Developing the Idea

I’ve been asked how I develop the idea for a painting. Here is the process I went through in a recent one.

Finding a subject that resonates with me in my reference photos is the first stage, photo #1. I liked the gesture of her stance and the way the light is falling on the right side. I will replace the background barn and the foreground gravel, I want to tell a different story about her.

Photo #1

Than fleshing it out, how can I made this scene more of what I want to say? The photo on the left below, shows a cropped section of grass from a painting I did several years ago, (you never know when those old paintings will come in handy), which seemed a good environment for her. I’ll be omitting the barn and mountains in the back, just wanted the grass texture. Also it seemed a tractor would add to the story I want to tell, ( decided to use a red one instead of the yellow and red).

Putting them all together, it’s beginning to work. Notice how I cropped the figure in closer. A close cropping makes for bigger, bolder shapes, as well as focusing on what I feel are the most important parts.

For the first stage of this painting I decided to put a wash on the painting surface. Why? The glow of a colored wash on a white canvas can only be accomplished at the beginning. I’d like this glow to show through in small areas as the top more opaque layers of paint build up. I chose to use an orange tone under the green field area to add warmth, because green can sometimes be problematic as a raw cold color. In the area on the girl, I washed on a warm green because in real life the green in that field would be reflecting all over her. Also it creates a harmony within the painting. See the video below-

Diane, applying the initial warm wash on the canvas surface.

To be continued in part 2. . . . . . .

Evolution of a Painting

Drifting

Have you ever “finished” a painting, than weeks later , saw that you missed the original idea? That’s what happened with Drifting, the painting below.

 

I was really excited about this image, my thoughts exploded in all directions.

  • I liked the vantage point from above, wanted a – floating, drifting, sleeping feeling.
  • I liked the intense warmth, wanted to manipulate this from warm at the top to cool at the bottom.
  • Wanted her to exist in two worlds, one of reality and one of graphic design.

Any one of these would have been interesting, but all of them at once was too much. There were parts of the painting that I really liked; her face, hair, warm light, the composition. However I got lost along the way, the relaxed flowing atmosphere I had originally pictured was not there. So how did I go about bringing it back?

First deciding what needed to change.

This is a breakdown of the areas that needed the most changes.

  • #1, shows where the color transition from warm to cool needs to be fixed. Because of the way cool colors recede, she almost looks like she is bent forward at the waist. The change is too stark, some cool would be good in the lower half, but this is too much.
  • #2, the hands- the most important area after the face that will show the mood of the painting. The gesture of these hands is too tense. Don’t always accept what you are given, change anything for the good of the painting.
  • #3, the folds are too angular, they do not fit with the idea of flowing.
  • #4, the leaves are clustered in a stiff pattern, again, not the flow I had in mind.

The final version. I haven’t touched her face yet her expression looks more relaxed. You can see how I tweeted the background color and movement. Now she appears to be floating above the ground, I see the view like something out of an airplane window.

Developing the Idea, part 2

This is part two of Developing the Idea, view part one here.

The image on the right is after, what I call “the first pass”. Instead of looking at the subject I’m more interested in how the eye is moving through the painting. So I evaluate the shapes.

1. There are three parallel edges that make up her arm, the light falling on the arm and her dress. This is boring, I’ll get rid of one of these by using color instead of value to define the light falling on her arm.

2. This edge on the lower right of her dress is weak, am going to straighten it a bit.

3. I want to emphasis this sweeping edge so I need to push back her left arm and shirt by making them darker to move toward the background more.

4. Her hair at her forehead needs to be adjusted, directing the eye in more of a horizontal motion across her head.

After a couple days work

You can see the changes I’ve made. This is the point I stop and take a long hard look at where I am and where I want to be.

This is when it’s of great benefit to know what you like. What I’m talking about is what attracts you to other paintings? This is a very personal thing, the more you’re in tune to this the stronger your work will be.

Below are “my feelings” about this image;

She is too literal, I need more interesting hard edges to make the image bolder.

The color is too warm overall, cooler images appeal to me more.

I want more contrast, and movement, so lightening and cooling the sky is a good choice, also add more blues in the grass. Using a variety of lines; rough, smooth, long and short at the edges to get some interesting movement.

I think about the possibilities; I would love to make the bucket old and rusty …. but….I would have to sacrifice the interest of the shiny texture against the rough texture of her apron…in the end my decision is not to change it. But the idea is, to consider all the possible choices you have.

Since I’m going back to her hair, a simple sketch helps me to design her hair with the purpose of moving the eye across it in a intentional direction.

This simple sketch helps me see how I want her hair to move.

After these adjustments the image below is the final painting “Keeping’ It Real”.

In the final image notice how the original warm wash is still showing through in some areas, just enough to add a slight vibration and texture richness.

Stretched Canvas vs Wood Panels

One thing I’ve learned in my many years of painting is that “the best way” to do something is a hard term to use. There are so many ways to express yourself in paint, that only you can decide what’s “best” for you.

What I can say however, is what’s best for the way I work, and my “best surface” to paint on is definitely wood panels.

Why do I prefer them over the traditional stretched canvas?

The surface texture; you are the master of your texture from eggshell smooth to gritty rough, depending on how you prime it. I like a random brushstroke finish, which I achieve with a large brush. I’ve illustrated this process in the video below. Yes, you can purchase canvas in varying degrees of roughness, but I can decide on the fly how I want the surface for a painting to be and create it without leaving the studio.

Support structure; a panel is a very solid surface, it will stand up to techniques like heavy palette knife scrapping and sanding, which I like to do to diffuse dry areas or take down a heavy buildup. A panel stores safely and unfazed while stretched canvases can get dented and even wavy while being stored. The type of wood I use is 1/4″ MDF, which is a medium density fiber board. It has no grain like plywood, it is wood fibers fused together with adhesive to form a very sturdy sheet.

You can purchase panels from art supply stores of buy sheets from home improvement centers, but you will need a saw to cut it because the sheets are large. Most places will cut it for a price. It would be worth buying a saw to do it yourself if you like the surface.

Check out my video on priming wood panels here.

The Subject, and Your Options

At some time or another we’ve all been stuck in the rut of just trying to reproduce the subject with paint. This is what I call “literal painting”.

So why is this a bad thing? It can become stiff and lifeless, because what’s missing is you. The fact is you have options. Options to interpret the subject differently, through your eyes, emphasizing the things that are important to you.

Below is an example of a recent subject-jenBlog1

The literal;

A young attractive woman in an interesting pose with jewelry and a floral print dress. Everything is medium to high key except her hair which is dark.

How could I interpret this differently? At first this may seem daunting, after all how can I paint something that isn’t there. “I can’t just pull something out of the air”. Here’s where it gets really personal… because ten people may answer the questions below ten different ways.

  • First think about why you want to paint this subject, why did you decide on this particular one?  I like the mysterious mood, almost dangerous.
  • What parts of the image showcase this idea the most? The uplighting and the way the hands interact with her face.

So how does this translate into paint? With manipulations, yes manipulations. Taking what is already there in the subject, and pushing it in a new direction.

Color: is a big one since it can set the overall tone in a painting. What I’m looking at in the image is warm yellowish to rosy tones. Changing this to a greenish color world would change the subject to my mysterious mood. This is not as difficult as it may seem. Realizing where the dark medium and light values are, you begin pushing it all toward green. One trick that can help with this is to paint from a grey scale version of the subject. Or take the image through a photo editing program like Photoshop and push the color in another direction.

Cropping: get to the point, zero in on what’s important to you.

Value: the high key aspect of my subject is not helping my story, pushing it darker does.

Paint application: careful strokes with small brushes, explaining every element in detail is not part of my story. Large strokes, some harsh, some like transparent veils, speaks to the emotions I have about the subject.

One way to get better at seeing your options is to start looking at work by artists you admire and deconstructing their paintings. What might have they been really looking at? How have they expressed emotion through color, cropping, value and paint application.

Jennlr

 

 

Having a Point of View

This is a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, especially during this time of COVID-19. Not having all the options in my day has forced me to be more focused.

Why do I spend 80% of every day painting, thinking about what I am painting or what I’m going to paint next?

Because it’s very important to express my feelings about my subjects, I just have to get it out. But am I really, getting “it” out? Are they reflecting what is inside me or just a piece of canvas with paint on it representing three dimension on a two dimensional surface.

For many years that is just what was happening…looks like the subject….yeah, good work, repeat. At some point this was very boring, wasn’t I more interesting than that, come on, can’t I make it more about me and less about the subject. This sounds a bit selfish, but I think that is exactly what good painting is about, your personal point of view.

Below is a recent painting I just complete, “Help Wanted”, and the versions that were necessary steps to help me arrive at my authentic point of view.

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The original photo. What I don’t like about it; the overall yellowish tone, Too much red in the lower section. This could take a nose dive into cuteness or sentiment. These things are fairly easy to overcome. Shift the color balance cooler and crop in the lower section. The sentimentality is going to be a conscious effort to not fall into what I’ve seen before.

Now for the really important stuff… what do I like, or why would I want to paint this, what’s my point of view? Looks like this you girl is waiting to be interviewed for a job. There is tension in her hands as she grips her purse, ( at least in one hand, I’ll have to re-gesture the other one) . Her face is tense and listless at once. Her blouse is a little too big maybe borrowed from someone, the hat sits at an awkward angle. Obviously not something she has worn much.

I’ve been there! Wearing uncomfortable “dress-up” clothes,trying to get a job, feeling in a trance because the Manager was too busy with important stuff to give me the time of day. An uneasy situation for sure.dan111

Above, exploring my options. I could give her a dark jacket and gloves, add something dark to the left. Taking the color out of it, turning it to pure value can help with design decisions. How am I going to fill the space in an interesting way?

ver3

At this point I reconnected with my purpose and it was not working, why? The attitude of the hands and expression in the face were lost. The ground and her skirt were more interesting, not my intention. What do I do now?

Could put it in the failed paintings pile and move on to something else…or….really learn something and figure out how to turn it around.

She needs to be bigger in the story, crop in closer to really see her face and hands, Back to the light blouse and hands with no gloves, just attack it and make it behave!

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The beginning of the “right” thing over the “wrong” thing”. It’s a little confusing to just paint over something else, but makes you realize, this is about you, you can do anything you want to, that’s freeing!

helpwanted-lr

This is what I wanted to say, my point of view. There could be hundreds of others, but this one is mine.

 

Moving Away from Literal

After many, many years of painting I have found the paintings that have been the most successful are the ones where the actual subject was the spark and my imagination was the flame.

Often before starting I will sit down with paper and pen with the goal of getting to the core of why I want to paint this “thing”;

Design questions-

  • Does it exhibit any value patterns that have a wonderful rhythm?
  • What type of paint handling would make this subject really sing?
  • Is there an overall shape that is fascinating?

Emotional questions-

  • Does the subject have an expression that can be exagggerated to heighten the story?
  • What does this mean to me personally ?
  • What can I delete that is just distracting ?

When I finally arrive at my focus, I can start painting.

Dan-lr

My answers to these questions when I chose this image.

  • I’m going to take advantage of the shape of the girl and table as my interesting medium & light value pattern against everything else as dark.
  • More controlled paint handling, big smooth areas against small rough ones.
  • The shape of the girl attached to the table is the glue that holds this together.
  • There is a mood of extreme stillness, am going to use all my horizontal and vertical lines as strongly as possible.
  • This was a daughter of a friend, borrowing her mom’s wedding dress for the photo. Her personality was anything but Victorian and was feeling ill at ease in this dress. So there was a kind of tension at the time which I’d like to express.
  • Don’t like the potted plant, the murky green of the top half or the red carpet, note to self, push everything to the cool side, get rid of that plant!

dan-wrok

As you can see I painted this over another painting, sanded first, to remove any high spots.

The best way to start is going right for the key area, the large shape made by the girl and the table cloth. I’ve found that expressing what I want to say , ( not the literal photo reference), correctly, leads me to the next part and the next, etc.

Roughing things out loosely seems a waste of time, nothing is the right color, shape or place, how does this help? Better to get a few things nailed down, than work out from that point. After the important statement is made, you might be surprised how how little else needs to be said, I’m talking about useless details. Spend 90% of your time on 40% of the painting, it can free you up to experiment more!

sitting-lr

Here is the finished painting “Two Worlds”.

3 Ways to Energize Your Painting

Running a cash register, practicing scales on a piano or . . . painting. Doing anything over and over for a long period of time can lead to boredom. When you are bored while painting, your audience will also be bored when they look at it. Yes, complacency blows the spark out. On the flip side, when you are invested and mesmerized by what you’re working on, it can’t help but permeate into your work.

When I find myself in this comatose state here are three things to try:

1. Start a painting with no preplanning. I know after years of talking about value plans, color sketches and dynamic symmetry grids have I lost it? No, if you have been doing this preliminary work, good for you. It’s all part of the virtual tool box in your head, now give it a test. Start with a subject, grab a charcoal or paint brush and get it down, shape by shape. Not sure about the color? Get it on there, stop every 30 minutes of so, evaluate, make adjustments and go on.

2. Start a new painting on top of an old one. When beginning a painting on a white canvas it can be hours until something exciting emerges. Using a old painting as your underpainting is like a head start. Don’t dwell on which one to use for the new subject, those colors that don’t exist in the new subject could be just what it needs. Below are two old paintings, with the beginnings of a new one.

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3. Be patient with your next painting. I like to work on two or three paintings at once. This is a great way to not rush toward “finishing” a painting. As I get tired or, god forbid, bored, with a painting, I turn it to the wall, pulling it out in a couple days. What’s the rush anyway? There are very few fantastic paintings that are rushed right through, beginning to end. I ask myself “what does it need, to be it’s best self?” It may be, I need to get rid of something, too many values, or colors. Training your eye, getting away from it helps to depersonalize. Pretend someone else painted this and asked you what to do next? The painting below took many sessions of minor adjustments that just couldn’t have been banged out in a couple days. Would you rather have a few successful paintings that took some time and patience or a closet full of “just good enough” ones.slowlight-lr

Up Close at the Met

Last week John and I where in New York City for the American Impressionist Society 20th National Art Show opening.

We signed up for a list of demonstrations, lectures and tours. On the second day we found ourselves with 1 1/2 hours of free time, of course we had to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Central Park.

But what do you do with only a short time in a museum that would take a week to see? I headed right for the American Painters. John Singer Sargent, Robert Henri, Mary Cassatt, George Bellows. . .this is where I can really get inspired.

Standing in front of this enormous Sargent painting of The Wyndham Sisters took my breath away but looking up close was even more spellbinding.

In this detail from the lady in the center you can see the confidently placed, few brushstrokes that rendered the sparkling pearls and jewelry.

Mrs. Hugh Hammersley by John Singer Sargent

A wonderful staccato of brushwork to make up a seemingly complicated lace collar.

Rendered so freshly, no overworking here. . .

A totally different genre, Frederick Remington’s On The Southern Plains.

Just look at the simplicity of those faces, horse and riders! Simplicity that only comes after a lifetime of study and painting.

Even the prairie grass and shadows have a rhythmic direction in the strokes.

Fluer de Lis by Robert Reid

One of my favorite American Impressionists, what a wonderfully delicate, yet textural way he rendered that face and those hands.

James Jebusa Shannon, Jungle Tales

Look at those faces, not a hard edge to be found.

It’s so inspiring to see the work of those masters that have come before us. There really is no “right way” to paint, whatever it takes to get the end result.

I was reading something the other day directed at painters that said, “art doesn’t happen in nature, it happens in our head”.