Tag Archives: Kathleen Dunphy

Working on a Toned Ground

Here’s a trick I learned from Kathleen Dunphy: I tone my canvas yellow before I paint on it.

Many artists over time have worked on toned grounds. (The “ground” is the surface one paints on.) The white of a bare canvas is just too intimidating or too harsh, so painters tone the canvas with a thin layer of color.

Pine Tree Study by Stephanie Benedict
A plein-air study of two pine trees in snow. The right-hand side shows the yellow-toned ground. I toned this panel with a thin layer of gesso tinted with Hansa yellow medium acrylic paint.

A Modern Approach

The traditional color for toning canvas is raw sienna, which will give the canvas a warm, slightly orange-y color. I’ve tried that, and it’s OK. Others use burnt umber or red or a mixture of colors.

After I began studying with Dunphy in 2008, I explored a number of options: raw sienna, quinacridone burnt orange (which is like raw sienna only brighter), neutral gray, burnt umber. Eventually I came to agree with Kathleen: I like yellow the best. So now I tone all my canvases with a pale wash of cadmium yellow light or Hansa yellow before I paint.

Now, too much yellow can be a distraction at first, and make it hard to judge the relative color and value of the first paints I put onto the canvas. But the payoff is huge: the yellow gives an underlying warmth to the canvas, which complements cool paintings on cloudy days and highlights the warmth of sunny days*.

 The Process

The traditional method is to thin a little bit of oil color into a lot of solvent and wash it onto the canvas either with a brush or a rag. Then you have to let it set up before you start painting.

A more modern way is to use a bit of acrylic paint thinned with water and wash it onto the canvas with a rag. But the representatives at Gamblin Colors (which makes oil paints and mediums) convinced me that perhaps that’s not the best method, so most recently I’ve started adding a touch of yellow acrylic paint to white gesso, and adding a layer of colored gesso. I typically use pre-primed panels or canvas, so my colored layer doesn’t need to be thick or completely covering: I’m not trying to build a whole new ground. And I can make the yellow then very pale. Yes, it takes a bit of planning, but I like the results.

What do you think?

If you’re a collector, can you tell if your paintings have toned grounds? If you’re an artist, do you tone your canvas first?

*I’m not sure this would work for the painter who works in the Henry Hensche, full-spectrum colorist style. In that style, that extra warmth might conflict with the finished painting. But with a more limited palette, it works just fine.


No Need to Whine

I recently got to spend five days with 14 other artists painting in the Sierra Nevada foothills, at the most beautiful time of year, in near-perfect conditions.  The occasion?  Kathleen Dunphy’s advanced painting workshop, called “No Whiners: Serious Art for Serious Artists.”

Kathleen Dunphy sketches and Cynthia Hein observes. Photo by Stephanie Benedict
Cynthia Jackson Hein watches while Kathleen Dunphy (right) prepares thumbnail sketches for a demonstration at her No Whiners 2012 workshop.

Dunphy structures her five-day No Whiners a bit differently than most workshops I’ve attended.  She opens with a discussion of ways to work through the roadblocks and stuck places we all encounter.  Then she challenges her students to focus on their weaknesses. She asks everyone to name the three or four things they want to focus on during the workshop, and turns people loose.

She still gives demonstrations:  after all, her students are visual people, and learn in part by seeing.  And while her students are painting, Dunphy offers some very specific personalized instruction to address the topics each student wanted to focus on, whether it be paint handling or composition or painting moving water. People didn’t even have to paint, if they felt drawing would be more useful to them.

She also made sure we got to paint at locations with different types of painting problems.  We drove one day to Tamarack, California (elevation 6,913 ft.), where was snow on the ground, bright yellow aspen trees, and weather warm enough in the afternoon to paint in t-shirts. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Then again, maybe it does.  Dunphy’s enthusiasm is contagious.  She’s a great role model of a working artist, challenging herself to do different things, never settling.  She offer tips on everything from how to see values (“Squint, often.”), to how to protect yourself from snow blindness while you paint, to how to work with galleries.

Someone asked me what I got out of the workshop, and my answer was this:  Besides the painting itself, and the camaraderie with a great group of artists, I got a great attitude adjustment and a renewed sense of commitment.  Thank you, Kathleen, and my fellow No Whiners!

Have you taken a Kathleen Dunphy workshop?  What did you think?

Ebb and Flow: a solo exhibition by Kathleen Dunphy

I had the chance to attend the opening of Kathleen Dunphy’s solo exhibition, Ebb and Flow, at Knowlton Gallery in Lodi, California, this past weekend. Twenty-six paintings fill the gallery at Knowlton with light and—I have no other word for it—grace. The works range from still lifes of flowers in glass vases, to cows quietly watching the watcher, to fog rolling onto the Marin Headlands. Some were created on site, en plein air; many are larger studio pieces. (A couple of the pieces are 36″ by 48″, and one is 48″ by 60″.)

Kathleen Dunphy at Knowlton Gallery
Kathleen Dunphy discusses how she painted “Sanctuary” from the small plein air sketch in her hand. At the opening of Ebb and Flow, October 2012. Photo by Stephanie Benedict

The landscapes, especially, have a grandeur and immediacy to them that stops you in your tracks. And it’s not the plein air pieces, so full of the energy, that strike you. No, it’s the big ones. So often, enlarging a smaller painting results in a loss of the energy of the original work. However Dunphy did it, whether by creating a new composition by using multiple sketches as the source material or what, she has given the larger pieces a different kind of energy: less visceral, perhaps, but more intense.

I overheard another artist at the opening say, as the highest compliment he could pay, “I wish I’d painted this.” Well—me, too.

(Full disclosure: I’ve taken several of Dunphy’s workshops. I’m a huge fan, so this is not an unbiased review.)

I’ve long maintained Dunphy is an incredibly generous teacher. She was also generous with visitors at the opening. The 30 or so people who attended last Saturday afternoon got to hear Dunphy describe how she uses her small plein air sketches as source material for her larger pieces. Her stories of trying to catch the light before the fog engulfed the view, or heading out for trip to the Sierras and forgetting all but one brush, helped give each painting a life beyond mere canvas. They also helped her listeners understand a bit of what it’s like to be a painter.

It’s also nice to see all the red dots at the exhibition.  But then, most of Dunphy’s paintings sell.  So if you’re interested, act quickly.


Ebb and Flow: Painting Nature’s Rhythms is at Knowlton Gallery in Lodi through November 24, 2012.