My approach to painting has evolved from necessity. The scarcity of free time available to me has placed limits on how much I can accomplish in any one span of time. The style I will outline in the following pages works well for those that have a busy life. One where you have to start and stop a painting on a regular basis. The actual labor in this demo spanned slightly more than one month.
I possess neither patience, nor discipline, and I almost never paint 'from life.' Resigning yourself to painting from photographs can be limiting, but it needn’t be! Providing you have a reasonably keen eye, a smattering of talent, and the desire to succeed, photos can be an invaluable asset.
Case in point. You will do well to give a lot of consideration to your source material. With regards to composition and lighting, leave as little to chance as possible. A poor source will place undue stress of where you can take the painting. My subject of choice was my dog, Melvin, a rather oafish Basset Hound. He brims with character and personality, and I wanted to capture those qualities, and create not just a portrait of a dog, but this dog! Here is the reference photo I will be working from, the product of quite a few false starts. If you’ve ever tried to photograph a dog that knows you’re trying to, you’ll appreciate what I mean.
Once I’m satisfied with the photo reference, which I am for this portrait, I begin the drawing. There are diverging opinions on whether a very detailed drawing is the key or even necessary towards the success of a painting. I believe it is. This drawing will serve two purposes. One, it establishes the composition in space, helps me visualize, and allows me to adjust basic values in graphite before any color goes down. Secondly, I simply love to draw!
An early capture of the features and expression can serve to build confidence, an essential quality that I cannot begin to adequately estimate the value of.
With the drawing complete, I apply a good coat of spray, workable and erasable fixative, which is noxious and should be used in a well ventilated area. It seals the drawing to the canvas, preventing any lead from mixing with and dirtying the paint. Do not use damar or an other spray varnish at this stage. Those products will leave the surface as slippery as glass to which paint will not adhere. The workable fixative leaves very little properties behind besides sealing the drawing. Once the spray has had an opportunity to dry, usually no more than 20-30 minutes, it is time to begin the next stage of the painting.
I prefer not to apply paint to a pure white canvas. I tint the canvas with a dominant tone. For this painting I chose burnt sienna. I use actual paint thinner mixed with a small quantity of oil paint. This serves three purposes; one, it tones down the glare of the white canvas. Two, when using thin passages of paint later on you won’t get those annoying white specks showing through initial layers, for those like myself who paint in very thin layers. The third reason is the paint seems to adhere to the canvas better, as if the paint-thinner has roughened up the texture some, making it less slick.
I often begin applying paint at this point, but I will sometimes finesse the tint with a little more pigment in the darker areas; basically a selective second, heavier coat of the first wash. Using a new ink eraser I gently erased areas of the tint to bring out the brighter areas of the painting. This step is not really necessary, but it gives me a mini-preview before I get further into the painting.
Now I am ready to actually paint. I will proceed in the traditional fashion of working from the background to the foreground. In this case that nebulous space above the arm of the couch. Here I’ve used a blend of asphaltum, a beautiful warm brown, and Naples yellow to lighten and add volume. I chose not to use white to do this, as white tends to bleed the value of brown.
Throughout this process you will see me basically filling in the spaces, not at all like some traditional painters who cover the entire canvas in succeeding layers of paint. I cover the surface initially in this “patchwork” manner. Here I begin adding the variegated tones to start the pattern on the couch arm. I will continue this variety of tone throughout this early stage as I apply and butt the other colors against each other, wet against wet, keeping the edges soft as I go. I must also avoid turning those edges into mud.
The arm is largely set with the basic tones and values at this stage of the painting. The colors used include sap green, yellow ochre, mahogany red, thalo green, Prussian blue for the deepest darks, and a mixed blend of zinc & titanium white. My goal was to achieve some basic dimension without getting bogged down on final values at this stage.
Now that the basic color has been completed on the arm I will begin work on the back of the couch and the ratty old blanket that Melvin is laying on. (Note: I chose to simplify the pattern of the blanket.) I began by painting in purely flat blocks of color, without any attention to dimension or volume. Just cover the canvas at this stage. After all, a real blanket doesn't have perceived volume on its surface. Light creates the volume, but that will be applied at a later stage in the painting. This is a good stopping point to allow the paint to dry. I believe you are now aware of the advantage of painting in this style. While waiting for paint to dry you have time to get on with other things in your life.
Two days have passed, and now I am ready to continue. Here is where I begin the glazing. I prefer a product called "Liquin" in my glazes. To this syrupy commodity I add varying degrees of sap green and Paynes gray. This is where I begin to model the surface of the blanket, giving it the shape and volume I promised.
These next stages move along fairly fast. One of the most appealing properties of "Liquin" is that it accelerates drying. Glaze is applied to the foreground blanket. (Note: The brightest areas are ignored for now.)
The process of reducing the blanket and creating depth continues with more dark glazes. The folds and creases are deepened, and the couch beneath the blanket makes it’s presence felt. The turning edge of a crease in fabric, where it meets the change in tone, is usually darker than the body tone of the actual shadow. I carefully vary my tones in a consistent 1 dark, 2 lighter, and 3 lightest values in this fashion. Enough dark. I now add some highlights using a random mixture of titanium, zinc and flake white to bring up the pleats in the fabric.
Only at this stage do I realize that the bright highlight on the couch in the upper right corner isn’t going to work. It would draw the eye too much, and so I defeat this distraction by adding darks to the back, above the dog.
Waste not, want not. There's extra glaze left over. I carry some of this same dark, and model the arm of the couch a bit more.
I also add some more light to the creases, and start on the bright area on the cushions in front of Melvin.
Now I must begin to tone down the glare on those cushions in the foreground. I mix a glaze of the principal blanket-tones and suggest the checked pattern within the light. I am able to creat a few folds in the terrain while I’m at it. (Note: The creases that exist in the fabric have been accentuated somewhat to echo the creases and wrinkles in Melvin's flabby face and body.) I’ve darkened the shadow beneath his paw as well.
I also dropped down some folds of the blanket where they drop off the cushions. This is not suggested in the reference photo, but I want to give the cushion edge more dimension. This is done with a dry mix of titanium/zinc white and a neutral tone (such as my favorite, Paynes gray). With a stiff bristle filbert brush, scrub down, using very little paint. Then behind the new fold to our left in the painting. Scrub in some pure dark using the same technique. (Note: To make something brighter you don’t always have to lighten the object itself. Darken the area adjacent to the object, and you brighten the object in the process; sometimes this technique is a more subtle effect.)
I notice the surface of the canvas is starting to get ugly from the upper layers of paint sinking in and becoming matte, while fatter layers are gleaming. I lightly brush on some retouch varnish in the matte areas to bring the colors back, and thus avoid the risk of correcting tones that don’t need it.
I begin to wonder if the couch-back hasn’t become too featureless, flirting with flat. I decide to build up some tones. First, I add a border-tone, or core-shadow, across the back where the curve meets the light. This is simply a scumble of the ever-versatile paynes gray thinned down some for transparency’s sake. The curve of the couch becomes a little more dimensional. I also add more dark in a triangular area to the right of the crease that bisects the back, and the corner behind Melvin’s neck. I then tone down the lower highlight on that same long pleat.
The upper most highlight on the couch back in the photo reference appears wrong to my eye. I felt that I needed something up there nonetheless. I added some glazed highlights, the darker under-tones still show through, but without creating that solar flare effect in the photo.