Experimenting with black and white: Learning to Paint


To avoid the problems I expected with my colorblindness, I thought I’d try painting with only black and white and explore how the brush can create different textures and how the lighter colors effect the darker areas.

I combed Youtube for some advice and suggestions on how to paint and found an artist who approached abstract art in a fascinating way. [Tatiana Iliina: Abstract Cityscape Painting] She wanted to paint a cityscape in black and white using a palate knife. I hadn’t tried a palate knife, but the speed and energy of the painting looked delightful to try, and the results she got were amazing. So I gave it a try. Here are my results.

What I ended up with was different than what she had. I didn’t like how the middle section looked, and I wanted to have more light areas. I gave more attention to the water effect by adding white and using the palate knife to create contrasting lines to the building shapes. 3

While on a trip to Poland with students, I got up early to explore the city in the early morning light. In one park, the Sun had risen behind a steeple making dramatic light with the fog: deep blacks and shadowy shapes.

I captured the moment in photographs and now, attempted to capture the mood in paint. Because it was morning and fog created a haze, there was little color for me to worry about, so I thought black and white would suit the painting well. 4

One problem I ran into was that the image ended up very flat because there was so much black in the bottom of the photo, so I added in more grey outlining the forms of the buildings and creating more distinct windows. In the end I love the mood created by the translucent light around the bell tower, but the tree doesn’t have the shape I wanted because the brush strokes were too thick to thin. I wanted more even strokes. Later I’ll work on how to achieve what I wanted.

Taking the plunge: Beginning to Paint

I finally took the plunge–I’ve started painting. Years ago I loved the art class I took in ninth grade (a mere 33 years ago! Sheesh), and since then I’ve been drawing, ink, pencil and charcoal. I never started painting because the art form seemed too esoteric or high for the simple and untrained talents I had in rendering. Painting was for the art students who apprenticed in large rooms with mysterious tools, stained clothes, old jars of smelly liquids. Which medium is the best for a beginner? What are the advantages of oil over acrylic? Watercolor over tempura? And what is the world is gauche?

A few years ago, I moved from keeping a hand-written journal to a drawn journal to capture the experiences of traveling in Nepal, Guam and Thailand. Then a chance gift gave me the push I needed.

A couple from Wales was moving from our neighborhood in Saudi Arabia to Oman, and we took their couch off their hands for a cool 100 in cash. While moving it, I saw his own painting, stacked in the to-be-shipped-pile. The oil painting was a bit rough, Arabic in theme: tall white buildings chaotically reached into the sky. He said, “I only paint when I’m drunk.” Made sense. After asking me if I painted (I said no, but I wanted to), he offered me all his art supplies. For free.

So now I was committed. I said I wanted to, and I had piles of acrylic and oil paints. I went for some board canvases and read up on the difference between oil and acrylic, and I chose acrylic because it was easier to clean up.

I wanted first to know how paint acted on the canvas. What happened when it was applied to the canvas and brushed about? What happened when two colors are added to each other on the canvas?

Here is the result. I liked the effect of the white thinning in and under the blue creating a falling motion. My wife thought it looked like a waterfall in abstract. So I’ve kept it. It is where I started, and the intimidation of painting started to fade into a excitement for the challenge: how could I manipulate the medium to create a new effect? 1

Here is my second attempt. In this case I painted the scene from another painting. I liked the distance of the horizon and the dominance of the tree. Now I was adding greens and browns and a bit of yellow to the palate. In the original, the tree was colored with flowers, but when I tried the flowers the tree looked polkadotted. It was hideous. So I grabbed a brush and worked the white into the green producing a very pleasing effect of lighter green to darker green with all the blending happening on the canvas. The lines from the brush left a sense of movement of the tree. I was also surprised that the paint strokes could create depth. The water and grasses moved toward the horizon. 2

I made the mistake of waiting until the tree was done to figure out how to make the clouds look like clouds. The clouds were okay looking, but they hover around the tree—none are behind it.

I was pleasantly surprised at how the white can draw the eye to an area of the canvas and realized that I have to be purposeful about where I leave bright areas on the canvas.