Jeffrey Reed: Introducing the Basics of Painting

11 Aug 2008

Students at the Community College of Philadelphia receive thorough instruction in the fundamentals of drawing and painting, especially those currently enrolled in Jeffrey Reed’s introductory course, Art 115—Painting I.

by M. Stephen Doherty

Some of the
black, white,
and gray
objects students
can use in
painting value

People with an interest in learning to draw and paint are often embarrassed to acknowledge they know almost nothing about the creative process, or that they are intimidated by students who already know the terminology and basic procedures. If they had the opportunity to enroll in one of the classes offered by the art department at the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), they would recognize that a lack of experience does not preclude them from learning the basics. And if they were fortunate enough to enroll in Jeffrey Reed’s class, they would benefit from knowing a gifted professional artist who is able to clearly explain and demonstrate the most fundamental aspects of painting.

Reed invited Workshop to observe the second meeting of students enrolled in Art 115—Painting I, the course he offered this past spring on Mondays and Wednesdays for three hours each day. It was one of two sessions of Art 115 offered to students who normally study for two years at the community college before entering the workforce or enrolling in a four-year Bachelor of Fine Arts or Bachelor of Arts program. The class included students who were intent on majoring in art as well as those planning to major in another discipline. The department currently serves 120 art majors with courses in drawing, painting, design, ceramics, computer graphics, and art history.

One of the value
painted for
sessions of Art
115 at the

In the entry-level art classes at CCP, the students’ experience and training can vary widely. Many of the adults and teenagers who matriculate at the community college have limited or no formal background in art, so the 11 full-time and eight part-time instructors make sure that students in the introductory courses become conversant in basic terminology, materials, and techniques. For that reason, Reed devoted the very first class to reviewing the list of required art supplies, a syllabus describing the content of the course and students’ responsibilities, a week-by-week outline of the instruction, and expectations about the amount of time needed to complete homework assignments. He also briefly reviewed a glossary of key terms that would be mentioned and redefined throughout the 14 weeks of instruction.

During the second meeting of the class, Reed reviewed the terms “middle gray,” “relative value,” and “simultaneous contrast,” because they would directly correspond to the lesson he would present throughout the afternoon. He related those terms to the others he discussed during the first class, specifically abstraction, edges, local color, and contrast. “I’m going to demonstrate how to mix and apply oil colors, judge the relationship among those various mixtures, and use the mixed range of values to paint a still life of simple objects,” he explained. “After that 60- to 90-minute demonstration, we’ll take a short break and then you will have the opportunity to mix black and white oil color and paint a value scale.

Reed pointed
out how he
and some of
the other
have made
value studies
of still life
objects on the

“You may have some experience painting with oil,” Reed said as he laid out the supplies for his demonstration, “but it always helps to review the basic concepts governing anything we do. I’ve been painting for decades, but I still have to evaluate the relative value of the shapes I’m painting. Whether you are hearing this information for the first time or the 20th, it’s important to listen carefully and watch how I demonstrate the concepts.”

After that introduction, Reed stapled a piece of canvas paper to a board, positioned it on an easel located near a table at the front of the classroom, and then arranged a collection of black, white, and gray objects on a table. “The best way to look at relative value is to paint objects of varying shades of gray and white rather than the colored objects you can see in the storage cabinet,” Reed said while pointing to a large assortment of colored props. “I’ve chosen objects that allow me to address the issue of scale, and I’ve aimed a spotlight to the left and above the objects so there is a distinction between the highlights and shadows. All these arrangements will help you evaluate the simplest aspects of relative value and simultaneous contrast.”

Reed moved the three objects around on the table and explained that he was judging their relative sizes, the negative space among them, and the changing pattern of shadows. “If one of these objects blocks the light hitting another, then it casts a shadow,” he pointed out. “If one is taller, shorter, fatter, or skinnier than the others, then I have to paint them in a way that maintains those relationships. That’s what I think about when I’m deciding which shapes to put together and where to place them in front of me.”

A student
mixed ivory
black and
titanium white
oil paints to
make a
measured gray

The next issue Reed addressed was how to mix the ivory black and titanium white oil paint he squeezed onto the top sheet of a pad of disposable palette paper. “I want to start by mixing a gray that is halfway between white and black. You might think that if I combined equal amounts of the two I would get a value right in the middle. But can you speculate as to why that approach isn’t going to work?” the instructor asked in an effort to get students thinking and engaged in the presentation. One of them suggested that the black is probably more intense than the white, and Reed agreed. The students watched as he used a plastic palette knife to mix increasing amounts of the ivory black with some titanium white.

“Students have a tendency to mix shades of gray that are too dark to indicate an equal progression from white to black,” Reed warned the students. “Knowing you might have that tendency, I would encourage you to gradually add the black to the white and stop when you have a gray that seems to be halfway between the two. For this demonstration, I’m only going to be working with those three basic values—white, middle gray, and black—and I’ll apply those three to the representation of each object depending on the degree of brightness or darkness of the shapes.

“The first step in painting the objects is to draw the outlines of the shapes with a large paintbrush loaded with a thin mixture of the middle gray,” Reed explained. “I use that size of brush because I want to avoid refining the shapes until I’m confident about the overall proportions of the shapes and the relationships among the objects—the negative spaces we talked about earlier. I’ll thin the paint with a small amount of Turpenoid—the mineral spirits solvent we use to both dilute the oil paint and to clean up at the end of the class—so I can easily wipe paint off to improve the accuracy of the drawing and to keep the surface of the painting from becoming so slick that I’ll have trouble applying additional layers of paint.”

0802reed4_600x400 0802reed5_600x461
The three objects Reed painted during his demonstration. Using a midtone gray, the instructor drew the outlines of the three objects on a sheet of canvas paper and then filled in some of those shapes.
0802reed6_600x457 0802reed7_600x446
Reed’s demonstration after he added the dark values to the composition. The completed demonstration.

Reed finished the outlines of the shapes, sharpened some of the edges by wiping paint off the canvas with a rag, and then painted the darker shapes using ivory black. “I’m simplifying the shapes and only painting a general indication of where one surface is darker or lighter than another. In general, this is a good way to begin a painting because once the relationship between the large shapes is accurate we can always refine those shapes with more oil paint. Oil doesn’t dry quickly, so there is time to add more brushstrokes to refine the individual surfaces. Finally, I use the white paint to indicate the lightest surfaces and sharpen the edges of the shadows by painting alongside them.”

In the literature Reed gave to the students, he briefly reviewed two aspects of this painting demonstration. “When starting a composition, it is important to think about the whole page and not individual objects,” he explained. “Address the whole composition using just two tones with an approach that is both conceptual and perceptual. Working perceptually means working from observation. The term perceptual indicates that I will use the middle value and white to establish the composition, or arrangement of shapes, while thinking of both positive and negative shapes, as well as scale and placement. The term conceptual refers to the process of deciding what to put in, what to leave out, and how to compose the picture. If these ideas are guided by an idea (concept), they are easier to make. Concepts can guide our perceptual decisions. In working with tones, there are two concepts that are foremost: light and volume. We ask ourselves, What is the direction and strength of the light and how is it defining the volumes in the composition?’ Combining the conceptual and the perceptual allows you to make the simplest and most direct statement about volumes—they have a light side and a dark side. As more tones are introduced to the composition, volumes start to assert themselves. It is very important to remember that the subject is unified by the light because it hits every part of the composition with the same intensity.”

After about an hour of demonstrating how to paint the arrangement of three objects, Reed cleaned his brush and put it aside. “I deliberately kept this painting simple and loose so you could see how I began with an abstract arrangement of shapes. Now we’ll take a break and come back to practice mixing black and white oil paints to establish a range of five values, and we’ll paint those mixtures on a piece of canvas paper to create a chart.”

As the students returned from the break, Reed asked them to get out their paints, palette knife, brush, paper towels, and disposable palette. He told them to squeeze out some of the titanium white and ivory black and gradually mix small amounts of the black into a pile of white to arrive at a gray in between the two. “Leave a pile of that middle gray on the palette, and then use parts of it to mix values that are lighter and darker by adding white or black. The aim is to have three grays that are stepped up in equal intervals between the white and the black. Next, paint horizontal bands of each one of those five values when you have piles of paint that seem equally spaced on the gray scale. Make sure to put each band right up next to the other so you can see the progression.”

Reed's Work
0802reed9_560x600 0802reed10_600x548
Plant Table
2007, oil, 14 x 15. Courtesy Gross McCleaf Gallery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Tighe’s Farm
2007, oil, 10 x 11. Courtesy George Billis Gallery, New York, New York.
0802reed11_600x512 0802reed12_600x541
2007, oil, 10 x 12. Courtesy George Billis Gallery, New York, New York.
West From Tighe’s Farm
2007, oil, 9 x 10. Courtesy George Billis Gallery, New York, New York.

Reed walked around the room patiently commenting on whether students had mixed a middle gray that was too dark or too light, whether they had enough paint on the palette, and if they were ready to mix the two intermediate grays. When they were finished painting the progression of values on a small sheet of canvas paper, he asked them to pin those papers to the wall at the back of the studio. “In almost any studio class you take, the instructor will ask you to put your work together with everyone else’s, or they will recommend that you walk around the studio to look at what your fellow students have done. That’s not because this is a contest to establish winners and losers. It’s because all of us can learn from seeing how other people approach the same process. When you participate in this kind of critique, as it’s called, the class will talk about your paintings and drawings, not about you personally; the purpose is to help you look objectively at your work and use that awareness to get better. So please remember this when we look at everyone’s gray scale.”

Once all the gray scales were pinned to the wall, Reed asked the students to point out the ones they thought showed the most uniform progression from white to black, and then to think back to when they were mixing their values on the palette. “The challenge is to sharpen our ability to make visual judgments about how much darker or lighter one thing is next to another,” he pointed out. “As we go through this course, the aim will be to improve your ability to make those judgments when you look at something and have to mix paint that matches its relative value. Next week we’ll expand that to include judgments about the color of the objects we see.”

Reed concluded the class by showing students how to properly clean their brushes and work area, and he gave them a homework assignment to assemble two or three objects and paint a representation of them using black, white, and three grays. “Follow the same procedure of mixing the grays on a palette and then apply them with a brush to depict the light, midtone, and dark shapes that give those objects a dimensional appearance,” he requested.

As an observer of the introductory painting class, this writer was impressed with Reed’s patience and clarity in explaining the basics of painting. He neither insulted the students’ intelligence nor did he forget that the material was unfamiliar to them. He constantly asked questions to keep them engaged, searched for analogies that might help them relate the concepts of painting to their own experiences, and offered simple but thorough responses to their questions. I’m quite certain that at the end of Art 115, Reed’s students will be deeply changed as artists.

About the Artist
Jeffrey Reed earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art, in Baltimore, and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. Since 1986 he has taught at the Community College of Philadelphia, where he also served as chair of the art department. He received numerous awards and grants, including a Visual Arts Fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and a fellowship and residency from the Ballinglen Arts Foundation, in County Mayo, Ireland. Reed is represented by Gross McCleaf Gallery, in Philadelphia, and George Billis Gallery, in New York City. For more information, contact the artist at

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