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Beyond the Boundaries

Sometimes it doesn’t take much to inspire me to paint. I found a photo of an old sea veteran, and decided that I could paint a portrait of her that might speak to her character.

I wasn’t sure of exactly what the whole composition would be, but I knew that the surrounding elements should, like the boat, have character and a timeworn quality. I also knew that, although they would need to be interesting, they would, of necessity, have to play a subordinate role to my main character – the boat.

Step One

I take a small 9x12 canvas and take some brown and blue pigments, and push them around the surface of the canvas; I wipe them down, restate, then and wipe them again, until I’ve taken the white of the canvas down about a half value, and have a pretty interesting surface. This step accomplishes three things:

  1. It gives the canvas a textured and weathered feel, which is in character  with the subject.
  2. The white of the canvas no longer competes with lightest values that I  will eventually apply.
  3. It allows you to see the light passages that I’m going to scrub in, in the next step.

Step Two

This step is really the crux of this newsletter. As I mentioned earlier, I want to paint a portrait of this old workhorse boat, and I need to put in on a stage set that will be supportive. I make some rough linear indications, placing the boat, a sea wall and the beginnings of some sort of houses. I mass in some general tones; both warm and cool, with the lightest mass over the boat housing (this will be my main focal point). I’m not using a lot of pigment in these washes, because I know I will be working back into them later. I don’t have much info, and so I’m allowing the paint to dictate direction. I’m working without a net at this point. I don’t have to worry about going outside the boundaries, because there are no boundaries. I’m going to draw positively and negatively, and allow the painting to discover itself.

Step Three

I move up to the building on the dock, and continue the same approach. I mass in thin color, scratching and scraping, and not worried too much about covering every little area. The roof and some door indications begin to emerge.

Step Four

Working both positively and negatively, I begin to define the building. The shadow under the roof would be an example of positive drawing, and the dark trees that surround and define the roof would be an example of negative drawing. Look at the rest of the features. Which were created positively, and which were created negatively? Can you see how I’ve allowed the previous washes to direct me? The looseness of those original paint applications has really given that building a lot of character. There are plenty of nice lost and found edges that lend an air of mystery to the area. I have to be careful not to destroy that illusion by overworking it to death. As it currently stands, there’s an unfinished quality to the upper half of the painting. If I continue to work on it, it will end up competing with my main subject. One always has to remember what it is that brought you to the dance. In my case; that old stalwart ship. 

Step Five

So now I move to my main subject. Using some warm and cool colors, I begin to suggest my boat. The colors that I use, although slightly warmer, are in the same family as the buildings in the upper part of the painting. This will add some continuity to the final composition. Also notice that the original colors that I massed in the boat area actually extend into the sea wall and into the area below the boat. That’s OK. I’m going to paint into those color patches as I surround the boat, and they will subtly connect the boat to the adjoining areas.

Step Six

Now, using warm and cool grays (variations on the boat colors), I mass in the sea wall, cutting out my boat negatively. Notice how the outline of the hull has some hard edges, and some edges that get lost. These edge variations add a lot of excitement to the rendering. It’s infinitely harder to pull this off if you carefully outline all the elements in your painting, and then stay within the lines (see “Sweet Mystery” Parts One and Two newsletters, December 2009 and January 2010). I especially like the lost edge between the wheelhouse and the upper part of the hull.

Back in Step Two, when I scrubbed in that light mass where the wheelhouse was going to be, I was unconcerned about the eventual rendering of the wheelhouse. As a result, some of that mass extended out into the sea wall. Now, if you look at the left of the wheelhouse, and above the wheelhouse roof, you can see a faint value and tone, almost like an aura. This creates a subtle visual bond between my boat and the sea wall. I call these little effects “painting delicacies”. I won’t touch these areas anymore.

Step Seven

Now, with some thicker paint, I go back into my boat, redefining areas, and adding a little faux detail and some rigging. I also put a little mossy color on the roof of the building. That small bit of warmth will help relate that area to the warmer foreground colors.

Step Eight

I further refine my main subject, with a couple of more details, some thicker strokes and spicier color. Up on the dock, near the house, I add a little more color punch.

Whenever I’m dealing with water reflections, I prefer to wait until the objects being reflected are done. Since I don’t plan to do any more work above the waterline, I begin to mass in my reflections, using similar colors, but darker values, than the objects being reflected.

Step Nine

I continue bringing my reflections, in a vertical thrust, down to the bottom of the canvas. When that’s done, I take a soft brush (like a Langnickel Royal Sable) and make a few horizontal passes through my reflection mass. Then I add a couple of cool, dark horizontal strokes to give surface to my water area.

Finish “Weathered and Worn” 9x12 oil

I add some gulls to give some motion and life to the painting. They also serve as a counter-balance in the composition (the lower right side of the painting seemed a little vacant), and they keep your eye from running off the right side of the canvas.

If you are wondering why this last photo seems a bit brighter than the previous ones - the light in my studio is north light, and in the wintertime it tends to get darker and darker as the day wears on. So I waited to shoot the finished product until the next day, when the light was at full strength.

I won’t argue that this is a risky approach to making a painting. I have no real drawing down on the canvas, I’m massing in general color tones, I’m pulling out the objects in the painting by coming at them both positively and negatively and I’m sort of letting the painting discover itself during the process. When I’m flying by the seat of my pants, I find that I’m painting more with my heart than my head. The actual process, and the result, can be very exciting. There is, however, an element of risk, and, like painting a large wet-into-wet watercolor, some of the paintings just get away on me, and end up scraped off.

My original intention was to have two demonstrations for this newsletter. After finishing the above painting, I started a portrait of an American Indian, using the same approach. It went really well for about two thirds of the painting, and then I started making corrections here and there, and soon I was chasing myself around the canvas. When I was done, I had to take out some large areas and repaint them. I realized that I was in total cerebral mode. By the time I was finished, I had a satisfactory painting, but I felt that I had basically choked the life out of it.

I’ve heard it said that oils are much more forgiving than watercolors, and I can’t argue with the fact that it’s easier to make wholesale changes during the process of painting an oil, than it is while executing a watercolor. Nonetheless, my experience has taught me that there is no substitute for getting it right the first time. Any oil painting can stand a few minor alterations, but there is a point where the original heartfelt intention succumbs to the process of getting it “correct”.

Happy Painting!