Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Scumbling the Lights

Here’s a painting exercise that really works well with people who are using oils for the first time.

1. Starting with gray-brown chipboard, do a careful pencil drawing of the model about 22 inches high. The model should be lit with a single clear light source.

2. Seal the drawing with shellac. The shellac should be brushed on and squeegeed off with a piece of cardboard.

3. Squeeze some titanium white oil paint onto some blotter paper, or other absorbent paper to remove excess oil.

4. Using a bristle brush, scumble the white paint only in the areas of the form that are touched by light. Make the paint thin for the darker halftones and thicker and whiter for the highlights.

5. Leave the shadows untouched with paint. The result should be a photographic look, with an attention to variations in the light.

This exercise was taught at Art Center College of Design by the instructor Paul Souza. Mr. Souza studied with Millard Sheets and Frederick Taubes and died in 2007 at age 89.


Unknown said...

This blog post makes me want to paint!

E Colquhoun said...

I have done something very similar to this using white gouache on a brown paper. You can work faster and you don't have to worry about solvents.

TomHart said...

Just another example of why this blog is such a gold mine!!

James: any reason to think that acrylic matte medium won't work just as well to seal the drawing (as mentioned in your recent post on the botanical illustration)?

Thanks, as always!

Erik Bongers said...

Two questions:
1. What is the squeeging needed for?

2. Is the shellack only to protect the cardboard or also to protect the pencildrawing. Would it smudge otherwise? (I know it wouldn't smudge much with water based paints)

Daroo said...

Great method -- I'd like to try it during a life drawing session ... but the problem would be the drying time of the shellac. Maybe the shellac could be applied first, before the session and then the drawing heavily fixed?

I like to do something similar but with the opposite approach -- using transparent oil to create a monochrome value study.

Richard Schmid, who does this technique so well, suggests doing it on a lead oil ground so that you can always wipe the oil off cleanly and get it back to white. That's probably the best way, but I've also experimented with using an acrylic gesso panel that is then covered with Krylon Crystal Clear or the same style panel covered with gloss or matte medium varnish.

Fechin used to blot his paints -- I think he'd set them out the night before on blotting paper.

Daroo said...

Erik -- I assume the squeegeeing is to make a smooth even surface and eliminate brushstrokes.

The shellac seals the cardboard -- otherwise the oil paint soaks in and it looks like the inside of a pizza box after a particularly greasy delivery.

Gamblin makes another product that might work: PVA size -- its a replacement for rabbit skin glue designed to seal canvas before applying the ground. I've used it to seal museum board for an easy and quick painting surface.

Michael Mercer said...

Just wanted to thank you for your blog...trying to make a "dinotopia" (or Middle-earth if you prefer) of my own. Been trying to get the skills up to do so for the last 5-6 years or so and still have a long way to go, but I study your blog religiously. It truly is a goldmine--or a better analogy--a polished and refined diamond showcase of artistic technical knowledge. I am generally flabberghasted that it appears you do it all for free...THANK YOU!

James Gurney said...

The thanks should go to Paul Souza, RIP, who had some good painting exercises that gave courage to an oil newbie like me.

Yes, shellac is just one kind of sealant you can use. We used the squeegie method so as not to screw up a brush (it needs a special solvent). The Gamblin size or Liquitex matte medium would work well to avoid the greasy pizza box effect.

Glendon Mellow said...

For people worried about the solvents - there's a lot of excellent non-toxic ones on the market these days.

Stay away from odorless variants in the toxic ones - the fumes are still bad for you, though you can no longer smell it. Many solvents like turpentine are bioaccumulative, so while they may be cheap, I say skip 'em.

I've been using Turpenoid Natural for over a dozen years. Works great, non-toxic.

F. Emmanuel Laverde said...

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you always welcome to our beautiful country which is first in birds, the second in mammals and plants and etc. a true paradise of the biodiversity.

PD: i hope you understands this sincere message with my poor english.

Unknown said...

That's a great tip. Thanks!

Stephen James. said...

Great exercise.

Marko Krull said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...


Well there's a name I have'nt heard in a while. I had Souza as a teacher but it was for watercolors.

Asaro was teaching this method at Art Center as well. Good tip.

Daroo said...

Excellent rendering btw.

Saving the brush -- That makes sense.

For shellac you use denatured alcohol as a solvent -- but even then it doesn't really get the brush clean. I use one of those cheap 2" bristle brushes they sell at hardware stores and just accept I'm only gonna get a few uses out of it.

Glendon -- I agree with your main point -- there are many ways to lower the toxicity level of your studio. People shouldn't be afraid to get into oils.

Gamblin is trying to sell his product but he has some really good info here:


If you like turpenoid natural you should try walnut oil (M. Graham makes a version). Morgan Weistling uses it -- he says Rubens used it and HIS paintings are still around.

I like the topic of studio materials and safety -- its an area where there is a lot of misinformation and if you didn't study with an artist who had sound working habits it can be a big, dangerous, empty space in your education.

(For example, my highschool art teacher told me they would often use gasoline as thinner back when he was in school -- in retrospect, that explains a lot about his art.)

Anonymous said...

Great exercise.
I just tried it. It's definitely different from the usual opposite exercise of isolating the shadows.

Anonymous said...

Very cool. I'd like to do this on the back of my board for life drawing class to impress people

but if I mess up I'll be forced to get a new board to save face o_o

Adam Cope said...

clear & precise, bravo James

to make the instructions perfect, what about a definition of a scumble?
ie opaque glazing


which is sometimes dry & scuffs the surface terrain, so next step is to do same exercise but on a rough, dark surface.