Apollo Dorian’s values

It is too stinking hot to paint outside or in the studio during the day so I’ve begun a study project that I can do using my plein air kit and small panels in bad light. (The coolest rooms in the house have the worst light…) One gets very spoiled working outside where the light on panel and subject is either plentiful or controllable.

Apollo Dorian’s book Values for Pictures Worth a Thousand Words is a step by step explanation of American teacher Frank J. Reilly’s lessons. (Another great resource for that is John Ennis’ website The Reilly Papers.) It’s all about knowing how to manipulate values to express a lighting situation when painting realistically from imagination. Very useful for days like this when it 47°C outside (and even hotter in the shed studio).

I have read Apollo’s book several times but I confess that reading for me is not the same as doing, so for the next month I’m going to paint his examples myself. I expect in painting them, with my own materials and limitations, to get a more useful outcome than merely nodding at the page and thinking I got it.

I can do these in poor light because I am painting the values Apollo specifies with the Munsell neutrals I have already mixed and stored in syringes. Kept in the fridge like this they last just fine. (This an old pic from an earlier post – the only difference since then is that I cut the block down to fit just the set of greys and use the other bit for other colours).

Storing oil paint in syringes

Step one is some bevelled cubes. Painted according to this diagram from the book:


Apollo Dorian painting exercise

Painted, it looks like this. Not convincing at all. I realised that what I took to be values for a plane 45° to the light is actually intended to be a suggested halftone value. The half-tone on a sphere would only be this dark for a tiny band close to the terminator. The point would have been clearer if the diagram showed a sphere rather than a bevelled cube! (My mistake, but that’s why I am doing this.)

Keen to know what that plane should be I asked Ron Francis (the modern master of painting reality from imagination). He agreed “Even without our eyes adjusting the brightness, the amount of radiated energy would be close to 71%, (value 7.1), and if we take perceived brightness into account, it would appear to be 87% (value 8.7)”. He also pointed to the page on Dr David Brigg’s ‘Dimension of Colour’ website about the Effect of Inclination to Light. Perfect.

Painting exercise cubes with Apollo Dorian's values



No more sticky acrylic lids!

Someone asked about coping with the lids of acrylic jars that stick. It’s not surprising that they do that since the basic stuff does promise to stick anything… read about it on any jar of acrylic gel medium!

My solution is cling wrap (Saran wrap in the US?) – just a small length folded in half so it’s a couple of layers – put it over the jar then screw the lid on. Works a treat, lasts a long time.

Cling wrap to prevent sticky acrylic lids on jars of paint

Car portraits in acrylics

Two car portraits this week – both acrylic on panel – which is absolute madness in this heat: it’s 45°C outside and over 50°C in the studio. I tried to work early and late to avoid the worst but it never really cooled down. The useless air-conditioner (which sounds like a jet backed into the roof and drives me crazy) was blowing hot air over paint that was already drying too fast. There ain’t no blending on these babies.

Stress levels are running high because these are both Christmas gifts and time is running out. (One of those times when I wish I had a proper job and could just buy gift vouchers like a normal person. The recipients would probably prefer that too.) Yes, I did begin early with oils, but, yes, life got in the way, so I began again with acrylics. At least there won’t be any issue about them not being dry enough to frame… and I already made the frames.

Painting of a car

Painting of two cars

Last one in a series of car studies

This is the last of the grey car studies since this month and it’s project is over. The next step would be to take them to finished work but I am not sure what that might look like, perhaps more of a scene than individual portraits? And they are portraits. All my cars are anthromorphic. In the long hours of their painting great tales begin to be imagined about their thoughts and feelings. This one is lonely and wistful. What is significant about that river? (I do wonder if all paintings become self portraits.)

To finish up I’ll show some of my process. This one was just three layers (the first was a crazy scrub-in to get the basic shapes and positions, which I forgot to photograph, but can still be seen in the trees). The second layer, shown here, has some refinement. Decisions are beginning to be made, but it is still rough and optional.

Last one in a series of car studies - painting process

Next layer is about narrowing down the options and making up my mind where things will be. I decided the river was more important – so made it wider and shaped up the shrubbery to let more be seen. With each decision like that there are more to be made. (My personal take on Murphy’s Law is that ‘Every problem solved, creates two more!’) In this case the brightness of the water needed to be balanced by darkness. The shadow should be the darkest, but the car is already dark. So the car must go lighter, so the shadow can go darker. Etc. Etc. That’s why they take so long.

last one in a series of car studies in acrylic paint
Car study, acrylic on panel, 30 x 40cm

Grey car wide format

Just to show that I am not mechanically plodding on with this month of grey cars – where ever possible I mix them up in size, format and design – to keep it interesting, make them harder and keep thinking.

This week they’ve been bigger and wider. The previous studies were all in the 4:3 proportion while this one has changed to my favourite 2:1 – the wide format better suiting the shape of this single car portrait. Selecting a panel to suit the subject rather than simply filling what you have with ‘padding’ such as a sky can make a strong image out of something that could be rather ordinary.

Wide format car study in acrylic paint
Grey car, acrylic on panel, 30x60cm

Grey days – more car studies

Three this week in this series of grey car studies. I can’t quite articulate what I’m looking for other than to say it’s a deeper understanding of how a car works visually. They are great things to paint because their designers care very much about how they look for every single angle – each degree of turn is a little different and still good. For the painter that is fascinating.

All are acrylic on panel, 30x40cm.

Grey car study in acrylic paint

Grey car study in acrylic paint

Grey car study in acrylic paint

Red faced painter

Grey car study with a red light (red faced painter!)

This was supposed to be another in the series of grey studies I’m working on this month (aiming at three or four each week which is about as many as I can manage because they take several layers and a couple of days to finish).

The last thing was that tail light. I don’t know what came over me. Even as I deliberately walked to the other side of the studio to get the two reds I would need I couldn’t muster the self control to stick with the plan. Even walking back to the easel the mischief had me.

Isn’t it odd how something that starts out as a study could almost be called a painting with just that little splash of colour. It would need a title and a signature, of course. I’ll think about it.