Sometimes (usually–at least for me) the process of making art is hard work. Once in awhile, though, things come together with unusual ease. This was the case with my most recent painting “Echo Cove II”.
First I’ll describe what goes into my typical painting process. Then I’ll explain how it happened with this particular painting.
With all of my paintings, there are several steps before the final piece of work. First, I look for subjects that interest me. My focus is daily, even mundane moments that are breathtaking because of their beauty. Often these moments only last a few minutes. I’m watching for these experiences all the time.
Capture Shapes and important Details
Next, I sketch or photograph those moments to capture shapes and enough details to help me make the painting interesting. Sketches and photos also help remind me of what it was about the experience that I want to recreate. Often I’ll take several dozen photos to make sure I have all the reference images I need.
Develop Composition and Simplify Values
Now the real work begins. I start playing with the images I have to find the best way to present the subject. I make thumbnail sketches in my sketchbook to experiment with contrast and values. I use Photoshop to try different ways of cropping the image. to enhance the center of interest. Through all of this part of the process I’m also playing with composition–moving parts of the scene to make a better path for the eye, deciding what to include and what to leave out to simplify the image, etc.
Selecting the Ground
From the moment I see the scene, I’m doing a lot of thinking about how to actually create the painting. What will be the color scheme? What will be in detail and what will only be suggested? Does the painting need an underpainting for a good foundation? If so, what kind of underpainting will I use? Will it set values, complementary colors, or textures? What kind of paper or board will work best? What size and shape should the painting be?
There are a million decisions to make before I ever pick up a pastel stick. If I’m having trouble working them out, sometimes I’ll try a small study to try out some options. Sometimes it takes several tries before I’m ready to do the full size painting.
At Last! Painting the Picture
Finally I set up my easel, tape the paper or board to a backing board, and lightly sketch the subject onto the medium with charcoal or a dark brown pastel pencil. I make sure the key landmarks in the piece are located properly. If I’m doing an underpainting, that’s where I start. If not, I decide where to start applying color. In a landscape or seascape I often start with the sky area, so it will be underneath gaps in the rest of the scene. How I proceed from there depends entirely on the particular subject.
Knowing when a painting is finished is always a challenge, probably for most artists. I like to finish portraying the image area and then take a break. It’s like a rough draft in writing. After I set the painting aside for awhile, I come back to view it and see what stands out to my eye. Hopefully it’s the center of interest, but more often than not it’s some other part of the painting where something annoys me because it needs to be done differently. This process might take several days or more.
Then it’s done.
Painting “Echo Cove II”
As you can see (hopefully) painting a picture can take me a lot of time. Once in awhile, though, things just seem to fall into place. On Saturday evening, for example, I was sitting with my daughter watching my grandson play on the beach, trying to work up the nerve to introduce himself to a couple of girls staying in the vacation cabin next door. At one point I looked up at the sunset I’d also been watching. Clouds had moved in from the mainland, and the view had suddenly become perfection. I knew it would make a good painting.
I didn’t have either my camera or sketchbook (when will I learn?), but my daughter had her cell phone. “Would you please take a picture of the Point and email it to me?”, I asked. “Sure,” she said. Click. We resumed watching my grandson.
Later that night I downloaded the photo and began working with it. There wasn’t much to do except crop it, check it out in black and white, and do my usual value studies. Sunday morning I sketched it onto some sanded paper. I thought about the painting most of the rest of the morning while I was doing other things. Sunday afternoon I began applying pastel to the surface. I finished the sky and the rocks, took a break, and then worked on the water. Monday morning, the only thing left to do was to put in the trees on the cliff, and touch up some highlight areas.
Suddenly I knew the painting was finished. It “popped”. I took it outside and photographed it.
Serendipity. Everything just worked, easily and almost effortlessly.
I love it when that happens.