Saturday, July 21, 2018

Struggling With a Painting

I recently completed another wedding painting and sent it to the client.  That statement sounds routine, but getting to that point was anything but.  This painting was a fight from almost the very first brushstroke to very close to the end.

About halfway through, I sent an in-progress photo to the client and talked a little about the process, especially since it was VERY different from the last time he'd seen it.  I told him that starting a new painting is like starting a conversation with somebody you've never met.  Sometimes you hit it off like you've known each other your whole lives, and other times you struggle to find a connection.  This time, the painting had a very different mindset than I did, and trying to get on the same wavelength was a never-ending process.

So here's how the painting looked at the very beginning, when I was just starting to position things on the canvas:

The couple wanted a painting of the first dance.  The room was long and somewhat narrow, with glass walls that opened to a lot of trees outside.  The ceiling was very dark brown-stained wooden rafters, the dance floor was the yellow of oak, and there were peach-colored draperies around the room.  As in most first-dance paintings, I wanted to get both the couple and the room a bit off-center.  I also wanted to use the perspective of the room to help guide the eye to the couple.  Getting the perspective to support the couple took some thinking, but here's what I came up with.  And, as you'll see, this structure held true throughout the painting's progress.

Here's how the painting looked at the end of the reception:

I'd taken several dozen photos of the first dance.  My initial thought was to go with one that showed them in a fairly dynamic position and this seemed to be the liveliest choice.  The ceiling has a very thin coat of burnt umber since I didn't want to go too dark too early.  Darks tend to go dead if the paint is applied too thickly and you can't really recover from that.  The dance floor is roughed in and the background is beginning to be populated with the crowd.  Outside the windows, I just put in some washes of green to indicate the lighting and color outside the glass.  It doesn't look like it here, but deciding how to handle the glass walls involved a lot of choices.  The reason is that I arrived early and took a bunch of reference photos of the room, including the windows, but that was in the afternoon.  By the time they actually got to the first dance, they were running a bit late and the light was very dim.  So: go light on the outside, or go dark?  I went with light for now, for the same reason as the ceiling: you can always go darker, but making it lighter can be hard.

Here's the painting after some development.  My wife took one look at the post-reception version and declared that no bride is going to want a painting of her butt, so I had to change their position.  She's right, of course.  I didn't have any decent "lively" shots of them dancing where you could clearly see both of their faces, so I went with one that had them in profile and showed some tenderness.

What you don't see here is the version where it was dark outside the windows.  I blocked in the dark of early evening outside, but it was too gloomy and eliminated a lot of the event's color.  So I repainted the outside in afternoon sun, resulting in lots of greens and other cheerful colors.

The architecture of the place was important and I spent a lot of time working and re-working it.  I had to get something to indicate the rafters in the darkness overhead, and also block in three chandeliers.  The peach-colored curtains , the various verticals and horizontals of the supporting beams and outside railings, the dark wood floor, the architecture of the adjacent building, and some idea of the plantings around the outside, all had to be worked up.  All of this meant painting over bits and pieces of the crowd, resulting in odd things like the decapitated lady just to the right of the dance floor!

By the time I got to this stage, though, the creative decisions and directions had been made.  Most everything after this was refinement and bringing everything up to spec.  The painting and I were more or less on the same page and communicating fairly well.  It still threw me some curve balls every once in a while, though.

And here's the finished version.  The crowd has been added in and turned into specific people.  Both sets of parents are at the table on the left, while the tables in the center and on the right have the bridesmaids and groom's men.  The decapitated lady was hauled off to the morgue.  I worked on the floors to get the right level of reflected lights.  The venue is the LionCrest pavilion at the Biltmore Estate.  They have a unique crest that the client wanted me to include.  Its real location is between the curtains at the far end of the room.  However, when I tried to put it in there, it looked like something was growing out of the bride's head!  So I moved the crest over to the window just to the curtain's left.  (Point of fact: that corner is where I set up my easel at the reception!).  I had to get the little lights that were all over the beams and roof, and also finished the chandeliers.  And there it is - done.

After all that, I think it turned out pretty well.  There are a lot of things I really like about it.  The bride and groom, for example, are really good likenesses, and they show a true connection to each other.  The other figures have pretty good likenesses.  I don't try for perfection in these figures because doing so would pull attention away from the bride and groom.  The architecture turned out well, especially the floors with their reflected lights and colors.  The outside colors provide good lighting and cheerfulness.  All in all, I think it works.  Most importantly: the bride and groom approve!

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!