Studying Amorsolo - Under the Mango Tree
by Vicente Collado Jr
Doha, Qatar
Sun 15th May 2011

Art books often advice beginners to copy the works of the masters as a way to improve their painting skill. The reason is that one can't paint a good picture until one has seen a good picture. During their formative years, the masters themselves copied from their more advanced peers.

I actually witnessed this copying phenomenon in our visit to the Louvre some years ago. The sight of artists, both novices and professional, busy with their palettes and brushes was as spectacular as the masterpieces they were trying to replicate.

Great as it may sound, this training methodology, however, is not always possible especially for those with no easy access to museums and galleries. But, such working procedure could be approximated using images from art books or other sources as substitutes. It's true, prints of paintings are seldom as excellent as their original, but, for learning purposes, they would do.

Studying Amorsolo: Under the Mango Tree
Oil on Canvas
(60cm x 80cm)
Such was one of my regular activities during my early years of painting, copying the works of David, Rembrandt, Willem Kalf, Murillo, Velazquez and even great contemporary artists. The attempts were not only a satisfying experience but also a rich source of practical and speculative knowledge no amount of readings or lectures would have given me.

What never occurred to me, though, was to study Filipino masters. Published versions of their works were scarce and visiting Philippine museums is certainly not an option when living abroad.

Internet changed all that. At the click of a button, one can have access to almost all the masterpieces of great Filipino painters. Such availability of great Philippine artworks prompted me to practice once more the "learn-by-copying" technique of the great masters.

Everytime I search images of Filipino paintings, Fernando Amorsolo's works always come out in the first page. Since I really admire his paintings, I decided to start with him.

For my first project, I chose his "Under the Mango Tree," a landscape painting featuring some country folks taking a break under a huge tree from harvesting mangoes and watermelons.
Reference Photo: a digital copy of the original by Fernando Amorosolo
Using a photoediting software, I adjusted the hues and saturation to get to the underlying tonal and value layouts of the painting. With these, one can easily appreciate how dark and light areas were distributed to create pleasing patterns and movements, and how color unity and harmony were achieved.

In the reference photo, one notices immediately that the source of light is the sun directly above. The main characters are all in the shadow cast by the mango tree except for the girl with a yellow head scarf, who is illuminated by sunlight breaking through the thick foliage. This is one of Amorsolo's way of drawing the viewer's attention to the center of interest, which also includes the lady with a jar. Notice that this focal area is where colors (orange, yellow, flesh) are more intense and are in sharp contrast with the dominant color, green. It is also where value contrast (between head of the standing lady and bamboo leaves) is strongest.

Amorsolo used the steelyard principle to balance the figures; the bigger mass formed by the folks under the mango tree is balanced by the smaller mass formed by the two youngsters at the left. A steelyard balance is a weighing scale where a bigger mass is balanced by a smaller mass that is moved along a beam until equilibrium is achieved. Also, for color balance, one can easily see how the different colors (orange, blue, yellow) are equally distributed on both sides of the canvas.

The dominant cool color green in its various shades and tints serves to unify the whole painting and higlights the more brilliant warm colors (orange, pink, yellow) used for the focal point. The Filipino master also overlapped the main characters to achieve unity; the sitting lady may seem to be isolated but is actually connected to the others through the tree trunk she's sitting on.

Value analysis (see black and white version) shows the painting is predominantly middle tone with relatively small areas of dark and light tones. The composition situates the lightest light and the darkest dark in the focal area where they should be.

This is just a preliminary technical analysis of the painting. A closer inspection will surely reveal more reasons why this painting is a great masterpiece. But, my purpose here is to paint not to analyze so let me proceed with describing how I made my own copy.

The first step is to make a linear sketch or outline of the subject. To save time, I opted to trace the image projected on a canvas. When accurate placements and outlines are needed such as in portraits or replicas, mechanical tools like pantographs, projectors or beamers can be very useful. I could have drawn freely using the traditional grid method but it is a lengthy process not to mention it is not painting per se.

There is, of course, a controversy surrounding the use of optical aids. David Hockney, a British artist, claims the Dutch Masters like Vermeer would have been incapable of high degree of realism in their paintings without the use of projectors or camera obscura. He alleged the masters worked by tracing pojected images with paints. But, challenged to demonstrate his camera obscura method, David Hockney gave up in frustration after ten minutes and said the procedure was impractical.

In fact, it is impossible to trace projected colors with pigments because projected images are visible only on white substrates. Once tracing colors have been painted on the canvas, the projected images become invisible or indistinguishable from the applied colors. There comes a point when you don't know what it is you are 'tracing'. Projectors are useful for reproducing outlines or, at the most, flat images like most abstract paintings. But, for paintings where there is a high degree of value and tonal variation such as in the case of realistic paintings, 'tracing colors' is a guarantee for frustration.

In this initial stage, the acrylic underpainting has been applied. Most underpaintings are monochromatic, usually in burnt umber. But, they can also be rendered using duller or brighter versions, or complements of the local colors. For my underpainting, I used local color straight from the tube.

The underpainting dry, I quickly applied the first layer of oil. Only middle tones are used with very little attempt to add dark and light tones. What is important is to mass in the foundation for more oil applications.

A second and third coatings are added later especially to all green areas, the dominant color in the composition. Materially speaking, painting an artwork is exactly the same as painting a wall. The more coatings there are the richer and more brilliant the result will be not to mention that the painting as a whole will be more durable.

Fine detailing now begins starting with the lady sitting down and the lady carrying a jar. The five tonal values - highlights, body color, body shadows, accents and cast shadows - have been painted on their garments and skin.

Here, it becomes clear how Amorsolo used the same color mixture for the skins and the ground. This was not to scrimp on paint but to give the composition a greater color unity.

One also begins to see now how the wide area of bright green (bamboo leaves) in the foreground is balanced by the narrow band of bright green (grass) in the middle and smaller patches of bright green (mangoes and watermelons) in the foreground. Something similar can be said of the dark areas of green.

Because of its dark value, the huge imposing mango tree trunk sticks out like a sore thumb. Here, I start to mellow it down by stroking in indications of reflected lights. More brushstrokes in future stages will further reduce it to its less noticeable supporting role.

Refining forms continues. At this stage, I begin to realize how much work was put into this painting. For each object to appear three-dimensional, it has to be painted with at least five tones of its local color; the countless fruits alone require a considerable time, forget about the human forms.

Here, I focus mainly on the elements around the humans. A cluster of bamboos grows to the right of the mango tree. The dark area of green in the upper left corner are likely mango leaves. I can't figure out whether the dark area of green beside the two folks in the background is a creek or a watermelon patch in shadows. Neither can I tell what the boy at the left is holding with his left hand In non-central elements of the painting, Amorsolo obviously left a lot of room for the imagination.

I also notice that the right hand of the lady with a jar is actually holding on to a trunk that juts out towards the viewer. This seems natural since, otherwise, it would be impossible for her to get hold of any part of the tree from where she is standing. But, the stooping lady under that protruding branch would be in great trouble should she straighten up. Or, maybe not. She is not directly under.

In this final stage, I added the final touch to all the forms.

The faces, garments, grass, leaves, baskets, skins and jar are all spruced up. The watermelons get their stripes

I also brushed a lighter tone to the reflected lights of the tree trunks and branches, which are all in shadows but are not totally dark because they are illuminated by lights reflected from the ground and surrounding trees.

My canvas is not exactly proportional to the original painting. So, I am forced to add mango leaves to the upper part of the canvas. An extra inch on top and another at the bottom need to be covered.

In the original, a machete lies on the ground behind the lady with a jar. I remove it for safety reasons. And to emphasize this is just a copy, I place a mobile phone beside the lady with a head scarf.

Time to call it a painting.

After what seemed an eternity of details, the painting is finally finished, or at least, I declare it finished. With much satisfaction I sign my name.

Copying this artwork was both exhausting and rewarding. What I thought would be a three-day relaxation turned out to be a three-week labor. At first glance, the forms appeared simple enough, requiring little work; but, once I got my hands dirtied, I realized a few symbolic strokes would not suffice and there was no turning back. But, it was also a profitable experience in terms of valuable insights gained and priceless lessons learned. The copy is not exact; in fact, there is not a single brushstroke that matches any in the original. But, it was a worthwhile calisthenics, if only because it helped me understand why in the realm of art, Fernando Amorsolo is considered no ordinary mortal.

At the start, I was thinking of making a couple of studies on Amorosolo, which would be perfect for our living room. But, knowing now how much work will be involved in the sequel, I am now thinking whether I should continue thinking the same way.


Studying Amorsolo: Under the Mango Tree
Sun 15th May 2011