Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Commissioned painting #4

Commissioned painting
14 x 18
John Singer Sargent said that "A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth" and this commission proved him right.  (He was probably always right about painting matters).

The reference photos for this were inspiring because they had such gorgeous, warm light.  I particularly loved the orange reflected light under the boy's jaw.  This painting is an amalgamation of 3 references: one for the face, one for the lunging torso area and one for the arm position.  The arm position was correct in a photo that had his hand clutching a rock.  It's not a problem to lose the rock, but the figure was backlit instead of front lit: the shadow and light were reversed, making his face dark and surrounding him with rim light. I liked the action of that pose, however, so I used the face from a more static image of the boy standing in the water.  Together, they made an image that caught my imagination.

Once the references had been sorted out in my mind, I kept all 3 of them up on my monitor and zoomed in on whichever one I needed at that moment.  There are many people who can use Photoshop to put a new head on a body (my 14 year old included), but I'm not one of them so I used this rather complex method instead.

The painting came together quickly, but got stuck in the approval process due to problems with the mouth. That seems to be the area in which a likeness resides or, in this case, didn't reside.  It took 4 repaintings of that tiny section to capture a likeness.  A full repaint consisted of about 5 very small, carefully-positioned marks.  The angle of the teeth, the amount of gum, the tilt at the corner; all needed tweaking.  But it all worked out because the beauty of oils is that they are workable for so long.

The final painting of the set is underway.  It's an action shot with - thankfully - no mouth visible!

Happy painting!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Analysing a simple painting with Photoshop

Back view of J
14 x 11
A couple of weeks ago I hired a model without another painter in the studio to share the cost - my usual practise.  Being able to ask for poses with no regard for anyone else's sight line or preferences was very freeing and I really learned a lot.

This is a pose that I've wanted to paint for some time and when my model showed up with an ultramarine blue dress and navy tights, it seemed perfect.  The continuation of colour through the body to the feet create a graceful, unbroken passage that's simple and descriptive with no need for further development to make that area make sense.

To see what I mean, have a look at this Photoshopped change.

Photoshopped leg colour
I've brushed a similar colour to the arms over the leg area and I find that it makes the leg look much less finished than it did when it was the same colour as the dress.  I'd feel an obligation to at least suggest some toes or an ankle to help the viewer understand that now-prominent area.  Notice, too, how the graceful line is gone. The pose is broken up into pieces rather than united as one large shape.  To my eye, the second version is much weaker.

The simple silhouette of the figure called for an equally straightforward setting, so I stuck with big shapes in the background, only relieving them a bit in the lower left.  That's the edge of a purple, Mexican rug, and allowing it to have some diagonals not only served to repeat the shape of the legs on the right, but also gave a sense of stability to the pose.

This Photoshop experiment shows what I mean.  I turned the diagonals of the rug into a horizontal.  Notice the tippy, unbalanced feel to this one; as if she'll easily slide off the canvas to the right.
Photoshopped background on left
This was a quick painting but, in my distraction-free state, I accomplished and learned a lot.  It was money well spent.

Happy painting!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Commission number 2

Commissioned painting
14 x 18
This was a challenge.  It's the second of the 4 commissioned paintings that I'm working on, all from the client's photos.

The photos were excellent, overall, but there are always things that I'd rather see.  The images of this young girl were varied: in some she was contemplative and elegant (like the young woman that she soon will be), standing in waist-high ocean and swirling her arms gently through the still water. The light in those photos was gorgeous: warm and glowing.

Then there were the photos that showed her splashing and vibrant like a boisterous girl.  The light in these shots was cool, shadowless and colourless.  It didn't enhance the subject matter at all.

But the decision had to go to the splash imagery because her grandmother described this girl as outgoing, dramatic and fearless.  The gentle swirling just didn't fit.

So I had to inject colour where I saw none and still keep a likeness.  I took the colour scheme from a copy of a Sorolla painting that I did a few weeks ago: the skin is very warm and the shadows mingle olive and red.  Those colours all appear in the water somewhere creating a harmonious fit of subject to environment.  In order to create a sense of the splash being white, I had to keep everything else in the painting at a lower value than that area, so most of the painting is in a mid value range.  Avoiding true darks also enhanced the sense of light and the bouncing colour that's typical on a sunny day.  Because colours are at their most beautiful in the mid values, this all served to give the appealing feeling of a warm, carefree summer's day.

To get the likeness, I took the image of the girl into Photoshop and converted it to a simple pattern of black and white using the threshold function.  That allowed me to pick out the shadow shapes on her face.  It's these shapes that define the structure of each individual face: the eye sockets, cheeks, nose, temples - all cast distinctive shadows that tell the viewer what that bone structure is like.  Luckily, even though the splash photos showed very little shadow definition, Photoshop could pick out enough information for me to see the girl's skull structure and use it to achieve a portrait.

It was a challenge, but I like that.

Painting #3 is on my easel at the moment and I'm lucky: it has beautiful light.  Unfortunately, I have to switch out an arm and the face...
I'll keep you posted.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Change your palette and change your paintings

Art School Student
18 x 14

"Colour is my day-long obsession, joy and torment." Monet.
I've never met an artist who is content with the state of his or her work.  Like me, they're always tinkering, tweaking and trying new things in an effort to realize their vision for what their art should look like.  

Over the past couple of months, colour has been my focus.  I dropped ultramarine blue from my palette for a while feeling that it had control of me, not the other way around.  It's back on the palette now but in its absence I learned an appreciation for cerulean, a blue of lighter value that leans more towards yellow whereas ultramarine leans red. Cerulean is a natural for pairing with yellow ochre but is overwhelmed and made garish with the cad. yellows, so the loss of ultramarine ultimately led to yellow ochre becoming much more important in my work; proving once again that nothing happens in a vacuum and everything sets off a chain of events - many of which can't be predicted in advance. 

I also introduced cobalt blue, a "true blue" which doesn't have an obvious leaning one way or another and which is much tamer than ultramarine, at least in my hands.  

So the upshot of all of this is a better understanding of the greys which yellow ochre excels at, and a cooler overall look to my paintings.  It wasn't my intention, but that was the result.  

In the painting above, I explored blue overtly, using it as a starting colour for the block in and a foil for the muted warm colours in the flesh.  Most every warm colour is a much-greyed tertiary, but they pop vibrantly in their context of cool blue. 

I'm learning a lot through my tinkering so I'll continue to explore the colours on my palette and see what comes of it.  

Happy painting!

Friday, October 11, 2013


commissioned painting
18 x 14
This is the first of 4 commissioned paintings that I'm doing for the same client.  She has 4 grandchildren that she wants to see depicted at their happiest: at the beach.

From a CD of images of all of the children and a written description of each, it's my job to create paintings that both look like the kids and also represent their personalities.  The client asked not for exact portraits, but more for a sense of who these children; the likenesses were to be left loose and unforced.

This little girl was easy.  Her grandmother said that she is very "girl": feminine and delicate, and that she loves the water.  There were some shots of her in a swimsuit, frolicking with her siblings, but there was a delicacy in the photo reference for this shot that seemed appropriate given the description of the 2 year old. As well, the intensity with which she was dabbing at her own reflection and the fascinating cool, grey light made that photo my immediate choice.

The painting is all about colourful greys: the water, sweater, and skin are all muted but appear colourful in their context.  If a grey can be named (blue-grey, yellow-grey, purple-grey, etc) it can read with amazing intensity and create a vibrant effect; it's the greys that are neutral and un-nameable that sit lifelessly in a painting and suggest nothing.  Every grey in this painting is either warm or cool and some of the most interesting areas occur where the two temperatures are layered or placed side by side.  This happens in the shadow of the white sweater and in the little girl's hair which holds both cool greens and warm orange hues.

The next painting is under way and is a real departure from this, depicting an athletic, adventurous "tween" - this child's sister.  I'll post it when I'm content with it.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of my fellow Canadians!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Portrait Workshop November 15 and 16

I'm looking forward to teaching another portraiture demo and workshop at the Calgary School of Art on November 15 and 16.

Mine will be one of the first Friday night, 3 hour demos held at the school and it should be fun to paint and mingle over the wine and cheese on offer during the breaks.  Kathy and the gang at the school always put on a great spread.  The demo is open to anyone who wants to attend, whether you're taking the Saturday workshop or not.

Because it's a long demo, I'll be able to show and explain my process for painting a portrait from start to finish: something that I can't do in just a one-day workshop.  I tried this format in the spring and it worked like a charm.  People who were in the workshop the next day came in with a clear understanding of the process involved and just needed some small refresher demos throughout the day.  We accomplished a lot that day.

If you're interested in registering for the demo and workshop or for the demo alone, please contact the Calgary School of Art.