Working Thin to Thick: An Art Lesson From Hsin-Yao Tseng

With a thin-and-thick painting approach that emphasizes lost-and-found edges, Hsin-Yao Tseng unveils the beauty of everyday scenes. Here, he shares a step-by-step art lesson of an oil painting that was created thin-to-thick. Read the entire feature article on Tseng and his techniques in The Artist’s Magazine (October 2012).

Working Thin to Thick

by Hsin-Yao Tseng

At the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., I noticed a young boy and a teenage girl sitting next to each other. They were obviously bored, despite being surrounded by Rembrandt’s paintings—restless kids waiting for their parents to finish viewing the art. I took many photos and then, back at the studio, began a series of pencil sketches consisting of simple abstract shapes executed as two-value studies. I looked for big shapes, rhythmic movement and good composition. This demonstration shows only one of many ways to approach a painting. To me, there are no limits to the possibilities.

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Hsin-Yao Tseng oil portrait art lesson, Toning

1. Toning: I toned a stretched, oil-primed Raphael linen surface with a thinned mixture of ultramarine deep, cadmium red and burnt umber. After the surface dried, I began sketching the general placement of the figures and the environment. For this underdrawing I used a No. 2 Royal & Langnickel sable flat brush loaded with a mixture of diluted yellow ochre, transparent iron oxide red and burnt umber.

Hsin-Yao Tseng oil portrait art lesson, Underpainting

2. Underpainting: I decided to execute this painting using a thin-to-thick approach, so I kept in mind what areas of the underpainting would remain visible after the picture was complete. During this stage I created a simple light-and-shadow pattern with a basic drawing. Making careful measurements, I continued establishing spatial relationships among the two figures, environmental elements and negative spaces. I loosely blocked in the shadow areas and unified the shadows by using the same color I’d used for the drawing.

Hsin-Yao Tseng oil portrait art lesson, Proportion, Edges, Value and Temperature

3. Proportion, Edges, Value and Temperature: Next, I began applying paint over my underdrawing, starting with the girl’s face and working downward. I made decisions regarding design, value, proportion and edge quality based on my artistic intuition. I noticed that both the figures’ heads were slightly too big in my underdrawing, so I used the surrounding elements to adjust the proportions. The change is most noticeable when you compare the image in step 2 with the image in step 4. Moving forward, I continued working the form and anatomy of the figures while focusing on the soft-hard, lost-and-found qualities of the edges. I kept in mind that, because the light (coming from the ceiling window) was cool, I would make the shadows warm. Also, I kept my shadows transparent to emphasize the thin-to-thick approach.

Hsin-Yao Tseng oil portrait art lesson, Background and Focal Point Balance

4. Background and Focal Point Balance: I continued developing the figure of the boy, concentrating on fold variations in his shirt and pants while looking for opportunities to simplify. Next, I blocked in the couch and the background. Slowly, I refined the interior decoration, including the frames on the wall. I paid close attention to the value relationships between the background elements and the figures in the foreground so that the secondary details wouldn’t compete with the focal point of the boy and girl. I decided to soften the highlights on the gold frames and darken the left corner to emphasize the light shining down on the figures.

Hsin-Yao Tseng oil portrait art lesson, Edge Adjustments, Highlights and Accents

5. Edge Adjustments, Highlights and Accents: In the final stages, I went back to the focal point, the children’s heads, and worked on improving the likenesses. I stood back to look at my painting from a distance. From this vantage point, I could determine where my sharpest edges would be as well as which edges I could soften most. I also decided where I would place my brightest highlights and darkest accents. Usually, sharp edges and highlights are key to moving the viewer’s eyes around the surface of a picture. The sharpest edges on this piece are at the joints—knees, elbows and shoulders—and at some of the cast shadows on the faces. Because the main light source is from the ceiling, the brightest highlights are located on the top planes of the subjects, such as the knees and shoulders. These edges and highlights were some of the last details I addressed on Waiting to Leave (oil, 22×28).

Hsin-Tao TsengBorn in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1986, Hsin-Yao Tseng, received his bachelor of fine art degree in painting from Academy of Art University, San Francisco, in 2009 and his master of fine art degree from the same university in 2012. His many awards include a Certificate of Exceptional Merit in the 2012 Portrait Society of America International Portrait Competition and a Certificate of Excellence in the same competition in 2010; finalist in the Art Renewal Center Salon for 2008–2009, 2009–2010 and 2010–2011; and second place in the portrait/figure category of The Artist’s Magazine’s 2008 Annual Competition. He’s represented by the Legacy Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona; Waterhouse Gallery in Santa Barbara, California; the Garden Gallery in Half Moon Bay, California; and Howard/Mandeville Gallery in Kirkland, Washington. Visit his website at Read the feature article on Tseng and his techniques in The Artist’s Magazine (October 2012).



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