The advantages of blocking-in over other methods of painting construction are vast. Usually it’s my chosen method. However, with my current WIP (work in progress) I’ve used a modified version of this method. The work is a commission on a large bespoke hand-made Harris-Moore linen canvas. Because it’s quite large for me (80 x 50 cm) I’ve had to adapt my usual blocking-in method.
Quick recap for the uninitiated: ‘blocking-in’ is where you approximate the colour, tone and shape of different areas of the canvas and roughly fill those areas with paint. In a nutshell, this gives you the advantage of being able to judge subsequent work on the canvas against what’s already there, rather than against white canvas, which is generally considered more difficult.
As a method blocking-in is great for alla prima painting (all in one go on the same day) and plein air methods which is how I usually paint. I’m used to and I enjoy the way new paint layers interact wet-in-wet with the paint already laid down with these approaches. The new paint mixes to an extent with the paint underneath because both are still wet. This is a feature of oil painting, as acrylic and watercolour dry within minutes and so it barely applies to them. When the oil paint mixes in this way you can control the strength, colour, tone and edges of the paint being added as you add it.
With a large canvas, however, you might block-in the whole thing in one session but by the next day’s session some of the existing paint’s interaction with new paint will have reduced or conceivably gone almost entirely — especially if you paint thin and use a lot of solvent in your mix. This is more likely to apply to a blocking-in layer as there should be more solvent in it if you’re following the vital ‘fat-over-lean’ rule in oil painting. So, that’s the dilemma for someone like me who enjoys painting wet-in-wet — how to paint wet-in-wet over a large area…
So, how do I get around the problem? The approach I’ve used in the current commission is to start with a clear idea of what the blocked-in areas are going to be like in terms of tone and colour. This comes from studying the areas of what you are going to paint before you commit paint to a surface and deciding what their relative tones and colours are approximately going to be. This understanding of the subject matter is vital anyway before you commit to any paint mixing. In the case of this commission it’s a little more complicated because I’ve painted it from a variety of reference photos, sketches done in situ on the beach, imagination and experience of having painted this place many times. The complication here is because the brief is for a summer scene and I’m painting it on dark January days when the light is low and the cliffs look dark and vague.
My approach next has been to block-in the main cliff areas on the canvas, leaving the sky and sea areas alone for the moment. Their tones/colours are very different from the cliff-areas anyway, so not hard to get the differences right. Experience of painting cliffs and seas both plein air and in the studio helps enormously with such an approach.
Once having blocked in the cliffs I then set about adding subsequent layers of paint to the blocked-in area, so allowing me the wet-in-wet experience I crave. I did the same thing in a subsequent session with the sea. Now, I could have made it easier for myself by giving the whole canvas a wash of paint with a high level of solvent in it, which is part of the traditional approach to oil painting. In this case I didn’t because in a cold January studio solvent takes a long time to dry — a world away from the ten minutes or so when painting outside on a hot day. Plus there is the limited amount of light available. At the moment in these rainy overcast days that we’re having the light doesn’t get strong enough to paint until about 11 am and is too poor again by 3 pm. So time has been of the essence.
The next stage is to put in the small amount of beach at bottom left of the canvas — this will be fairly light in tone due to the light shining on its wet surface — and just as importantly so as not to draw the eye away from the main action of the painting’s story. Then will come the sky, which you will no doubt have noted that I’ve left to last. There are very good reasons for doing so, even if they might seem counter-intuitive at first. But I’m going to tackle why I leave the sky until last in another post.
This compromise method of ‘partial blocking-in’ as I’m going to label it is not as good as proper blocking in, but if I need to adjust the colours and tones of the different areas of the paintings at the end I could do so with glazes. My methods in all of this may seem a little unorthodox, but you have to adapt your methods to the conditions available and maybe this is the main lesson to be learned here.