During this first stage of the painting, I try to fight my instinct to simply dive in and start throwing the paint around. With still life and landscape paintings I tend to be a little more brash and careless in the beginning (which I think amounts to a more impulsive and less contrived looking piece), but for some conceptual pieces and portraits especially, I try to slow down and be a bit more tactful. I’ve attempted portraits without any kind of preliminary sketches in the past and I have always found myself struggling after realizing that the facial proportions are off after I’ve begun to render the face and add details. So here you see that, after brushing on a thinned down turpentine wash of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna, I’ve drawn in a ghosted 6 x 6 grid of 2″ square cells with pencil. This allows me to draw and then paint in a proportional contour of her face and lay out the surrounding details accurately.
Next I’ve tried to block in general areas of color, now being loose with my brushwork as I know that I will want a sketchy paint quality underneath the final piece. I also take into consideration the colors that I might want to show through and compliment the final colors. For example, I know that the final colors of the scarf are going to be more of a bluish purple than the rust color that I’ve laid in here, but I see a small bit of that underlying color in the photograph that I want to eventually hint at. Also I am obviously not going to want her face to be that burnt sienna color as her actual skin tone is quite pale, but I have to take into account that I will be laying on a lot of pale flesh tones and having a little warm color coming through will give the skin some vibrance.
I now begin fleshing out the sketch with what I want her skin tones to consist of for the rest of the face. I am trying very hard to keep everything vague and not focusing on any detail, and I’m also trying to avoid blending thin paint to create shadows and highlights. This is a trap that I’ve fallen into in the past and it has undermined my intentions to maintain a choppy, Lucian Freudian gradation where tone is created using confidently applied swatches of subtly gradated color instead of smoothing over (I detest the soft fan brushed look in paintings and get frustrated whenever I start to spot it in my own).
Not very pretty to look at at this stage, but a large part of the painting process for me is feeling things out and “breaking in” the painting surface before I can gain the confidence to start fully rendering and adding flourishes. You can see that I’ve started painting around and slightly over the curl that dangles in front of her face that I included in the underpainting. This is the beginning of what becomes a major problem and, although I’m not quite sure how I would handle it in the future, I’ve learned to be wary of elements like this. The curl and the shadow it created were a major part of why I chose this picture and I asked Rosie to let it fall while shooting. However, as I move on I realize that it is not going to be easy to include. I can either leave the curl and fully render the face first (which makes the face a much more precious thing to screw up while tensely painting in the hair afterward) or I can paint in the curl first and have the rendering of the face become dictated by the placement of the curl (as much as I don’t want to paint a curl over a face I’m happy with, I also don’t want to have to worry about painting around a thin strand of hair while handling the most difficult element, the face, in the painting).
And here is where we see the avoidance of a difficult decision early on paying off later. I’ve rendered the face to my liking, at least for now, but now I have this strand to deal with. Being as impatient as I am I like to try to work in everything at once and not have to wait a day or two to add another piece, especially when it is something I’m insecure and worried about like the curl. So after deciding that I left enough unpainted surface for the curl so that the dark paint mixture for the hair won’t mix with the light paint on the face, I try to paint it in with unfortunate results. The black paint inevitably mixes with the still wet flesh tones and creates a terrible looking grey. This is usually where I freak out and start frantically brushing away at the face to try to cover up my mistake, only making it much worse.
Now the strand is completely gone and I am debating whether or not to leave it in at all, or to just scrap the entire painting altogether (I’m leaning heavily toward the latter). In trying to cover up the strand in the meantime, I’ve successfully flattened everything in the face that I had liked and it now looks like a cardboard cutout of a woman who’s had her eye gouged out – just what I had in mind when I first started. I finally accept that I shouldn’t do anything to fix the mistakes made until the paint dries tomorrow. I also accept that this has put me in a really bad mood and have slowly but surely learned from experience that absolutely no good painting comes from being tired, anxious and depressed. Time to try to sleep, only to lay awake with despairing thoughts of a painting I was really excited about already becoming too overworked and destroyed to save…
Finally, after a day or two of work I’ve remedied some problems that I thought were impossible to fix and I find myself with a finished painting that, although it of course doesn’t live up to what I’d imagined, I am proud of. I find that in paintings, as in life, everything is relative. The more hopelessness you experience, the more grateful you are for the things that go right.
No matter how many times I have decided a painting must be scrapped after suffering so many seemingly fatal wounds, but have kept it alive long enough to recover, I always seem to catastrophize about the fate of THIS painting. The other ones were exceptions to the rule, but this one is somehow especially hopeless and must be ended before I pour more time and paint into something that is futile. However, I now realize that, although some are truly beyond repair (which I define as a painting that isn’t going right AND you have lost any inspiration that you once had in it’s original conception), most are not. As hard as it is to shut off the neurotic whirring in my brain and just paint without worrying about the end result, or to move on from a painting that isn’t working in the hopes of coming back to it later with a fresh perspective, it is the only way to find myself on the other side.
Maybe I’m overdramatizing a little, but for me this is a genuine account of what feels like a long tiresome trek through my own self-doubt and internal criticism. I think writing about it helps me to remember because, when I go back and look at my own art weeks, months, or years after finishing it, all of that struggle seems to gradually be wiped from my memory. The painting just seems to have magically appeared as if made by someone else – someone who’s completely immune to self-doubt – and I tend to forget that I came very close to giving up. Recounting what led up to its completion usually makes me glad that I gave it a chance.
Categorized in: Thoughts
This post was written by mryczek