'm using a mahl stick or not. Straight, uniform, pencil-like lines are impossible for me. How do you do it?

Judy said...

I have the same problem with straight lines in oil--I've tried all sorts of things--please, please do a post on this soon! Do some painters of architecture work flat--not on an easel? Seems like that might work better.

Judy

Mario said...

For straight lines, there is tool formed by a ruler with a groove and a stick which slides along the grove. The painter holds the brush and the stick together.
Unfortunately I don't know the english name of this tool.

Mario said...

Rafi, according to my esperience (with "common" gouache, nor casein or the so called acrylic gouache):

- gouache is more opaque and completely matte
- gouache can always be rewetted after drying (so, the upper layer can melt the lower layer if you are not fast enough. Also, glazing is rather difficult)
- both acrylic and gouache shift in tone when drying, gouache even more than acrylic. Acrylic is more consistent, as it always gets darker when it dries, while gouache tends to shift to "central" values (dark colors get lighter, light colors get darker).

As a personal preference, gouache has a much more beautiful, pleasant surface, but it is a bit more tricky to use.

James Gurney said...

Mario, that's interesting. Is there someone who is familiar with the English name of the tool Mario is referring to? Or Mario, what is the name you would give that tool?

Rafi said...

Mario, thanks for the detailed answer. I always try to avoid acrylic because I usually end up with a "plasticy" synthetic feel in the painting. I think I'll try out gouache and see how that works for me (keeping in mind the points you mentioned...)

Roelof Venter said...

I am always amazed at when people manage to paint clean straight or even curved lines.

Pardon my ignorance, but what does it mean to "cut the line"? Does that refer to the method of painting OVER the line and then tidying it up with whatever colour is supposed to fall outside of the line?

James Gurney said...

Roelof, yes, exactly. That's sort of a colloquialism that I'm not sure all painters would use.