Lea Colie Wight earned her BFA fro the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in the early 1970s. But thirty years later she discovered and enrolled in Studio Incamminati, an intensive Atelier founded in Philadelphia by renowned artist Nelson Shanks. After completing her studies Lea was invited to join the teaching staff rising to become one of the lead teachers at that school. Wight teaches across the country as part of Studio Incamminati and her workshops and has earned awards from the Portrait Society of America’s national competitions.
Learn more about her painting workshop, Color Essentials: A Painter's Guide, in the Creative
Could you walk us through your pre-painting process (including setting up the model and or still life, value studies, etc)? What problems need to be solved for you to feel ready to begin working on the main piece?
Before I begin blocking out a painting involving a human subject, I’ve spent a lot of time - weeks or months letting the idea develop and choosing my model.
If it’s a portrait I often like to try out many different ideas with the person there. It can be that the first day is just getting to know them and doing a few sketches of possible compositions.
Once I’ve decided on a composition and decided on my light source I can begin. Regardless of whether I’m painting a human or a still life the first step before putting brush to canvas is to visualize the painting on the surface. Where will things be? What are my boundaries?
When working with a model I won’t rush into taping or marking his or her position. I want the pose to be comfortable and natural. I don’t want the pose to become painful because that will be evident in the painting and it just isn’t nice. This stage is really about blocking in loosely. If I’m working with artificial light it’s important to mark the light and it’s shadow so it can be recreated if there it needs to be moved.
In a still life painting I have an idea of what I want to paint and this usually stems from a personal connection with the objects. It sometimes is a portrait of an absent person as seen through their things.
So many students want to skip those preliminary drawings and paintings. How do you see this limiting their work? Their artistic growth?
I feel that students should do some preliminary drawings and a color study or two in preparation for a painting. It’s very helpful in visualizing the composition and the large values that make up a big part of a composition.
Preliminary work will give a roadmap and starting place for the painting and will helpfully prevent unanticipated problems and major changes. I recommend that these opening drawings should really just be compositional studies simply dealing with the largest masses of simple values and general proportions.
Color studies are very helpful. However, I don’t recommend spending a lot of time getting into details or over drawing. Just answer the questions you want to know before beginning. I always want the excitement to be in the painting and not in the studies.
For the main painting, what steps do you move through? Could you walk us through those? What are your goals for each?
First off it’s important to state that my method of working is general to specific. I let the painting or drawing develop that way. The steps I’ll talk about here will change somewhat depending on the painting but always large to small.
My first stage is getting the composition loosely and gesturally sketched in and massing in my dark areas. I’ll just stay in this dark and light stage moving paint around and adjusting my drawing until I feel like I’ve gotten the information I need. I want to be happy with my drawing and to be able to see the main values. I don’t take this beyond what I need to move to color. No detail.
In the next stage I make my first color notes. I choose my first color deliberately. It is one of the clearest simplest color or colors. I’ll move around the painting making notes for each obvious color mass. I want to have a handle on my value range and color relationships. If there’s a certain color in the painting like an illuminated lightbulb, I’ll need to get that in so I can relate other colors to it. I want to know my value range by finding my lightest light and darkest dark. I don’t fill in the entire color area up to an outline but instead deposit a pretty thin amount of paint that I can adjust and spread in following stages. These are just initial basic color and value notes for each large area.
Next I’ll do some drawing with the main color notes and begin to find some very simple plane shapes within each color. I’ll add a few color shifts within each mass. Once I have this solid foundation I just paint, adding more color and information where I see it. I develop some areas more than others depending on focal points I want to create. I make sure to stand back frequently to check my color and value relationships and my drawing.
Is it important for an artist to establish a series of consistent (and repeatable) steps to move through for a painting? Why?
No. I think every artist is an individual and works that way.
There are as many different approaches as there are artists, from abstract non-representational to hyper-detailed realism to assemblage and conceptual. There is no wrong way to work, just the way each artist calls their own.
The way I personally trained and now teach is to work from the simplest, largest statements possible and develop smaller information as the painting progresses. I currently work according to that principle but not in a rigid manner. Sometimes I begin with color and shape from there, sometimes working from a value composition.
How has your process evolved over your career? Did it take you some time to figure out the right way for you to approach a painting? For example, did you have to learn to slow down? How did your changing process make your work stronger?
I would just say that maturing as an artist has impacted my work more than anything. My approach has become more personal and I have the confidence to let my approach adjust to each different painting.
Artists often begin by painting nothing but the subject itself. An apple is an apple. However, as their skills improve, they can begin to paint their experience of the subject When did you start to feel that shift occur in your own work? How did you get to that place?
This is an interesting question. There is a definite stage in artistic training that involves working on skill building and yes, an apple is an apple. Often this type of focused composition is an artist’s intent and what moves them to create. The same can be said for working from a live model. This is invaluable training and it can seem not so different from the work of artists whose focus on single figures. However once the initial phase of training reaches a certain point the studies begin to take on the feel of paintings and each artist finds their own esthetic and way of working to express that.
You work predominantly from life for both your figurative and still life work. What are the benefits from working from life? Are there any drawbacks or limitations?
I love working from life for many reasons. There is an energy and immediacy My subject is right there in front of you. There’s an exchange of energy between myself and my model. We get to know each other which is definitely part of the process and hopefully it’s evident in the completed piece.
In a still life I can see the dimensions of things, I can re-arrange objects, play with the lighting, interact with them. I can see things as they really are. The color is true and easy to see, values are accurate, I can move around the set up to see it from different angles etc.
Painting strictly from life does limit the realist artist to compositions that can be set up in a studio or in a controlled setting. However many paintings involve imagined, composite or staged compositions. There are also times when it simply isn’t possible to have a subject sit for an entire painting.
Working strictly from photographs has it’s own limitations. I’ve seen many artists who aren’t used to working from life fall apart when they are working from a model or outdoors. I want the freedom to choose the way I paint and not be restricted by lack of ability.
So many beginners start with photographs. What danger do you see with starting that way?
In my opinion beginning artists who start learning by copying photographs aren’t developing the skills necessary to become advanced and they can develop bad habits.
Being able to copy a photograph may seem satisfying but it only takes you so far and really limits an artist. Value, color and perspective seldom are true. Training from life gives you the ability to see and paint dimension, form, value, color, distance and to develop solid drawing skills. These abilities will be critical in all painting.
When an artist first does try to work from life the results will probably seem awkward and amateurish and discourage them from persisting.
There is a vast difference between simply copying a photograph, and in using a photograph as a resource. When an artist wants and/or needs to use photo references, and for most artists this is the case, it’s important to have trained from life. They can then translate the information into 3 dimensions and, for example, to know what’s going on in a shadow area or a covered area.
Oil paints have the ability to capture such a high level of realism. For you, how do you decide how realistic to go in your work? Is realism the goal or are you trying to capture something else? What?
That’s a good question. I paint the way that feels natural to me. I work pretty intuitively and the looseness or tightness depends on a couple of things. Is the painting a one or two day piece or is it a major painting? What is the intent of the painting? Summing it up, realism isn’t my goal. I work on a piece until it feels finished.
You’ve mentioned that you like to work with color relationships. Could you talk to us about what that means and how you use color relationships in your work?
We know that everything has a color. A child is taught their colors by identifying things by an understood color: a red apple, a blue sky and green tree etc.
In reality all color is influenced by the color of the light shining on it. A warm light from a table lamp will make the light side of that apple appear reddish- orange but it’s shadow will appear nearer to the purple family.
An artist needs to ignore what they’ve been taught to expect and instead to see color as they really see it with an open mind.
When we talk about color relationships it means comparing colors. These relationships are seen by quickly looking from one thing to another, light vs. shadow. The difference will be clear. The color and not simply the value are different in light and in shade.
I use my awareness of color relationships in every painting. The colors of objects or settings are just a part of what draws me to a subject and is a big part of my compositions.
What is the biggest challenge you see students facing and what advice do you give them?
I think there are a few challenges for students. One big one is self-consciousness. Try not to compare yourself with other people. Worrying if you see another student making quicker progress than you is nonproductive and takes focus away from your own progress.
The same is also true if you notice that you’re “ahead” of another. That’s still focusing on others rather than on learning. People progress at different paces depending on the skill being learned and consequently make jumps at different times.
Another challenge is fighting a tendency to fall back way you worked before you started learning a new set of skills. The work you do while learning is bound to look awkward to you when compared with the way you were comfortable working. Just jump in and get the most out of the things you’re learning now. You’ll never lose what you knew before.
Be patient. A breakthrough comes once you’ve practiced and learned. It happens when the skill becomes second nature.
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