Bovid I by Meg Lyman
9×12″ oil on board
When I ordered this super awesome cow skull someone on Etsy found in the desert, I was excited. I was not, however, prepared for the sheer size of the thing. I pulled it out of the box, said “WOW,” and cradled it in my arms for an hour. I love it way more than I should. I wanted to paint it as soon as I laid eyes on it.
Note: larger than it looks
I set up to paint it on a cloudy day, with no lights on, just the nice north light overcast coming through the window. This limited my time – good practice for plein air. Plus I procrastinated and started after noon, but that’s neither here nor there.
Daylight… almost… gone…
I paid special attention to values on this, which is something I’ve always eyeballed, to the detriment of every painting I’ve ever made. I dusted off the value finder card and actually matched my paint to the values coming off the skull. I was surprised by the things I learned doing this, as is often the case when I actually pay attention.
The first thing I noticed is that the lightest value coming off the skull wasn’t the lightest value on the card, and ditto with the darkest. I would have painted it with the full value range if I hadn’t known that.
I have four tubes of Vasari paint – I love them very much – and I wanted to use them all on this, so they drove my color choices. I set up an orange cloth to get some nice, warm reflected light in the shadows. Then I laid out some color strings, matching them to the skull with the value finder.
Color strings being born
My colors were Vasari Raw Sienna, Naples Yellow Extra, Silver Point, and Cerulean Blue, plus some Blue Ridge Turkey Umber for the darks and some titanium white. The first three values of light blue I mixed were 9, 8, and 7, out of 10 on my value card. I tried to follow the very subtle shifts in value on the light side of the skull, which were totally obliterated by the camera shot above. And the one below.
bad photo, sorry
So I know the photo is washed out here, but you can still see some of the value shifts if you squint. And you can see the second thing I learned today – the light blue values that looked pretty dark on my palette look absolutely white on my dark blue toned board. I’m certain the toned board would have caused me to push the value range too far on the light side of the skull if I hadn’t measured.
This stuff fascinates me! I bet that when I’m painting on a white surface, I do the same thing with darks – lose the subtlety of the value range because of the contrast with the ground. No wonder classical painters and the old masters toned their boards and did ebauche and all that fancy stuff. I had read about all that stuff but learning it the hard way really makes it stick. It also makes me excited to try it again next time.
p.s. this is one of those studies I was talking about – practice still life, plus skulls, will feature in a future larger scale painting. I promise.