January 04, 2021 9 min read
Tiffanie Mang is a digital illustrator and gouache plein air artist born and raised in San Diego. She studied at the University of Southern California, graduating with a BA in Animation and Digital Arts in 2014. Aside from working in the animation industry as a freelance concept artist, Tiffanie’s biggest passion is telling stories and creating landscapes through shapes and light in gouache and digital media.
What does gouache give you as an artist?
Gouache has become an indispensable medium for me. I love it because it is so portable and I can carry it around with me anywhere to jot down color notes. The biggest plus for me with gouache is that I can treat it like a watercolor, or paint it thick, almost like oils. The versatility of the medium gives me endless opportunities to discover new techniques and evolve my workflow in the way I approach and finish a painting!
What’s important for someone just starting out in gouache to understand about gouache?
The most important thing to remember starting out is that gouache always dries darker in value than the color you initially put on ( I can never get my sky color value right the first time). Therefore, you need A LOT of white. I have lots of 37 ml tubes of permanent white on hand, because sometimes I can easily use half a tube of white or more for one painting, depending on size.
You must be patient when starting off which gouache. There is a learning curve, because it is not quite like watercolor since it is opaque, and not quite like oils as it dries very fast. With that being said, I believe that gouache is very forgiving, and once you get over the initial hurdle of the colors drying darker, you will reap the benefits and really have fun with the medium. You can add onto a gouache painting years after; I have touched up gouache paintings that I did 5 years ago, and gouache layers beautifully. I also love to sometimes get really cool drip effects with gouache by spraying the paints with a spray bottle, therefore getting thinner layers that bleed into each other!
Could you walk us through your process? What do you need to have figured out at each stage?
My process has been evolving lately, but this is how I will always start off and carry through a painting:
I start off always by toning my canvas with yellow ochre or burnt sienna- starting off with a warm undertone really helps me a lot, and does wonders for later in the painting When you have those warm undertones seeping through parts of a painting you didn’t cover. It is great for painting sunset or sunrise scenes, and just anything in general.
I block in my shadow shapes first almost all the time. Since I already have light tonal wash, blocking in the shadow shapes essentially helps me see the main elements of my composition taking form.
I block in my light shapes. Once I have my light and shadow shapes blocked in and I have a good holistic lay in, I will now start honing in on certain areas. However, I NEVER just work on one area at a time; I am always hopping around and bringing the whole painting up at the same time.
At this point, I am always stepping back every 10 to 30 seconds to make sure my values are right. Once they are, I will start playing with color temperature shifts within the shadow and light shapes as well as saturation, making sure I am not breaking my inherent value structure while pushing temperature and saturation.
The process becomes slower and slower as I start refining more and more! I slow down, and become a lot more careful about what brush strokes and colors I am putting down.
How do you use a reference photo in your work? What information do you take from it? What do you know you’ll translate?
I use a reference photo mainly for composition, never really for color. My paintings always look wildly different from the original photo when I am finished. It helps when I have been to the location, but even if I have not, I have built up a good sense of intuition to know how to evolve and push past the original photo. I believe this only comes when you have mastered the fundamentals of line, value, shapes, color, edges, and texture, so that you can manipulate those elements and create a painting that sings with your sense or color, style, and flare.
How I work is that when I am inspired by a photo, I immediately conjure up the ideal finished version of the painting in my head. I have the end treasure, and it’s just a matter of getting there. I do not work with the kind of “discovering as I go, and figuring it out as I go” mentality, although I do discover happy accidents along the road of course! With the ideal image in my head, it is easy for me not to get trapped in the photo, which honestly strips out 80% of the color you actually see in real life. For this reason, I stress the importance of studying and doing paintings from observation en plein air. That is how I have built up my strong sense of intuition, along with doing studies of master artists.
Where do you do your planning for a painting? What does that look like?
I should honestly do more planning for a painting, but for my gouaches, which are usually pretty small in size (around 6”x6”), I just start out with a couple quick thumbnail sketches on the back of the canvas or another sheet of paper. For me, they are no bigger than 1”x1” to get a rough sense of the lighting and composition I want to go for.
Since I am a digital illustrator as well, I will sometimes do a digital version of the painting as well in Photoshop, either in the beginning stages before I start the gouache painting or in the middle if I am stuck on the gouache painting. Doing an alternate version of the painting helps me find colors that I might not find while traditionally painting, and informs me of new opportunities of where to push certain areas with value and color. I can also take pictures of my painting at various stages and paint over it on photoshop when I am stuck to help me solve compositional or color art blocks!
What are you thinking through when you’re composing a scene? What does a painting need to have on a compositional level to be a strong painting?
I am literally always thinking of shapes, in shapes. I do not think in terms of line really. I am thinking of how my light and shadow shapes are fitting together in the most pleasing puzzlescape.
I actually think very abstractly when I paint, and will never think of what I am actually painting like a rock, tree, etc. To me, the goal is not to paint what I know or literally see, but what I see in my head. I am thinking of how the light shapes dance together, and how the dark shapes are weaving together, and if all those shapes together create a harmonious dialogue that supports the focal point. I am always aware of the ratio of light to dark, the placement, design, and size of my shapes, and of course, if my values are all working! I believe that for painting to be successful, there needs to be intention.
How do you plan the colors in the piece?
I don’t really plan the colors in advance for a piece. I rarely ever do smaller thumbnail studies first of abstract color notes, although I probably should. I never purely use the colors in the scene- I am always trying to push for more in certain areas, especially around the focal point. I will mainly work on pushing colors through playing with color temperatures and value shifts to really create subtle variety in the shadow and light shapes. Utilizing neutral grays, color temperature shifts, and slight saturation shifts is the last, most fun stretch in the journey of a painting that I utilize to make my landscapes sing the best I can!
Some of your work has high value contrast and some of it has low value contrast. How does changing the value of the colors you’re using change the mood? How do you decide when to use each?
Value is directly related to mood. A lot of people think it is color, but it starts with value, and I really realized that around 2019. I will decide on the value structure and value key of a painting based on the mood I want to convey. More contrast will create more drama, and less contrast will evoke more calmness and serenity. I want to recreate the mood I felt when I was first inspired by a photo or landscape in front of me, so that will largely inform me of the value key I want to paint in.
You’ll occasionally work fairly small. What are the benefits of working small?
There are so many benefits from working small! I make all my gouache students do it. Working small AND working with a big brush really forces you to simplify, which is the NUMBER 1 thing I tell my mentorship students ALL the time. Since you cannot fiddle with detail, you are forced to rely on well designed shapes to form a cohesive painting. Readability and unity is the goal, not detail.
It is also a great challenge to work small, and who doesn’t love a challenge? For plein air when you are on a time restraint, it can be very beneficial to jot down quick color notes on a small area. It is also good to throw your brain off course and challenge it with exercises it is not used to, because I guarantee that when you go back to painting bigger, you will discover new realizations and concepts to apply to your bigger paintings that you didn’t find before.
How do you use painting challenges to push yourself as an artist? (Could you give us an example?)
There are many times when I have been stuck on a painting. I remember almost wanting to give up each time, thinking my skill wasn’t up to par with what my heart or brain wanted. Sometimes that is true, but sometimes it is a matter of pushing past your mental barriers or invisible scripts that tell you you’re not good enough, when it is simply not true.
Every time I encounter an art block with a painting, I take a deep breath, and I tell myself to slow down. I ask myself questions like “What is it exactly that I am struggling with? What area? Is It the people? The rooftop? The trees?” Then I’ll ask myself, “Why is it not working?” Most of the time it’s because my values and my shapes are not working, and my shapes are messy and not describing anything well. Once I ask myself those questions, I tell myself to slow down, relax, and just tackle it bite size by bite size. First I’ll start with fixing the shape and value. Then after that, I will work on making sure the saturation and color temperature of that shape is working.
I had a recent experience with a 8”x8” painting where I almost gave up all together. My friend had sent me a picture from Poland of a river called Jasiolka River, and I was so captivated by the photo, I knew I had to paint it, even though I had never been to the actual location. I started off the painting on 6”x8” for reasons I don't know why, because the photo reference was more square. Without proper planning of thumbnail sketches, I soon bumped into compositional issues. I kept thinking that it was my colors that weren’t singing, but it was all with composition and value- the piece wasn’t flowing with well designed shapes at all. After painting over the piece about ten times, I gave up. I didn’t work on the painting for a week- to be perfectly honest, I was actually scared.
After a week, I decided I just need to start from a clean slate and start over. This time, I started on 8”x8” square format, and that helped immensely. 90% of the problems with a painting are related to compositional and value issues. After I blocked the painting in with my big light and shadow shapes, I was again scared to go deeper, as I didn’t want to fail again.
After waiting a few more days, I finally got into it, and in the painting session, I finally had a breakthrough where I could see the painting coming together the way I wanted it to. When those moments happen, that allows me to get excited about the painting, and I can paint non- stop. It’s about finding those moments of excitement that propel you forward. After that, I finished the painting in a couple days!
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