Today, I wanted to share a bit about the process of creating a painting. The things I do, some of which may seem a little odd and out of the ordinary, are all crucial for me. The creative process has changed a lot over the years, and I'm going to try to explain it all as best as I can because it can be a bit of a messy, tedious process at times. So here it goes...
1. Prayer. This is actually something I regretfully haven't incorporated into the process enough. But my prayer before I begin a new project is that God be glorified. And especially with this new series of paintings, I read through some Scripture, and typically go over certain passages that I hope can inspire new work. Just as Scripture is God-breathed, I hope my work can be God-breathed as well.
2. Thinking. This is the part that even some artists don't get. And those who aren't artists may even be critical of it. But there are days as an artist where all I do is think. And the criticism comes from those who might believe this is code for "doing nothing." But consider Leonardo Da Vinci. The most efficient thing he ever did was think. And for him, as for me, the act of thinking includes reading and writing (as I'm doing right now). Some of my favorite parts of Da Vinci's notebooks have nothing to do with art, but are his whimsical thoughts, anecdotes, and bits of philosophy that he wrote down. Some of them seem so random that you just know they came to him out of nowhere, and he just wrote them down before it could leave his mind. I think a lot of artists underrate the importance of simply thinking about their work. Another way to put it - the conception of the painting. That's typically what I'm thinking about. Visualizing and conceiving the image. 9.9 times out of 10, the finished painting will look different than my initial conception of it. But the thinking part serves as a major step in creating an idea of what I want to accomplish with a painting. The artist must think visually!
3. Drawing studies. So after I'm done thinking, it's to the drawing board I go. Literally. I will do at least one drawing study of the main figure in the painting. Occasionally I will do a couple of studies, and even do some color studies in oil before getting to the actual painting. I don't typically have live models at my disposal (sadly). So I often research reference photos specifically made for artists, or use my own. The point of this exercise is to familiarize myself with the particular pose of the figure before I put it down on canvas. To iron out some of the problems I will inevitably face in the painting. This is not the point to get crazy with creative license. I will usually draw the figure verbatim as I see it in the reference photo or from the model if I have one (which again, isn't often). At times, if I know exactly what I want to do with the painting composition, I will incorporate some of the "other things" in the drawing outside of just the figure pose. For instance, here is my most recent study for a painting I will be working on soon:
It wasn't that important for me to draw the figure completely, but mainly the important areas that I know will be important to the painting. Much of the figure was in shadow anyway.
4. Underpainting. Once I'm finished with the initial studies, it's time to start painting. At this point I've already decided the size of the painting (that's part of stage 2). So I will either use a pre-made canvas or I'll stretch my own to size, and then begins the underpainting. This is basically what I refer to as a drawing with paint. I use only one color, typically raw umber or burnt umber. I tone the surface of the canvas with a thin, oily transparent layer of umber, and then go about what's called a reductive drawing. This is where I apply dark passages of umber for the shadow shapes, and then wipe out areas of the toned canvas with a rag for the light shapes. It isn't always a perfectly finished, fine-tuned drawing. But it doesn't necessarily have to be. The point is to create a map for where color will go. It takes usually about 24 hours for the underpainting to dry well enough to begin painting over it.
5. First layer of color. Sometimes is may be the only layer of color I apply. This of course is called the alla prima approach, or wet-on-wet, meaning that all of the color you apply to the painting is done at once and usually in one painting session. Other times, I will have the patience to apply multiple layers of color over a few days. This is the traditional approach to oil painting. And it's one that I really love. But again, it's not the approach for the impatient.
6. Additional layers of color. So if I decide that I don't want to do the painting alla prima, then I'll apply layers individually over a few days. And if this is the case, then after the underpainting is dry I start with a simple layer of color consisting only of Williamsburg Brown Pink, Titanium White or Flake White, and Raw Umber. This combination makes for a great initial layer of flesh tone. And there have been paintings that I've completed with only this palette. But it's a great way to start with flesh color, no matter the complexion of the figure. One example of a painting where I stopped with just this palette is my master copy of Velazquez' self-portrait:
So you see, sometimes it's not necessary to get too caught up with color. This was the perfect limited palette for this painting, as Velazquez was all about brown, gray, and black. Which is basically what you get with raw umber, white, and brown pink (or burnt sienna). But if additional color is necessary, then I simply let this limited palette layer dry before moving on to the next layer of color, which is the main color layer. This is where I apply as much of the local color that my eyes can perceive. So all the reds, blues, greens, etc. And I will take it to the best finish I can. Then, let it dry and apply the final stage if necessary - glazes. These are the really thin, subtle, transparent passages of color. They're kind of like the filters on Instagram, if you will. They give a particular glow and life to the painting, and honestly make the figure look more lifelike. After all, skin itself is made up of a series of translucent layers, so the glazes help to create that illusion of flesh. And of course, no matter which painting approach I take, the final touches are the highlights. I apply the highlights in each stage of painting, but as new layers are applied, the highlights need to be re-applied to make sure they are the brightest points.
7. Final varnish. This stage comes a few months after the finished painting as dried. Unless it's a commission that someone just needs immediately (which, to my vexation is usually the case). But that last part of applying the varnish is one of the most important pieces to the conservation of the painting. It's sort of the immune system for a painting, as it protects the overall heath of it from the elements. Seriously, if you want to commission a painter to make a picture for you, my word of advice is whenever possible to commission them about 6 months to a year in advance of when you actually want/need the finished painting. Because as you can see, there is a lot that goes into creating the picture.
These are not necessarily the exact same steps that every artist takes in the creation of their work. But I assure you, no matter the artist, there is a LOT more that goes into a painting than simply going to the studio, slapping some paint on a palette, and making a pretty picture. Think about the masterpiece that you are. That God so carefully and reverently took His time to knit you together. It takes 9 months for a human being to grow just enough in the womb to be ready to join the world. And even before that, God had His conception of you. Creation takes time. It takes intention. And it takes the love of the creator to put in the necessary amount of work to create what is, in his eyes, a masterpiece.
|The Blind Will See (John 9:39)|
oil on linen
|Agnus Dei (Isaiah 53)|
oil on linen