Objects exist in three dimensional (3D) space. The challenge for you as a painter is to successfully represent 3D objects on a 2D surface. One way to meet this challenge is with the knife-painting technique that I’ve demonstrated below. This technique (originally taught to me by Allan R. Banks) allows you to represent a shadow or side plane receding back in space without giving that plane too much emphasis, thus causing it to “come forward” and destroy the 3D effect.
Advantage of the Knife Painting Technique
Some may approach the challenge of representing planes that recede in space by softening shadow edges, using a soft sable brush to “blend” them (a technique that is, perhaps, more useful in the finishing of a more highly realized image—not a sketch.) One should certainly aim to master this technique, but often the artist does too much blending, and the edges begin to break down. This leads to a weakening of the general and structural effect.
Using the palette knife technique lets you quickly push the side plane behind the picture plane—without losing the structural integrity of the form with too much blending. Also, the palette knife allows you to freely paint the visual impression. The knife does the work for you by unifying and softening these receding planes without destroying their underlying structure.
Demonstration of Knife Painting Technique
1. Here you see the free and loose execution at the beginning of a portrait study.
2. As the study develops, ridges are building along the shadow edge that are fighting with the desired effect of a unified, atmospheric shadow. The shadow side, which ought to go back in space in a mysterious penumbra, grabs too much attention from the areas of solid form in the light.
3. Here I’ve taken the palette knife and am applying gentle downward pressure, beginning to make one (just one—or two at the most!) steady pass along the shadow and its edge against the halftone to “knock it back.”
4. Here I’m continuing the pass of the palette knife across the shadow edge.
5. I’m now at the end of the pass. You must wipe the paint off the palette knife after each pass. Remember, when you paint an area of an object that is illuminated directly by light, you’re indicating solid, palpable form. When you paint shadows you are painting atmosphere. To capture this atmospheric shadow, you must lessen the impact, quiet the paint handling, subdue the form and keep reflected light to a bare minimum – if you indicate it at all.
6. Here you see the study after several passes, one or two along each shadow edge (see image No. 2 for the locations of some of these passes). You can also use this palette knife technique over halftone areas that are so thickly painted, they’re not “sitting back” as a side plane receding in space should.
7. This is the complete study of my good friend and fellow artist Richard Luschek.
Learning how to use the palette knife technique so that it indicates just the right degree of definition to describe 3D form involves a bit of push and pull. Sometimes the knife will knock the shadow plane back too far, and you’ll have to re-state the shadow edge. This can be very effective, as the newly painted edge will emerge from a even more subtle passage. So, experiment! You’ll get the hang of it.
Carl Samson, a repeat winner in the Portrait Institute’s National Portrait Competition and the first artist to give a live, videotaped portrait-painting demonstration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, was featured in the July/August issue of The Artist’s Magazine.
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