Monday, July 02, 2018

Painting Composition

I've been following the Norwegian artist Nick Alm for a couple of years now.  Nick is a young guy who is a phenomenal figure painter.  There's a lot to look at in his paintings: his compositions, his use of light and dark, the way he paints the figure, his skin tones, the way he paints (or doesn't paint) backgrounds, the expressions of his people, and on and on.  This time, I'm going to take a look at a painting he just posted called "Cafe Scene".

Quick notes on terminology: "warm" colors are those in the red to yellow range; "cools" are blues and greens.  Not only that, but warm and cool are really only warmer or cooler than the colors around them.  "Value" refers to the lightness or darkness of a color.  A high-value area is one that's light, a low-value area is one that's dark.

Cafe Scene, oil on canvas, 47"x43"
Nick Alm

Click on the image for a larger view - please, it's worth it.

This painting is fairly large at 47"x43".  There are a lot of figures (12), all of them exceptionally well-rendered.  Now, the subject matter of a bunch of people sitting around drinking wine, and not having a particularly good time of it, doesn't float my boat.  Doesn't matter: look at how beautifully this thing is put together.  Squint and you'll see that the lower left is basically one large dark cool area, the top third is a cool mid-value gray, and the figures form a warm, light arch going from the lower right towards the upper left.  It's a very dynamic composition of light/dark and warm/cool even without recognizable figures and objects.

The arc formed by the figures is reinforced by the three tables.  Here again is a warm/cool balance: the warm figures against the cool tables.  The tables are all horizontal while the figures are vertical, except for maybe the girl at the peak who's apparently about to jump out of the guy's arms.  And each of the tables has a horizontal dish on it, with the tables and dishes in the upper left and lower right going off their respective edges.

Now look at the light, mid-value, and dark areas.  If this was a real cafe, everybody's clothes would be all different colors and values.  Alm tied the colors and values together so that they guide the eye.  The people in the dark area of the canvas are all wearing clothes that are pretty much the same color, a dark muted blue.  The mens' jackets are the same color, while the woman with her back to us is wearing a dress of essentially the same color, only lighter and bluer.  Her dress's specific color is echoed in the ties of the two men on the left side of the canvas.  The woman in the middle of the composition is wearing a dress of, again, the same basic color, only lighter and more muted.  The woman in the lower right is wearing a dress that is also the same basic color, only still lighter and more muted, but it transitions toward her shoulders toward a warmer color.  Then the outfits of the two women, the standing man, and woman are all warm tones, very similar in color.  They're all set against a background that is a neutral gray that is based on the very same colors used in the dark area.  

Over the past few years, I've become more of a proponent of using a limited palette of colors.  Alm's use of a very limited palette here shows how it can be used to help hold a painting together.

You can see how even the skin tones help guide the eye.  The skin tones are all warm against a cooler background, but he uses darker and paler tones to focus attention.  Look at the guy on the far left: he's darker and the skin colors are muted.  The gentleman next to him is also dark, but his color is a bit stronger, with a bit more variation between the lightest and darkest areas.  The angle of his head picks up the angle on the young lady's dress as it goes over her shoulder.  Her skin tones are very light on her shoulder and neck, but look at how dark her elbow is.  Most painters I know (including me) would not have made that strong a value contrast, but it's the right call here.  The woman next to her, with the light brown hair, also has light skin, but Alm covers up her shoulders so that they don't pull attention away from the other young woman.  Plus, her light brown hair does not present a strong value contrast against her skin, while the woman with her back to us has almost black hair against very pale skin.  The woman on the far right is not one of the focal points in the composition, so even though she's the closest person to the viewer, her skin colors are not as strong as others in the painting, and the light/dark range is smaller.  The woman whose head is sharply turned actually has the strongest coloring of all in the painting.  Her cheeks and lips have more red than anybody else's, which helps draw the eye to her.  

Another detail that Alm uses to guide the eye is, well, detail.  Alm uses details only in the figures that are most important: the man at the table, the girl in the blue dress, the woman with light brown hair, the woman whose head is sharply turned, the man who is holding up the celebrating girl, and of course the girl raising the glass.  And those figures are only detailed in the places where the details contribute to the story.  Look at the woman whose head is turned, for example: her face is detailed and the light/dark contrast of her eye tells us to look the way she's looking.  The man in the light suit is slightly detailed around the face and hair, but also the arm of the coat, just enough to show he's lifting her.  By contrast, look at his left shoulder: his jacket just bleeds off into the background.  The woman in the lower right?  She's closest to us, but the details aren't as apparent here because Alm doesn't want you spending much time on her.  Yes, her face is developed, but the paint strokes have generally softer edges, and her eyes are almost closed, so we don't look there.  

Speaking of detail, look at the background.  You get the idea that these people are in a room with a column on the left and a mural on the right.  But look at the wall: it's really just paint slammed onto the canvas with thick, juicy brush strokes.  The "column" is just a couple of vertical lines.  The "mural" is a slight bit of yellow and maybe burnt umber, slammed in at the same time the wall was done.  The looseness of the paint handling here tells your eye that (a) it's a wall and (b) nothing to see here, move along.  

I could go on.  Look at the wine glasses: all three that are being held are tilted at almost the same angle.  Look at how the edges of shapes are very sharp in some areas (where they're important) and almost non-existent in others (where they're not).  Look at where the colors are strong and where they're muted.  Look at how the direction of the light is consistent throughout the painting.  Alm had to have used photo references to put this together, since all the figures are anatomically perfect, but he had to have carefully staged each individual to get the photos he needed.

Bottom line: this painting is brilliantly put together.  The specific storyline means little to me, but I don't care: I could study this painting for a long, long time and still see something new in it.  I've done some paintings that are complex enough to require a lot of time spent on studies and putting lots of bits together.  But, in those, I see now that I was painting each item as a separate "thing".  I wasn't tying them together into broader shapes, or using detail to guide the eye, or even paying much attention to edges.  So now I want to put together a more complex painting using some of these techniques and see what happens.  Wish me luck!

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Wedding Painting Progress

I recently had four wedding paintings on successive Saturdays.  Sounds great, right?  Well, yes, it is, but I'm a slow painter.  I don't complete the paintings at the event, I take 'em back to the studio to bring them up to my standards.  Since my paintings are advertised as being completed 2-4 weeks after the event, they kinda piled up on me.  However, that backlog is over.  One painting (a watercolor) was delivered a couple of weeks ago.  Another painting was delivered today.  A third will go out as soon as the notecards come back from the printer so I can include them in the box.  And the fourth painting is nearing completion.  Whew!

I thought it would be interesting to show the difference between the way a painting looks at the end of the reception and the way it looks when it is finally sent to the bride and groom.  Here's the "end of reception" one for Sara and Brenton:

Really, this is just a rough block-in.  I've got the composition determined, poses suggested, and enough indicated to get going in the studio.  None of the figures have faces - most are just a quick stroke of paint to mark the approximate location and size.  It needed a lot of work.  And here's how it looks now:

Quite a difference, huh?  The fundamentals didn't change: the composition, color scheme, and positions of the people.  But now the bride and groom, both sets of parents, the officiant, bridesmaids and groomsmen, all are recognizable.  There was a good bit of back-and-forth with the bride and her mom to get some of the details right, but that's great, because it resulted in a better and more meaningful painting.  They're happy, I'm happy that they're happy, and this one will be on it's way to its new home in a day or so.

Let's look at the one for Cindy and Bill.  Here's how it looked at the end of the first evening:

Again, it's just a rough block-in.  Cindy and Bill are in good positions but there's no detail: nothing in the faces, and the clothes and hands are just quick strokes of paint. The gazebo is barely indicated.  The crowd is only roughly indicated and, in fact, only one of them survived.  Yep, I killed all the others and replaced them with figures better suited to the situation, as you can see:

In the final version, I kept the positions of the bride and groom and developed their faces, clothing, and postures.  The bridal bouquet is now more than just a few blobs of paint and the dress has folds and texture.  I paid a good bit of attention to the environment: the trees in the background needed that early-spring green, for example, but I deleted some plants because they detracted from the people.  And I developed the gazebo into a real 3-D building.  The biggest changes were the people in the crowd.  Bill's parents and brother are in the back right (they weren't in the first version).  Cindy's parents are in the back left.  They are both deceased, but since they were there in spirit (Cindy had chairs set aside for them), I added them in.  Then I had to create additional people to fill in the chairs and throw the petals, but not to block the families.  All in all, I think it worked out pretty well.  This painting was delivered today.  Yay!

And there's still one wedding painting on my easel right now.  This one was more complicated than both of the two above, so maybe I'll make a blog post about its development when it's done.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Wedding Landscape

In my last post, I mentioned that I was going to do a small watercolor at a wedding near Cashiers, NC.  That turned into an interesting experience.  Cashiers is in a spectacularly beautiful region high in the mountains of southeast North Carolina.  The area is filled with golf courses, vacation homes, and seasonal businesses.  The couple getting married had asked me to do a small watercolor of the setting for their wedding.  It wasn't to include the bride, groom, or other wedding participants.  I told them that I could do a plein air landscape and have it matted for them during the reception.

Once I arrived at the site, I saw why they wanted the location.  It's a place called Lonesome Valley, which I learned is the largest box canyon east of the Mississippi.  The valley floor was lush with the early-spring light greens of the trees, while the canyon walls to the northeast were sheer granite walls hundreds of feet high.  Wow!  I set up in a place where the wedding guests could come by to see what I was doing, while still giving me a clear view of the valley and the granite walls.  When I started, it was a beautiful day.

That changed.  The wedding was scheduled for 5 pm, but at 4:30 some thick clouds rolled in.  I checked the weather radar and, of course, there was a single cell of rain coming right towards us.  Just before 5, it opened up.

I took down my easel and quickly relocated to the shelter of the reception hall to finish up the artwork.  The rain eased up and the ceremony went off a half hour late.  Not too bad, considering.  The bride, groom, and guests all seemed to love the artwork ... at least, I had lots of questions and compliments on it.  So here's the finished work:

The good people at Lonesome Valley said that they welcome artists to come paint the valley.  I'm not a landscape artist, but this is definitely a place I'd like to go back to and paint!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Wedding Season

The spring wedding season is on us and I've been busy.  On Saturday, April 21st, I went to Cary, NC (outside Raleigh) to do a live wedding painting for a wonderful young couple.  A week later, I was in Pilot Mountain, NC (north of Winston-Salem) to do another live wedding painting, this time for the owner of the venue.  The next weekend, I was at the Biltmore, here in Asheville, to do a live painting of the first dance at the reception for another young couple.  This coming Saturday, I'll be doing a small watercolor at a reception near Cashiers, in southwest North Carolina.

That's a lot of painting!

So, are the first three done yet?  No.  The first one is very near completion.  I'm making small changes to bring the overall finish up to where I'm comfortable with signing it.  Two or three days of work and I think it'll be done.  The second painting is about midway there, but it has a long way to go.  The third is still at the starting line: it has a rough block-in done at the reception, but that's it.

Every painting is different.  It has its own personality, it has its own things it wants to say, and it comes together in its own unique way.  The first of these paintings has been very cooperative from the get-go.  It has a very formal structure and things naturally fell into place.  It seems like my job has been to make sure all the details are executed properly.  The second painting is a bit more exuberant and lively.  I feel like it needs some guidance and creative suggestions to bring out the best in it, but it really wants to come to life.  The third?  It's been fighting me since the first marks on paper, even before the paint.  Everything has been a struggle: the composition, perspective, placement of the bride and groom, the lighting, the selection of photos to use for their poses, color, everything.  However, by the end of the reception, the painting started to come together, and I have a plan for how I want it to develop.  But since paintings are living things, and this one seems to have a rather independent mind, it may go in an entirely different way.  We'll see.

And NO, you can't see any progress photos.  Sometimes making a painting is like making sausage: the process is ugly but the end result is delicious.

So I'm off to the studio to sling some paint.  I'll post photos of the completed paintings when they're done.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Back in Court ... as an Artist, NOT Defendant!

I got to do another courtroom artist gig with WLOS on Friday.  Wanda Greene is the former County Manager for Buncombe County, NC.  She and her son Michael have been under investigation by the FBI for misappropriation of county funds, and on Friday, they were arraigned in federal court.  The case is a Big Deal in these parts and a great many people have been following it closely.

WLOS called me early in the week to ask if I was available.  Courtroom sessions are fun, so I made myself available, and hooked up with the reporters (Aaron Adelson and Lauren Brigman) and cameramen outside the building Friday morning.  They professionally ambushed the two defendants as they arrived with their attorneys.  A bit later, we went into the building to get situated in the courtroom.

When I arrived, another case was wrapping up.  Seating was almost non-existent, so I stood for a few minutes trying to decide what to do.  Then the judge basically told me to sit down, and the only place available was right next to Wanda Greene.  Her attorney came in a couple of minutes later and sat on the other side of me.  So there I was, drawing materials in my lap, sitting right between the defendant and her attorney!  Awwwkkwaaaaarddd!

Then the first case was over and we all repositioned ourselves.  I wound up in one of the seats in the jury box.  It was great for getting drawings of Wanda, her attorney, and the judge, but Michael was on the far side of them and all I could see was the top of his head.  Time to get to work!

As it turned out, I had more than enough time to get the drawings done.  The judge is a very methodical guy and is known for reading every bit of an indictment.  This time, reading every bit meant reading every item that Wanda and Michael (allegedly) purchased with county funds.  Every item.  Every item on a list 38 pages long.




It took an hour and 45 minutes.

Wanda and Michael (allegedly) didn't spend the money on big-ticket items.  It read like anybody's shopping lists for a period of many years: pizza, a Far Side book, paper towels, lingerie from Walmart, a couple of iPhones, some thumb drives, and so on.  You'd think that if somebody was going to risk their careers by embezzling, they'd go for the gold: Cartier wristwatches, Mercedes cars, trips to Monte Carlo, things like that.  Nope.  Walmart stuff.

So here are the drawings that I produced for WLOS:

The Judge

Wanda Greene and her attorney

Michael Greene

 In Court

Don't know if I'll be called back when the trial actually begins.  We'll see.  The saga continues ...

Sunday, April 08, 2018


Artists, do you ever go back and revise an earlier artwork?  I will, on occasion.  I just did it today, which is what brings it to mind.  Sometimes it results in a better work.  More often, though, the revision totally fails and it winds up in the trash can.  Today, I think it worked.

One of my charcoal and pastel figure drawings was bugging me.  We had Amy model for one of our Wednesday night life sessions back in December, and my scribbles that night seemed to be kinda/sorta working.  The next day, I did some touchup and called it complete.  It's been tacked to the studio wall since then, alongside other works that I liked.

Except it kept bugging me.  Here's how it looked:

The shoulders were too square, the torso too long, and the color pretty weak, and I didn't like the way the color faded out.  But I had other things on my plate and they took priority.

So, today, I had time to work on it.  A couple of years ago, Amy and I did a photo shoot in the studio. I found a couple of photos from that session that could, with some changes, be used as references to possibly fix this work.  Or ruin it altogether.  Either way, I considered it to be substandard, so it needed to change or be tossed.  I worked on it a couple of hours and here's how it looks now:

This revision works much better.  The shoulders feel more natural, the color is richer, the torso is shorter, and it just feels stronger all the way around.  I'm much happier with it.  What do you think?

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Completing a Wedding Painting

In a previous post, I wrote about the start of the wedding painting for Jason and Sarah.  I had a lot of fun that day, both at the ceremony and then at the reception.  The interaction with the couple and their guests was great, the ceremony and location were beautiful, and the reception was PARTAYYY!!  So here's how the painting looked at the end of the reception (click on it for a larger image):

Not too bad for just a few hours worth of work.  But notice: Jason's head is too big, the bride's mother on the left is turned away from us so that we only see the back of her head, and the rest of the people in the painting are only roughly defined.  This needs a lot of work before I would put my signature on it.

To answer your question, yes, I work from photographs.  This couple wanted a painting of the moment they started back down the aisle at the end of the ceremony.  (I have since learned that the proper term for that is the "recessional").  But that doesn't mean that I take one or two quick snaps and that's it.  No, I took a bunch before the guests started arriving, getting in the mountains in the distance, the flowers, the petals on the ground, the guests as they were arriving, then many of each of the party as they entered, including the bride and groom.  I took a bunch of the overall crowd as they were standing and sitting.  I took some wide shots and some closeups from both sides of the setup.  As the key moment approached, the wedding photographer and I positioned ourselves at the end of the aisle and shot almost non-stop as Jason and Sarah turned and walked down the aisle.  In all, I shot over 220 photos.  Then I headed down to the reception venue to get started on the painting.

Over the next three weeks, I used over 20 of those photos to develop the painting.  I used four different ones for Sarah, two for Jason, one or two each for the bride's and groom's mothers, one or two each for each of the bridesmaids and grooms' men, two for the flowers, two for the petals, and a couple for the distant mountains.  And a few more, here and there, for specific details.  Those photos came from everywhere in the collection.  That's why I take a lot of reference photos: you never know which ones will be important when you're in front of the easel.

So here's how the painting turned out:

It came a long way from the first night, didn't it?  Just about every square inch has been re-painted, sometimes multiple times.  Jason came in pretty quickly.  Sarah gave me fits.  I didn't like that Jason was looking at her while she was looking out at the viewer, so I turned her head towards him.  The first try didn't work, so I scrubbed it out and tried a different angle.  That one worked better, but it took a while to get it from "some anonymous blonde woman" to "Sarah".  I turned Sarah's mom ninety degrees so we could get her face and expression and brought Jason's mom up to a good level of finish.  Normally, I don't worry too much about getting likenesses for the rest of the people, but this time, all the figures became recognizable pretty quickly.  Then it was a matter of going around, tightening up the details, correcting colors and values, all while trying to keep the lively brushwork and avoid over-working it.  When it was close, I sent Sarah and Jason a photo and asked for input.  They recommended some changes to make it look more like Sarah, and when I sent them the second proof photo, they said I nailed it.

So right now, the painting is in the studio.  I've been letting it dry for a few days.  It'll head out to Jason and Sarah early next week.  And then it's on to the next challenge ...