Saturday, April 25, 2020

Copying a Painting

Sometimes, when things aren't going quite right, for whatever reason, I'll stop what I'm doing and copy somebody else's painting.  It's proven to be a good way to re-set my inner painting mojo.  Recently, I spent three weeks out of the studio due to everything surrounding the coronavirus lockdown.  Three weeks is enough time to get rusty.  When I got back to the studio, my first project was to finish up a painting from several weeks earlier.  I think it turned out pretty awful.  Then I tried to finish up another painting and wound up scrubbing everything new off of it.  Then I tried working on yet a third painting and didn't get anywhere.  Okay, time to re-set.

As I've noted on here several times before, I've been looking at the Swedish artist Nick Alm.  I don't really care for the subject matter of his paintings, which tend to be a bunch of young Swedes getting drunk in cafes.  I'm not young or Swedish, and I haven't been drunk in a cafe in quite a few decades.  What I'm fascinated by is Alm's technical capability.  There are two parts to this: his compositions, and his skill with putting paint on canvas.

I've talked about his compositions in another post.  My "third painting" mentioned above is actually an attempt to use insights from studying his compositions in a painting of my own.  It's been underway for, oh, six months, and is nowhere near done.  But this time, I'm not looking at composition, I'm looking specifically at how he puts paint on canvas.  And, for that, I copy.

I was looking at paint application because I just couldn't get into the groove of mixing paint, using the brush effectively, and getting the effect I wanted.  Everything seemed to be over-saturated, too contrasty, and too hard-edged.  Alm's paintings, by contrast, have muted colors that are still rich, much softer contrasts, and more subtle gradations between colors, shapes, and objects.  I dug through Mr. Google to find some information about his technical approach and eventually found some good info that I could use to get started.

So here's the image that I chose to copy.  It's actually a detail of a much larger painting.

What drew me to this?  The muted skin tones, transitions between one area and the next, soft edges, blending, accuracy of drawing, lots of stuff.  Look at how his shirt and her top are really just one large white shape, look at how his arm blends into her chest, how her throat blends into the shadow and then into his jaw, and how the light is depicted around her eye and down her cheek, for example.

For this exercise, I used a very limited palette, which is based on the colors he uses.  It consisted of Venetian red (an earthy but strong color), Transparent Gold Ochre (a slightly clearer version of Yellow Ochre), Mars Black (really a very very dark blue), and Flake White (a lead-based white).  That's it.  And here's how it turned out:

Maybe I shouldn't have shown you the image I was copying ...

I can whine that the colors from my iPhone photo aren't accurate and a few other things, but hey, it's just an exercise and I don't have Alm's painting skills.  It was really worthwhile to look at each area carefully to see what the colors are, how they're blended or not, where the strong edges are, how he did the shadows, and so on.  So while my copy is kinda ugly, it was still a very valuable learning experience.

So what's next?  Well, my ambition is bigger than my capabilities.   I'm looking at taking the painting that's been in progress for six months and starting over on a much larger scale.  I'll use the lessons learned from the first version, and from this exercise, in building the bigger one.  I'm probably in over my head, but as an artist friends says, "it's just a painting". 

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