Neil Young, for Rolling Stone Magazine, issue 1169, November 8, 2012
I’ve painted long enough to know that much of this list has become second nature. Neuroscientists call it ‘automaticity.’ Similar to driving, one practices the technical skills so that later our brain focuses on what’s important: getting somewhere safely.
My favorite medium is oil paint, but these will enhance most painting styles.
I start with darks first, to get the deep shadows laid in. Obvious places: nostrils, eyelids and eyebrows, mouth line. Next, I’ll put in broader, but slightly lighter shadow shapes like under the nose, under the eye sockets, under the bottom lip, chin, deep cheek bones, hair. I place the boldest shapes to establish deeper values, then work my way up through the darker values of color to the lighter values placed on top.
Until the last bits of painting, I avoid the highlights as long as I can. Two reasons. One, I need to work my way up, so putting them in too soon will defeat that effort. Two, I leave something fun for the last. I delay gratification as long as I can. The best part of painting in oils occurs within the last few layers and strokes.
Hair is a bold shape, not individual hairs. I study folds and constantly vary them. Repeating the same folds will kill a painting as dead as an assassin’s shot through a pillow. I don’t think about the object I’m painting. I separate myself from the subject and only paint the form. I won’t ‘follow’ the form either. I cut my strokes across the surface of the forms. This adds dimension and lets objects feel sculptured.
New painters: Avoid primary colors.
Ultramarine Blue. It’s deadly. It’ll make mud faster than 35 school kids running for the bus. And no, Cadmium Yellow Light is not a miracle color. Get over it. Using it straight from the tube does not show how brilliant one is at mixing paint. Same is true for Ultramarine. New painters seem to think they are phenomenal because they used Ultramarine Blue straight from the dang tube. They step back and declare, ‘look at me, The Genius. I have explained the essence of pure painting by opening a paint tube and using yellow next to blue. Admire me.’
Using primary colors as a statement of painting brilliance screams ‘AMATEUR.’
Amount of pigment.
I trained to know just how much pigment is on the end of my brush. No matter how large or small, my awareness of the amount is paramount to good layers, good coverage, good overall effect in any painting.
I studied calligraphy. It taught me how to make letterforms with a brush or pen. Knowing the amount of ink held on an instrument for calligraphy is critical to achieve a skilled work.
Calligraphy also taught me how to angle a pen or brush. Making letterforms is a key factor in learning to paint. I know many great painters who also started by copying letter shapes, making signs, copying comics (bang! zoom! pow!). They learned to handle the brush and at what angle AT ALL TIMES.
The angle of the brush helps lay down the right amount of pigment, at the right angle, in the right direction, with the right pressure to achieve a free and confident stroke.
I start with the largest brush for as long as I can and work my way down to the smaller brushes. Many times, as I near the end of a painting, or even slightly before, I switch back and forth. It’s a good, general idea to keep things from getting too focused too early.
Painting fast and loose comes the same way as anything else: with time. I painted very slowly in the beginning, placing my strokes deliberately, to look as if they were painted fast. Once down, it’s usually hard to tell the speed the stroke was laid. Over the years, I built up speed through confidence. It’s just plain ol’ experience. And LOADS of training.
I don’t judge my strokes too quickly. I lay it down, and press on. I come back to that area after a bit to judge whether it was the correct feeling, size, color, etc. I don’t lay one down, hate it, and take it off. Or worse, try to keep changing it.
At this point in my career, I lay strokes down that don’t make sense, but I let them sit. I find that they are just fine once I come back to judge them in context, against other strokes that are adding to the whole piece. Judging too early destroys spontaneity.
I decide how I want the paint to feel once a piece is finished. I scale the brush size to fit the scale of the painting. If it’s a small painting in a magazine, I have to decide how clearly the strokes will be seen and what feeling they project to a reader.
If it’s a large painting and I want it to feel loose, I have to decide on the size that feels best. Paint it too large with small brushes, and when it comes down in reproduction, it can look too detailed. Too small with large brushes, and the piece can look too loose, too unfocused.
New painters can make the mistake of painting too small with too large of a brush and vice versa.