My last post here I’d put up a thumbnail and some images of a large painting of my kids/animals (same thing!) I was intending to start. Started it, and figured I’d give an update on its progress, as well as maybe provide a bit of background on it.
Been wanting to paint a group portrait of our babies for a few years now. When I’d first started kicking the idea around, we had 1 boy, 2 beagles, a tortoise, and two hermit crabs. I’d primed a 6×4 foot panel and kind of designated for the purpose of this portrait back then. That was back in 2014.
Then Life happens. We moved, had another kid, crabs died (RIP Barbara and Snoop crabby crab), our male Beagle Ponzu passed away last November (rip my dearest baby boy), who we then replaced with two mastiffs and a basset hound…We adopted an african spurred tortoise…then had another baby in July….the older I get the more i see how much life is in constant flux, always changing, breathing in the new while expelling the old. Sometimes its great, sometimes it’s not. As an artist who’s personal work tends skew toward the autobiographical, I try to be aware and pinpoint those personal moments that I’m compelled to try to record.
This past summer was probably the best I’ve ever had. Washington summers are absolutely magical on their own…the days are loong. the sun rises at like 4 am and night falls somewhere around 10pm. the forest thrives with new life. Its incredibly inspiring to me, not just as an artist but as a human being. Living out here the past 3 years I love it more and more every day.
But in addition to the weather being nice, we’ve just been in a good place as a family. I was able to move my entire art-making operation out to our barn, so for the first time in my professional career I actually have a designated place to make art. The boys are at very fun ages now (5 and 2), and will frequently make their way out here to hang with their dad. They’re now both kind of interested in what I do, and its great being able to share my world with them a little bit more. I have these big sweet furry companions who lay out here with me most of the day. Snuggling with a couple of 150+ pound pups is a great way to take a break and recharge. Working on a very cool project through Massive Black with some truly great people that’s been perhaps one of the best/most interesting gigs I’ve ever been able to contribute to. Our baby girl arrived in July, and she’s brought such an amazing new energy to our household. The further we got into this past summer, the more apparent it became to me that this was a chapter of our lives that I wanted to commemorate in paint.
I had a fairly clear idea of how I wanted to go about it, but given the nature of my subjects it required a decent amount of planning. I knew I wanted to paint a night scene with the large maple tree behind my studio serving as the backdrop. I wanted to front light the whole thing to appear almost as if it’s being lit with a flashlight or something. Id painted the same tree under similar circumstances a couple of years ago, and wanted to expand on it some. There’s a kind of immediacy and intimacy that this type of lighting creates that while it’s not the most ideal scenario for a classical portrait, it just felt like the right way to go with this piece.
First step was to do a few quick thumbnails and figure out rough framing and placements. Kept them pretty loose so as not to get caught up in details that would likely be informed by the reference I had yet to shoot. I thumbnail literally everything I do these days. Even if its just a scribble, having that initial game plan is essential, especially if you’re planning a complex picture with lots of elements.
Once I had a thumbnail I liked, I set up out back to shoot the environment. I set my camera on a tripod and framed up my shot. The scene was lit with an LED work lamp that throws a nice bright neutral colored light so I could capture as much info as possibleI. Took fairly long exposure shots so I could get the detail I was looking for in the background elements. The final image is stitched together from about 15 different shots so I could capture as wide of a field of view as possible. I also shot two versions, one with an empty foreground, and one where I laid placeholder objects of approximate size in the scene as reference for where I wanted my subjects to be.
While shooting outside, i recorded the height of the camera, as well as the distance between the camera, light, and the placeholder elements. then i moved indoors and recreated the same scenario in my studio, marking with tape on the floor the camera and light positions, and their relative distance from the placeholder objects… then one by one i brought my sitters out, placed them roughly where i wanted them, and shot them individually. After picking out my favorite pics I composited them together into my final reference image. Overall it worked out pretty well and if there’s anything that ends up looking weird I can always try to cover it with grass or a cast shadow 🙂
I used a 4×4 inch grid to help transfer the image, which I drew directly onto the panel lightly with a 4h pencil. For larger pieces like this ill tend to use a grid mostly so I can make sure the elements are precisely were I want them. Its also a nice safety net I can measure against if I run into any drawing difficulties. I like to end up with a fairly precise contour line underdrawing so when I come in to paint there’s a solid foundation upon which to build. Here are a few progress pics of the dogs and our yellowfoot tortoise.
Being right handed I naturally tend to work left to right, and working wet in wet I will kind of break the painting up into different sections that will best facilitate this approach. As with the drawing, I try to be as precise as I can with this first pass, paying special attention to proportions, values, and placement, as well as paint surface to make sure I’m laying a foundation upon which I can easily add more layers of paint on top as I come back in and refine forms and volumes. This stage is the heaviest lift, as once this pass is done it’s mostly tweaking stuff.
I’m now about a month in and a little past halfway done with the first pass. At another time in my life, I could have probably done the whole thing in a couple of weeks, but between work, kids, and life, these fine art efforts tend to move a bit more slowly. But that’s all right. I’m in no rush with this, though ill be honest I’m looking forward to getting it all blocked in so i can start reworking the background and fixing the many small drawing deviations that occur during the block in process….THE SATISFYING STUFF!!!
Justin Coro Kaufman is a west coast based illustrator, Art Director, and fine artist. He is the Owner and Art Director of Massive Black, an art collective specializing in concept art and pre-visualization for games, film and emerging technologies.Recent clients include Google, Amazon, DARPA, and Intel.