Sunday, August 31, 2008

Misty, Dusty and Hazy

In a comment on a recent posting here, I was asked to talk about how I delineate mist, such as in one of the works, The Branch , which was a part of my just concluded solo exhibition with the Woodson Art Museum. As a refresher, here is an image of that particular work.

Mist and dust and fog and haze and any other generally under defined area in a work of art can cover a multitude of sins . . . or an area where less focus is desired . . . or when your reference is not quite determinant enough to give you the needed details. These hazy spots in a work can also lend huge amounts of interest, mystery and uniqueness to a piece as well as to move a viewer’s eye around a work or point the eye in the desired direction to bring the dominant subject more dominance. I have used mist and dust and haziness to all of these mentioned purposes at one time or another and, quite often, when the bottom line is that I don’t care to spend any more time on a piece, having felt that I have accomplished what I wanted to with the work and any additional details would not add to or further define the composition – case in point, this work, The Branch.

Looking at this first detail of the area to the extreme left of the composition, an area where, in my reference material, there were lots and lots of leaves and branches and general ‘business’, this end result of an area of haze and rather undefined negative space was a natural way of resolving unwanted emphasis to that portion of the work. In constructing my original compositional sketches and ideas for the work, I absolutely wanted the major focal point to be to the right of the center vertical split of the work space, following along the diagonal thrust of the rails to the deer in the distance. Settling on the idea of transforming the actual afternoon, strongly lit, fully detailed reference photos of this particular location into a softer, more subtle and more mysterious scene, I decided to try and portray morning light, morning mists rising from the stream below the bridge and thusly focus more attention to the areas where I wanted the viewer’s attention to reside. Basically, as I have said time and time again before, I made the reference material ‘mine’, made it work for me, made it accommodate my desires as an artist, made it useful to the extent that it was useful as a basic starting point to work from and within the ideas forming in my head as to what I wanted the finished work of art to be.

After establishing some basic darks at the various points across the drawing where I knew the darks would have to be, detail work came next. Once the deer and the distant ‘nothingness’ of the dark and receding trees were pretty well defined, I began working on the foreground elements. Bridgework and rails and the other ‘noodly stuff’ of the predominant foreground objects, once set, helped me to see where I needed more negative areas in the work and further supported my initial idea of the left part of the work being quite soft, subdued and lacking in ‘character’.

So, how did I go about keeping that side of the piece soft and subdued while still having some indication of detail? I worked very carefully with soft, very soft, hardly visible gray tones and continuously built up layers of varying strength, trying to give hints or slight indications that there was foliage about and that the space was actually occupied by ‘things’ even if they could not be seen or focused upon. By intentionally materializing some small groupings of leaves and indications of tree branches here and there throughout that part of the work, I hope I was able to ‘fool’ the viewer into seeing a completely foliated area of brush and trees and plants without having to delineate every single leaf and sunlit or shadowed branch. By layering and building up the various values of gray, I could control exactly how much ‘white’ I wanted to occupy that portion of the work. I did not complete that side of the piece as I needed to finish the rest of the work first in order for me to determine exactly how much of the ‘white’ paper, or in this case the tone of the Bristol Board that I work on, I needed to have when the work was complete and to make sure that those areas of negative white would not overpower any other part of the work. So, working slowly back and forth across the piece, once it came to the final hour or so of work on the piece, I was totally focused on the left of the work, enabling me to make very subtle separations between gray values, tightening the lines between leaf edges and background and continuously graying down portions of the ‘mist’ that needed to be softer, helping to give perceived depth and lift to the mists.

As I have talked about before, I do not often make use of my kneaded eraser, but in instances as this, before I will set an area with a quick spray of fixative, I might go in and just graze the surface of the paper with the kneaded eraser just to bring up the value of white. Then, a quick spray of fix will set that spot and make sure that it will remain the tone of the background Bristol. If needed, then I can go back over that area and gray it down a bit, but at least once that light spray of fix is on, I can always pull away and lighten a specific area totally again. Obviously, I work away from light areas and don’t generally erase them away. That is simply how I have ‘learned’ my technique with graphite. Others do differently, but working away from light areas is my methodology, if you will!

In this other detail of the central part of the work, establishing mist rising through the spaces between railroad ties on the bridge itself helped to define that there was a perceived distance between the bridge platform and whatever was happening beneath it, some distance below. These misty wisps also served to hide what would have been an endless line of horizontal railroad ties in the very center of the work which, in my estimation, would have brought too much strength to that area and lessened the focus on the distance and the deer. By indicating the rise of the mist just beneath the point where the deer are drawn, this also helped to direct the viewer’s eye to the deer.

In this next work, above, dust fulfills a similar task as the mist did in the preceding example. Again, it was a matter of working away from areas that I wanted the Bristol to show through, but I also did pull out some final highlights with the kneaded eraser before setting it all with fix.

In this detail below, perhaps it is a bit clearer how I have layered values of gray here and there to give perceived depth to the space, the dust rising foreground, with bits of grass and earth and horse’s legs beyond.

In this next example or detail of a larger work (please excuse the lack of sharpness as this is a truly enlarged area of a much larger work so it is a bit ‘shaky’ at best) I hope you can see how using the idea of dust can help to establish without too much difficulty, distance between foreground, midground and background subjects, in this case the running zebra. And again, the dust itself is defined by dabs of very light gray tone here and there, which when viewed overall in the complete work give a very good representation of dust and haze and a bit of movement. These dabs and dots and splashes of graphite are pretty haphazard and randomly placed, but result in a very nice, overall appearance of dust.

In the following detail from the work, Hoe-Down, I really wanted the chickens and the lamb to be the only point of focus in a rather abstract composition and format. There is a bit of linear fence delineation, but it gets semi obscured and diminished in importance other than as a rather negative, hazy, dark area of background, by being partially ‘blocked’ and softened by the dust and dirt being thrust up by the cavorting chickens. By using this indication of dust rising, I have also heightened the sense of movement and pace of the work. In this work, the dust takes on a darker more forthright intensity. If it had been lighter, the tonal variation between the dust and the fence would have caused too much interest at that part of the composition, detracting from the primary focus on the foreground chicken and the lamb. All of that haze was accomplished in the same manner in this work as in the previous examples, by layering and layering of ever darker gray values over a basic even mid grade gray value. The fence indication then is the point at which the darker grays begin to kick in, but I still worked away from those mid gray values already established for the dust.

In the above detail from another horse subject work, I have again used a very soft and subtle indication of dust to intentionally soften and diffuse that area of the drawing to remove emphasis and create a bit of abstraction to an otherwise detailed work. By picking out little ticks and marks of grass in the midst of the haze at the feet of the horses, I have created a perceived depth with the stronger gray tones forward and by softening the gray value in those ticks and strokes as they move back from the plain of the horses.

Anyone who has known me for awhile knows that one of my favorite subjects is the elephant and these next details demonstrate again, how I have given not only a perceived movement and intensity to these works, but help to add depth and I hope, increased interest to what otherwise might be pretty static works.

So, I hope these have been good examples of how I go about portraying mist and dust and for you, Grahame, I hope I have answered your query!


Sheona Hamilton Grant said...

Excellent post!
Thank-you.The insight and detailed explanation you have shared: a definate "must know":)

Grahame Butler said...

Terry! what can i say? I think you have more than answered my question, thank you. There is enough information to keep me going for the next year. I cant wait to try out the technique I feel a lot od frustrating drawing sessions in the near future. Once again thank you for all the info and giving me the chance to see soem of your Elephant drawings.

Jane said...

HI Terry,
Is there a fixative that you would recommend? And is it workable?
I tell you, you are such a good WRITER too!
Thanks for such a good post!
Take care,

Terry Miller said...

Hey Jane,
I use Krylon Workable Fix. I find, while working on a piece and using very light, quick sprays to fix areas that I might want to work over later, Krylon is quite 'workable'. I can even, sometimes if it is absolutely necessary .... carefully erase an area that has a single, light spray over it, and as I said in this posting, if the area in question is to be left 'white' and has been fixed, I can usually erase any smudge.

Sandra Weiner said...

Thanks so much Terry your work in impeccable and explaining your technique is very generous.