Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Insight Into Making Better Art

My long-time readers (all two of you) know that I've been working on a new series of artworks.  They were inspired by the figure drawings and paintings of Mark Demsteader.  To recap, Mark's figure drawings are really powerful, with very high value contrasts (meaning that almost everything is really light or really dark).  He focused on one small area, usually the face, and the further away from the focus area things were, the more simply they were rendered, until they were just contour lines.  The effect was to make the drawings very dramatic and the figures mysterious.  In his paintings, Mark brought very subdued detail to the faces, but the clothing was abstracted piles of bright impasto.  It's a different way of achieving a related effect.  Here's one of his drawings so you can see what I mean:

I took this concept and played with it, trying to see what I could learn from Demsteader and apply to my own work.  One of the things I discovered was that leaving lots of spaces unfinished was very hard for me to do.  I always want to clearly depict much more, so reining things in early is difficult.  When I do it, though, it usually works well.  While I could get decent black and white drawings, there seemed to be something missing.  So I tried adding just a touch of pastel color.  Boom!  That did the trick.  I've continued doing these drawings and have learned that putting too much pastel on there is as bad as putting too much detail into the drawings.  Restraint is the key, along with the appropriate level of accuracy in the drawings.  Here's one of my works:

The only color here is in Troy's head, shoulder, and a little bit of the arm.  Everything else is either blank or black charcoal.  This kind of thing really intrigues me: how to get something dramatic, strong, composed, and restrained.

I recently stumbled across a young Swedish painter named Nick Alm.  He's a phenomenal painter.  While many of his paintings are complex interactions of multiple figures, he greatly simplifies things, much more than you would think at first look.  Here's one of his paintings:

Look at how he focuses attention where he wants it and your eye fills in the rest.  The woman in white is the key figure.  Her dress and the tablecloth form one shape that's the brightest in the painting.  Her black hair contrasts with her light skin and the light background, calling attention to her face.  The two subordinate figures are both medium values that blend into the surroundings.  Neither has much to call attention to them: little color, little value contrasts, few details.  Now look at the background.  It's just the canvas tone: raw sienna slammed onto the canvas.  You don't get much more basic than that.  And the shadows along the bottom of the painting?  It's one shape, little more than a black brushed loosely over the canvas tone.  Alm's approach is related to Demsteader's: use detail, color, and value contrasts to focus attention where you want it, while simplifying the rest to as little as possible.

I have a lot to learn from these guys.

A couple of days ago, I was listening to an interview with the painter Quang Ho.  He's an American of Vietnamese origin, and is another phenomenal painter, as well as a teacher.  In this interview, he discussed a new technique he was using.  Basically, he was painting in black and white, then when it dried, he was putting color over it.  Now that's a very traditional approach, but Quang was talking about making the drawing simpler, with only two values (black and white) or three (black, white, and a middle value).  Once that dried, he said that it only needs a little bit of color to really make it pop.  That sounds like my approach with the charcoal and pastel figure drawings, doesn't it?  

So it has been an interesting few days.  It's like the universe is pounding on my head, saying NOTICE THIS!!  I've been working on a new approach, and suddenly the lessons from that are reinforced by very different and fantastic artists.  Okay, I'm listening ...

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