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Learning to See: Step-by-Step Demo with Sarah Lamb

Learning to See: Step-by-Step Demo with Sarah Lamb

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In this excerpt from “Starting with the Darks” by Louise B. Hafesh in The Artist’sMagazine (June 2013), Sarah Lamb leads a step-by-step demo on accomplishing her stunning alla prima approach to painting. The end result is Three Pears (oil, 13×16).

Learning to See
by Sarah Lamb

“Nothing is hard to paint when you look at every object the same way. Squint—it’s the most important thing you can do to decipher values.”


Paints: (any brand unless identified)ivory black,raw umber, transparent brown (Schmincke), transparent red oxide (Gamblin), alizarin crimson; cadmium red light, cadmium orange, cadmium yellow medium, Naples yellow light, Naples yellow deep, yellow ochre, transparent earth yellow (Gamblin), sap green, olive green, Kings blue light (Old Holland or Schmincke), cerulean blue, ultramarine blue, manganese violet (Gamblin), titanium white, brilliant yellow light (Old Holland), titanium nickel yellow light

Brushes: synthetic soft brushes (all sizes)

Canvas: New Traditions art panels (L600), Claussens 13DP (for larger stretched pieces)

Step-by-Step Demo:

1. Color Study: Before starting to paint, I always do a color or poster study (this one is 6×9), which consists of patches of color that aren’t blended (top center). I begin my study by squinting to find the darkest dark and then proceed from dark to light colors. I don’t draw; I see only in value and color. The poster study becomes a reference guide as I paint the larger canvas.

2. Toned Canvas: I use raw umber and Turpenoid and apply the mixture with a damp cloth to tone the canvas to a middle value. For this demonstration I used a New Traditions art panel, which I like for smaller paintings because I can cut each panel to size. I like the L600, which has a finer tooth.

3. Block-In: Since our goal for this demo was to complete a painting in three days, I did a very quick sketch or block-in of the pears in raw umber mixed with a little Turpenoid.

4. Background: To aid in nailing down the drawing, I filled in the background with raw umber and Turpenoid; this practice sets up the painting nicely for my later step of painting in the dark background.

5. The Darks: I went ahead and filled in the bottom and all the darks while I was at it. Having all the darks in place really helps me see the drawing come together.

6. Massing in the Big Shapes: Consulting my color study and paying close attention to value, I massed in the big shapes. At the same time, I paid attention to the intervals of darkness.

7. Working from Dark to Light: Starting with the pear on the left, I worked my way from the pear shadow up, slowly into the light. I didn’t want to get the first pear too finished without putting down some color and values on the other two.

8. Evaluating the Work: My background was still kind of rough around the edges of the pears because I wasn’t ready to commit to my edges just yet. I blended the wet background into the pears to give them shape and dimension. Then, when the surface was completely covered, I did the fine-tuning, during which I added some middle tones between the shadow and the light of the pears. Finally I brightened my highlights.

Since I wasn’t able to finish the painting in the workshop, I spent about an hour more on it at home. I never really work on a painting without my subject in front of me. It’s dangerous! Chances are whatever decision you make when painting from life is a better one than what you’d make if you start tinkering with it later. In this case I realized that my space under the tabletop was a little too dark and too cold. Having painted many still lifes that were similar in setup, I knew that I could fix the problem with a little warmth and a lighter tone.

Because my painting had become completely dry to the touch, back in the studio I “oiled out”—using a mixture of linseed oil and a little Turpenoid brushed on to bring back the lustre of the darks after they had sunk in. Oiling out is almost like varnishing, but you can safely work back into the painting. I next mixed ivory black and a touch of cadmium red light and painted it under the tabletop—coming just up to the edge.

Then I took my smallest brush and, while the painting was still in an oiled-out phase and easy to work into, I added a tiny warm tone between the light and the dark. Here’s the completed demonstration, Three Pears (oil, 13×16).

Years ago, Sarah Lamb found Atlanta portrait and wildlife artist Sarah Brown, who was kind enough to let a talented 10th grader join her adult night class. Taking Lamb under her wing, Brown became a mentor for the young painter throughout her career.

After graduating from Brenau Women’s College with a bachelor of science degree in studio art in 1993, Lamb attended a summer portrait-painting workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with renowned classical painter Jacob Collins. Duly inspired, she moved to France to study with one of Collins’s mentors, Ted Seth Jacobs, at L’ École Albert Defois in the Loire Valley.

She has since had major sellout one-woman shows at the Meredith Long Co. Gallery in Houston, Texas; the John Pence Gallery in San Francisco and the Spanierman Gallery in New York City. Lamb lives outside Philadelphia with her husband, the painter David Larned, and their two-year old daughter, Sadie. Read the full feature in Magazine (June 2013).

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