Oil Painting: Sean Cheetham: Using a "Mud Palette" to Achieve Harmony

17 Nov 2006

To achieve accuracy and harmony in his alla prima figure paintings, Californian Sean Cheetham stresses drawing and a system of mixing colors based from “mud” mixtures, as he calls them, that govern shadows, midtones, and highlights. He recently offered lengthy demonstrations of those techniques during a five-day workshop.

by M. Stephen Doherty

Even though he is not yet 30 years old, Sean Cheetham has already established a strong reputation with art collectors and students in Southern California. He has presented sold-out exhibitions of his figure paintings, received important commissions, and packed classes with students eager to watch him paint the human form with accuracy, style, and drama. Last summer he conducted a five-day workshop at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art and added an evening demonstration for those not fortunate enough to find room in the class.

0609chee1_495x600
Sara
2005, oil, 24
x 20. Collection
the artist.

In addition to having an exceptional ability to understand, draw, and paint the human form, Cheetham relies on a palette of colors and a painting technique he learned from Mike Hussar, his professor and friend at Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, California. One of the most important aspects of this technique and palette system is to first mix the darkest-dark color (olive green, alizarin crimson, and Indian yellow) and use that to establish the tone of the canvas, the drawing of the subject, and the darkest-dark shapes. The large amounts of a specific shadow “mud” color are mixed based on the model’s local shadow color and adjusted according to the darker and lighter shadows, and on the warmer or cooler shadows. Once the darkest darks, background, and shadow side are complete, the artist prepares a light-side “mud” and mixes from that to achieve halftones and highlights. 

This system has several distinct advantages, especially for inexperienced painters. First, it simplifies the drawing process by relieving any concerns about color and unity. Second, it helps establish a dark, transparent shadow tone that helps the illusion of luminosity. Third, it results in a harmonious picture, especially in the areas of transition between relative values and color temperatures. And, finally, it eliminates the need to make radical adjustments in value and color relationships toward the end of the painting process.

0609chee2_400x600
After toning a
24"-x-20"
canvas with a
light wash of
olive green,
alizarin
crimson, and
Indian yellow,
Cheetham
drew his
model using
the darkest-
dark color.

As Cheetham pointed out to the students attending his recent workshop, the “mud-palette” system depends on starting with an accurate drawing, using a specific selection of tube colors, and developing the images from dark to light values. “The biggest weakness in figure paintings is usually the drawing,” Cheetham says in reviewing his teaching experience. “Students are often so eager to paint that they fail to correct the problems in the drawing that end up plaguing them throughout the painting process. It’s important to constantly refine and correct the drawing as they are working, but if they don’t start out with an accurate framework for the figure those adjustments won’t correct basic flaws.”

During all the demonstrations Cheetham offered during the workshop and the evening program, he drew his model on a toned canvas with a thin mixture of the darkest-dark color. “To start, I toned the canvas by painting the surface with a thin earth color (a combination of olive green, alizarin crimson, and Indian yellow) based on the value of the light side of the model.”

Cheetham dipped a filbert-shaped bristle brush into a jar of Turpenoid and rubbed it into the mud color on his palette. He then used the thin paint to suggest the scale of the model’s head by marking the approximate top, bottom, and side of the form as well as the extension of the shoulders. Heads are usually slightly smaller than life size, but Cheetham tends to enlarge them while painting a demonstration. When the artist was satisfied with the overall scale of the model’s form, he used the thin paint to draw the face, starting with the eyes, then the nose, and out from there. “I prefer to work from the inside out, starting with the eyes, rather than work from the exterior shape of the head into the middle,” he explained.

0609chee3_600x723
Alexis
2003, oil, 24 x
20. Collection
the artist.

After establishing the darkest darks and the background, Cheetham moved on to the shadow-side flesh tones. “The exact combination varies depending on the lighting conditions, but it usually has a base of burnt sienna with some of the background gray mixture to neutralize it,” he explained. “I won’t actually paint with this mud mixture, but I will mix from it for every color combination I prepare along the way. For example, I might add more of the darkest dark mixture to make the darker values; or I might warm the mixture by adding scarlet lake or cadmium red deep.”

“My drawings are linear rather than tonal,” Cheetham mentioned as a way of pointing out that he draws the lines describing the edges of the facial features rather than blocking in the masses of the eye sockets or the cast shadows under the nose, mouth, and chin. “I don’t concern myself with too many details in the beginning, preferring to concentrate on immediately capturing a likeness and making sure the drawing is accurate. I paint a few dark accents with the darkest-dark mixture using more alizarin crimson in the eyelids, nose, lips, and ears; then I block in the background with a neutral gray mixture of cobalt blue and burnt sienna.”

0609chee4_750x672Before getting involved in painting a flesh tone, Cheetham evaluated whether the light on the model was predominantly warm or cool, and whether there might be other types of light influencing the appearance of the model. “Quite often the model posing in a school studio is flooded with warm light from a spotlight, and a few cool overhead fluorescent lights mix with those warm tones,” the artist explained. “Most of the initial painting in the drawing stage is monochromatic with variations between the olive green and the alizarin crimson, depending on the amount of deep warmth in the model’s features. Gradually I adjust the temperature of the shadow mud by warming it with the addition of scarlet lake and cadmium green pale, or cooling it with a mixture of manganese blue hue and white to account for the fluorescent lights.

“I don’t really like an orange-red flesh color, so I put a blue gel over the spotlights during the workshop so the model’s flesh would be slightly cooler in color temperature,” Cheetham went on to explain. “My process is more about gauging values first and about color temperature. If the drawing is right and the values are correct, the painting will read properly with any color.”

As Cheetham worked for these long periods of time on the shadow, he squinted his eyes to identify one color and one value mixture for each specific shadow and reflected light. He then took time to mix a large amount of the light mud (titanium white, burnt sienna, yellow ochre pale, scarlet lake, and manganese blue). “Remember that I never paint the mud color directly,” he reminded students. “I mix from that pile and that’s what keeps it unified.”

0609chee5_600x397
Front Door
2006, oil, 12 x
18. Private
collection.

After painting for three hours, Cheetham called for a lunch break. An hour later, he was back at his demonstration, building up the values from dark to light. “I always mix on the palette, not on the canvas,” he said as he resumed painting. “You’ll see some oil painters throw on a color and work it into the paint already on the canvas. I prefer to keep the colors clean and the shadows thin by judging values on the palette and then applying the mixture to the canvas.

“I’m now going to develop the halftones by adjusting the light mud color,” Cheetham continued. “I use a mixture of cobalt blue and burnt sienna, which is similar to the background, to mix into my light-side mixture to achieve the darkest lights. I can warm the mixture by adding scarlet lake or burnt sienna, neutralize the orange tone by adding more cobalt, lighten it by adding more titanium white, or cool it with one of the blues, violets, or greens.”

0609chee6_400x600
Turtle Hill
2006, oil,
45 x 30.
Private collection.

Throughout the painting process Cheetham stopped for a few minutes to check the drawing of the model’s face and clothing. “You have to step back from a painting to make determinations about the accuracy of what you are doing,” he explained to the students. “Don’t make those judgments when your nose is pressed up against the canvas because you need to be concerned about the overall effect, not the small details.”

Cheetham spent a total of five hours on the demonstration he offered on the first day of the workshop and seven hours on another, then he devoted three hours to the portrait of Rajiv that was painted during the evening session. Despite the relatively long demonstrations, the artist indicated his alla prima paintings are much rougher than his studio work. “I build up my studio paintings on panels covered with acrylic gesso and modeling paste rather than on canvas, and I work more slowly but use the same process when mixing colors,” he explained. “Because of that tedious process I rely on photographs more than live models. Lately I’ve actually been bringing the digital photographs up on a computer screen and working directly from those rather than photographic prints because the light behind the image makes it more lifelike. I’ve been painting figures in environments that put an emotional distance between the viewer and the subject of the pictures. I don’t hire models because I prefer to paint friends, especially my girlfriend—people who surround and inspire me on a daily basis.”

On the days when Cheetham wasn’t offering a demonstration, the workshop participants painted from live models as he walked around the studio offering helpful advice. Like many instructors, Cheetham found he was better able to point out weaknesses in pictures by actually painting directly on the students’ paintings. “I always tell students to stop me if they don’t want me working on their paintings, but no one ever does,” he says. “They understand that sometimes it’s better to show them how to make an improvement than to describe a suggested change with words. It usually only takes one or two marks to save a painting because most of the workshop participants are experienced enough to be fairly close to getting it right. One of the benefits of a five-day workshop is that there is continuity from one day to the next, from one lesson to the next. That’s often lost when a class only meets one day a week over a three- to four-month semester.”

Cheetham is so busy supplying his gallery with paintings that he doesn’t have time to teach on a regular basis, but he does offer occasional workshops. In addition to the program he offered at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art, he recently conducted a workshop for art-school friends who established the Academy of the South Side, in Pittsburgh.   

About the Artist
Sean Cheetham was born in San Francisco, studied at the College of San Mateo, in California, and earned a B.F.A. degree with honors from Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, California. His paintings have been included in exhibitions internationally, and he is currently represented by Mendenhall Sobieski Gallery, in Los Angeles.  Visit his website for more information.

M. Stephen Doherty is the editor-in-chief of Workshop.


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