Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Painting Process

The Red Dress
Oil on canvas, 30"x24"

I finally finished The Red Dress yesterday. It's been in progress for about six weeks, a typical period for me to work on a painting. This one started after looking at some portraits by John Singer Sargent, which made me want to work from an elegant, clothed model. So Whitney and I discussed which outfit she should wear and decided on this one. In the first session, I roughed in the figure and finished her face, and was so excited about the progress that I had her come back the next evening. In the second session, we more or less finished the figure. It was off to a good start.

Now my question was, what to do with it? It was a good painting of a pretty girl, but so what, those are a dime a dozen. So I decided to try an approach used by one of my favorite artists, Jerome Witkin, and make it about a model in the studio. I moved the edges of the backdrop from off the canvas to inside, then roughed in the bricks. Now it was apparent that there was a "hard" and "soft" theme going, with the hard bricks and soft model, so some additional things related to that theme needed to be added. My answer was the dog on the red pillow, which played to both the "soft" and the "red" concepts in the model. Now the painting needed something to the left of the figure. I thought that a glass of red wine would be perfect, but it had to sit on something. There are a couple of small tables in the studio, but they just weren't suitable. Then I spotted my studio partner's wooden crate - it was the right size and kinda funky, so in it went. Pretty perfect so far. Next, I added the lamp on the right, the easel/painting/hand on the left, and the open book on the floor. Now we've got an artist's studio. The last addition was the green rug, chosen because (a) the green is a complement to the red and (b) it was there. This was the final element to be added.

The next step was to go around the painting and bring everything up to an appropriate level of refinement. Almost everything needed tweaking: the shape of her legs and their shadows, highlights and shadows on the backdrop, color of the easel, lights and shadows of the dog and pillow, the bricks had to be darkened, and so on. My biggest headache was the artist's hand on the left - I had a helluva time getting it right, and spent several days on the damn thing. Yesterday, though, I went in and got it done in fifteen minutes. Bam, bam, there it was. Cool!

This is going to be the start of a new series of paintings. Should be more fun than some of the "Debbie Downer"-type paintings I've been doing for years, although those will still continue.

Next, though, I have to do a painting for Janis as her Christmas present. Already have the drawings done and canvas prepped. I'll probably start it on Tuesday or Wednesday, after the snow lifts.

I mentioned Jerome Witkin earlier. There's a wonderful interview with him on the Painting Perceptions blog that is well worth reading. (I just discovered this site; if you're an artist, you should know about it, too). One of Witkin's statements really hit me. He was talking about the time he met Giorgio Morandi, and segued into the role of teachers and mentors, and then said this:
"We are deepened by our teachers, our mentors, and I think the Morandi experience was so special, so special. And I think when you’re in your studio by yourself, you think, Who is my audience? If Morandi is standing behind me, or Isabel Bishop, or Bill de Kooning, or Phil Guston, or Orozco, or Rembrandt, those are your real audiences. They’re the climbers of Everest and they’re helping you to get to the top."

Wow. Too often, some artists (including me) think of our audiences as some unknown potential collector who might buy our work, and we tailor it to them in hopes of a sale. Witkin is pointing out this is too low a bar. Instead, we should paint each painting as if we're going to present it to Morandi, or de Kooning, or Rembrandt, or whoever our own personal art inspiration is. Raise the bar: do your best.

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