Lightening a Mood

Using watercolor, Florida artist Freddie Baker Combs painted her niece in an absorbing moment titled Private Performance. Striving to go beyond just copying a photo, Combs wanted us to understand something of her subject’s personality and interests. “I wanted to convey a shy but talented musician,” says Combs. “So I chose a limited palette of soft, warm, earthy colors to complement her budding femininity.” You’re drawn into her world as a result.

Combs’ skillful use of light invites you into the painting. Flooding the image with a strong directional light, she involves you by moving you through the painting with strong directional indicators. Your eye travels along the shiny edge of the flute until you catch the side of the curtain and are swept into the gaze of the girl, looking at her music. You’re held in the tension of the moment, traveling between the girl’s eyes and the music. Combs used strong, yet simplified, features to clarify the girl’s gaze. And she surrounded this focal area with soft painterly touches of watercolor to enhance the feeling of the girl’s femininity.

Combs has painted several areas of the scene, including the girl’s feet, convincingly yet subtly. This subtle handling could have also been used in other areas of the painting that aren’t quite that important and don’t need our strict attention. One such place is the knee on our right. The strong form readily comes forward in space aided by the dark contrast of the cool surrounding area. In addition, Combs could further enhance the drama of the light with a few well-placed shadows. Let’s take a look at how she might handle these situations.

Art Principles At Work
Working with light and shadow. Failing to remain faithful to the subtle shift in values in a light-dominated scene such as this will diminish the emotional drama. For example, the strong directional light striking the girl doesn’t have the same altering effect on her hair as it does on her skin and clothing. The direct sunlight bleaches out value where it strikes the hands, forearm and side of her face, yet her hair changes little from the shadow side to the sunny side.

Lightening the hair on the side receiving the direct light would do two things: It would initially allow Combs to simplify the hair and remove detail, which would allow the delicate features of the young girl to be shown off to their best advantage. Changes in the lighting of the hair from one side to another would also create more dimension.

Losing and finding edges. If you use too many crisp edges, you don’t allow the image and viewer to interact as much as they could. When edges are ambiguous or “lost and found,” on the other hand, you’re invited to fill them in with some of your own understandings of the contour, atmosphere and substance of the image. Hence, you’re further involved in the painting.

For example, softening the high contrast edge of her left knee would allow more emphasis to stay on the girl’s face, hands and music. Including a darker value across her left knee suggested by a cast shadow from her arm would tone down this shape and introduce more visual variety in the crossed legs. Furthermore, placing a soft cast shadow on her upper arm and her knee would create a line that leads from her eyes to the music in front to make the connection even clearer between the young musician and her music.

Enhancing the composition. Enlarging the foreground area that contains the music would move the viewer farther away in space from the figure and increase the sense of privacy in the scene. It’s true that too much space around a focal area can drain a subject of its power, but too little space can prevent a painting from breathing and communicating all the possibilities. As in music, a well-placed rest or quiet space can increase the emotional impact of a piece.

Lessons Learned
Combs has presented us with a satisfying image that’s nicely balanced and composed. She sets up the moment by carefully orchestrating shape, line and color to communicate a single moment in this young girl’s life. It’s possible, however, to further heighten the mood of this moment and increase its impact by carefully using light and shadow to direct the viewer’s eye to the connection between musician and music, figure and space. The message of the painting will flow from this.

By downplaying some forms with cast shadows, more emphasis can be directed to the girl’s face and hands. The shadow’s edge can be further used to point to the gaze of the girl on her music. In addition, allowing light from the outside to soften and lighten the hair will give the face more delicacy and radiance. Finally, adjusting the spatial relationship of the foreground will remove the viewer from close proximity with the figure and allow a greater sense of solitude in Private Performance. Meanwhile, Combs’ solid handling of technique, feel for her subject and eye for composition alerts us to future successes from this artist.

About the Artist
When Freddie Baker Combs of Winter Haven, Florida, isn’t painting, she’s a full-time principal at Garden Grove Elementary. “‘Art with character’ or, perhaps, ‘watercolor journalism’ might best describe what I’m trying to accomplish through my work,” she says. “Since I was an author before being an artist, I’ve really tried to create a picture worth a thousand words.” Last fall she entered her first Florida Watercolor Society show and was selected to be an exhibiting member. She’s also a member of Imperial Art Gallery, a local artist co-op gallery.

The author of numerous books on painting, Zoltan Szabo teaches workshops around the country yet maintains a studio in Matthews, North Carolina. The only gallery that represents him in the United States is The Douglas Gallery in Spokane, Washington. Check it out at

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