Friday, 23 March 2012

Backgrounds and Clothing

When painting a portrait I am always confronted with the question of how much background to put it, whether to keep the focus on the face and just suggest the subject's clothing and hair or to pull out all the stops and put detail in across the painting.  The background question is often dictated by the quality of the background in any source photo I might be using, sometimes it seems unsuitable for a portrait, or looks like it may distract from the main focus of the painting, and I end up just filling the background with one colour.  This choice of colour varies from painting to painting, I might try meditating on a colour wheel for a while to pick a contrasting colour, or alternatively choose something that is already in the painting in order to highlight it.  Sometimes I just pick a pleasant light tone such as a light green or blue, if it doesn't work then you can always paint over it, occasionally I end up trying various colours before settling on one.

In the case of the painting at the top of this post, All Hair and Elbows, the background in the photo was quite dark and a bit gloomy, a yellow-brown.  The grey I've used looks somewhat similar but a bit lighter and with the colour neutralized it makes the figure stand out more.  I also chose to show some brush strokes, I usually prefer to do this rather than paint everything in a flat plane of colour (as I did in the painting of my brother which can be found in the Family Portraits post) but this is a personal preference.

Flat planes can be very pleasing especially when painting with acrylics (as they tend to flatten upon drying anyway). If you do the whole painting like this then it has a cut-out paper effect or something which looks like it has been done on Photoshop using a filter.  I do quite like this style but if everyone is just using Photoshop and printing onto canvas with a giclée printer then I'd prefer to do something which doesn't look like it can be achieved so easily.  One of the beauties of paint is the texture and the possibilities of expression it has in every brushstroke.  Although I am not a particularly expressive artist, mainly because I can't really evaluate or appreciate my own paintings when they are too abstract, the human imprint on a painting is something which my soul delights in. I would like all my brushstrokes to be unlaboured and harmonious like movements in a dance and yet in conjunction to provide a window to a moment that is authentic and real.  I am always improving and working towards this ideal but usually fall short on both of these points to varying degrees, I suppose that is what keeps me painting: the desire to do it better next time.

Some painters choose to do a graduation of colour from dark to light in the background, maybe I'll try this one of these days but until now I seem to have unintentionally avoided this, either prefering to put in one tone or suggest the background as I did in Worried Maybe in the Creating a Scene post.  I seldom paint everything in great detail behind the subject although I think this might be a good idea as I've seen a lot of portraits by professional artists where they do this, although in these cases the background is usually relevant or reveals something about the subject's character or profession.

The same question applies when approaching the detail in the clothing of the subject, whether to go to great lengths to describe every fold and crease of their attire or just suggest it with a few loose brushstrokes.  In my experience I've found that although it can be nice to focus attention on the face and maybe hands with more detail than the clothing, a big difference can make it look unbalanced or like I got bored or ran out of energy (as is often the case).  Some artists of the past and present graduate the detail so that it becomes more hazy as it moves towards the edges of the painting, I've tried this but usually end up finishing it off otherwise it looks too much like a sketch.

In the painting which heads the post I meticulously painted all the little rings in the dress, each one has a slightly different tone and shape and the result is a 3D effect on the arms and chest.  I could have worked on it a bit more but I found myself going a little crazy staring at each circle and pondering how different it looked from its neighbours.  It took about three passes over the painting to reach this point, the first to get the shape and colour and and then two more to get everything the correct tone relative to everything else so that it didn't look flat.  It's always possible to keep working on a painting, getting it closer and closer to what is in the source photo, but you always have to stop somewhere, sometimes you feel that it looks finished or that any more work you put in will get you no better a result or sometimes you just feel bored and burnt out.

The best feeling is when you are pleasantly surprised at what you've achieved: the painting is better than you pictured in your head when you started out, you've taken the image in the photo to a whole new level by rendering it in paint, and you are afraid to touch it because you have no idea how you got it to this point, as if something magical had just happened when you were lost in concentration and the folds of a dress.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Painting Rainy Streets

Here in Salamanca it almost never rains, I suppose I should be grateful.  After painting a few cityscapes of the buildings of in the typical yellow sandstone called Villamayor illuminated by a bright blue sky I began to realise that yellow on blue can get boring sometimes.  Instead of waiting for a day with nice weather to go out and take source photos I began to get my camera out on gloomy days.  One great advantage of rainy days is that the light from the sky is reflected up off the ground, even if it is gloomy grey or white light, the result is that light is coming from everywhere and the ground becomes a mirror for the rest of the painting.  I had been looking at some paintings by Ken Howard and was extremely impressed by his depiction of wet city streets, it caught my eye how much green he used in the reflections.  When I looked at some photos I had taken of Salamanca in the rain I noticed that there was also a lot of green in the reflections, even though there weren't any trees or anything green in the images.  I decided to have a go and did this oil painting of Calle Toro, I never finished it and it's a few years old now, despite this it is still by far my most popular painting on, with over 1500 views!  I had intended to to more on it but got distracted by another painting and when I went back to this painting couldn't muster the energy to get into it again.

I followed the same theme of rainy streets by taking some photos of the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square when visiting my parents one Christmas in London.  In this one it is almost dark and so it is the floodlights on the facade that are reflected by the wet pavement.

Another key to both of these paintings is the people milling about in the streets, cityscapes without people tend to look spooky, no matter how nice the buildings are.  In the painting of the National Gallery they are little more than silhouettes, in the Calle Toro painting they are a bit more elaborate but still just blobs of colour, well worth putting in though.  I never wait for people to get out of the way when I am taking a photo to paint in a city, always mindful of the added value these strangers may give to my paintings.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

White isn't Always White - Painting Colours

There is much more to painting colour than painting the colour of the object in front of you.  In order to illustrate some of the factors to be considered I am going to write about painting white and how it can be altered in different ways in different contexts.

Firstly the colour of the subject will be under the influence of the light cast on it, not only from the principal lightsource but also the light reflected off other coloured surfaces around it.  In this painting above there were two sources of light, the electric light of the bathroom and also the cold daylight coming from the kitchen behind.

Next the colour of the light seen on the object will depend on the type of surface the object has.  In the painting the surface of the tiles to the right were very reflective so darks and lights were accentuated, the electric light was slightly yellow and somewhat blocked by the door, the door was also had a gloss finish but as it has been a few year since it has been painted this is not the brilliant white it used to be, this added to the tiles having a yellow tone.

Another thing which affects the colour of something being painted is the context which it is put in.  The white of the shirt in this painting looks so white because it is next to whites that look blue or yellow.  In the same way something dark will look darker if positioned next to something bright.  It is a good idea to approach a painting by first establishing on the canvas the darkest and lightest points on the painting, followed by the principal tones.  If you don't then a colour you put down earlier may look different when you start adding other colours and you might have to go back to repaint what you've already done.

A good general rule is to try to paint what you see rather than what you think is there, but you also have to take into account how the colours will be interpreted differently by your eye according to the colours around them.  Don't be dissapointed if you think you've got just the right colour for an object and then have to make adjustments later as the painting develops, for this reason it's usually better not to paint any particular part of a painting in too much detail before you have the other elements at least roughly suggested on the canvas.  The painting should evolve as a whole, your paintbrush jumping back and forth between areas as they develop in contrast to each other.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Self Portraits

Self portraits are a real treat to paint. Often when painting a portrait for someone else I can get worried about whether they will think it looks like themselves, or whether it is flattering enough.  This preoccupation can restrict my expression and sometimes make the painting look over done or too much like a photograph, or just a bit stale.  When painting myself I am not so worried about getting the features right and I feel more free to experiment with the style.  The oil painting which heads this article is the most recent in the post, there are others in the blog which are more recent, such as the one of myself drinking water, but even this is about a year old.  I painted this worried looking one from a photo of myself sat in the shade in front of a yellow wall, this has resulted in all the tones in my skin not being overpowered by direct sunlight, and the reflections all being true to how they would be for a person in front of a yellow background.  Sometimes I do a portrait and then pick a background colour of my choice, this always runs the risk of making the face jump out of the painting, not quite harmonizing with its surroundings, sometimes this can be a good effect, other times it just looks wrong.  I also painted this portrait of myself over another painting which had quite thick paint so there was no chance of trying to get any detail in as the surface was so rough, although you don't really notice this as the painting is quite large (61x80cm).  I am looking worried because I thought it might be more interesting than one of me grinning at the viewer.

One of the oldest self portrait I currently have in my possession is this one on the right of me on my balcony, it is painted in acrylics and to be honest I've improved quite a bit simce then, although I still like this painting.  The light is streaming over my shoulder and loses the shape of my head.  I had my hair quite short but not bald as it might appear in the photo.  Again a pensive look, trying to look thoughtful I suppose.  I remember I painted my finger far too long at first and didn't notice until a friend pointed it our to me.

Acrylics have their own charm and I used to use them a lot, they are great because they dry so quickly and you can put layer on top of layer without waiting for one to dry.  If you want to build up tones with semi-transparent glazes of colour then this can add a nice richness to the painting, especially if using a medium instead of just water.  The painting in the last post of the coffee pot with cherries is done in this way and looks quite good I think.

When painting in acrylics I often found myself trying to get it to look like an oil painting, with thick paint and visible brush strokes.  You can buy mediums which slow the drying of the acrylic paint so that you can paint wet-in-wet on the canvas, and also some acrylic lines claim to be able to produce impasto effects and hold the impression of the brush stroke.  Certainly the ones I tried about six years ago didn't seem to be able to achieve this, and as with normal acrylic paint the surface would flatten as it dried, maybe the products are better now.  I tried in oils and saw astounded at how perfect thick paint retains impressions, especially if it is a little dry.  I haven't really gone back to acrylics, except for underpainting, although I would certainly deny this is a permanent switch.  Here, on the left you can see another self portrait, this time in oils, using thick impasto. I painted it quickly and the photo was actually taken almost in the dark, at the opening of an exhibition in an art gallery, in front of a projector, hence the strong shadows.

Finally, the last painting was another experiment.  I had taken a lot of photos of myself shaving in a mirror and did a series of painting from them.  The intention had been to capture the steam on the mirror but as it was summer and there was no condensation on the glass, and the other paintings in this series look a bit ameteurish.  This one was an accident of composition as I wasn't quite sure where I was pointing the camera.  I liked the look of it in the photo so painted it along with the others and among the lot it remains my favourite and the only one I haven't painted over (yet).  The background was invented and my hair and eyebrow are darker than they are in real life (as a friend pointed out).  But that's the joy of self portraits, the extra licence to experiment because it's your own face you are painting.  Certainly it's a great way to practice and improve, some people are shocked at the number of paintings of myself I have when they visit me at my flat, and I get accused of being egotistical.  Well, perhaps I am, but that is an other issue.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Painting from Life or Photos

In this photo I am going to write about some of my experiences painting still life paintings from life and from photos.  I read a lot about how painting from life, with the subject physically in front of you, is the best way to learn and sometimes feel ashamed that I paint so much from photos.  I work a lot from digital photos on my computer and often get up on a Saturday morning and indulge in a whole weekend's painting, until late Sunday evening.  Sometimes I work for up to two weeks on a photo as I did with this acrylic painting of a coffee pot pictured above, which I painted years ago now, or the more recent one of me drinking from a glass of water a few posts back. I must admit that two weeks staring at the same photo and I start to go a little stir crazy, a weekend is nice and with a photo it's great that the light doesn't change and you can rotate the canvas upside--down to get a fresh look at it.

Sometimes while painting from photos it can be tempting to get bogged down in detail and spend a lot of time labouring over the shape of a blob of colour on the screen.  When I do it I seem to be under the impression that i need only concentrate hard on the photo it will work out well.  I am often disallusioned when I spend ages on a painting, copying everything in as much detail as I can, and the resulting picture lacks life or even realism.  There is a hauting and unattractive clarity to how they were produced, as if by numbers. Sometimes they work, and seem to click, at least to me, into the real world, better than the photo was, and bigger.

If you paint looser you can chose along a gradient of how expressive or abstract you want the result, from photorealism you slip into impressionism, into expressionism and then abstractions. In each type however you have the chance of looking obvious or cliquéd, but depending on your tastes, you may to chose to prefer that style.

Bad impressionism is better than bad photorealism to many people.  At least it doesn't have a fake, wrong look, like a badly copied photograph. An impression in expressive paint is often easier and less time consuming to a very realistic look, and the result can have somehow captured as much realism, made that magic step up into looking like the real thing, and not being blocked by flawed attempts to capture reality.

By the time you've got to abstractions and lost any connection to any visual reality, then you need to connect on some other level, emotional, intelectual, or worse, shocking level.  At his point painting somewhat loses its interest to me, maybe I can connect on an emotional level, but it won't enspire emotion not like a well painted impression of a real thing.  I don't know why I probably wouldn't sit looking at a lemon, but in a painting I might. It may inspire me, perhaps because I want to reproduce it, maybe I'm just thinking how I can adopt some of its techniques, wondering how this person is so much better than me.  But why does it give me such pleasure to leave it on the wall?  Good paintings seem to radiate energy, a hope in the human abilities to conquer reality, not only visully but emotionally. To look like the real thing on more than just one level, to capture the moment, the feeling being there.

So the question is whether painting from a photograph impedes the ability to capture the moment. Maybe being in front of an object helps you get this connection which a photo never could.  Maybe it can. You probably need to be a better paintier than me, for me, the advantages of time outweigh any other factor in getting a photo looking magical.  The colours of a photograph are not as good as the real thing, also seeing with two eyes has an effect because you decide which perspective you want to get on the picture. Maybe a blend of the two eyes can help create this elusive realism.  Last month I painted a still life of a bowl with some lemons and mandarins, after a week one of the lemons was turning green. Admittedly I had only done half and hour a few nights that week, maybe if I had shuttered the window and spent a whole weekend painting with an electric light I would have got something more better than I could obtain from multiple sittings, as it always takes a while to get into the flow of observing and painting each time you sit dowm.   Maybe with a litttle practice I'll get betterand be able to capture everything in less time, with fewer but more accurate brush strokes, and less mistakes with colour mixing mistakes.  I'll keep practising.

However if you paint from a photo you needn't be so loyal to the image.  You can always try to paint in a more relaxed fashion if the style of the painting demands it.  I quite enjoy trying to make a painting look photorealistic, but I equally get satisfaction from letting loose, as in this oil painting on the right which I did of some daisies from a photo last year. My intention had been to do a light, airy painting as as the subject was a bunch of flowers I felt I could hardly go wrong, as long as I got the impression of the light and the basic shapes and colours right. I painted it over an evening and the next day, the light didn't change in the image, I kept it loose and was not restricted by painting it from a photo.

I am sure that if you practice with either source, you will get better at interpreting that kind of source, either photos or real life. You will get better at using the advantages and reducing the restrictions of either way of painting. I am quite good at working from photos so I am going to practise more from life, any sort of practice gives you more insight into how to capture that real freeling.

I will leave you with another painting I did from life, this time in one sitting, it took me about an afternoon.  I did it a few years ago and in acrylic so the paint dried quickly so there was no problems with the dark outline of the bannana polluting the green or yellow.  It is actually very large so I didn't have to do any fiddling abround with small brushes and it ran quite pleasingly.  I painted it over another painting so I wasn't just painting over white.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Revisiting Unfinished Paintings

I am often reluctant to go back to unfinished, or almost finished paintings.  When my artwork is nearing completion and I am pleased with it I begin to worry that something I will do is going to ruin what I've managed to capture.  Not all my paintings turn out well and the difference between getting a painting looking ok and looking great is often a stroke of luck, some days it's as if the muse is with me and sothing magical happens, other days I seem to be just following steps and the painting ends up looking artificial, over-worked or contrived. Hence I begin to get a bit edgy when adding the finishing touches and sometimes rather leave a painting slightly unfinished than go over the top.

If after a few months I'm still not quite pleased with a painting I usually paint over it, it gives me great satisfaction to eradicate my failings and have another go at a completely different subject.  Sometimes the previous painting acts as an underpainting and adds some impossible-to-plan interest to the new work.  Quite a few of the paintings I have already posted on this blog have faced this end, even the one of the close up of my eye in the blog entitled A Painting of a Friend's Kid, which I turned into a much better painting of Tatiana at the Bathroom Door, which I have yet to include in a post.

Some paintings however I regain inspiration for and have a go at finishing off or improving in some way.  The still-life which heads this blog is one example, it was a whole year before I went back to it to add the detail in the glass and background, although I did quite like it as it was when it was only half finished.  It is acrylic on canvas, back when I used to do most of my paintings in acrylics.  Another example is the portrait to the right, of my friend and student  Carlos.  In this case I just couldn't get my first attempt at painting him right, it looked awful and I had intended to give it to him as a gift.  I just had to give up and go back to it a few months later.  Now I am quite pleased with the re-touched result and it is now hanging on his wall.

I have read that other artists leave their paintings a while to assess with more objectivity the result of their labours.  I would never touch a painting that I am already pleased with though, I am not confident enough yet that I wouldn't mess it up.  If I'm just going to paint over it though then what is there to lose, just a little more time and a bit more paint.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Not So Still Life: Running Water

One of my favourite things to paint are the reflections and refractions in water.  Similar to reflections on shiny metal surfaces such as stainless steel or chrome, apparently abtract forms are suddenly brought to life when carefully copied from a still life composition into paint.  While it may be difficult to capture the peel of a lemon or the delicate beauty or a flower petal, the human eye easily recognises water as water, no matter how inaccurate the shapes within it look, a lemon may turn out lumpy, but strange bends and distortions in water are just taken for granted.

A few years ago I had been itching to paint running water but my camera just wasn't good enough to capture the fast movement as a still shot, it kept compensating for lack of light by holding the shutter open longer than I wanted and the flow of water would result in a blurred column. I enlisted the help of a friend who owned an SLR camers and managed to get a few good images to work from over the following months, one of them being the self-portrait above of me spilling a glass of water down my chin, and the other of hands catching water to the right.

As you may be able to see, the hardest part of both of the paintings was the human skin surrounding the flowing water.  I seem to have been able to capture the hand a bit better in the self-portrait, I could probably have tried a bit harder in the other painting but I was getting bored after meticulously copying the cascade of bouncing water, which contained so many little abstract shapes which I wanted to get right to give the overall impression a realistic look, that I had had enough by the time I got to the hands.  The tap and the plug (yes, it's a black plug wound around the tap) were the easiest to capture, as long as the outline of the handles and spout were correct I couldn't really go wrong with the reflections themselves.

The self portrait is actually a much bigger painting than the one of the tap and I was using a small brush for the reflections and the hands.  For some reason I kept using this small brush as I began working on the face, although I would normally use a larger brush to cover bigger surfaces.  This has resulted in the face having a patchy, cross-hatched look which I ended up leaving as I quite liked it, and more importantly I didn't want to ruin.  Sometimes at the end of a painting I get worried about messing it up and will leave a painting slightly unfinished for fear of losing the effect I have managed to achieve.

I eventually got my own SLR camera and took some photos of a glass overflowing with water in my kitchen, for some reason I don't like this painting as much, maybe it's the composition or lack of colours, certainly the skin on the hands looks a little wrong, but here it is anyway:

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Creating a Scene

It has become evident to me that painting portraits of people grinning at the viewer has limited emotional depth so I have been trying more and more to include some aspect of tension or drama in the scenes I paint.  I hope to to this more and am currently brainstorming ideas, maybe I will try ro reproduce some scenes from films or at least ideas which imply some storyline behind the painting.

This painting of my friend Tatiana I called Worried Maybe, it is from a photo of her sitting in my living room, she was looking off to one side pensively and I was snapping away with my camera, who knows maybe it should be called Bored and Getting Annoyed Maybe.  Anyway, I really like the result, I didn't work too hard on getting it looking like her but rather tried to capture some element of emotion.

Another painting I did a while back which also has some tension is one of two friends doing some late night cooking, an Italian guy and a Spanish girl I know, the guy was actually a bit tired of me taking so many photos but in the painting he just looks sinister, it could be from a movie.  I intend to do more like this.

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