As a fairly traditional, I guess "academic" painter, the methods that I use can sometimes seem restricting and methodical. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy most of the time with the results. It's just that sometimes you get the urge to paint thickly and broadly; you want to slash the paint on like the Van Gogh demon you've always secretly wanted to be. It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I'm not in the Sargent-Sorolla-Zorn mode of painting. If you listen real hard to your inner voice, not to be confused with schizo like paranoia, you can figure out that there's a reason that you gravitated to a particular way of painting. Carefully applying paint to a fully mapped out drawing using a carefully mixed palette of values and colors suits me. That's just how it is, and I'm okay with it. I do however, enjoy dabbling in other methods, ones that I have no intention of selling, pressure free slathering, maybe the way that art is occasionally supposed to be.
The "poster" study gives me a chance to step outside of my comfort zone. The idea behind it is to make a miniature version of the painting your about to start. I usually do mine on 6"x8" cheapo canvas boards. I don't want to start thinking of them as precious "masterpieces" because, as I previously stated, the idea is to have some fun, while also figuring out some things that might help me to make a better painting. I'm not about capturing the setup exactly as it appears. Maybe I have a God complex, my wife would say "no maybe's about it!", but I want to arrange the values and colors to capture the inner vision that sparked the idea of the painting in the first place. Right now I'm working a little bit in "back to the future" mode, because I'm making the poster study after already having transferred the final drawing to a larger canvas. What I really should be doing is making several poster studies, trying out a few arrangements, before I start the finished drawing and transfer. This is how the study was traditionally used and it makes a lot of sense. The problem is that in today's world it's just so danged easy to snap a photo of the finished drawing, print it out at 6 x 8 and make a quick poster. I'm at the point in my development now where I need to slow down and do things that will help me get off of this plateau and onto the next level. Spending more time on studies seems like the best way to get there.
In the picture above you can see the poster study and grisaille umber wipe out for my current painting "Gloria Mundi". I decided to limit the poster study to no more than three values for each area. I don't blend the paint, I lay it down in separate value and color patches. I'm looking for the "abstract" quality of the painting as well as composition, color, and tone. I'm not trying to make "art". I love these little color studies but clearly they are an acquired taste. I once had a bunch of them at a solo show, priced very reasonably so that the less wealthy, or as I like to call them "cheapskates" could buy an affordable piece of art; really affordable, as in dirt cheap! I couldn't give them away. Not even one. I guess that's a good thing, because if I start to think of them as too precious, I probably wouldn't be dancing around my studio, blasting "Purple Haze", and letting down what hair I have left!
There are as many different ways to compose a painting, it often seems, as there are stars in the galaxy. Everyone seems quite sure that their way is the best way! We have your "golden sectionistas", your "sight sizers", your "Durer gridians", even your "rule of thirders" (borrowed from photography). Everyone seems to be searching for that easy way to come up with a "great" composition, every time. Then we have the "de-bunkers" who use eye tracking studies and optical science to prove why everyone else's method is a bunch of crap (excuse my English). Honestly, it's enough to make the poor itinerant artist freeze with fear each time they begin a new work.
Well folks, I'm hear to tell you that I have all of the answers and you'll never have to worry again!(Not!!) Although I love to read about all of these various methods, I have to confess, that my own method of composing a picture is quite a bit simpler. I take two L-shaped pieces of cardboard, about four inches in length, then I put them together with paper clips to form a rectangle. Some artists like to draw directly on their canvas, some like to draw on paper and then frame it out afterwards to see which size canvas to use, some like to put the canvas on the floor and wait until it looks interesting enough, with spots and stains, to generate an idea (Walter Murch actually did that!). I start with a canvas which I have traced the size onto a sheet of drawing paper. I then take my home made viewfinder and sight through it while looking at my traced rectangle and adjust it until the dimensions match. I look through my viewfinder at my setup, with one eye closed, like a pirate, it's sometimes helpful to say "arggh, shiver me timbers" while doing this. If I don't like what I see I keep adjusting things until it "feels right". Not very scientific, I know, but I have learned to trust my instincts because I have worked very hard to have them.
Another reason that I start with the traced rectangle is that I use the sides of the rectangle to mark off vertical lines so that they are parallel. Here's another "old weird dude" tip, I never use a ruler for measuring or drawing straight lines. I use a compass to mark off points and then I freehand the connecting lines. I have this idea in my head that the drawing, and subsequently the painting, would look too mechanical, too much like an architectural rendering. I remember Harold Speed in "The Practice and Science of Drawing" saying that a work of art should have a certain amount of "dithering" in it, that perfection wasn't really the goal. I'm sure he would consider me a "dithering" fool! And just to be clear, I want you to know that I'm certain that this method is truly one of the greatest lost tricks of the old masters and I'm currently working on a book with lots of diagrams to prove it. So there!
Ingres is reported to have said that "drawing is the probity of art". My interpretation is that he meant that drawing is truth, and without it a work of art lacks a solid foundation. Whenever I start to feel as if I'm running in place, not advancing as far in my work as I would like, I know that I can go back to the source, drawing, and work my way from there. It's such a simple and basic process, yet profoundly engaging, and often frustrating. My academic training has gotten me away from the "contour line", one shot method, that was emphasized in high school and college, and more towards something fluid; like shaping clay for a sculpture. The nebulous quality of my initial straight line block-in pencil marks, gradually become more refined, and my analytical thought processes undergo a similar refinement. In this way each drawing becomes a new adventure, a self discovery that never seems rote or repetitive.
With the advent of the new year I've decided to push myself a bit harder on the drawing front. I feel like I haven't fully made use of all that drawing has to offer in terms of advancing my art and so I'm determined to increase my focus. Normally I start a painting by making an actual size drawing, sometimes called a "cartoon", and then transferring it to my canvas. This is done on white sketchpad paper. I do spend quite a bit of time on the drawing, and I keep pushing it until I feel it's "canvas ready". I use a mirror often to check for mistakes, and I do a lot of measuring, and cross measuring. So, what else could I do, one might ask? Usually my painting concept is based on a small thumbnail sketch. I'm going to start making larger, slightly more refined sketches, maybe on toned paper, that include a value study as well. I want to use the drawing as a way of working out several possibilities in each arrangement that I set up, so as to arrive at the best solution. I also want to make individual studies of elements in the setup in order to better understand their individual specifics before encompassing them in the harmony of the overall design.
This is the "cartoon" for a painting that I'm currently about to start. At this point I've transferred it to a canvas, but I haven't started to paint it yet. If I were following my new years resolutions, I would not have made this drawing full size and transferred it without having first made some drawing studies and even some painted studies. It's not that I'm not happy with the drawing, I am, and I'm excited to paint it, it's really just a feeling I have that I need to push myself a little harder to not just come up with an idea but to come up with the best version of that idea. I did however make two miniature transfers on 5 x 7 inch panels on which I'll do a black and white and a color poster study. It's not completely what I resolved to do but it's not a total "cheat" on my "New Years Resolutions", so I'll take it and try to do more on the next one (isn't that what resolutions are all about?).