July 17, 2021

Flaunt the White Spaces!

Before beginning a new piece of art I try to imagine how white spaces and/or white pigment might be included in the final piece. It is my general belief that it’s almost always a good idea to leave white spaces when using any media on paper or illustration board. However, when it comes to painting on most other surfaces, particularly canvas and wood, I cover every inch with pigment. I will try to explain the difference, starting with how I use white spaces when painting on paper or any other paper backed product. I have been told by countless art teachers not to be afraid of leaving white areas. For me, that can really take self control. I believe large areas of white on any piece of art can provide your brain a break and a place to rest. And if you play your cards right it will add a quality of lightness that you just can’t add later, when every inch is covered with color. The one exception to that is adding tiny drops of opaque white acrylic to eyeballs, indicating life behind the eyes. For me, that is often my final flourish. For this rendering I planned ahead and left tiny white spaces for the pooch’s nose and one eye. (The other eye was in shadow and therefore did not need a highlight.)

This photo shows what the watercolor and colored pencil illustration of the dog looked like before I added her very curly white fur. My son said she looked like a ghost dog! Maybe he was right about that. But I didn’t arrive at that ghostly place by chance. It was all part of my overall plan. I wanted to complete all the surrounding colors first. This helped to situate her in a field of “grass green” grass, accentuating her light color and diminutive size, without really adding any dog details. Once I was satisfied with the background I softly sketched in French grey and lavender Prismacolor colored pencil, giving her body and head shadows and dimension. And to add the dog’s fur texture, I gently brushed in short strokes of opaque titanium white acrylic over everything. Finally, I added just a touch of terra-cotta Prismacolor colored pencil around her muzzle, then dark blue indigo for her eyes.
Japanese Tea Garden, Descanso Gardens, 7/14/2021 (POSCA markers on Canson Mix Media paper)

I think this is a good example of what I mean about a piece of art having a kind of lovely lightness when the color is strategically placed on the paper. I think POSCA markers are a perfect medium to use sparingly on white paper for a great effect.

Here are other examples of how to leave white spaces:

June 26, 2021. For this rose arbor watercolor I used a light touch of transparent watercolor pigment, letting the soft colors stand up to the blank white paper. When I painted this one it was a warm afternoon and I think that comes through with that technique.

December 7, 2019. I did a similar “ghost” technique for a stained glass house that was set up in a pond at the Descanso Gardens for the 2019 Enchanted Forest of Light event. First, I painted the many colors of the leafy green background, leaving a house shape floating on the water. Then I used black ink to outline stained glass shapes. Finally, I added the bright colors of the glass. And of course I was careful to leave lots of white spaces, adding to the lightness of that transparent house floating in the pond.

January 30, 2021. For a sketch I did during an urban sketching virtual trip to Nova Scotia, I left large areas of white for the sky and water. The photo we sketched was taken on an overcast day. Without the sun, the sky and water appeared colorless. I think allowing that amount of white for the sky and water contributed to the “stillness” of the scene. 

May 14, 2017. When doing landscapes with watercolors I frequently leave horizontal strips of white paper untouched, indicating larger strips of highlights. For this view of the rose garden at the Descanso Gardens I did just that—leaving bright patches of white to indicate that the roses were in direct sunlight. Behind that light bright and airy area I used dark patches of color to indicate shady shadows, areas not illuminated by the sun.

I have shared many botanicals here at One California Girl. Botanicals are generally solitary plants and plant parts centered on white paper. It has long been a tradition to render plants that way as they are meant to be the center of attention, with no distracting background colors or scenes. I’ve always liked the simplicity of such a piece of art.

Adding large areas of white to a canvas and/or wooden panel:

June 6, 2021. When I paint with oils I often add “under colors” to the top and final color you see. Even though what I am painting may be white, I always under paint another color. For these creamy white Siamese cats, I first layered a lavender blue. It has been my experience that you can really make white sing in a painting when underpainting with some kind of blue. It seems to make the white particularly bright and lovely. I inadvertently learned to do this one summer when I worked in the summer theater costume shop at Occidental College (See June 30, 2018). The head costumer for that summer’s Gilbert and Sullivan (Iolanthe) had us sew aqua tulle under white tulle for the fairy’s tutus. It really accentuated the white, making it bright and crisp looking. 

Final comment regarding the use of white/white spaces in my art:

I have shared many landscapes here at One CA Girl depicting clouds. For clouds on paper, I add patches of sky with some lovely cobalt blue and alizarin crimson, leaving white spaces for the clouds. And as for my clouds in an oil on canvas and/or wood, I first put in the blue sky, then strategically cluster white in the desired shapes. This follows my general rule of first underpainting with blue, right

OK, I think I have completely worn this topic out. Enough already! Until next time…

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