Friday, June 17, 2011

Planning a Painting

Planning a painting was completely foreign to me for decades.

For most of my life I just drew or painted. I have sketchbooks where I used only a dozen pages because every time I drew something, I noodled over it to create a finished drawing as close to realism as I could get. I learned to sketch after I learned to draw.

That may be common for many self taught artists. As a beginner, realism is impressive and accuracy is the most obvious visible thing to learn. Later on, I discovered that details are actually easy and it's composition and design that make the difference between a good drawing or painting and a "technically perfect but somehow lifeless" one. The "technically perfect" part usually means "Overdetailed and laid out badly."

You can't argue with exact proportions copied from a photo until you're advanced enough to understand what the distortions of photography are. There are some real ones. Photorealists copy them on purpose to create large paintings that look like photos but are created in more durable materials by flawless craftsmanship... and they essentially use a camera for a sketchbook to do it.

Above is my first planning drawing for a wombat painting I'm doing for my Australian friend Lauren, part of a swap package I'm sending her for some cool Australian art supplies she's already sent. I was testing the Derwent Onyx pencil so I went ahead and did a fairly detailed little drawing with a sketchier background.

Where that's useful for planning the final painting is that I got familiar with the animal's proportions and textures. I tried one of the two references I liked and decided to see how it'd look in pencil. It didn't take long because it wasn't very large. The final painting will be larger.

Next, I tried the other reference in a pen and wash sketch. The penwork washed too dark so I wasn't completely happy with it. I shouldn't have washed it. But that taught me something and I won't make that mistake again, texturing all over with little hair strokes to shadow the fur if I'm going to wash it. Less is more in pen and wash if I want accurate values.

The point of both of these sketches was to just get some practice with the animal's proportions and a feel for the anatomy. I was satisfied after the first one, but wanted to see if the second reference would be better. It wasn't, I like the first reference more and not just because of the blurry botch of the wash on this. I remember how it looked without washing and this one was a bit more static.

Then I did something counter-intuitive. I sketched from the first reference again, this time simplifying it so much that it's just some blobby shapes in Tombow dual tip brush pens. This is a value mass thumbnail. I was planning where the lights and darks would go in the final version.

Doing a simpler, looser sketch of something I'd already drawn well the first time around seemed silly. It's not though. It made me think about where the areas of medium, darker and lighter values can go in the final painting. When I'm working in color I can group my pastels or oil pastels into value categories - medium-light, medium value, medium-dark. At that point I can play with color and give added depth or emphasis where I want it.

The brightest colors show up most in the Medium value category except for yellows and blues or violets. Yellows are brightest in the light-medium range, violet and some blues are brightest in the medium-dark range. Lighter or darker values than the tone of the pure color will start to mute color - but that also lets me use unusual colors and get away with it. Pearly grays that are mixes of pink, green, violet and peach are a lot richer than plain old gray. Deep darks that shimmer with reds, violets, greens and blues are lively compared to flat black.

You don't have to stick to what you did in the planning sketches. As soon as I looked at this value planning thumbnail, I noticed that I had bright morning light with a very strong shadow under the animal. Yet the light background and foreground was cool - it made me think of a misty morning. To do that, I had to lighten and fade out that cast shadow almost completely, so I decided to try that in a color study and see how it worked.

Here's the color study for the painting, done in colored pencils on a Borden & Riley ATC pad, 2 1/2" x 3 1/2". I knew the color study would be pretty enough as a small drawing in its own right that I might as well put it into a plastic top loader and send Lauren the color study too. This isn't the finished painting.

It's a little test of the colors for the finished painting. One that I might change my mind on - I like some aspects of it and not others. I might disperse the mist and put something else behind the animal, go back to the bright sunny look in the reference now that I see how the "Mist" idea worked out.

By doing a lot of preliminary drawings for this painting, I've accomplished several things. One of the biggest is that I've got some ideas on the composition. Every time I try it, I'm refining the composition ideas. Another equally important element is that I've got much more experience with cats than wombats. So drawing the wombat four times in different ways has given me a better idea of how it's shaped, how it moves, how its fur lays on its body.

I might continue doing more preliminary drawings till I'm ready to design the final painting. Or I might plunge into it later today. Either way, I know doing all these early sketches will help. Each one is a small easy project that didn't have to be flawless to be useful. I'd much rather make those mistakes on a tiny ATC or a small area in a sketchbook than have to correct them on a full sized painting on good sanded pastel paper. It'll save me hours of reworking to get all this trial and error behind me before I get out the expensive stuff.

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