Painting with Gouache: Color Charts, Zorn Palette, Brush Tests

Zorn Palette color chart in gouache, 10x8 inches in A4 Moleskine

Zorn Palette color chart in gouache, 10×8 inches in A4 Moleskine

In trying to learn more about gouache I made a few color charts. I’m using mostly M. Graham gouache which I like much better than the Winsor & Newton and Schmincke I used before. The Graham gouache is creamy and brilliant, rewets well and doesn’t smell (like the W&N). I found that using fresh-squeezed gouache is more fun to work with than rewetting dried paint, but frugality keeps me trying to reuse dried. The best solution is to set up a palette for each session, squeezing out tiny blobs, adding more as needed.

Above is an exploration of the Zorn palette in gouache, a limited palette using only Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red, White, and Black. The black paint, when mixed with white, is meant to serve as blue since it is a cool color that can look blue next to warm colors. Next I want to try using it in an actual painting.

M. Graham Gouache paint chart, gouache in A4 Moleskine, 10x4 inches

M. Graham Gouache paint chart, gouache in A4 Moleskine, 10×4 inches

Above is a chart of my gouache colors straight from the tube and mixed with white and each other. Sadly when I removed the masking tape it pulled off some of the paper from the extra large Moleskine watercolor notebook that is my current journal. I don’t recall previous Moleskine WC notebooks having that problem but I’ve switched to low-tack tape now.

Before ordering any new brushes specifically for gouache I wanted to see how the brushes I already had might work so did the test below. I found a few that I liked and ordered a couple of others. I’ll do another post about my gouache palette and brushes I’ve settled on soon.

Old brushes-testing for gouache

Old brushes-testing for gouache

Two Sunflower Survivors with Process Chart

Two Survivors, oil painting of sunflowers and white vase on linen panel, 7x5 in

Two Survivors, oil painting on linen panel, 7×5 in

Persistence, patience, perseverance, determination, curiosity, courage, confidence, wonder…these are all qualities needed to become a better painter. Another essential is learning to really see and understand the subject. I titled this painting (available hereTwo Survivors because only these two survived from the big bouquet during the week I struggled with two previous sunflower “studies” (aka failed paintings). Sometimes it takes a while before the “blinders” fall away so that I can see the shapes, colors, and values instead of the named bits (e.g. petal, leaf, or nose) that interfere with seeing as a painter.

I was inspired by artist Chris Beaven (whose sunflower painting I purchased and love) by his Session Detail charts that he embeds at the end of each post (sample). I modified his chart to create one for myself to focus my goals and intentions for each session and the painting as a whole. Completing  the chart at the end of each painting session with image, results and plans/goals for the next session is making a big difference in my process and helps me avoid random, unfocused messing about with paint.

Below is the chart I used for this painting. If you’d like to see all three session charts for this painting with my notes about goals, composition mistakes and corrections, and corresponding images, click here to open 3-page PDF file.

Session 1 Detail Chart (Click image to enlarge or click PDF link above to see all 3 sessions)

I loved the original painting of the vase in Session 1 above, with wonderful warm highlights and cool shadows created by the new LED lightbulb I’m experimenting with. My intuition told me to leave the vase alone but instead I started adding the pattern from the actual vase. After a few strokes I realized I didn’t like it and tried to wipe the pattern off the still wet paint. Then I tried to return to the original shapes of color, temperature and value.

I revised the chart layout after this painting. In my next post (another sunflower still life) I’ll include the completed chart for that painting’s 6 sessions and a blank template for anyone who wants to experiment using or modifying it for their own artwork sessions.

Frankie Flathead Planes of the Head Study, oil on canvas panel, 11x14"

Frankie Flathead Finally Painted (Planes of the Head Grisaille Study)

Frankie Flathead Planes of the Head Study, oil on canvas panel, 11x14"

Planes of the Head, Grisaille study, oil on canvas panel, 11×14″

When I bought a “Planes of the Head” life-sized plaster cast two years ago I wanted to learn more about portrait painting. I put it on display in the studio and studied it. I knew I should be drawing and painting from the cast, but hoped learning would happen by osmosis since it didn’t really inspire me as a painting subject.

Planes of the Head Plaster Cast

Planes of the Head Plaster Cast

Then I got curious about grisaille techniques after seeing beautiful paintings that began with that approach. I watched the excellent video “How to Paint: The Grisaille Method” by Jon deMartin (in which he paints from a cast of Julius Caeser) and decided to try grisaille using homely Frankie Flathead, my Planes of the Head cast, as my model. See bottom of post for a clip of the deMartin video.

Planes of the Head Open Grisaille

Open Grisaille in which Frankie resembles a demented old perv

I was going to display all my steps along the way, but my photos weren’t good enough. Above is the first stage, the “open” grisaille, which means it’s painted thinly, using only transparent washes of grey (or in this case, burnt umber) and wiping paint off to achieve the lighter values. At the top of the post is the “closed” grisaille, made by mixing and applying a range of values opaquely, using white and the same burnt umber on top of the original “open” grisaille.

One of the most powerful things I discovered in the video is the way light changes across planes.

Gray scale and strip painted 50% gray

9-step Value Scale (white to black) on left and strip painted Value 4 Gray on right (screenshot from video)

Same Value 5 gray strip curved to show the range of values as it turns from light

Same Value as image to the left but the Value 4 Gray strip is curved to show the range of values as it turns away from light (screenshot from video)

When bent so planes are at different angles to the light, the gray strip on the right seems to have all the values in the 9-step value strip on the left. Isn’t this a powerful demonstration of the effects of light and shadow?

My first attempt at grisaille was  interesting. I made many mistakes and got lots of good practice.

My finished painting isn’t great, but doing the study helped prepare me for the next lesson I gave myself (and that I enjoyed more and will post soon): starting with a grisaille to set the value structure in a still life and then adding the color in the same values.

Below is a clip from the video. I was very curious about how grisaille works so it was worth the $35 to download the three-hour program, also available here to watch online and DVD.

(Disclaimer: I have no connection to or receive no benefit from writing about these products)

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