My first painting was on a piece of wood I found. I had a handful of acrylic paints that I had been carting around with me for years. During a period of unplanned unemployment, I needed things to do that didn’t cost me anything. The paints were a present from some well meaning person in my life and, even though I hadn’t the slightest idea how to use them, I felt guilty throwing them away. I’m not sure where I got brushes from, but I commandeered one of my pot lids as a palette and started painting. Through a combination of trial and error, library books and YouTube videos, I have learned a lot, but there’s still so much I don’t know. Which is why anytime I go to look at art, I’m always interested in hearing about an artist’s technique and process. Mainly because I’m looking for any clue I can as to how to properly do art. I mean, I’m just slapping paint on a surface until it kinda looks like I want it to. I’ve been gessoing my surfaces for a while now, but I just learned about surface levelling gel. Who knew? So, I figured that I would share my process, such that it is right now.
It all starts with a sketch. I have a sketch pad with me at all times and I will be working on it every chance I get. To be honest, it’s my favorite part of art. Creating something new, just drawing lines and letting my unconsciousness take the steering wheel. This is true joy. When I’m staring at the blank page, I rarely have some idea of what I want to draw; I just sketch what is pleasurable. They’re just doodles at first and 90% of the time, they never go beyond this. I have sketchbook after sketchbook filled with pure crap. Seriously, most of it, absolute drek. Every once in a while, though, one of my drawings grabs me. It demands more of my time. I go back to it time and time again, reworking it, refining it. And, if this happens enough, it demands to be painted.
The first step for any of my paintings is choosing and preparing the painting surface. I’m partial to wood, I like the firm, unyielding surface, but canvas is cheap and available. Not to mention that wood is heavy; I have some paintings that are so heavy that hanging them is a challenge. While canvas is easy, I hate the course tooth of the surface, so I apply between 4-5 coats of gesso and sand it down to as smooth as I can get it. I am anxious to try the surface levelling gel, but I’m not quite there yet. Once the surface is ready, I used to lay down the basic composition in pencil. It’s just something I’m comfortable with. I played around adding another layer of gesso over that to hide the lines, before putting paint to canvas, but it just smeared the lines and made the surface grey. Now, I spray the pencil with fixative before gessoing it over, but I’m moving away from pencil all together.
I’ve recently started playing around with an underpainting. For now, it’s a monochrome wash, followed by a similar color that is slightly more opaque, to map out the composition. After that, it’s time to lay down some dots. Lots and lots of dots. I’ll lay done a few lines to demarcate general forms, but I really want to forms in the painting to be built up by layer upon layer of dots. When I’m painting a particular area, I will determine a range of colors that I want that area to be. For sky, it’s usually a range of blues. For flesh, a range of yellows, browns and oranges. I start with the lightest color in the group and cover the widest area of that area with dots. Then, I’ll use a color darker and use that to start creating definition.
This is tedious, methodical work and I get bored easily. So, how do have the patience? I watch a lot of TV. Or, to more precise, a lot of streaming online video. I only mention this now, because I will be devoting some of my blog posts to some of the aspects of shows that I find interesting. Consider yourself warned.
The least number of layers that I’ve used is around three, the most being six. When is it done? Someone posed this question to me directly not so long ago and the answer isn’t obvious. There’s a certain weight, a solidity that I want my forms to have and I just keep building it up until it’s there. I can see it coming, the development of the shapes, but the exact end usually catches me by surprise. I’ll look at the canvas, palette in one hand, brush poised in the other, seeking the areas I need to build up and I’ll realize that anything more is as likely to ruin the painting, as it is to make it better.
It’s a slow process, but now that I’m doing art full-time, I’m getting faster. My largest piece, a 3’x4’ peacock, took me around 6 months, but I didn’t work on it everyday in those 6 months, and when I did work on it, some days an hour was all I could put in. Now, I have three paintings going at once, as well as various pen and ink/watercolor marker pieces. My latest piece, the one featured in this post, Mine Eye Hath Seen the Glory, took me about a month. It’s really what inspired this post, since it’s the first piece that I have photographed at various stages of development. As boring and basic as it is, there’s my process. I fully expect it to change in a year or so, as I continue to learn, so I’ll have to remember to do a follow up post after a while. Until then, I had better get back to painting.