The Art of Charles Sovek


Simplifying Your Painting: The Art of Alfred Chadbourn
By Charles Sovek
The Artist's Magazine - March, 1987 (Cover story)

How Al Chadbourn uses only three values and thick and thin paint to create striking works.

Cover - The Artist's MagazineBehind the deceptively simple paintings of Al Chadbourn is a sophisticated designer. Few artists are better able to manipulate just a few values and colors into totally satisfying arrangements. The trick, as it seems, is really no trick at all. His beautifully designed, "simplified" works result from the skillful use of only three values. And this lays the foundation for his thick-and-thin painting techniques that add vitality and life to his works.

Chadbourn's paintings usually start with exploratory sketches, using either a felt-tip pen or a charcoal pencil. Working directly on location, his main interest is simple value arrangements. "I try to reduce everything to three values - a light, middle and dark tone. That way, the chances of retaining my initial impression are much better," says Chadbourn. He also takes reference photos, but prefers to work from sketches when painting back in the studio: "They bring back the feel of the wind blowing and the squawking of the gulls."

The three-value system of simplifying the myriad of busy tones seen in most subjects has been used by many painters - although not necessarily by that name. It works like this: The middle value usually establishes the shadow pattern or important shapes of the overall composition. This is sometimes called massing. A cluster of buildings, for example, could be massed entirely with one middle value.

Next, the dark value is used to enrich the subject. A large, dark tree, for instance, could be placed to one side of the buildings with branches overlapping some of the structure.

Finally, the lights are established, or "popped," as artists say. One or two buildings, or perhaps a group of figures, is stated with a light value. This gives the picture a center of interest-a point the viewer's eye can focus on.

Three-Value Impression – Quick value sketches like this one (right) done on location in South Bristol, Maine, often form the basis for later paintings. Done in felt-tip marker with vertical strokes to give continuity to the sketch, the emphasis here is on establishing a strong pattern of light, middle-tone and dark shapes throughout the composition. These three values are all that’s needed to produce a cohesive, simple picture.

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A New View – How many hundreds of paintings have you seen that depict boats, water and buildings? Yet this work, The Gut–South Bristol, Maine (30x30) left, shows a dramatic bird’s-eye view that adds freshness to a tired subject. In addition, the painting’s three-value design provides a strong impression. Boats and distant building are reduced to dots and dashes of color, and the thinly painted blue water complements the thickly painted, warm-hued architecture.

Once laid in with three values, a painting can then be built up in increasingly greater detail. The trick, however, is to keep the three values at the foundation of your procedure. The rooftops of the buildings, for instance, may go darker, with small flecks of paint to show the texture of shingles. The windows might go lighter, Possibly reflecting the sky or other colors in the landscape. But when viewed as a whole, the overall building group should appear to be essentially one value.

Suppose you wish to place some darks in the building-accents like foliage or window trim. If they're dark, use a value as close to the dark already used elsewhere in the painting. If lights are added, do the same. This way you'll avoid a hodgepodge of confusing tones. You'll get detail, but the details will belong to the overall design.

The combinations of the three-value system are really unlimited. The sky, for instance, could be a middle value, the buildings and tree could be dark, and the figures light. Or, the buildings could be light, the tree and sky dark, and the figure a middle tone. Virtually any combination can work.

It's not advisable to use less than three distinctly different values because the tonal range is too limited when compared with the actual light and shadow seen in nature. A picture employing, say, a middle, dark and darker value would appear so somber that, unless executed by a real master like Whistler, just wouldn't work. Even here, a small accent of light would probably be needed to make the subject come alive. On the other hand, a white, light and middle-value scheme can work well - the Impressionists used it all the time. But they painted with so much rich color that it well made up for the limited tonal range.

The reason the three-value approach works so well is because it forces you to simplify. This gives a power to your paintings much the way a good public speaker can say a few words, stick to the point, and stamp a strong impression on the listener.


Technically, Chadbourn's painting methods are conventional. He works on canvas (medium or rough linen) and occasionally Masonite primed with acrylic gesso for small works. He uses flat bristle brushes (Nos. 10, 7, 5 and 3), bright bristles in the same sizes, and a small, inexpensive sable for details. He also finds a palette knife useful for both scraping off unwanted paint, as well as applying color when thickly textured effects are desired.

Like many painters, Chadbourn uses a simple palette comprised of alizarin crimson, thalo red, cadmium red light, cadmium orange, cadmium yellow light, yellow ochre, burnt sienna, permanent green light, thalo green, ultramarine and cerulean blue. I use cerulean instead of thalo blue because thalo is such a dominant color; I found myself getting it into everything," he says. His taboret is an old baby bassinet with a windshield glass for a top.

Step 1: Massing Middle Values - The subject is loosely sketched in using ultramarine blue mixed to a thin consistency with turpentine All of the objects and background are "massed" with this one middle value. Hence, details are minimized and only the basic shapes are developed, leaving the whole composition open for refinement, or even major changes if needed. Step 2: Key Darks - The key pattern of darks is added next, much of it being the local color of the objects. But these shapes only suggest the fruits, vase, flowers and shadows in the background - no detailed rendering yet. Notice that a layer of muted violet has been added to the background, this complements the pink and white flowers atop the vase, but this area still retains its middle-tone value. Paint is applied more thickly now, with some of the thin blue underpainting attractively showing through in places.

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Step 3: Developing the Parts - Chadbourn now focuses on the individual parts, adding more precise shapes to render the forms. Texture in the lights becomes more important, with the flowers taking on a fresh, leafy quality. The fruits are depicted with a loose pushing of the paint, and the lights are painted with thicker, warmer color The foreground is then painted with a light-value mixture of blue and white to eliminate the stark canvas and to better fit the overall value scheme. Other key darks, such as those around the windowsill and shadows in the background building, are also emphasized. The building also takes on a deeper middle value, creating a shaft of light. Step 4: Details and Lights - Still Life with Flowers and Fruit (30x30) is now complete, with all of the objects assuming their proper importance. Notice the addition of the melon in the bottom left and how it balances the objects on the table. Also, minor adjustments are made throughout the painting-details on the flag, definition to the windowsill and subtle modeling in the background building. Finally, thickly painted lights in the foreground and in the flowers make those areas "pop" with life.

Working in oils, he applies his paints thin to thick sometimes described by artists as the "lean-to-fat" technique. This basic off painting technique will help ensure the permanency of your work. That's because thin oil paint dries faster than its thick counterpart, and oil paint in general is not very flexible when dry and has a tendency to shrink slightly. Hence, a thin layer of paint applied over a thicker layer can cause cracking in the paint surface later on. In addition, Chadbourn uses the lean-to-fat technique because it gives a dynamic look to his paintings.

The way Chadbourn usually works is to wash in large passages of a picture with paint thinned with lots of turpentine. Once the design and mood are established, he carefully overpaints, letting the underpainting show through where it serves the purpose best. As the work progresses, thicker applications of paint are added, thinned with turpentine and little or no medium.

Solid Foundation - Beach Scene (16x2O) right, is based an a three-value design, which ties the composition together and lays the foundation for other painting techniques. For instance, note how the middle-valued sky and strip of water act as the perfect foil for the warm, sunstruck figures and sand. While the figures are painted more or less equally in degree of finish, a focal point has been established by accenting the bather in the center of the composition with a bright, yellowish-white hat.

Below - The basic three-value design of Beach Scene.
"Beach Scene"

Chadbourn doesn't follow any specific rules as to what is painted thinly or thickly. But because he's interested in painting light, he usually keeps shadows thinner, halftones thicker, and lights the thickest of all, often using a palette knife to create a large buildup of paint. Because color and texture are most evident in halftones and fights, a heavily textured paint application gives believability to those areas. Shadows, because they're handled thinner, thus form an interesting contrast.

Design also plays a part in what's painted thick or thin. For instance, a large growth of bushes might be painted thinly if it was placed behind some fight, thickly painted figures or flowers. Also, the thin middle tones and darks play an important role. Without them, a lot of the drama would be lost because the entire picture surface would have the same paint consistency and buildup. Hence, the contrast and balance between thick and thin is what brings his paintings to life.

Warm and cool color manipulations also complement Chadbourn's strong value scheme. For instance, if the fight is warm, he'll cast his shadows bluer and cooler. If cool light is used, warm browns and reds are introduced into the shadows. When combined with thinner paint in the shadows and thickly applied lights, a rich, vibrant tapestry results, and the subject takes on a unique liveliness.

Weaving Values - Apples, Flowers and Bottles (30x30) right, is an excellent example of the three-value system, The lights attract attention; the middle values weave everything together; and the darks embellish, accent and provide a foil for the other two values. This arrangement could have been very busy, but Chadbourn wisely kept the table to two simple light and dark tones. The objects, by contrast, are fully modeled. Also, imagine this still life viewed from head on, and how much less interesting it would have been than the higher point of view Chadbourn has taken.

Below, basic three-value design of Apples, Flowers and Bottles.
"Apples, Flowers and Bottles"

But the important thing to remember about Chadbourn's painting techniques is the three-value system. This gives his paintings - and yours - a solid design and simplifies your picture into a cohesive statement. On this foundation, almost any painting technique will work well, no matter what your style or subject matter.

About The Artist

Photo - Al ChadbournBorn of American parents in Izmir, Turkey, Al Chadbourn surrounded by the rich tradition of European painting. After two years at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles, a hitch in the army enabled him to further his education at the Academie De La Grande Chaumiere and the Ecole Des Beaux Arts in Pans, where he came in contact with many important painters, including Georges Braque.

After leaving France, Chadbourn spent three years teaching art at Queen’s College (New York City) and hanging around the famous Cedar's Bar in Greenwich Village – meeting place then for emerging abstract expressionists such as Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and others. "For a while I tried working non-representationally," he says, "but discovered it wasn't my way." The influence, however, was an important contribution to his ability to see realistic subjects in abstract terms, which gives his paintings their singular quality and force.

Chadbourn was elected a full member to the National Academy of Design in 1971, and his paintings are now in numerous corporate and private collections around the world. He fives in Maine and is represented by the Barridoff Gallery (Portland, Maine) and the Hobe Sound Gallery in Hobe Sound, Florida.

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