As I began to decide on the composition for this work, the question arose in my mind, (as it always does when staring at a white canvas), “How can I make this work unique”, or, “How can this portrait, not appear as just another stale, predictable depiction of a pretty girl.” Many different elements may have been used with to achieve this end, whether it is limiting the palette of colors, pushing the key or value range into something far more moody, the unusual cropping of the figure, or other various methods.
In this case as I was moving the lighting around the model trying to reposition things to get a fresh look, I noticed the striking abstract created by the models face against the lighter background. This technique is certainly not original with me, as I have seen the great illustrators of the past employ this effect beautifully. The works of Frank Brangwyn and Dean Cornwell stand out in particular. Notice how the figure or heads are not immediately visible but rather are part of the greater compositional whole.
The lights and darks follow the pre-established patterning and flow of connected values. The strong abstract pattern was most important to them. This, too, should be just as important to us. My take away from these masters has been to try to see the subject in the abstract more than just a literal portrait on canvas. My former teacher Bill Parks would fill dozens of sketchbooks with 2” x 3” designs just to explore the infinite variety within shape and size juxtaposition. He often mentioned that the painting should just as interesting at 50 yards away as it is upon close inspection. His voice is still ringing in my head… how grateful I am for his tutelage. I must mention that in addition to Bill’s voice, Jennifer’s parting words as I am heading for the studio are often, “Design, Design, Design”… for her reminders I am grateful as well.
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Keeping it Fresh
Keeping it Fresh
While I have primarily been an oil painter for the last 25 years, I find it important from time to time to change mediums just to keep my thinking and approach fresh. The following two works (pages 50 and51) from “Not Far from Home”, are examples of such attempts. “A True Gentleman” is a pastel painted on Wallis sanded paper and the watercolor, “Bohemian”, was painted on 300lb rough Arches Watercolor paper. While the lighting was similar on both, warm rim light, the application of paint was reverse in the watercolor as I needed to preserve the white of the paper for the lights as opposed to opaquely added the lights on top of the darks in the pastel.
Other means can also be employed to keep your approach honest, one effective path is to shake up the lighting of the subject. I encourage my students to paint many different types of light effects so as not to become too familiar and formulaic in their seeing and color mixing. This forces us to really look at the relationships and harmonies to accurately relay the effect of light. (I should add here that while the subject is lit with differing temperatures, I find it crucial to have balanced light on my canvas and if possible the palette). As I begin a new work, I will often paint a different temperature or angle of light from the last effort to maintain honesty is seeing. Warm light, cool light, front light, back light, Twilight and nocturnes all offer nice alternatives and will keep you scratching your head!
Anders Zorn and John Singer Sargent’s works are truly an inspiration as they fluidly switched between the mediums of oil and watercolor to capture what they saw beautiful. I encourage you to look them up as well!
As I am anxious to start the new year with it’s hopes, dreams and new beginnings, I am reminded of how on a smaller scale to the artist, a fresh white canvas offers hopes and dreams all on its own. Just as in life we see the importance of looking back in review to more effectively move ahead, I am reminded of the necessity to treat each new canvas with the same degree of serious reflection so as to learn from the last attempt.
Each painting must begin with a resolution of sorts, to improve upon a deficiency in edges, value, drawing, or color to greater achieve the mood you are aiming for. I am continually striving to get to the next level and have found that it clearly helps to have a plan formed before the brush hits the canvas. Be specific. Resist thinking, “I hope this one turns out better”, but rather meditate on, “What specifically do I need to work on to gain greater sensitivity or strength in my work”. If you have trouble identifying what that might be on your own, ask someone you trust to tell you the truth. I am extremely dependent on “outside” help. My wife Jennifer has an amazing eye and often sees what I miss.
I remember specifically the resolution I made prior to this painting, “Tricia”, page 33, that being to severely limit my color palette.
My work had become too colorful, meaning I was using color for color’s sake, throwing it in haphazardly and not being truthful with what I was seeing. The “circus” look was not working!!! Having recently viewed an Anders Zorn exhibition helped me to identify this color problem and I recognized that something had to change. As an exercise, this work was completed using his choice of colors as well, that of, white, black, raw sienna, and Rembrandt’s Permanent Red Medium, (which closely resembles the vermillion Zorn used. I have since broadened my palette again, but the lesson was invaluable to teach me what effects could be achieved with very little shift in color.
I wish you great paintings as you break out into the New Year!
Thank you for your enthusiastic support of Not Far from Home!