Fechin Technique, Saturation, and Small Paintings

Welcome to the November 2022 training report. This issue will focus on a small flower study based on the Brisbane City botanic gardens (shown below).

Dan Scott, Vivid Flowers, Brisbane City, 2022
Dan Scott, Vivid Flowers, Brisbane City, 2022

New Technique Adopted From Nicholai Fechin

The purpose of my study was to experiment with a new technique that I adopted from Nicholai Fechin. The technique involves painting directly onto the white surface (no staining or underpainting) and leaving specs of the surface exposed in the finished painting.

Tip: It can be a valuable exercise to approach a painting with a specific goal. This will help you avoid the painting hamsterwheel where you churn out painting after painting with little improvement in your abilities.

I became aware of this technique from this article by Keene Wilson which dissects Fechin’s techniques and processes. It’s a good read if you have time. See the extract below:

“While in Taos, Fechin generally used of two types of paint, one more plastic than the other, the dry brush technique, the juxtapositioning and layering of colors, and the purposeful omission of color to expose the white ground. He applied his color with brush, palette knife, and thumb. Once he developed lead poisoning after repeated moistening of the palette knife on his tongue; however, this moistening was the added touch which gave a special sheen to the skin tones.”

Keene Wilson on Nicolai Fechin

The words in bold prompted me to take a closer look at Fechin’s work. I previously attributed the specs of exposed surface as a byproduct of Fechin’s painterly style. But these words suggest it was more of an intentional technique with a meaningful role in his work. It’s also unconventional. Most artists, including myself, have a subconscious urge to fill in all the gaps showing the white surface before deeming the painting complete. Fechin shows this might not be necessary.

Below are a few good examples I found:

Nicolai Fechin, Portrait of a Young Girl, c.1910
Nicolai Fechin, Portrait of a Young Girl, c.1910
Nicolai Fechin, Portrait of a Young Girl, c.1910, Detail
Nicolai Fechin, Little Shepherd Boy, 1910
Nicolai Fechin, Little Shepherd Boy, 1910
Nicolai Fechin, Little Shepherd Boy, 1910, Detail
Nicolai Fechin, Trees by Water
Nicolai Fechin, Trees by Water
Nicolai Fechin, Trees by Water, Detail

To execute the technique, you must paint in a direct manner with undiluted paint and a dry brush. Your strokes must be careful yet relaxed, allowing the paint to break onto the surface.

The specs of the exposed white surface create a rustic, painterly finish and appear as flickering highlights. I was surprised by how effective this technique is. I have used it in several other paintings by accident, but this was my first time actively using the technique. I have also been unable to replicate the effect with the application of white paint over the top. It just doesn’t look the same.

Below are some closeups showing the exposed white surface. Of course, my study is nowhere near Fechin’s league, but it demonstrates the point. Although the technique appears rough and unfinished up close, from afar, it seems to inject life and realism into the work.

I use oils, but I’m sure you can find ways to apply this technique using other mediums. Particularly watercolor or gouache, where it’s common practice to leave parts of the white paper exposed in the finished painting. Last month’s featured painting by Winslow Homer is a good example of this.

I’m sure there are many other techniques to be adopted from Fechin. His work is a masterclass in weaving countless techniques together in harmony. I urge you to explore his work if you haven’t already.

A Brief Lesson on Saturation

Saturation contrast plays a key role in my study. I needed the orange flowers to appear rich and brilliant, but not garish (there is such a thing as too much color).

Saturation often gets overlooked in painting in favor of the other elements of color: value and hue. Whilst saturation might not have as much immediate and observable impact as these other elements, it can inject complexity and sophistication into your work. Strong use of value and hue might get your work 80% there, but it’s saturation that will take it from good to great.

What is saturation? It’s essentially how vivid or rich a color is. Think of saturation as a scale between a color in its purest form and gray.

A simple exercise of saturation is to take a color, say cadmium red, and mix it with progressively more gray of the same value. You’ll end up with a saturation scale from vivid (pure cadmium red) to gray, with infinite variations in between.

Saturation Scale

For practicality, it’s worth segmenting the scale into basic categories:

  • Vivid
  • Strong
  • Moderate
  • Weak
  • Gray

These categories help us understand and communicate our use of saturation. In my study, orange and red are the most saturated colors. The surrounding greens, blues, and purples are weaker by comparison. If I had to categorize the different colors, I would go with this:

  • Orange and red flowers – strong to vivid
  • Dark green leaves – moderate to strong
  • Light green grass – moderate
  • Purple and blue land – weak to moderate
  • Clouds – weak

Being able to observe a scene and accurately categorize the colors in terms of saturation is a valuable skill. It will help you clearly see and capture the relationships between the colors.

If you want to make the exercise more complex, you could introduce white and black. Draw a 5 by 5 grid. Paint the top left corner white, the top right corner cadmium red (or whatever color you prefer), and the bottom row black. Your task is to fill in the gaps, ensuring an even gradation between the segments. This is one of the exercises in my Painting Academy course. If you haven’t done it before, I recommend you try it. It’s harder than it looks!

Color Saturation Study

The key takeaway from this exercise is how you can alter a color’s saturation by adding gray, white, or black. By mixing a color with a gray of the same value, you reduce its saturation without changing its value. By mixing a color with white or black, you both reduce its saturation and make it lighter or darker in value. If you ever want to dive deeper into the intricacies of color, take a look through the Munsell Color System. It applies a clear and scientific approach to color that you might find helpful as an artist.

How I Approach Small Versus Large Paintings

My flower study is 9 by 12 inches. Small by my usual standards. I usually prefer to work on larger paintings, but I enjoy the quick and spontaneous nature of small paintings.

I try to keep my approach the same regardless of the painting’s size, but there are a few necessary considerations for small paintings:

  • Each stroke has more weight and impact in the context of the whole painting (provided you use similar brushes, which I recommend you do).
  • There’s less room for your hands to move around the surface. This may prompt you to make strokes with your wrist rather than the full range of motion of your arm.
  • You cannot fit in as much detail. Simplification is essential. Doing too much on a small canvas is counter-productive and tedious. Pick one, maybe two key details to capture and focus on that.
  • You might be tempted to use smaller brushes. That’s fine but be careful not to get caught up in the tiny details.
  • A small painting does not command the same level of attention as a large painting. If you want to make a statement for a gallery or exhibition, perhaps large is the way to go.

How the Painting Turned Out

Last month, I shared the reference photo I planned on painting and invited members to paint the scene. Here’s how my painting turned out:

Dan Scott, Parents’ Garden, 2022

My overall thoughts:

It was a challenging painting and I’m pleased with the outcome. It captures the overall feel of my parents’ garden. I did well with the grass and that bright-green fern hanging from the tree. I overworked the houses in the background and was slightly off with the colors. I had the colors right at first, but then I kept tinkering.

My strategy:

I started with a dark blue underpainting, roughly mapping out the major light and dark shapes. I then broke the scene down into segments and attacked them one by one. After painting all the segments, I spent the rest of my time making the painting work together as a whole.

Member Showcase

The following is a showcase of member artworks and comments:

David Smith - What Im Painting Next Nov Report
David Smith
David Smith (second attempt)

In my painting of the garden scene #2, I tried to emphasize the center of interest moreso than in earlier painting by focusing more on the yellow arms of the plant to the left and above the white flowers which they themselves form part of the focus.  Pointing toward the focus is the yellow highlighted area of the grass below and to the left of the white flowers.

My photos were taken with an old tablet that sadly tends to soften detail.

David Smith
Edward Kosiewicz
Edward Kosiewicz

1. Reasonably happy with turnout. Grass area could use more blending, composition is good.

2.  The scene was “cold” so I added the RED ball to imply a story that a child had left it and was no longer present.  I think placement of the ball fit very well within the composition.

I don’t normally do any landscape, but tried this just for the challenge of learning more of working in digital. Using procreate on an ipad with apple pencil.

Edward Kosiewicz
Sujata Kishore
Sujata Kishore

I happy with my painting and it turned out good. Though, as there are some areas that I like but there are other areas that I think could be better. I think the background/top portion turned out better. I am not sure if I was able to get the reflected light/color on the top left house correct but happy that I tried. I did end up making some changes to the houses. I also think that my foreground did not come out as good as I would have liked. My right corner could have been a little darker. I feel that shadows on the lawn should be better but can’t figure out how?

My strategy/process: I drew the scene, especially few big shapes and few markings of shadows with very thin-down paint. (I work in oil paints) and then blocked in my darks and mid tone area. After this I worked on the sky. Once I was happy with the sky, I worked on trees and buildings. Then, I worked on lighted part of the grass. Lastly, added the details like fence and touched up the shadows on the grass. 

I like to take pictures of my painting in various stages to find the problem areas and then work on them in my next session. I Also, leave the painting for a day and come back to touch-up/modify if needed.

Sujata Kishore
Sue Gibbons
Sue Gibbons

I found this painting quite challenging.   It was more “noise” than I am used to painting.  I am pleased at the final result.  The fence definitely could stand some improvement.  Not being familiar with the foliage,  I’m not sure how close I got.

My strategy was to paint the sky and buildings first,  then painted from left to right.  I found concentrating on a small section of the reference photo helped me lose some of the “noise”.

Sue Gibbons
Sandra Ball
Sandra Ball

Here’s my attempt in watercolour. A real learning curve, certainly not my best work and rather muddy. Overall, I am not at all happy with this painting, looks like one fit for the bin!

What areas need improvement, just about all! I like some of the composition and I tried to make a quite space with the lawn, unsuccessfully as made a mess of shadows!

Thankful for the lessons learned.

My first strategy was to change the reference to landscape format, take away the railing which was distracting to me, and try to make the painting into my own. I do find it difficult to paint from other’s references, so almost always stick to my own photographs. I have experience of being in the place and love to recover the memories of the place when I finally get round to painting a scene of my own making.

I know that less is more, however my husband says I did not do this here. I did try to make it more impressionistic, however failed miserably.

Anyways, I tried using limited palette, mixing the greens rather than a using green pigment, tried to get lights and shadows, correct hues and values.

I will keep this painting as a lesson in what not to do! Over thinking, as drawing and painting were both out trying to be loose. It is what it is!

Sandra Ball
Sandra Ball (second attempt)

Had a fun time painting the October Challenge again in watercolour. I’ve got as far as moving my large easel into the kitchen to try oils, however that’s as far as I’ve got this far, not sure why.

After watching a demo on Daniel Smith Friday evening, by artist Angela Fehr, (You can check it out on You Tube), I was inspired to have a go at the challenge again and just do it having fun. Angela’s technique is lots of wet into wet washes, watching what happens as the pigments mix on the paper. I chose my own colours from a limited palette again and like the colourful outcome, even though it is not abstraction as Angela would paint. I think it is kind of semi abstract which I like, more like the impressionist painters.

Again, I’m thinking the lawn area could be improved, or I could make it into a lake/pond for more interest?

I really didn’t have a strategy this time, just watched to see how the pigments would mix and whether or not I could come up with a painting with some values and depth. I tried to balance it out with some hard line marks too for some contrast. I did try to capture some light too and lifted the paint in some areas.

Sandra Ball
June Clark
June Clark

Your idea for everyone to paint the same photo appealed to me. I attempted this because of your encouraging words.

I did paint some areas several times to try to get the lights and shadows better. A challenge for me was the buildings’ colors and shapes. I added my own garden bench to the painting.

June Clark
Tamara Gottesman

It is a 50×40 cm oil on canvas. I am happy with the compositions and light and shade play. Building edges could be more accentuated.

As for the strategy:

The biggest difficulty was that I have not spent my childhood in the garden. I have no memories of feeling, temperature, smell. Just a photo.

As the photo is complex, I focussed on simplification. I omitted many of the trees to have more free sky, I omitted the fence between the houses to have a continuous loan, I also omitted one of the houses. I changed the relation between height and width towards more square. 

Tamara Gottesman
Teresa Mcgrath

I don’t think I can do it justice!  I am only somewhat happy with my rendition. I feel the brushwork is not good. I think that I have to some extent captured the light and shadows but not particularly well. Overall I enjoyed doing it.

Teresa Mcgrath
Maureen Houlahan

My strategy for this painting was to make the tree shadows on the grass the focus area and to surround that warm ground with cool. 

I am not happy with how this painting turned out.  I need to improve the foliage handling. I’m not sure how to render that foliage to be realistic while letting it remain in the “surround” — I don’t want it to jump out.  I tried to fix it by overpainting with cobalt blue to push it back and ended up with a muddy finish that lacks freshness.

Maureen Houlahan
Joseph Donnelly
Joseph Donnelly

I painted this in oils, I left out some of the foliage which I thought was a bit over powering and I am considering adding a figure or animal as a focal point otherwise am quite happy with it, I may just add another layer when this is dry.

Joseph Donnelly
Jacob Eliav
Jacob Eliav

I only had a few days left to paint this painting among other things and I didn’t spend enough time studying the photo before I started painting, so I made some errors.

I initially painted the sky and I did not realise that the upper space between the two buildings is not blue like the sky but something like cyan light. After I painted the trees and foliage, I became aware of this mistake. As I had no cyan colour, I had to mix phthalo blue with titanium white and a little of yellow lemon to get as close as possible to the photo. After that, I had to paint this new colour between the buildings and the branches, which is not a simple task and far from perfect. 

On the whole I like the painting.  

Jacob Eliav
David Beese

This was a challenge for me, lots of new things to paint, lawn and shadows/iron fence/roofing and all the angles. I am happy with the result and balance of colours and lights and dark areas. The hardest part was the fence and the lawn shadows. I think my flowers should have more detail.

David Beese
Olga Chumakova
Olga Chumakova

1. I noticed the reminder letter last Friday; so I painted in a hurry – instead of two months, it took two days. It was my task to try finishing the work. My weakness is exact copying, here it also worked against me. I was fascinated by the garden photo, but at the same time I was limited by the time frame. From all this, my faults: the house under the orange roof looks larger than it is and is too dominant. This area #1 needs improvement. I also did not have time to polish the right upper part anymore (leaves on the big tree and patches of sky look clumsy). This is area #2, also needs improvement. Additionally, incorrect color evaluation (roof and sky are too bright).

2. It was a common strategy to block out a white canvas, then work with more concentrated oil paints. I used a pallet knife to draw the fence and paint grass. In the course of this work, I learned that next time I need to draw on the canvas more accurately at the very beginning.

I think it was just a great class for me!

Olga Chumakova

Fantastic work everyone!

I made it hard on you. It was much more challenging and complex than I initially thought. But I’m impressed with how everyone went.

It’s fascinating to see all the different interpretations of the same scene. I love how some of you put your own spin on the scene, like painting in landscape dimensions or replacing the fence with a bench. This has also given me ideas of different approaches I can take in my paintings.

I will do this again in a couple of months. For those that didn’t get time to send in their artwork but still want to participate, please do! Just send in a photo of your painting to Chontele and she will add them to the showcase above.

Thanks for reading!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

4 thoughts on “Fechin Technique, Saturation, and Small Paintings”

  1. This was an exciting and interesting exercise because we can see how others are doing.
    In my opinion, it can be a good idea if you pick two or three best works and give your critique about them.
    I look forward to taking part in similar exercises again.


Leave a Comment