Cracking The Crosshatching Code

Elizabeth Apgar-Smith believes crosshatching is especially suitable for subjects with a highly textural quality. For the slick, hard edges of a street scene or a cityscape, she would normally use oil or watercolor. But because most of her subjects come from the countryside around her home in rural upstate New York, the softness of pastels is perfect for depicting the undulating natural shapes. To highlight and enhance the textures of such scenes, she uses crosshatching to reproduce the effect of light breaking across surfaces, as in the sheep’s wool in The Committee.

A beautiful example of crosshatching in action.

A beautiful example of crosshatching in action.

The artist loves playing with color, and she’s found crosshatching allows her limitless options in color mixing. In areas in a painting where she wants intense color, for example, she applies crosshatched strokes in colors analogous to the ones underneath. “This technique is especially effective in creating areas of interest in a painting,” Elizabeth Apgar-Smith explains. “When the eye mixes two colors that are close together on the color wheel, the resulting tone is intensified and will draw the viewer’s eye.” In other areas, she might soften or neutralize the colors. In this case, she applies crosshatched strokes in colors complementary to the underlying ones. “At first glance,” she says, “it appears that the overlapping strokes neutralize one another and produce a flat tone. Although it’s true the resulting color is somewhat neutralized, there’s a vibration to it. The crosshatching has a kind of pointillist effect.”

Besides adding to the interest of the painting, the pointillist vibration lends a sense of movement. The mingling colors enliven a composition, especially when in contrast to flat, opaque areas. “I can lead the viewer’s eye through a painting by juxtaposing flat color, which represents static areas, with heavily crosshatched colors, which seem to convey more energy,” the artist says. This effect also produces the illusion of shimmering light, which contributes to a painting’s vitality.

The artist begins each new work by combing the countryside for scenes that evoke an emotional response. Rarely searching for a specific subject, she simply looks for a scene that strikes her. So that she’s never at a loss, the artist makes sure she has a sketchbook with her at all times: in her purse, the car, and next to the television. When a pattern of light and shapes catches her attention, she makes a graphite sketch to record it. Some of these scenes might seem rather mundane to others, but Apgar-Smith can always identify something irresistible within them, usually a feeling they elicit. “I’m not necessarily attracted to high-contrast light,” she points out. “Sometimes, a soft, hazy light appeals to me, particularly when it conveys a mood.”

Apgar-Smith’s preliminary work consists primarily of a fully resolved value and compositional sketch rendered in graphite, which she completes on-site. In addition, she takes photographs to use for reference in her studio, but “only for shape,” she insists, “never for color.” If she has time, she brings her pastels to the location and draws the composition from her sketchbook onto pastel paper with a medium-value pastel. She then fills in the large areas and makes notations about the key and temperature of the color scheme and the mood. “At times I also determine which complementary colors should dominate,” the artist adds. “I don’t worry about portraying the accuracy of the local color. I just decide which color scheme will help me express what I feel at the scene.”

This preliminary work helps the artist establish the patterns of light and dark within the composition, which allows her to relax and enjoy applying color. Most often, she doesn’t begin color application until she returns to the studio. “The sketch sets the value patterns in my mind,” Apgar-Smith says, “and I can play with color later to develop the rest of the painting.” Once back in her studio, the artist transfers her value sketch to Wallis pastel paper with a medium-tone pastel, just as she would on-site. After she establishes the composition and large tonal areas, she dissolves the binder and pigment with a bristle brush moistened with Turpenoid, simultaneously creating an underpainting and retaining as much tooth as possible.

In the next phase, the artist develops her painting with a web of crosshatched passages. “I begin by making the lines about a stroke’s width apart,” she says, “and always choose colors within the same value range as the underpainting.” She works all over the surface to ensure the whole painting comes into focus at the same time. As she works, she highlights her center of interest with crosshatched strokes in colors analogous to the ones the underneath. For contrast, she applies complementary colors over strokes in the surrounding areas, a technique whose effectiveness she described earlier. Depending on how she wants to lead the viewer through the painting, some elements are developed more than others. As details begin to emerge, she refines her strokes and adds dots and squiggles for variety. It takes from two to six hours for Apgar-Smith to complete one of her paintings.

A glance at this artist’s work is enough to confirm the potency of crosshatching. Shimmering with light, Apgar-Smith’s paintings depict the textures of nature with a kind of authenticity and feeling so difficult to achieve. “As far as I’m concerned, crosshatching is the best technique for capturing the beauty of natural shapes,” the artist says. “The softness of pastels–applied in gentle strokes that mingle colors–is an old idea that always seems fresh.”

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