The best art advice I ever got was simply this: Draw and paint from life as often as possible. I heard this from every painter I admired and had the opportunity to meet. Whether it be live models, landscapes or animals, paint from life.
(Click images in the blog for enlarged views.)
The reasoning is, life is always moving, and trying to capture that movement is paramount to artistic advancement. Animals don’t hold still. Neither do kids. And even the best seasoned models will get tired and start to droop after a while. But as painters we’re charged with trying to capture the essence of the subject in front of us, and that life movement makes us select what is important to tell the story. This way, when it is necessary to use photo references amateurs like me take, I don’t just slavishly follow the photo, which will often be cursed with foreshortening, glaring brights and shadows that are too dark.
This is where study and observation also are so critical to the whole experience. A photo captures a split second in time and is a great record of image. A painting should be a great record of life. Let me be clear, I use photo references all the time to compose my paintings. I do not have the memory it would take otherwise. But life painting helps me to select from my reference photo what is important to tell the story and, maybe more importantly, what isn’t.
Here, in this photo, I’m painting kids at a kids’ festival held every year in my hometown of El Dorado, KS. I’ve done this for years, and it’s always fun and always exhausting. Some kids are extraordinary models, easily holding still for about an hour so I can do a portrait sketch of them. Others hold the pose all of two minutes, and I spend the rest of the time trying to get in a quick brush stroke when they happen to flash past the original pose as they fidget, wondering what they got themselves into.
Hey, it’s not their fault. An hour must seem like an eternity for a kid, especially when there are so many fun activities going on all around them. As an artist, it’s the ultimate challenge. I never know what age, ethnicity or attention-span the next model will have, and I have to be prepared for them all.
My studio is my office, my production facility and my getaway, all rolled up in one. As a painter and business, I’m in charge of the whole “corporate structure” - “raw materials” (paints, brushes, canvas), research and development, production, marketing, sales, shipping, bookkeeping, customer service, taxes, travel arrangements, and a whole host of other things I can’t think of off the top of my head. So my space to create is very important to me.
My studio is located on the prairie in south central Kansas. My neighbors are a pasture of horses to the west, cows to the south, woods to the north and the grassy plains east. I can watch the sun rise and set unobstructed virtually every day of the year. I appreciate the quiet. This is where I spend most of my time, my real office desk. ( I do have a different desk where I do the dreaded bookkeeping and tax related stuff, it’s as boring and tedious as the work done there is, and certainly not worth a photo.)
Work In Progress
I arrange my palette the same each time –- warm to cool and light to dark, for the most part. The importance of doing this can be illustrated by using the piano as an example. The keys are always arranged the same way on a piano, so the notes are always consistent for composing music. Painting is like visual music, and with the color notes always in the same place, it’s much more beneficial when composing my visual storytelling.
The Sketch: Stage 1
I like to start with a simple charcoal sketch. I never worry about detail at this point, but I do try to get my shapes, negative space and composition worked out. Since my way of painting involves “drawing” with a brush through the entire process, the detail comes later.
Blocking in Shapes -- Stage 2
At this point I’m just trying to get accurate shapes and tones. As you can see, I quickly realized my drawing of the dog’s head was off, so I erased that part knowing I would build out to it with the paint, and would correct it as I went.
Influence from Surrounding Environment--Stage 3
Before starting on detail in the main subjects, which I do pretty early in the process, I like to introduce some of the colors from the surrounding environment to make sure everything is related in a harmonious way.
Background Notes--Stage 4
Once I put a few brush strokes of color in their immediate surroundings, I add some notes of color to the background. This kind of frames up the main subjects in the painting so I can concentrate on getting them right.
Starting the Face--Stage 4-1
So now I’m ready to start working on details in the main subjects. I’m not a fast painter anyway, but here is where I really slow down to concentrate on accuracy. I don’t worry about how long this takes, only about how accurate I am before moving on to another area. I don’t care if the face takes me all day, it’s absolutely crucial to get it right. That doesn’t mean there won’t be additional adjustments later on, but if the main subjects in a painting aren’t correct in drawing and color value, nothing else in the painting will matter.
Color and Value Shapes--Stage 4-2
Here is a close up of early notes of color-value, as I work out the light and shadow on the boy’s face.
Details, Details, Details--Stage 4-3
I’ve had a lot of people mention how much they like my detail. Then they get up close and find my paintings aren’t as detailed as they first thought. I don’t like too much detail in a painting. What I try to do is correctly capture the key elements in my paintings. Then the perception of detail will present itself.
Same Story on the Dog--Stage 4-4
Here’s a close-up shot on the dog’s head as I begin to lay in what I hope are accurate brush strokes in my quest to portray man’s best friend in an honest and realistic way.
Once I have the face pretty much where I want it, I move on to the clothes. Again, in the pattern of the shirt, too much detail would be disastrous for the whole painting. So I strive to give the illusion of the pattern, but it is only a supporting player in the grand scheme of things. I have to be careful to avoid too many hard edges in this area.
Back to the Background--Stage 6
Now that I’m “finished” with the main subjects, it time to fill out the surrounding area more. Of paramount importance in this aspect of the painting is observation -- I was there in the river working with my actors. It’s key, in my mind, to be a part of what I’m trying to paint. It’s for that same reason I need to be out in the heat, cold, wind or rain when my friends are working cattle, to be a part of it by helping and to more honestly paint that life.
Color Notes--Stage 7
Some colors on the water will be too bright to be allowed to be prominent, but by laying them in as part of the under-painting, bits will show through and help with the illusion of running water.
More Color and Highlights--Stage 8
At this point I’m adding more color and highlights, most of which will be muted in the finished painting. If there is a magic formula for painting water, I don’t know what it is. For me, it’s a series of experiments with bright hues, muted values, highlights and a variety of edges, mostly smooth edges, until it looks like the water I remembered standing in. Merely replicating the photo reference will not work, because the photo freezes a split-second of the activity. Life, however, is always moving, and running water certainly has a life of its own.
When my younger brother and I we’re kids, we had what seemed to us like an endless list of daily chores. I guess that was a typical kids’ perception. The reality though was once we’d finished them we were set free to go explore the world, which for us was the river south of our home. We fished and hunted there often. My dad was a big proponent of us learning how to gather, hunt and process our own food, just so we’d know how. We loved being out in nature. We still do. There is nothing more wondrous than God’s created world.
So when I saw this little guy navigating a river crossing with his best friend leading the way, the memories came flooding back, and I couldn’t help but smile. I paint what appeals to me, hoping it will connect to others. This scene certainly fit the bill on my part. I am blessed beyond words to have had my dad, and still have my brother Jay (as well as some good dogs), on my life journey. This is a tribute to them I’ve titled “The Explorers."