WHITE ON WHITE
Recently, I've become very interested in the subject of painting white. I just completed painting a portrait of three sisters in white dresses, and while I was in the process of painting it, I visited every master painting I could find in Chicago and Boston to see how the Greats handled this very complex subject.
Here are a few things that I found:
1. Simplify. Keep white objects and fabrics as simple as possible. First, find the lit areas and the shadow areas. Find an average color in the right value and cover the areas boldly. Step back and decide where the color can be tweaked a bit, and indicate a few details without stepping outside your values.
2. Look for color in both the lit and shadow areas for vibrancy. I've never seen anyone able to show warmth and sunlight on white fabric like Sorolla, but his whites are far from white! Pink, blue, and yellow dance all around, without a single stroke of pure white to be found. And yet, those fabrics are white!
3. Balance warmth and coolness in the shadows. Sargent's shadows make me want to weep, they are so beautiful. When I saw his portraits in person, I could see that each shadow has both a warm and cool tone in each one, giving them life and interest.
John Singer Sargent
The most important lesson that I learned on this journey is that in order to paint white, the artist has to slow way down and observe the subject closely. In fact, white has taught me to become patient, and to let the subject dictate the right path to follow in painting it. Many rules and preconceived notions about painting have to be put to the side, and silent study is put in their place. Sometimes, all this patience and study reward us with a new level of achievement, and we can say that it was all worth it.