Tips & Insights from James Gurney Six Tips for Painting More Efficiently
James Gurney shows how to speed up your painting procedure without losing accuracy
Let me begin by acknowledging that painting quickly is not the primary goal of art. Sometimes we need to slow down and take our time. Accuracy demands care and patience. Within the controlled, stable environment of the studio, we can throw away the clock and paint as slowly as we like.
But conditions “in the wild” are fluid and dynamic, and they demand a cheetah’s spirit. Sunlight changes, people move, plants grow, animals shift and cars drive off. If you want to confront life in all its dynamism and energy, you need to focus your mind and hone your skills. You have to be accurate and fast.
Painting efficiently means being able to convey the most amount of information about your subject in whatever time you’ve got. The side benefit is a relaxed and professional looking surface technique. But a flashy paint surface isn’t the primary goal either. To capture the most truth in a simple way—that’s a worthy goal. Here are six tips to get you there.
1. GET YOUR MEASUREMENTS RIGHT
Before you start painting, spend a few minutes making sure the measurements in your preliminary drawing are accurate so you don’t have to waste time fixing mistakes. These measurements may be just a few key lines, slopes or anchor points. They’re a blueprint, a foundation, but not the finished carpentry. You don’t have to do a detailed drawing, because you’ll do the the real delineation of forms with the brush and paint.
2. ORGANIZE YOUR PALETTE
Spend a few minutes at the beginning planning your color. Decide on the gamut (the range of colors in the scene). Which colors are in and which ones are out of your color scheme? Which colors show up the most? What are the rare accents? If you’re working in oil, you can premix pools of colors that you’re going to use a lot. That way you won’t have to use up valuable time mixing the same color again and again. Use a palette knife to mix a string of about four or five values of those frequently used colors. If you want to get a little variation in your color, you can mix a warmer and a cooler variation of each major color, or just leave the mixtures incompletely blended.
3. USE FEWER COLORS
Water-based media such as gouache, acrylic and casein dry very quickly. As a result, it’s not usually practical to premix colors. Instead, limiting the colors you squeeze out is an effective way to streamline the process. A fewer number of choices reduces confusion and increases the harmony in the color scheme. When you’re deciding which colors to place on the palette, include only the ones you really need. This saves time, money and cleanup.
4. SET UP YOUR PALETTE CLOSE TO THE PAINTING
Arrange your easel so your painting is close to your line of sight and your palette is adjacent to your painting. That will make it easier to achieve accuracy, and it will reduce the time you spend reaching back and forth from painting to palette.
5. MAKE EVERY STROKE COUNT
Use the largest brush you can. Start with big brushes and finish with small ones. When you mix a color and have it on the brush, don’t just use it for one small spot. Look throughout your scene for other places where you can use that color mixture. The habit of analyzing the scene for similar colors or planes will help the painting feel unified.
6. COMMIT TO COMPLETION
Do a careful drawing and then trust it. Once you establish the initial layer of paint, move ahead to the final rendering. Cover the surface area by area, keeping your overall plan in mind.
I have only 45 minutes for this painting behind the supermarket while my wife shops. I make a few measurements with a colored pencil held at arm’s length to establish the basic proportions and perspective. This is the foundation for all the details, which I delineate with the brush.
On a polyethylene-coated palette paper, I premix pools of five of the major colors for the rooftops, buildings and sky. Each color is carried through three or four values. The rest of the colors I free mix.
Delivery Van, gouache 5 x 8" (13 x 20 cm)
Stage 4: Windows and balconies
Stage 3: Sky and mountains
Stage 1: First measurements
Stage 2: Detailed drawing
Parked Car, gouache, 5 x 8" (13 x 20 cm) This is another supermarket session, so I’ve only got 45 minutes. I restrict my palette to raw sienna, cadmium yellow light, titanium white, light red, cadmium red, black and ultramarine blue, squeezed out on the side flanges of a metal watercolor box.
Stage 5: Finished painting. Mohonk Mountain House, oil, 11 x 14" (28 x 36 cm)
Rainy Day, gouache, 5 x 8" (13 x 20 cm)Gouache dries slowly in the humid conditions of a rainy day, allowing more time for blending the colors. Once the layers start to set up, I can add fine details to make the scene more realistic. All this happens within less than an hour while my car is in the repair shop.
School Bus Parking, gouache, 5 x 8" (13 x 20 cm) The light is changing fast, so I have to hurry to paint the illuminated surfaces and the cast shadows. I use large flat brushes (¾-inch and ½-inch) for the large areas, and I paint the big shapes of the building before I worry about window details and TV antennas.
Miata, gouache, 5 x 8" (13 x 20 cm)I choose a page in my sketchbook with a yellow casein underpainting. It challenges me to cover every area of the picture with opaque gouache. I allow myself three hours for this one, longer than it takes the mechanics to service my car.