Sunday, February 22, 2015


This small oil study by James Perry Wilson was left unfinished, allowing us to see how he did it. After a careful line drawing, he painted from background to foreground, completing each area before moving on to the next.

This photo shows J. P. Wilson at work on an outdoor study, with two panels side by side in a special frame so that he could paint a panorama. This one also seems to be completed area by area. 

The method is sometimes called "window-shading," because it resembles unrolling the final canvas like pulling down a window shade. It was a common practice for painting museum dioramas, for which Wilson is best known.
Francis Lee Jaques painting the Peabody Museum's Alaskan Brown Bear diorama,
Courtesy Peabody Museum of Natural History and Michael Anderson
According to Michael Anderson of Yale's Peabody Museum, Wilson would have seen the practice used by his colleagues, such as Francis Lee Jaques: "From the horizon, Jaques would typically paint down and from left to right, though not always. Sometimes he would skip around painting an area to completion and then going to another area, painting it to completion and so on. Jaques typically painted the birds first and painted the background around them later."

Both artists would have done a tight color comprehensive of the overall scene first, and used that as a guide.

Frederic Church painted this study of the view from his home Olana in winter. I would bet that he painted it area-by-area from background to foreground. 

Window-shading is a fast way to work, and it can yield almost photographic results. It's a good way to paint fast under challenging conditions, such as winter landscapes or sunsets. 

Ilya Repin used a similar method in this study from costumed models. Over a preliminary line drawing, he applied the paint to achieve a finished effect area by area, like a coloring book or paint-by-number. There's no overall block-in or imprimatura or ebauche, as you might do if you followed the "BLAST Rule."

There are several advantages to this method. In oil, especially with an oil-primed board, you can make use of the white of the board for small highlights that show through thin textures of paint.  
Previously on GurneyJourney: Area-by-Area Painting


Tom Hart said...

I've always found this technique fascinating, but I haven't tried it yet. Maybe the reason is that it doesn't seem to fit my temperament - that is, I don't think I'd find it a particularly enjoyable way to work. That's not to diminish it in any way, though.

James, your statement that, "It's a good way to paint fast under challenging conditions, such as winter landscapes or sunsets," strikes me as counter-intuitive. I'd think that the BLAST method would be a better fit for quickly laying in tone and color across a whole scene. Can you explain your take on that a little more?

Melle Ferre said...

I've seen Anthony Ryder do an extremely refined aNd luminous (and fast) portrait demonstration this way at the PSOA annual conference in 2011 I think. He worked from the area of shadow toward the light (in this case bottom right to upper left) as I recall.

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Kelly Borsheim Artist said...

This is an interesting post and I am glad that you did mention that the artist often did some sort of basic color study first.
I always found confusing and amazing what I think of as the "bath-tub technique" (especially for sculpture... as if the figure in the tub emerges as the water drains out.
In painting, I thought the colorists love to explain how a color will change based on what its neighbor looks like. Also, one of my early teachers pointed out that if you develop one part of the composition "all the way" then you are a bit committed to completing the rest of the canvas to a similar degree. Of course, now I know better, but it is an interesting concept to "keep it loose and then pull out what you want in sharp focus."
I suspect that an artists learns many approaches and then chooses what works for him in any given situation. Why not have all of these tools in our boxes?
Thank you.

Tryggvi Edwald said...

I am a rank amateur, so my experience may be of little value, but this is how I started painting, 'like a human inkjet printer'.
I used Acrylics, and while I was focusing on a detail, the other paint dried up, and I had trouble repeating the exact colour mix.
I concluded for myself that this approach might be less useful for acrylics.

Robyn said...

Omer of my teachers had been a student of Neil Welliver. She said he painted his huge landscapes in this way - starting in a corner and working diagonally across the canvas.

Unknown said...

I'm definitely the type of painter who paints the entire painting at once, but I recently did a painting where I started with the central figure (the focus) and worked outward. It was satisfying to have the focus done and then complete the background. (It also helps to have--like the examples you illustrated--an outline/sketch of the rest of the painting.)

Unknown said...

I wonder why this technique is fast?
I decided to give it a go, and so far, it seems like it might be a really good fit for me, as I have a terribly short attention span, and for some reason, an aversion to mixing large amounts of color, which hampers me when trying to paint the whole image. It also seems to be a good fit for painting in acrylic, allowing a bit more blending before the paint dries.