JOHN POTOTSCHNIK FINE ART

Value of and technique for monochromatic block-ins

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“I’d be bored to death if I had to work like that. I’m not interested in doing the painting twice, I’d lose all my enthusiasm for the painting, besides, it takes too much time. I prefer to just dive right in. This technique is just too confining.”

It’s not unusual to hear such opinions when discussing the monochromatic block-in, but don’t get this confused with what is called the “undertone”.

An undertone is just that, a color and value of some sort that is applied to the painting surface in order to eliminate the white. That tone can be everything from a light gray to a vibrant rich color. I’ve known artists that toned with black paint, not diluted black paint, but black. What you use and how you do it is totally up to you, all determined by its effect on the colors to be applied over it. In most cases, artists tend to choose a neutral middle tone.

A block-in however is quite different. A typical block-in establishes composition, drawing, and value. It doesn’t need to be highly refined. Some artists are content to just establish placement of major shapes. My preference is toward a fairly refined, thorough block-in…one capable of standing alone as a painting.

Minimal drawing, massing of  values

Minimal drawing, primarily a massing of values

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Complete block-in. "The Morning Paper" - 30" x 40"

Completed block-in.

"The Morning Paper" - 30"x 40" - Oil

“The Morning Paper” – 30″x 40″ – Oil

 

So, there’s no one way. It always comes down to the end result. The more I know, and have worked out before going to color, the more secure I feel about the painting, and the better the end result will be. This technique has definitely helped improve the quality of my work.

I create a block-in close in value to the final painting for it provides a better feel of the overall appearance before color is added later. Some artists are able to visualize their final painting. I don’t have that gift, so the monochromatic really helps.

So why use this technique?

1)    It eliminates all concern about color. Can concentrate solely on composition, drawing, and value.

2)    Can easily work out all drawing issues and establish the mood of the painting.

3)    Very easy to manipulate values and adjust composition in order to emphasize what is to be communicated.

4)    Can use as much or as little detail as needed.

5)    Saves time, particularly when creating very complex paintings.

6)    Gives a sense of security and confidence before proceeding to color.

7)    Acts also as an undertone eliminating the white of the canvas.

8)    Working very thinly, paint dries quickly.

Some years ago I contacted Gamblin asking their color recommendation for block-ins.; their answer, “raw umber”. It’s a good color for figure painters because it is pretty close to flesh tone in shadow. I like it because of it slightly greenish cast (some brands) as compared to burnt umber, which I have also used on occasion.

I saw a video of Jim Wilcox’s working method some years ago and he used warm and cool neutrals for his monochromatic block-in, and that worked very well.

This shows the carefully worked out perspective drawing that was used to grid up to the larger size.

This shows the carefully worked out perspective drawing that was used to grid up to the larger size.

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Completed monochromatic block-in. A lot of architecture in this one. Spent a lot of time getting all the drawing correct before adding value.

Completed monochromatic block-in. A lot of architecture in this one. Spent a lot of time getting all the drawing correct before adding value.

"The Bells of Innsbrook" - 50"x 50" - Oil

“The Bells of Innsbrook” – 50″x 50″ – Oil

 

As you can see from these demos, once the composition is worked out, I use grid lines to enlarge it. I tend to do a careful drawing using a brush and thinned raw umber. Once the drawing is placed, the value structure is defined. Keeping the use of mineral spirits to a minimum really helps when creating the type of monochromatic block-in that I do. I often use a pretty dry brush while scrubbing the color in. Paper towels also help in smoothing out value transitions. If too much mineral spirits is used it can get pretty frustrating trying to adjust values. Finally, you’ve probably already observed this, but no white is used.

Because “The Morning Paper” required much less drawing than “The Bells of Innsbrook”, I was able to mass in large areas with little detail.

This is a painting I'm working on. Remnants of the raw umber block-in are still visible. All the values were established monochromatically prior to adding color. Notice how soft and vague the edges are as the scene recedes. High contrast or  hard edges in the distance would totally destroy the desired mood.

This is a painting I’m working on. Remnants of the raw umber block-in are still visible. All the values were established monochromatically prior to adding color. Notice how soft and vague the edges are as the scene recedes. High contrast or hard edges in the distance would totally destroy the desired mood.

 

It’s a valuable technique to have in your bag. I don’t use it all the time, but when I do it’s primarily on the larger more complicated pieces. If you haven’t read last week’s posting, “The Importance of Accurate Values”, I suggest you do so. You will find it very worthwhile. You may access it HERE.

 

John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE

 

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