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

 

 

What makes the “right” frame?

Several years ago I went to an unusual event. Models were hired by a local photography studio, and all those who had a digital SLR camera could take pictures for a price.

Ten or so of us stood in line for our turn at five minutes with the model. This meant directing her while using the props and strobe lights that were available in the space.

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This young woman stood out with her pink dreadlocks/shaved head hair style, heavy makeup and cartoon tattoos . I sensed that under all the distractions there was a whole other girl, so that’s the girl that I painted.

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For a long time this was the frame on the painting. When I took it out the other day it was clear this was not a good choice. Why?

These are the things I look at now when choosing a frame;

-What is the dominant temperature? Warm, which the gold frame is . . however

-What is the largest area of color (or dominant color), medium size color, accent color? Dark brown, orange and gold, some blues (in order). This is the problem

By putting a gold frame on this, it is adding way more gold to the overall image, making gold no longer an accent in the piece, and throwing the balance in the painting off.

Also the bright gold next to the dark background makes it hard to see the subtle darks, the eye just can’t get past the jarring move from light gold frame to dark background.

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My husband John made this frame for her that is so much better. This ebonized Red Oak, dark wood frame enhances the colors in the background, while the nail head trim matches the edginess of the subject.

The next time you choose a frame, ask yourself if it continues with the balance you’ve developed, being a supporting cast member, or is it screaming for attention over your subject.

 

 

One Subject, Two Times

Have you ever painted a subject, only to end up with something that was almost there…but not quite?

This is one of those subjects.

What was it that made me want to paint this scene of a young woman in an 18th century dress?

  • The idea of a traditional subject painted in a contemporary way intrigued me.
  • The possibilities of a strong design, with the tall vertical girl pushing horizontally into the large dark space to the left.
  • The colors, I’m always drawn to blues, greens and violets.

The first painting seen belowUnknownFinalImagelr

I like the division of space into a variety of shapes. I like the background texture; but is it too different from the subject. The girl  has very linear strokes and marks, the background more gauze like. The colors in the background are too warm on the left and too pink on the right. Which means they don’t relate to the girl. So there is a kind of disconnect here.

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Looking at a painting in grey scale (black and white), always helps me to see why things didn’t work out.

What I want to see are dark areas that are connected. As you can see in the skirt area, they are too scattered, while the dark shape of the bottom of her hair is too isolated from the other darks. It doesn’t matter if this is how it really looked, it is our job to change things to make a better visual statement.

The light areas should be around the center of interest, her face, and they are, but the shapes just aren’t interesting enough.

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In this painting by John Singer Sargent notice how the darks are connected and hold together across the painting, he was a master of value control.

The final version below-Unknownfinal2019-lr

This version is more of what I was looking for. The background shares tints, tones and shades of the blues, greens and violets of the dress in both the lighter right side and darker left side.Unknowngrey2019-lr

In this grey scale of the painting the darks are a solid shape on the left with an interesting edge as it meets the tall vertical of the girl. The lights are also more interesting and descriptive.

It took a year and a half to realize what needed to be done, be patient, your eye will tell you what to do eventually,

 

 

Transforming a Subject

I’ve talked before about painting what you would like to see instead of what you are looking at. In other words, most subjects can be improved, and it’s up to us, the artist, to make the most of it.

But how do you get from point A to point B? Over the years I’ve come up with several techniques to open up the possiblities.

Here’s  my original reference trix1-blog

Coming to grips with what interested you in the subject to begin with is a good place to start. These are the things that you want to hold on to. My list was:

  • Her eclectic outfit
  • The way the light falls on her
  • Her gesture, carefree and confident
  • The triangle shape that her body makes
  • The white, lime green and dark blue

Ok, now what I don’t like, these are what I will lose:

  • The colors in the background, dark red, gold
  • The stuff in the background and foreground
  • Hard to read areas like her right sleeve falling over her leg and her hands showing under her leg
  • Not sure about the pattern on the ottoman yet

I want to dive in and really get to know the subject, the best way to do this is a drawing, yes, just a piece of paper a pencil and eraser. Moving from shape to shape, with these simple tools the rhythm reveals itself. Where the values should go lighter and darker. If I eliminated some of the background stuff, what simple shape would work to lead the eye around the image. What simple lines would make her expression what I want it to be?sketch

These simple drawings are were I start to get excited about what the painting could be.

Determining a solid composition is next. Using a piece of paper (which serves as white), two felt markers, one black, one midtone grey. It’s time to play with these three values in order to nail down something cohesive. A time saver is to lay tracing paper over the above drawing and mass in the value shapes. Do several of these to expand the possibilities.blockIn

You might say, “fine that works with black white and grey, but how does this translate to full color paint?”.

It’s about getting control of the values. Everything that’s reading as white here can be lots of different colors but all in a very close, light value range. The same with the grey in the background. It’s in these midtones where intense color can happen, lots of colors, all kept in the same value range.

I’m still open to change things as the painting developes, but this has freed me from the confines of the actual subject.firsttixlrThis is what I came up with. You can see I used some things from the value sketch like keeping her all light value except the scarf and a few accent darks. I used a vertical division in the background though not exactly what I had in the sketch. The point is all these steps help to open up what you might want to try. Of course there is the feeling that you want the thing to have, that can also drive your decisions.

There were two things that kept bothering me about the image above. One was she was not solidly anchored to the side. The other was she appeared to be floating because the value of her seat was too dark. So as one thing is changed, the painting tells me what I should do next.StarryNightlrWhen I anchored her with a mid value blue, the horizontal blue stripe higher was too much. She needed a softer expression and more warmth with a red violet.

She’s finally what I want her to be.

 

 

 

Learning to Edit

When faced with a subject rich in visual content it’s easy to get sucked into render mode. Not wanting to miss a nuance or glimmer can leave your painting scattered and weak.

Landscape artist Lori Putnam said ” it’s not what you include, but what you leave out”, which is a monumental statement for figure painters as well.

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First reaction, be sure and capture:

  • The subtle shine in her hair
  • Striking blue eyes
  • Full lips
  • Lace pattern on her dress
  • The pattern on the fan
  • Chains and bead necklace
  • Print on the background fabric
  • Texture on the seat
  • Shine on her dress

Now for the editing, I ask myself, what can I leave out in order to make something else more important and what can I change for more impact?

  • The shape of her hair is more interesting than the subtlety of texture
  • Capturing her expression is more important than specifically rendering features
  • A suggestion of lace is all
  • Change color of fan to come forward instead of sink, pattern simple more lively
  • Small bits of light and color instead of “jewelry”
  • A simple, but bold swirl of warm colors in the background
  • Enough texture

These are all based on what is important to me personally, your version would be different according to what appeals to you.

Beginning with a thumbnail value sketch helps to organize the design.

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Her face and right arm will be the lightest value. Hair, pillows on the sides and hand darkest (not totally sold on the hand standing out that much, have to see how it works in the actual painting), everything else will be midtone.

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Next the color sketch. There is nothing more disheartening than scraping a large area off because the color doesn’t work. This small sketch makes the actual painting more fun. Having all the options in the world can be stifling, working within boundaries is actually freeing to me.

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I thought it was finished at this point…..but no…….a couple things really bothered me.

The first was the hand, it was painted in a way which nothing else was, with a light and shadow side, everything else is flat. I also missed my dark shape in that position.

The other thing was the fan, it was not pulling it’s weight in the painting.

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Adjustments to these area gave me what I had envisioned and a way to keep my dark shape while reworking the hand into something simpler.

 

 

What Now?

Have you ever been two thirds into a painting and find you don’t know how to finish it?

This usually happens when working from photo reference that was cropped too close, there’s more story out there, you just can’t see it, or you veered away from your reference material with an idea, but found yourself lost in the forest. “The Girl in a Gold Dress” was the first scenario.

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I liked what was happening up to this point, but could sense things could fall apart if I didn’t pay more attention to the unity. So this is the time that I need to start asking myself some questions:

  • If I saw this painting (painted by someone else), and really liked it, what would it look like? It would be strong, and simply rendered.
  • What would make it stronger? Simplify the color, nothing weakens a painting like patches of unrelated color. Too much color can fracture an image and that’s what was starting to happen here. Get rid of the red, blue and orange. Concentrate on the main golds and violets.

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Things started to come around, less really is more.

The dress, though complex in it’s texture was fun to translate into staccato strokes of browns violets and golds.

Summer, Revisited

Have you ever finished a painting you were happy with only to find that months, weeks or even days later there are some serious problem areas. Summer Breeze is such a painting.

This painting is a little larger than I usually work, 20″ x 30″, but after two weeks of planning and execution it was finished. There were many things that worked out well, OldSummerBreeze-lr

The gesture of the pose, the expression of her face, the sense of light, but as she sat on my fireplace mantle for several days I started to “feel” there were some areas that needed addressing. It was a “feeling” at first because I couldn’t pin it down enough to do something about it, and I will never go back to rework a painting unless I have a specific change in mind. Enough days had passed, it became crystal clear what was required.

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At #1, the strongest shape in the scene. It is very strong because it’s surrounded by dark, is large and is pointing to the left, drawing way to much attention to an area that is secondary,

The shape at #2 is bothersome because it appears to be the same value as the top plane of the skirt, which is the way the photo appeared because of the tendency for photos to blow out the lights. In reality this area would be darker than the upper plane which is receiving more light.

At #3 and 4#, these light shapes take away from the solid anchoring effect of the dark shadow along the bottom and add more attention to an area that shouldn’t receive any.

 

 

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At #5 I could add a little more information to follow the form of her body and make it more interesting.

All during the painting process I wrestled with that rectangle #6,  behind her head. Should I keep it or not. Now I can see, not, it adds a visual weight to the top of her head, which throws her a little off balance.

At #7, stream line her shoulder a little here to soft her.

The lower shadow area #8, could be working harder to stabilize the balance. I want it to create a more solid base for the figure. Even though there was not a supporting leg on the bench in the photo, it was needed to alleviate the floating sensation in this area.

Last but not least, the color needed adjusting. More warmth in the background wall, as well as in her skirt.

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I was happy with the changes and glad I made them. It’s never too late to go back and make things better!

Color Choices

nickblog1This photo I took of a neighbor girl had a lot of things going for it, but color wasn’t one of them. Color is a very personal thing, and personally this was too dark and dull for the youthful quality I wanted in my painting .

I decided to exercise my artistic license and make new color choices by replacing the existing colors with corals, pinks and pale green tones.

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On to the value sketches, I soon realize a high key value pattern would work best, I will work with the one on the right.
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A couple quick color studies helped guide me in the right direction. I’m always drawn to cool color schemes so I needed to get the one on the left out of the way, to say to myself, “I told you this wouldn’t work”. The one on the right will be very helpful in finding my way.
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Getting the block in finished, I’m happy with how things are coming along. This is the time I like to spend a day with the painting visible to me while I do other things, so that I can better judge what I need to do.
After a day I can see the shadow in the upper right is too dark, also the red is too intense and draws attention away from the main focus. More refining and I’ve arrived at the core of what I wanted the image to say.
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