Friday, September 11, 2009
how to make a painting
Here’s how to make a painting.
First, spend 10 or 15 years learning to draw. Many problems in painting are actually problems in drawing. That is, if you are trying to paint something that is recognizable, which I always do. I have found it helps to be able to draw most things from your imagination. You have to spend a lot of time drawing from life so your imagination becomes informed. If you can help it, don’t draw from photograph; there has already been too much editing done. When you draw from life you get to say what gets left in or left out and what gets emphasized and what doesn’t. It’s amazing if you aren’t sure about the form of something how a little turn of your head will give you clarity. You can turn your head all you want and you won’t get any more clarity from a photo. It is best to know what is behind what you are drawing as well as the part you can see. It helps you to be able to build the form. The other reason for drawing from life: you have time to absorb what you are drawing with your other senses. What does the landscape smell like, what does it sound like, is it hot or cold? Do people come up and talk to you while you are drawing? Whether you like it or not all of this ends up in your drawing. Sure it’s a lot easier to spend two minutes taking a photo as opposed to sitting on a stool for an hour or so but there is no comparison in the results.
While you are learning to draw look at as much art work as you can. Avoid contemporary art. Don’t go to galleries. Make sure the art you are looking at was painted by someone at least 50 years older than you. Go to museums and look at old paintings and older paintings. If you can’t get to museums go to libraries and check out art books. Or look at art on the internet or postcards. Do sketches of the paintings you like. Figure out how the artists gets your eye to move around the painting. Different artists do this in different ways. Analyze how they use color and line and texture and lighting. The reason museums are best is because scale and texture can’t be reproduced and that is an important part of painting. Subtleties of color can’t be reproduced either. Don’t restrict yourself to a certain period. Look at all periods and see what you respond to. This is how you create your own style by borrowing something from the middle ages, something from cubism, something from one artist and something from another. You put them into the blender that is you own creativity and eventually you have your own style. It is not something you can force but something that will happen naturally as you discover what you respond to in art that has come before. Everybody is standing on somebody else’s shoulders so don’t think it is wrong to beg, borrow and steal from the past. That is how it’s done. If anything comes full blown out of your subconscious unaided by the art of the past it’s pretty much going to be crap.
Now you have to have an idea. All art starts in you head. It is best to not have the idea the same day you want to start your painting. Have your ideas six months before you want to start painting and put it in your brain hopper and turn the hopper on. Let the idea bounce around. Pretty soon another idea will pop into your head and stick to the first idea. You’ll be washing the dishes or mowing the grass or driving to work and an idea will pop into your head. Put it in the hopper. While you spend time letting ideas pop into your head look at other paintings by artist who have had similar ideas as yours. No, you are not the only one to have had this idea before. Most art is a conversation with art of the past. You have to become part of the conversation. That is why you need to spend so much time looking at the art of the past. Let their solutions to the idea into your hopper and let them bounce around with your accumulating ideas. Pretty soon you’ll have a pretty complete idea and the idea will feel a certain way.
Now get out your sketch book and do some thumbnail sketches. Don’t try to do a complete drawing of your idea. Just get the basic elements down and try out various configurations and formats. Is you idea a square or a rectangle? Is it vertical or horizontal? Is it huge or tiny? Or something in between? Once you have spent some time doing thumbnails, one will begin to feel right. Once you have settled on the shape and size you are ready to get your canvas.
Once you have your canvas you are ready to paint. Decide on your palatte. This is an individual preference and varies from artist to artist. I use the following colors: Cadmium red dark, cadmium red light, cadmium orange, cadmium yellow, Pthalo green, Pthalo blue, ultramarine blue, cerulean blue, diozazine purple, magenta, black and white. You will also need some medium. I use a mixture of 1/3 linseed oil, 1/3 damar varnish and 1/3 turpentine.
Start with a light color like yellow and sketch in your idea. Once you have your idea sketched out start blocking in big areas of color using nothing but turpentine as a medium. Always go by the lean to fat rule: the first layers of paint have more turpentine and less oil. Successive layers have more oil. This keeps the painting from cracking as it dries. Once you finish this layer it will look great, fresh and exciting but unfinished. This part is always so invigorating; the start of a new painting!
At this point in your painting use your intuition. Do what feels right. Let it flow and don’t think too much about what you are doing. Just get your initial idea down on the canvas. You will get in the groove and it will feel great. After several hours the whole canvas should be covered with paint. You are not trying to finish one part before another. The whole painting should have the same level of finish all the time. It is similar to building a house. You don’t start the foundation of the kitchen put up the walls and install the cabinets and appliances and then do the foundation of a bedroom. The whole house comes up at the same time, first the foundation then the studs, then the roof, etc. You get the idea. The painting is the same way. This is a fun way to paint and the painting remains interesting during the entire process.
When I first started painting I did a very complete drawing, made a grid on the drawing and proportional grrid on the canvas and transferred the drawing to the canvas. I started painting at the upper left finishing each part as I went along until I reached the bottom right corner and then I was finished. That way of painting works but is incredibly boring. It is like doing a paint by number. Don’t do it.
Continue working on your painting building up another layer adding some shading and tonality. Once you have got your painting’s second layer finished it will look pretty crappy. You’ll think, “What was I thinking, this is terrible. How can I ever finish this and make it feel like my initial idea?” Now the thing is, not to worry. This is normal and every painting has to pass through this phase. Kind a of like when the cute kid hits the awkward, gangly adolescent stage. They'll eventually turn pretty but it takes a while.
Now is the time to stop using you intuition and begin analyzing. Remember all those paintings you spent time looking at? Now is the time to remember all you learned. It is your job as the artist to be in charge of how the viewer looks at your painting. You have to decide how his eye will move around your painting. What will he look at first, where will that lead him next and so on until he is back where he started. There are many ways to do this. It is your job to figure out how to make the viewers eye travel around this particular painting. This is not easy and this is where most artists give up. It is easy to start a painting but very difficult to finish one. If you can’t get past this middle step you are doomed. So be analytical. Step back from your painting and close your eyes. Imagine a blank canvas then open your eyes.
Where did you look first? Be conscious of how you eye moves around the painting. Does your eye get stuck somewhere? If so that is bad. You have to figure out how to keep the eye moving. These are all problems of composition. If you have analyzed enough paintings you will be able to analyze the painting you are working on and get it to a successful conclusion.
It is also helpful if someone else who has a trained eye can look at your painting in progress and tell you how they look at the painting. Most people can’t do this. When a person looks at a painting and the painting is successful their eye moves around the painting in a pleasurable way without them being aware of it. People only become aware of it if they take the time to be analytical about painting and most people don’t. So spend a lot of time getting this part of the painting right. Your painting should still be pretty general without details because you are moving stuff around and changing shapes and tones and colors to get your eye to move the way you want it to.
Once you are convinced that the composition is working then you can begin to add more details and finish the painting. Be sure you are aware of things like consistent lighting, and the temperature of colors, interesting textures, and such. When you are done your painting should embody the idea and feeling you initially had. It will in a very real sense be the incarnation of your beginning idea. If the painting has fulfilled the original concept in its form then you have succeeded.
Some paintings go easier than others and it is usually that middle section that is longer or shorter. In my experience the longer and harder the middle part is, the better the painting is, if it can be resolved successfully. Not all paintings can and those that can’t should get thrown in the trash heap.