14"x11" oil on linen board

14″x11″ oil on linen board

A small oil sketch like this is great practice. Keep it simple. Go for the heart of the subject. In this case, the heart is the white table that has turned pink from the red umbrella and blue from the sky, with some brilliant white thrown in from the direct sun. You don’t have to go far to find a subject. This was painted in the back yard in about 2 hours.

What drew me to the subject was the wonderful lighting effects on the white table. I literally did a double-take when I looked out the window and saw this. A huge thought balloon popped up with a big exclamation point in it and the words “Must paint!”.

Problems noted: visual clutter, subtle colors, potentially boring background fence and distant house and tree.

Other problem: very little time. I already had a full day planned.

My Instant Strategy

Quick. No time to lose. How will you paint this? I decided on this…

  • Paint fast, as if I were in a “quickdraw” at a competition. In a quickdraw you are lucky to have two hours to finish your painting.
  • Spend most of the time on the subject itself. Stay focused on the subject and not on the background. Leave everything out or downplay that isn’t important.
  • Use contrast in values and color to keep the subject clear and readable

Instant strategy in hand I went to work, and fast. A light burnt sienna wash over the background, a quick sketch outline of the composition in a mix of phthalo blue and burnt sienna. Blocked in some basic colors all over, thinly. Remember, fat over lean. Then straight to the subject which is the light on the white table first, and the red umbrella second.

Contrast, contrast, contrast

Everywhere in this painting you see contrast. Contrast in colors, values, and even textures. The deep shadow below the table and chairs is essential to show the legs of the tables but also the intensity of the sun on the grass. You know the sun is brightly shining because of the deep shadows.

The fence, an otherwise uninteresting and even potentially boring feature of the painting, nevertheless gives a good neutral background to the color and the brightness of the one chair that is in full sun. Again, contrast. Just a few sparkles on the fence give it a sense of realism and detail. And, look above the fence and below the bottom edge of the umbrella. Deep almost black contrast that not only defines the umbrella, very important in this painting, but also makes the red of the umbrella really pop.

Look into the underside of the umbrella at the reds. You’ll see more contrast. The reds closer to the top of that area are deeper, in order make to top side of the umbrella seem even brighter. The lower areas of red in the underside become slightly lighter in order to, again, contrast with the deep background beyond the fence.

One more contrast is in the focus. You’ll see that the subject, the umbrella, table, and chairs, is sharply defined without being overly meticulous, while everything else is done very loosely, more of an impression.

Deep Breath…

Before you finish up an oil sketch, always take a look and ask yourself if your subject is still the subject of the painting or have you gone astray and paid way too much attention to things other than the main focus. At that point, a little tightening up using contrasts will sharpen the focus and bring the eye of the viewer to the thing you wanted to paint in the first place.

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