How Monique Sakellarios uses vibrant underpaintings to build a sense of nostalgia.
BY JUDY BUSWICKAlthough lush, flower-laden gardens dominate Monique Sakellarios's paintings, the New Hampshire artist isn't concerned with re-creating them verbatim. "My paintings reflect what I think a scene should have looked like," she says. "I look briefly at my reference photos, then let myself dream. I want people who look at the paintings to feel nostalgic or sentimental."
Sakellarios sets the stage for these emotional responses by toning her canvas with cadmium red acrylic paint, then building color with thin glazes of transparent oils. She's careful not to over-mix her paint or overwork her canvas, either of which could muddy her colors and negate the overall effect. "The resulting glow helps give my paintings warmth and contributes to a soft, unreal quality that suggests a time gone by," she says.
Creating this glow while retaining a sense of realism requires careful planning. Sakellarios studies her reference photos, deciding which elements to remove and mentally shifting the lighting to decide the direction and angle that will produce the look she's after. Finally, she does a quick sketch to establish her composition, and she's ready to paint.
Sakellarios begins each piece by toning her painting surface--either gessoed Masonite or canvas--with a diluted wash of cadmium red acrylic. When the acrylic dries, she switches to oils and uses a thin brush loaded with burnt sienna to establish the horizon, indicate the largest shapes and note any other strategic points.
Now she starts to develop the picture. Following oil-painting tradition, she works from top to bottom and from the background to the foreground. In most cases, that means laying in the sky first. She usually relies on a mixture of ultramarine blue and white for the highest part of the sky, then moves to a cooler phthalo blue with plenty of white added near the horizon. Her clouds are largely white with a little cadmium red mixed in and are shadowed with a purplish tint. She "warms up" the sunlit side of cloud formations with a touch of phthalo rose.
When she's satisfied with the sky, Sakellarios begins working on the middle ground. In her paintings, this area is most often occupied by trees and other foliage. She blocks in these basic shapes with sap green and ultramarine blue. Then, she indicates areas in direct sunlight with mixtures of yellow ochre and cadmium yellow. When positioning the trees, she's careful not to let them overlap the sky area--such overlapping would alter the color of the trees. During this block-in, Sakellarios lets some of the red painting surface show through. This helps unify the painting and ensures the warm, intimate mood she's after.
To paint the most-distant trees, Sakellarios uses green earth. For the middle-ground trees, she relies on a mixture of sap green and ultramarine or cobalt blue. She adds burnt sienna to her greens if she wants her trees to move forward; a touch of rose madder adds contrast.
Next, Sakellarios uses her sky mixture to add sky holes and yellow to place more sunlight on the largest trees. Because the eye is drawn to light areas, she avoids making the sky holes too light or placing them at regular intervals. "I don't worry too much here," she says. "I'll work over this area once the rest of the landscape is in."
Most of the houses in Sakellarios's paintings appear in either the background or middle ground. When she decides to add a house, it's developed at the same time as the surrounding area. "But I always go back and work on it later," she says. "And I consistently place houses so that they're partially in shade."
Once the middle-ground elements are in place, Sakellarios turns her attention to the foreground. She starts blocking in the foliage, using permanent green, chromium green and yellows mixed with blue. To ensure that the green leaves are interesting, she uses a wide range of tones; but she keeps a little bit of sap green in all the mixtures for unity.
At this point, Sakellarios begins to add the flowers that fill her landscapes. These flowers overlap the more distant objects and serve to tie the foreground and background together. Sakellarios is very careful to harmonize both the right colors and basic shapes of her flowers. "The strokes are different with each type of flower," she says. For instance, a rose is a dab, an iris is a stroke of a purple color, and daisies are a half-circle.
Sakellarios produces a multitude of petal shades by mixing phthalo blue, phthalo rose, ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson, cadmium red, and white. She doesn't overmix these colors; she simply dips her brush in several hues, then twirls them onto the canvas and lets the viewer's eye blend them.
If there's a path in the painting, Sakellarios adds it at this point. In most cases, her paths have a pinkish look created with strokes of cadmium red light, white and burnt sienna (these colors are also her favorite combination for cottage roofs). She often tones the shaded areas of a path with blues or greens. This helps keep the pink areas at a minimum, while at the same time making them sparkle.
Sakellarios's last major step is to add people to her scenes. This isn't a whimsical decision: Any figure must make a solid contribution to the overall painting. In Outside the City, for example, Sakellarios placed the figure to stop the viewer's eye and direct it back into the pink field. In Summer in Portsmouth, the light playing on the pathway was the original subject. But when the piece was finished, she added a figure to solidify the center of interest.
Sakellarios develops her figures with the same colors and style used in the rest of the landscape. She completes each body first, then develops the hair, which is usually done with alizarin crimson toned with burnt sienna or raw umber. Sometimes she adds orange to suggest highlights on the hair. "I know it sounds crazy, but it works because these are my colors," she says. "They must mix with my landscape. I use the same soft touch and diluted paint." Skin tones are done with cadmium red light, white and a little bit of yellow ochre.
Because Sakellarios uses transparent paints and works wet-on-wet, all of the colors are affected to some degree by the cadmium red base. After her colors dry, she goes back into the painting and reworks any areas that show too much red.
Sakellarios finishes each painting by making small value adjustments. In Times with Judy, for example, she toned down the path with burnt sienna to make it less pink. She also darkened any sky holes that were too prominent and added color to the figures' dresses. She abandons her thin paint only when placing the highlights on her subject, where pure, thicker color will draw the viewer's eye.
Overworking defeats the purpose of using transparent colors, so Sakellarios has no problem deciding when a painting is complete. "I want a fresh look," she says. "If I go too far, I know I'll end up with muddy colors."
Sakellarios's art is built on the rich, evocative glow that permeates her landscapes. But her painting approach is built on thin, clean layers of color that hold their character throughout the glazing process. To maintain this clean look, she avoids over-mixing on the palette and overworking the painting surface. If your colors aren't as rich and luminous as you'd like, try Sakellarios's approach. It may be all that's needed to bring your colors to life.
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