Forest Thrones, Part 10: Lies Your Art Teacher Told You

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Okay, I FINALLY got all those little branches sculpted. So now we move on to the next step: painting.

First, I want to discuss some color theory with you, because color theory freaks out a lot of crafters who don’t have a fine art background. The first thing you should know is that this is art, not science. There are no wrong answers, just ones that don’t suit your needs. So relax.

When you were in fourth or fifth grade, you probably learned about the color wheel, and the primary, secondary and tertiary colors, right? Your teacher probably told you that you make brown by mixing a primary color with its complement. This is the first lie I want to expose.

In a theoretically perfect world, you probably can make brown by mixing complementary colors. The problem is that you can’t make paint out of theory. Paint uses pigments that come from natural things, like earth or plant matter, or chemical processes, and nobody told the earth (or your chemistry set) that it needed to make a pure blue or a true yellow. Earth has better things to do anyway. So most pigments are not true, primary colors. The result being that if you mix a color with its complement, you will most likely get a nasty, warm, troll-snot gray.

But there’s some good news. Remember I said pigments are made from earth? And what color is most earth? Brown. There are lots of brown-pigmented shades of paint that are cheap and easy to get ahold of. If you insist on mixing your own (or the mental institution will only let you have five tubes of paint), the best way to get a nice, warm brown is to mix black with orange. The brightest tangerine orange you can get will work best. (And by the way, this advice may not apply to media other than paint, such as colored pencils or even ink, but it should apply to all types of paint, since most of them use the same kinds of pigments.)

Now let’s talk about the second lie your misguided art teacher told you (give her a break, she went to college for four years so she could scrub tempera paint out of her hair every night!).  You probably learned that there are warm colors, cool colors and neutrals. Warm colors are the ones that make you think about fire: yellow, red, and orange. Cool colors make you think of the ocean: blue, green, and purple. Neutral colors are mainly black and white, though some people classify brown as a neutral as well.

The truth is, warm and cool isn’t nearly so well-defined. Sure, yellow is always warm and blue is always cool (except in relation to other shades of themselves), but you can have a warm red or a cool red. You can have a cool green or a warm green. And brown can be either warm or cool. Warm browns have undertones of red or orange, while cool browns have undertones of blue, purple or gray. In fact, one way you can think of it is as a continuum, with terra cotta on one end and gray on the other. Warm browns, on the terra cotta end, will blend almost seamlessly into a true red, while on the cool end they blend to gray (remember our troll-snot gray we got from mixing complementary colors? Here’s where it belongs).

Cool browns are really ugly. Really slimy mud and baby poop are usually cool brown. Hot cocoa is one of the few nice things that  are cool brown. I tried to get some cool brown paint at the craft store to show you, but out of scores of different colors they only had a couple of bottles that I would consider a really cool brown, and they were so dark, it was hard to determine whether they were warm or cool. Ugly paint doesn’t market well, I suppose. Plus, it’s really easy to make a cool brown, as we will discuss below.

The other part of this lie is that black and white are true neutrals. Maybe they are, in the sense that they don’t clash with any other colors, but if you are mixing paint, let me tell you a secret. Never, ever, ever, lighten a warm color with white. Not if you want the end result to stay warm. You lighten warm colors by adding yellow. You can use a really light yellow that’s mostly white, but the more white you add, the cooler your color will get until you get back to troll-snot (will somebody get that troll a hanky? Please?).

I made a color chart for you below. The darker color is a cool brown and the lighter color is a warm brown. I hope you can see, as I lightened them, that one has kind of a purpley undertone and the other is mostly orange. (You really have to develop an eye for that with practice. I can’t tell you any tricks to it.) To prove my point about white being a cool color, I lightened each color by mixing it with white and then with yellow. As you can see, even the cool brown came out warm after being mixed with yellow, and the warm brown turned into a cool gray when mixed with white.

Finally, let’s talk about trees. You need to decide if your tree came from a happy, warm, bunny-filled summer forest; or a creepy, chilly, fog-filled winter forest. You want to use a warm brown for the former and a cool brown for the latter. I’m going to drybrush my trees to maximize their texture, but I’ll get into that in the next post.

I hope this little intro to color theory hasn’t freaked you out too much. I’m really not an expert on these things — I just have a two-bit art degree and the experience of being a graphic designer and crafter for more years than I’m likely to admit here — it just pains my heart when I hear people fret about color theory, because it’s really easy, and you really can’t do it wrong. You just need to experiment and develop your own judgment, taste and style.

Index of Forest Thrones posts is here.

Overview of sculpting on Squidoo

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If you’re new to polymer clay and would like a good overview of the medium and its commonest techniques, check out this Squidoo lens by artist Noadi. If you’re an old hand at polymer clay, but you have an annoying friend who thinks you want to teach her all about it, send her to the above link, while you take a look at Noadi’s cool tantacular jewelry.


Hyperrealism and the nature of art

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(warning: some of today’s links are probably not safe for work)


Mask II by Ron Mueck

You’ve probably seen some of these amazingly lifelike sculptures before; they’re so mind-blowing that I think some of them are making the e-mail rounds. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around them. My feelings are a mixed  bag: awe at the artists’ skill in reproducing every tiny detail; faint disgust at something that looks alive but isn’t; and puzzlement that people make stuff that can only be displayed in museums. I mean, seriously, would you want a realistic sculpture of a chubby janitor lady in your house? Or a 20-foot woman in bed? I think her bed is larger than my living room. But then, I’m a miniaturist at heart, so I guess other people might be more impressed by monumental art.


No One – In Particular: RGB by Evan Penny

It shouldn’t surprise you that most of these artists come from a background of movie effects, where they learned how to make sculptures that are indistinguishable from the real thing, at least as far as the camera is concerned.  I have enough art training to know how to read the artist’s intent, but some of these sculptures leave me wondering about the borders of art. There’s a difference between the kind of photo they take in those little studios at Sears or Walmart, and the kind of photo that you would call “art”, right? One is simply meant to provide a realistic representation of its subject, while the other is meant to express something more. So, at what point do these sculptures that represent imperfect humans in photorealistic detail become art? Is it enough for them to represent an imperfect human who is expressing an emotion? Does monumental size or shockingly realistic nudity make it art?

hyperrealSalmon hyperrealSalmon2

Fragment #2 (l); Desolation (r) by Jamie Salmon

I don’t mean to disparage any of these works; as I said at the beginning, I can appreciate the sculptors’ immense talent and skill. But I just don’t think they’re for me. I’d love to hear what you think.


Woman with Child in a Stroller by Duane Hanson

For a much better roundup of these artists, visit Web Designer Depot.


The Hanging Man by Sam Jinks

Kyoko Okubo: Narrative Paper Sculpture

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A lot has already been written about this artist, on Daily Art Muse and Art Found Out, so I’m not really going to review her work. I wanted to comment on a phrase someone used to describe her innocent little girls and realistic animals: narrative paper sculptures. A frequent topic of discussion in our doll club when I was still the protege and the other members were selling artists, was what to call what we do. Will the term “art doll” always have a stigma attached to it? Can we better describe our work as “multimedia figurative sculpture?” Where’s the line between “art doll” and not-doll sculpture? I don’t think anyone has ever come up with an answer to these questions that satisfies everyone. Maybe it isn’t possible.

But I would like to submit a new option, a phrase someone has used to describe Okubo’s work: narrative sculpture. In order to have a narrative, you need a subject (in other words, a figure) and a verb. Why else would we sculpt little people? They’re the subjects of stories made up in our viewers’ minds, allowing them to fill in the most meaningful details. I think I like it.

What about you? Do you see your work as a narrative?

Why not to write stories

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I recently discussed the art of writing stories to go wih one’s dolls with Kamila Mlynarczyk. Recently, Mimi Kirchner expressed the opposite opinion: she prefers not to write stories. She writes:

“I want to make characters that will inspire peoples imaginations- viewers will come up with their own stories. The dolls will be a catalyst for the imagination. No static story lines. I absolutely LOVE when people tell me who they think my dolls are- it always makes me feel successful when my work creates a spark.”

See the rest of the article on her blog. And I think the picture above is my favorite doll that she’s made so far. Love the dreadlocks, which she says are made by putting ropes of wool roving through the washing machine.