Simplifying Your Painting: The Art of Alfred Chadbourn
By Charles Sovek
The Artist's Magazine - March, 1987 (Cover story)
Behind the deceptively simple paintings of Al Chadbourn is a sophisticated designer. Few artists are better able to manipulate just a few values and colors into totally satisfying arrangements. The trick, as it seems, is really no trick at all. His beautifully designed, "simplified" works result from the skillful use of only three values. And this lays the foundation for his thick-and-thin painting techniques that add vitality and life to his works.
Chadbourn's paintings usually start with exploratory sketches, using either a felt-tip pen or a charcoal pencil. Working directly on location, his main interest is simple value arrangements. "I try to reduce everything to three values - a light, middle and dark tone. That way, the chances of retaining my initial impression are much better," says Chadbourn. He also takes reference photos, but prefers to work from sketches when painting back in the studio: "They bring back the feel of the wind blowing and the squawking of the gulls."
The three-value system of simplifying the myriad of busy tones seen in most subjects has been used by many painters - although not necessarily by that name. It works like this: The middle value usually establishes the shadow pattern or important shapes of the overall composition. This is sometimes called massing. A cluster of buildings, for example, could be massed entirely with one middle value.
Next, the dark value is used to enrich the subject. A large, dark tree, for instance, could be placed to one side of the buildings with branches overlapping some of the structure.
Finally, the lights are established, or "popped," as artists say. One or two buildings, or perhaps a group of figures, is stated with a light value. This gives the picture a center of interest-a point the viewer's eye can focus on.
Once laid in with three values, a painting can then be built up in increasingly greater detail. The trick, however, is to keep the three values at the foundation of your procedure. The rooftops of the buildings, for instance, may go darker, with small flecks of paint to show the texture of shingles. The windows might go lighter, Possibly reflecting the sky or other colors in the landscape. But when viewed as a whole, the overall building group should appear to be essentially one value.
Suppose you wish to place some darks in the building-accents like foliage or window trim. If they're dark, use a value as close to the dark already used elsewhere in the painting. If lights are added, do the same. This way you'll avoid a hodgepodge of confusing tones. You'll get detail, but the details will belong to the overall design.
The combinations of the three-value system are really unlimited. The sky, for instance, could be a middle value, the buildings and tree could be dark, and the figures light. Or, the buildings could be light, the tree and sky dark, and the figure a middle tone. Virtually any combination can work.
It's not advisable to use less than three distinctly different values because the tonal range is too limited when compared with the actual light and shadow seen in nature. A picture employing, say, a middle, dark and darker value would appear so somber that, unless executed by a real master like Whistler, just wouldn't work. Even here, a small accent of light would probably be needed to make the subject come alive. On the other hand, a white, light and middle-value scheme can work well - the Impressionists used it all the time. But they painted with so much rich color that it well made up for the limited tonal range.
The reason the three-value approach works so well is because it forces you to simplify. This gives a power to your paintings much the way a good public speaker can say a few words, stick to the point, and stamp a strong impression on the listener.
THE THICKAND THINOF THINGS
Technically, Chadbourn's painting methods are conventional. He works on canvas (medium or rough linen) and occasionally Masonite primed with acrylic gesso for small works. He uses flat bristle brushes (Nos. 10, 7, 5 and 3), bright bristles in the same sizes, and a small, inexpensive sable for details. He also finds a palette knife useful for both scraping off unwanted paint, as well as applying color when thickly textured effects are desired.
Like many painters, Chadbourn uses a simple palette comprised of alizarin crimson, thalo red, cadmium red light, cadmium orange, cadmium yellow light, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, permanent green light, thalo green, ultramarine and cerulean blue. I use cerulean instead of thalo blue because thalo is such a dominant color; I found myself getting it into everything," he says. His taboret is an old baby bassinet with a windshield glass for a top.
Working in oils, he applies his paints thin to thick sometimes described by artists as the "lean-to-fat" technique. This basic off painting technique will help ensure the permanency of your work. That's because thin oil paint dries faster than its thick counterpart, and oil paint in general is not very flexible when dry and has a tendency to shrink slightly. Hence, a thin layer of paint applied over a thicker layer can cause cracking in the paint surface later on. In addition, Chadbourn uses the lean-to-fat technique because it gives a dynamic look to his paintings.
The way Chadbourn usually works is to wash in large passages of a picture with paint thinned with lots of turpentine. Once the design and mood are established, he carefully overpaints, letting the underpainting show through where it serves the purpose best. As the work progresses, thicker applications of paint are added, thinned with turpentine and little or no medium.
Chadbourn doesn't follow any specific rules as to what is painted thinly or thickly. But because he's interested in painting light, he usually keeps shadows thinner, halftones thicker, and lights the thickest of all, often using a palette knife to create a large buildup of paint. Because color and texture are most evident in halftones and fights, a heavily textured paint application gives believability to those areas. Shadows, because they're handled thinner, thus form an interesting contrast.
Design also plays a part in what's painted thick or thin. For instance, a large growth of bushes might be painted thinly if it was placed behind some fight, thickly painted figures or flowers. Also, the thin middle tones and darks play an important role. Without them, a lot of the drama would be lost because the entire picture surface would have the same paint consistency and buildup. Hence, the contrast and balance between thick and thin is what brings his paintings to life.
Warm and cool color manipulations also complement Chadbourn's strong value scheme. For instance, if the fight is warm, he'll cast his shadows bluer and cooler. If cool light is used, warm browns and reds are introduced into the shadows. When combined with thinner paint in the shadows and thickly applied lights, a rich, vibrant tapestry results, and the subject takes on a unique liveliness.
But the important thing to remember about Chadbourn's painting techniques is the three-value system. This gives his paintings - and yours - a solid design and simplifies your picture into a cohesive statement. On this foundation, almost any painting technique will work well, no matter what your style or subject matter.
About The Artist