Creating a road map

Painting a busy, colorful street scene can seem overwhelming, but some time spent on planning can take some of the intimidation away. In this photo of Post Alley in Seattle, bright colors and café tables create a welcoming yet visually challenging scene. There are a number of ways to simplify it.

If you’re comfortable with Photoshop or have a drawing program on your tablet, you can remove elements digitally. Here, I got rid of the clutter in the lower right; unified the seperate planters into one mass, and darkened the upper right corner to take attention away from the background buildings. A few other unimportant details have been eliminated.

Next, I printed out a black & white copy. The lack of color really highlights the pattern of lights and darks. As you can see, there is no real focus to the image, so I want to create a trail of light that will lead the eye through the painting and return us to the seating area. A few minutes with a pencil gives me a (mostly) two-value study and a clear indication of where the lightest areas and brightest colors will be:

With this at my side as I paint, I’ll have a reminder of what areas to de-emphasize with darker values or more muted colors. Next, I’ll do some quick studies to determine the color palette…

Some Cool Green Memory

Artists find inspiration from many different sources. Visuals of course fire our imagination, as does scent, memory, music, a place, or a snippet of conversation. A contrast of textures can get us thinking about technique, as can a new brush or a handmade paper.

Sometimes inspiration is sneaky, and catches us by surprise. I recently rediscovered a favorite poem, and realized how perfectly it captures the way I feel about painting, especially landscapes:

I shall keep some cool green memory in my heart
To draw upon should days be bleak and cold.
I shall hold it like a cherished thing apart
To turn to now or when I shall be old.
Perhaps a sweeping meadow, brightly green,
Where grasses bend and the winds of heaven blow
Straight from the hand of God, as cool and clean
As anything the heart of man can know.

Or it may be this green remembered tree
That I shall turn to if the nights be long,
High on a hill, its cool boughs lifting free,
And from its tip, a wild bird’s joyous song.
A weary city dweller to survive
Must keep some cool green memory alive.

Grace Noll Crowell – Keep Some Green Memory Alive

Even in the portraits I paint, whether they be people, animals or objects, I realized that I look for that breathing room that nature offers us. A sense of stillness, a moment of calm, a feeling of rest-that’s what you’ll find in most of my paintings. In a juried show filled with vibrant color and intense energy, they often get overlooked, waiting for the second pass to catch a viewer’s eye. That’s OK-it’s easier to live with a whisper of a breeze than a gale-force wind…

Painting “Buster”

Buster is a little Quarter Horse that I photographed at a show at the local fairgrounds.  He had a string of ribbons across the front of his stall, and a very long, complicated name tag that ended in “AKA Buster.” When I snapped the photo, Buster was standing in his stall, a little tired and prepping for a nap.

While all of Buster was captured in the original photo, I decided to crop down to get an almost life-sized painting of his sweet face. In the reference photo, you can see his lovely chestnut coloring. I wanted to boost the contrast a bit, and bring in shades of blue and purple that would play off all of the red tones.

The very first step for me in any portrait is to paint the eye(s). I feel that if the eyes aren’t right, the finished painting just won’t work, so it’s a good place to start! From there, I’ll paint out towards the ears and muzzle. Since this is such a tight crop, the typical ears/eyes/muzzle center of interest isn’t visible, so the eye really had to carry the painting.

Do you notice that I’ve bent one of the rules of composition? The center of interest shouldn’t be in the literal center of the painting, yet his eye is very close to center from top-to-bottom. If you were to divide the painting into thirds vertically though, it is to the right of center. The white blaze and dark background are strong elements on the left side of the painting, which helps balance the detailed eye. So, rules can be pushed a little, if done with intention.

This painting is on a half sheet of paper (15 x 22″), so it was painted in large sections. A lot of it was painted wet-into-wet, meaning the paper was wet with clear water, then color dropped or brushed in. The speckled area at the top left was done with a spritz of water as that section was nearly dry. Once the entire sheet had been filled with initial washes, the real fun of layering and creating texture began.

This is what I call “trainwreck” stage. All of the elements are there, but the different areas don’t blend together, and the value map is all over the place. Some areas need to be lighter, some darker, and the warm chestnut color needed to be more prominent to balance the coolness of the dark tones.

The final step was to compare it to the reference and make sure the underlying structure of the face was correct. You can take a lot of liberty with color, value, texture, etc. in a painting, but if you’re going for a representational portrait, it has to look like the subject!