How I work on a small painting…

I like the idea of documenting my process, partly because I’m so fascinated with other artist’s processes. but also I think my own process changes and shifts in ways I don’t even remember. Outside of the portraits in rope series, my “main” body of work, I like to make little paintings based on porn I find on the internet. Since I’m working from a photo I have the luxury of spending as much time as I want so it’s a process that lends itself to documentation.

Step 1: assemble materials

First I get my reference photo (nsfw). Before that though, choosing an image is an interesting process, I always wonder how other artists choose their images. For me, I want something with compelling shapes of lights and shadows. I like the colors in this image; all the warm golds seem very vibrant. And I really like painting feet. Her submission is nice too, but a concept that abstract doesn’t do anything for making the process of painting any more interesting to me. My brain will be in “Ooo shadow!” “ooo contour!” “ooo color shape!” mode, which doesn’t really care about things like meaning or intention.

Second, I open it in a new tab and find that the original image is decent quality (yay!) And I zoom in so the photo fills the browser screen (ctrl and +) Then I get clean water, my palette and brushes. How I prepare paper could have it’s own whole post, but for these paintings I make little 8″ or 9″ stretcher bar squares and stretch the paper over them while wet and then wait a day for it to dry.

my assembled work workspace with paper, water, paint, and brushes
my assembled work workspace with paper, water, paint, and brushes

This is the hardest step for me, just sitting down to work.

Step 2: compose image

So the source image has a lot going on in it that I don’t want to deal with. I’m interested in the woman, mainly her feet and back and hands and ass (basically all of her that shows) and I like the phallic bedpost next to her. The lamp is confusing because the light is coming from the right so I’m going to throw it out. How I loosely compose figures is I take the most extreme body part that I think is important (in this case it would be her feet) and work from there.

the basic composition
the basic composition

I’m drawing with a brown watercolor pencil which you can halfway erase if you draw lightly on dry paper. (once you wet it, an eraser is useless) I drew her too small two times so I got frustrated and just drew the most basic shapes first. At least now I’m happy with the composition. I usually choose a watercolor pencil that has a color that fits into the color of the painting pretty well.

Step 3: make the puzzle pieces fit

So going from large shapes to medium shapes, reassessing that everything is in the correct position. And if it isn’t, then figuring out how to correct it. This is the shift form composition to proportions and it involves a lot of “checking.” For example, one elbow is such and such higher than the other elbow, her thigh is at this angle at this point, her shoulder is farther than her hips by this much, etc. The goal is to do about three of these checks at once so you can triangulate. Just like map reading, or GPS.

fitting the pieces together
fitting the pieces together

Usually at this point I would start watercoloring, but I have a photo reference and all the time in the world so I’ll do a third pass:

Step 4: contour drawing

Contour drawings are all about edges and the quality of the line is king. The goal for me is to get all the subtle curves and bumps and folds while I still have a line making utensil.

contour drawing
contour drawing

I’ve done enough to avoid painting by this point, I even have fingers and toes so it’s time to start painting.

Step 5: start painting

So I’m chomping at the bit to start on the woman so I just go for that first. I know it’s so crazy I just pick what I want to work on and hope that’s the best plan of action. Looking back I think it would have been easiest to start with a wash for the floor because it gave me some trouble later on (and it’s the biggest shape by far) but I was a bit intimidated by the deep shadow under the bed, which would take a couple of layers. And layers mean waiting for layers to dry. And I hate waiting.

I start with painting the figure
I start with painting the figure

So I started pretty light, it’s hard to judge the colors without the rest of the painting filled in. but I have the basic shadow shapes on her filled out. I’m using a 3/4″ flat which is nice because it covers a lot of area without having to get everything super wet. Since I’m working not very wet there are lots of edges, but they will end up pretty subtle in in the end (I hope.)

Step 6: fill in the background

Now that the woman is all wet, I have to work on some other part of the painting while I wait for her to dry. So I go for the floor and bed. I’m not going for the darkest values yet, I’m not ready to make that plunge until I get the mid-light values correct.

filling in the background
filling in the background

There are all sorts of little things that are hard to explain after the fact, like why did I only do the shading on the bed on her left side and not to her right?  I ran out of paint and didn’t feel like making more. I made some rather dark stuff for the head board and decided to use it up for shading the foot post and then I ran out. A lot of my decisions result around paint management. I characteristically don’t mix enough paint and then have had lots of practice trying to match the the color, with varying results. We’ll see if I match it, or if it matters.

Step 7: paint bed sheets

Drapery is always a good excuse to be nice and loose. You can show off brush work and people still read it as fabric.

drapery time
drapery time

I like the color I used. I’ve begun to think of this painting as “quinacridone gold” painting because that color is everywhere. I think of a particular paint as being the root color for a painting many times. It works because photons bounce off of objects like ping pong balls and everything absorbs everything else’s color a bit. If you don’t believe me look at somebody on a red blanket and then the same person on a blue blanket. Totally changes color, particularly the shadows.

Step 8: second layer of figure

So once all the other layers are in it’s quite obvious the figure is way way too light and she’s finally dry so it’s time for another layer.

adding second layer to figure
adding second layer to figure

There are a few things going on here. First I’m deepening the shadows making them darker and more saturated. Then I’m adding lights to areas that I left white on the first pass. And thirdly I’m adding details to the hands and feet with a small brush with extra red (cad. red) because hands and feet have lots of red in them. I think I added more detail to the back as well.

Step 9: work on what you want to work on

So I left and went to dinner and when I came back I really wanted to work on noodle-y details. And since all was dry it was a perfect opportunity.

moar details!
moar details!

There’s a LOT going on in the shoulders and arms and hands and back so I zoomed in even more (still in my browser, yay chrome!) and I figured it all out. I’m somewhat unhappy at this point because the back is looking a bit too grey/green in the shadows now, but I have to let it sit and dry before I mess with it some more. I do like what is going on with the the shadow from the belt on her hand and on her ass, so that’s keeping me happy.

Step 10: time to work on the belt

I was still in noodle-y detail mode so I figured it was time to start working on the belt in her hand.

render the belt
render the belt

Now it’s like the only think you can see in the whole painting! My eye can’t go anywhere else, it’s trapped! Ok, I guess it’s time to put in some more darks.

Step 11: time for darks and shadows

Okay it’s time for me to stop being a wuss and get some darks in there. I did a clear wash on the floor to start and then put in the darks before the wash got too dry

darks and shadows
darks and shadows

Oh look there’s a real shadow on the right, whoops I’m not a photographer. Once I laid in the shadows in the floor I could start darkening up her legs to fit with them. Basically color is relative and spotting absolute color is like having absolute pitch. So deepening one part of a painting brings better understanding to another part of the painting. I also lay in the hair since it will take at least two washes to make a really dark black anyway. And since everything is wet and I’m not sure what to do I stop for the night.

Step 12: I need orange!

So taking a day off and looking at it I bright morning sunlight it became quite clear the floor needed lots and lots of orange. Suddenly all the colors of the painting started to make a lot more sense. And since this was the second day of the painting I was less committed to documentation since I have a fear that observing myself painting while I’m painting can mess up my painting. I’ll try to remember what I did despite that.

reevaluating color
reevaluating color

I also added another layer of value to the sheets and added another layer of green to the headboard and painted some of the sheets a bit green too.

Step 13: adding lots of dark details

Let’s see what got darkened: floor shadows, bed details, hair, hand details, bits of thigh, toe details, and foot details. Also the lighting in the room got darker.

adding more dark details
adding more dark details

Step 14: warmer skin and another layer on sheets

warmer skin
warmer skin

I have a tendency to mix up a big batch of burnt sienna and prussian blue to make a black and use it anywhere it needs to get dark fast. If I need the dark to be warmer, I add burnt sienna, if it needs to be cooler I add prussian blue. If it needs to be more subtle I add water. I also add other colors, but I couldn’t tell you which ones where at this point.

Step 15: pick the spots that bother you and fix them, then repeat.

I did a lot, but it’s much harder to see at this point. I added black to the belt, made the headboard darker, the wall darker, the floor where it hits the wall darker. Ultimately my process for finishing a painting is to look for any spots I don’t like and then fix them. At this point it’s mostly finished, I’ll give myself another day or so to look at it again with fresh eyes and see if I see anything that needs fixing and fix it. It sounds easier than it is. I’ll have to think about how to explain it more precisely.

deepening darks
deepening darks

Step 16: admire!

admire!
admire!

Yay! it’s done. Fully appreciate the “I made a thing!” feeling, it’s part of the whole process and it’s the process that makes art worth doing.

Conclusion

So in short, I compose, I draw, I paint lights then mediums then darks. I work on the details based on what value range they are in, i.e. dark details go last, light details come first. And finally I do this process of “fixing what needs to be fixed” until I’m finished. There are more subtleties to it, but that’s the main gist. Maybe I should try taking video.

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