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On this page I’ve taken some time to define and detail my process for painting. I don’t always do everything the same way - I hope that I can still handle some change in my life - but for the most part it’s what I know works for me at this point in my creative development.

I welcome your comments and ideas. I try to learn something from every comment I get. For now, let me start by giving you a bit more detail about what I do and how I do it, knowing that it can - in fact will - change.

PHASE ONE - THE IDEA

I’m not like a lot of artists I know who can wake up in the morning and say “Today I’m going to paint a big sky, perhaps with a mountain and maybe a tree.” My ideas come directly from what I see around me. I may pass by something every day and then one morning on my way down the hill to the grocery store I’ll see it again, but this time it will have a name, and then I know that I want to paint it. For example, “Field of Greens” is a painting of a local farm I pass at least once a week. One spring day I glanced over to see that an entire field had gone yellow with dandelions. It had a name.

Once something has a name, I start watching it more closely. Is it most dramatic in the morning light or the afternoon? Will that giant maple tree turn yellow or red in the fall and will the color be an asset to the painting or a detraction? With “Field of Greens” I took the photographs right then - everything was exactly as it should be. I even started the painting the next day and three months later - Voila! - it was done.

Or sometimes, Bill and I just drive around with a camera and if I see something I like, we stop. We’ll walk around trying different angles - I point, he clicks. (Because we’re outdoors, we call this the en plein air phase.) Now that I have a mega-whatever digital camera of my own, we often come back with many many reference photos that need to be deleted. Sometimes we go back later to get more pictures in a different light or even a different season.

PHASE TWO - COMPOSITION

This, for me, is probably the toughest part about creating a painting. Generally, I’ll have anywhere from six to thirty reference photos of my idea scattered about on my table trying to make a picture. I use mat board corners to frame and reframe the images until I find one that I like. That will become my base photo. By measuring height and width of the framed image, I will define a proportion of height and width that I want to work with as I create my pre-painting sketch. I know, pretty quickly, when I begin my sketch whether the composition in the image that I’ve chosen is going to work as a painting.

When I like the sketch, I begin the drawing on the watercolor board. I first identify the strongest vertical element of the sketch which is closest to the center of the composition. Using that element as an anchor, I work from the base photo to locate the other major vertical elements in relation to it. This step can be completed with a fair amount of accuracy from the photo to the drawing.

The tricky part of working from photographs is that you don’t always get the exact perspective that you need to create a good composition. What looks great in a photograph can, in a painting, be a major detraction from the work. While creating my drawing from reference photos, I calculate the vanishing points and engineer my drawing with the aid of a very long straight edge rather than do a direct enlargement of the photograph. This is also the point where artistic license comes into play. I may need to move a vertical or create an artistic “distortion” to get the feeling that I want in the painting.

The photo above shows a drawing of the Nubble Light at York, Maine, with the sky completely painted. When painting the sky, I usually work on top of a pale blue wash - darker at the top of the page than at the horizon line. If the sky is cloudless, I mix enough paint to finish it and then work as fast as I can to apply it smoothly and evenly, adding white as I work down the board toward the horizon line. Keeping the board damp by misting it with the spray bottle helps, but you can over do it and get runs. I usually mist and then blot with a paper towel before applying paint. The paint needs to be misted, too, and the consistency kept as even as possible through the entire process. If you’re like me, you’ll begin to love clouds.

When I’m working on a cloudy sky, I work up several shades of blue paint, from nearly white to dark. I’ll add the complement to some of the blue paint: orange or one of the siennas will often gray the blue to be the perfect color for the underside of the cloud. I start usually in the upper left corner of the painting and work wet in wet with a soft nylon round brush to swirl the cloud shapes into the blue of the sky. If an area drys before you are done, you can blend wet paint into that area if it is the same color that was used on the dry section, in other words if you have enough paint pre-mixed. Because acrylic paints usually dry darker than they look when wet, it is extremely difficult to get an exact match if you have to mix more paint.

PHASE THREE - SETUP

If you are an artist yourself, you might be interested in how I set up to paint. If you are not an artist, or an artist who’s not interested, you can go directly to Phase Four.

So, for you who are interested, let me repeat that I currently paint using acrylic paints on watercolor board. I use several brands of paint (no endorsement dollars for me) and each have their pros and cons. They all dry incredibly fast. I spend a great deal of time during my setup attempting to trick the paint into staying wet until I can get it on the board. My physical palette, if you will, is an 8”x8” square by 2” deep antique Tupperware container into which I place a layer of those green scrub pads covered by a layer of thin foam rubber covered by two folded paper towels. These are all wetted down with a spray bottle which contains water, a few drops of disinfectant and a squirt of retardant. I cover all this with a sheet of tracing paper, cut to fit. Sounds a bit over the top but if all these layers don’t fit the container - without curling - you can end up with co-mingled mess. (I might mention here that despite what you may think you know about me by looking at my paintings, I am not a patient or meticulous person unless I have a tiny brush in my hand, so understand that I have tried many times to streamline my process and this is one step that I can’t seem to effectively minimize.)

I use a full, but basic, palette of colors at all times. You get one chance with acrylics and when you are in the middle of a brush stroke and need some Burnt Sienna to tone it down, well, let’s just say you don’t have time to reach for the tube. I place each color in the same relative place in the box each time I set up the palette, so I don’t have to think whether the blue I’m dipping into is really Ultramarine or one of those Pthalos. I use white, two yellows, two oranges, two reds, four greens, four blues, yellow ochre, the siennas, the umbers and (I’m sorry, Mrs. Miller) Paynes Gray and black. Once the paints are all in place, they get a light misting from the bottle.

When mixing the paints, my training with oils shows. I use a palette knife with which I remove paint from the container for mixing and for the mixing surface I use a treated paper palette.

The watercolor board that I currently use is cold press, so there is not much tooth, or texture, to it but it’s not slick like hot press paper. I like this surface because a lot of my brush strokes are too light to push paint into the valleys of a textured paper without ending up with white spots. Once I used hot press paper and the paint nearly slid off.

I cut my board to the dimensions of the frame. I then use acid free white artist tape to wrap and protect the cut edges from water.

PHASE FOUR - UNDERPAINTING

The main reason I do an underpainting is to eliminate the stark white of the watercolor board. With an underpainting in place, there is no chance that the white of the paper will accidentally show through the final paint layer. For the underpainting, I apply loose, pure color - generally straight from the tube - with a round white nylon brush to define the major shapes in the painting. You’ll see in this photo that I have applied color to the roofs and walls of the buildings and to some of the major boulders in the foreground. The grassy hill was underpainted in Yellow Ochre before the defining layers of paint were applied. Some of the Yellow Ochre actually shows through to add a feeling of realism and depth.

Sometimes the color I use is the mid-range, dominant color of the shape, such as a wash of Raw Sienna to cover the side of a barn. Or I might use a wash of Raw Umber so that a hint of brown dirt remains after the plants are painted in.

On occasion, I’ll use the complement to the actual color as the underpainting; for example, I will wash in a thin layer of Cadmium Orange Light to define the sky. It is my opinion that this complementary technique is not as effective with acrylic paints as it is with oil paints because the top layer of paint often appears to sit on top of those layers underneath, not blend with them. (More about this effect later.) Using oils, a turpentine wash of orange paint under a blue sky will gray the sky slightly, adding depth. With acrylic paints it often just needs to be painted over until it no longer shows orange.

If I have a major area of shadow in my composition I will most likely underpaint it with Payne’s Gray or a Payne’s Gray/Burnt Umber mixture. You can see this in the photo above on the front elevation of the house, although in a much diluted state. Again, this can be tricky because it takes a lot of paint of a lighter pigment to cover a deep blue-gray area of board. Often many layers of white are required to redefine a bright spot in a shadow that was underpainted with dark pigment.

PHASE FIVE - PAINTING

I try to discipline myself to finish the entire underpainting before returning to any one area of the painting. Once in a while I actually finish the underpainting, but usually that’s in a landscape. If there’s a building in the painting I can’t wait to get started.

I do consistently work far to near. That usually equates to top to bottom, but not always. The sky being the furthest thing away, it always gets painted first. This I never fail to do. If my sky isn’t complete, it’s difficult to add anything to the painting which breaks the horizon line. A retouched sky almost always looks like a retouched sky. The photo of the painting to the right demonstrates that while I may complete my sky before doing an underpainting, I do not often manage to complete my underpainting before working the major components of the painting.

If I have something in my drawing that breaks the horizon with a hard line, such as a roof, I’ll use my artist’s tape to mask it. That way I can paint sky horizontally without working around a drawing component that I don’t want to lose. You could see that technique in the earlier photo of this painting - all the roof lines were taped. Only the solid shape of the lighthouse was taped, the elements of the platform being too narrow and fine for taping.

An organic, inexact shape, such as a tree trunk, I may cover with a liquid mask which is similar to rubber cement. I don’t use the liquid mask for a hard line because it has a tendency to roll away from the edges when touched by the brush, leaving a very indistinct line once removed.

If I don’t finish my underpainting before I begin to detail the more distant components of a painting, I usually return to finish it at a later stage, as is shown in the photo of the demo painting here.

Working on the foreground - in this case the boulders - I cover the white of the board with a very diluted paint. Because it is so diluted, and because there is no white added to turn it opaque,  the drawing lines show through. In order to define the shape of the boulders, I’ll mix a loose “ink” of Ultramarine Blue, Payne’s Gray and Burnt Umber to paint the shadows between and the cracks within each shape. This dark, dense color can be covered with an opaque paint later in the process if necessary.

 You can probably tell that I was a bit intimidated by the lighthouse - its smooth round barrel shape and that black railing around the platform at the top that I didn’t want to tackle. So I worked on the rocks some more. I could do that without really violating my far to near rule because nothing overlaps the lighthouse.

The boulders were a challenge, too. While the shadows between them are crisp and deep, painting them that way can make them look one-dimensional. So I worked for many hours trying to soften edges where I could while retaining the shape and the depth that I needed.

It was at this same time that I made the decision to eliminate the little bit of ocean that showed in the reference photos from the foreground of my painting. Artistic license. The lighthouse, for those of you who don’t know, is situated on an island, but the distance between the island as I was looking at it and the shore on which I was standing is only about 10 or 20 feet. Had Bill held the camera at my eye-level instead of his, the ocean would not have been visible. Therefore I felt justified in painting it out. And if you’re wondering, yes - I do have these conversations with myself when I’m painting.

Before completing the foreground, those flat, weathered rocks that make up the shore in that part of Maine, I screwed up my courage and painted the lighthouse. Shadows on a smooth rounded surface such as a lighthouse can be tricky to represent with acrylics. They dry so fast that it’s a real challenge to blend them. And if they aren’t blended, the rounded surface takes on a planar appearance. I used the technique I described earlier in the sections about painting the sky - preparing plenty of pre-mixed paint in all the shades I needed, misting to keep the surface wet and working as fast as possible.

To paint the railing, I redrew it, in pencil, over the blue of the sky. I don’t like to do this, but when painting something so mathematically precise, any little mistake becomes a visual beacon. And when I paint with black acrylic paint over a blue sky whose color can never be replicated exactly, I don’t like to make mistakes.

After finishing the boulders in the foreground, I put in the final elements of the painting - the flag and flagpole, electric wires, some shadows around the gingerbread on the roof. And then I go over the whole painting and pop the highlights by adding tiny little spots of white for extra interest.

At this point, Bill usually comes in for his final inspection. If you think I’m fussy about the details, you should hear his comments. With his architectural engineering background it’s hard for him to let any structural mistake go by. He definitely does not believe in artistic license. But as difficult as it is to take sometimes, when he’s right, he’s right. I’ll change the painting as he suggests and the improvement will be noticeable.

 In this painting, I had somehow mistaken the lens of the lighthouse as a solid black object rather than a glass lens in shadow. This can happen when you work from photos. (Another frequent subject of conversation with myself.) Fortunately, the fix was easy and I got the coveted stamp of approval.

The final final step (after signing my name) is to varnish the painting. I use a gloss acrylic varnish. I’m reading some stuff about using matte medium and matte varnish - the article I have says “never, never.” But the gloss varnish not only protects the painting but it also acts like water on the surface of a rock - it improves or emphasizes the contrast between the colors. The lights become lighter and the darks darker. I varnish in a horizontal pattern with an extremely fine 2” brush - the best brush I own, in fact. I want no brush marks in the varnish. After the appropriate drying period, I varnish again, this time in a vertical pattern.

The final final final step is to deliver the painting to a professional photography lab. The lab shoots a 4x5 transparency of the painting which I will use as a record of the painting and for any reproduction of the painting. At the same time I have them shoot a number of 35mm slides. I use these for competitions, gallery screenings and scanning into this web site.

And, of course, the very last final step is to frame the painting. I no longer put my original paintings under glass, so I don’t need to mat them. (I still say “I”, but it means “Bill” - he’s the framing guy.)

I hope this was a) educational, b) enlightening, c) entertaining, or d) all of the above. I know that it has helped me to write it down and made it easier to verbalize in a demonstration. Thanks for reading.