It really is an honour to be asked to contribute something to this little gathering of movers, shakers and artistic worthies. A talented bunch who do a lot to promote the stuff we all love. A lot more time consuming than it appears (as I’ve found out for myself). So thank you all very much.
Dan roped me into this a while ago now and though I’ve had to stop and start on it over some months now, this is the painting whose progress I decided to try and follow. “Hrimox”, after Hrimturse, the Nordisk frost giant. He comes from the wonderful world of Trudvang, based very closely on Scandinavian mythology, folk tales and sagas… a fantastic place that I am more than happy to visit whenever I can. The guys responsible for this commission work under the name Riotminds. Actually, used to work. They have recently joined the ever lengthening list of companies that, since having had the pleasure of dallying with my creative offerings, have had to turn of the electricity, board up the windows and go home. Indeed – the globe straddling behemoth that is Games Workshop is at present the only bunch that seem able to resist – or simply shrug off – this curse that seems to have attached itself to my name. Ha! Their time will come.
Anyway, Dan has asked me to present something in the hope that I would be able to produce some insightful essay into my own personal do’s and dont’s, how’s and why’s, and the even more likely if’s and but’s of my creative process. Again, I say “Ha!”. Any techniques I learnt or picked up over the years are only part of a continuously evolving process that is best summed up as – what ever works – and making it up as I go along. I’m really not trying to sound flippant about this, but apart from some consistent starting points – the rest of it is pretty much always a huge leap of faith, and then having that faith tested right up until the wonderful moment when I can put my name in the corner. And that in itself is sometimes more a recognition of the need to get out before the whole thing goes pear shaped.
A technique will only get you so far and can very quickly become over relied on and thus consistently dominate any visual outpourings at the expense of life, emotion and all those hard to put your finger on things that give a painting life. Its not that I don’t sometimes wish for a technique that would hold my hand all the way through until the afore-mentioned signature – its more that (and I’m hazarding a tentative guess that many of the worthies here at Muddy Colours would agree – even those with the more “obvious” beautiful techniques…) no matter how consistent I have tried to be over the years, things hardly ever go to plan. Even those bits that occasionally do, usually run the risk of being revisited much later, with grand and noble intentions of making them even better, or through the simple necessity of blending them in with more recently attended to areas. It’s backwards and (hopefully) forwards all the time and this usually means that any vague technique that I thought was tried and trusted goes straight out the window and is substituted for increasingly frantic attempts at anything that will work (more of which later). Sounds awful and chaotic. A shambles, I know. But you see -now draw closer, my dears- this is the very special place where I’m winging it and things might happen. Unexpected things. Wonderful things. Even weird things. The things that make me feel like a “real” artist. I love it. Of course, it’s just as likely to be “Oh, no….not again!” as it is to be “Blimey! Didn’t know I could do that!”
I might as well begin with being upfront about the risks involved, as I’m sure the more astute ones amongst you have already smugly noticed. So please draw your attention to the first and second pics where the Hrimox’s left leg is blocked in. At the time I felt I had blocked it in quite well and I seem to remember it falling into place quickly and relatively painlessly. Now fast forward to the finished painting. Found it? Bit of a mess, eh? A combination of constantly having to keep it in balance with the rest of the painting’s progress, and always this idiotic need to try and just make it a little bit better – meant I couldn’t leave it alone – and I blew it completely. I sense some surprise and a muttering of agreement out there. Well, its true. You wouldn’t believe how long I wrestled with just that leg, trying to get the same “rightness” I had before. I just couldn’t do it. So time for a time honored technique to try and save the day. The ancient, but easily mastered technique known as “hiding it”. A bit more hill, a little adjustment to his hemline, a few more trinkets, and of course – a few snow flurries. Job done.
Not sure really why I’m showing myself up like this. Maybe it’s just so you know that I suspect there are very few who can make things work out all the time. A technique can set you off on the path, but at some point, if you want to go somewhere where there’s no one else, or that place that only you can get to, you have to stray off onto the little, dark, overgrown path and see where it goes. Much tougher. A bit intimidating. But the point is – it’s only you – so you’ll end up in wonderful places no one else has ever been. Don’t forget some sandwiches; it might be a long journey.
I’m dribbling on a bit, I know, but I guess I’m trying to stress the point of not solely relying on technique. Of course, you can still end up with a beautiful, even amazing and technically astounding picture, but I can’t help but feel it is those little, dark and mysterious paths -together with leaps of faith- that provide the unexpected discoveries, delights and happy accidents that make the whole thing worth while. That’s where the life and energy can be caught.
So, as I’m sure I’ve heard other souls here echo at some point – put the books back up on the shelf. Turn off the image search. Throw the phone out the window (very important, that one). Shut the door. Take a deep breath, and set off by yourself.
You can get help later. We all use reference and all sorts of stuff for inspiration, but don’t forget to use yourself sometimes. There is a big, but often blurred, difference between inspiration and influence. It’s up to you to decide which it is. I feel that influence always seems to leave a sometimes not so subtle or complimentary spore. Inspiration can provide that shimmering, intangible glow of mood, colour and energy that makes a painting come alive, yet in itself remains invisible.
I need my paintings to be believable, so I use reference. I want to be able to put myself in the paintings. When I’m painting I hear the creak of worn leather. The sharp sounds of cold iron. An icy wind rustling and hissing through the dry grass. Reminds me I was going to put a few ravens in the distance. Completely forgot. The lonely cries they make always seem to fit in lonely, mountainous places. Not sure now…….
I always try and draw things myself first, and then hopefully give them the veneer of believability by checking real reference. If I start by using reference without my own ideas for a framework, then its a bit tricky trying to shoehorn my ideas on top of something that is kind of engraved in stone, as it were. Without place for my own take on things, it’s just repetition – alright – copying. It ends up looking like props from some really bad village hall, amateur dramatic production. This is what happened on the Hrimox’s leg when I was trying to save it. The first painting was my own. I knew how I wanted it to look and was pleasantly surprised – ok, shocked – when I got it first time round. Then, as I said, I just couldn’t leave it alone and ruined it. I frantically copied one reference after another, trying to get it back, but just tied myself in psychotic knots getting further away all the time. Each time I lost the plot, and I lost count of how many times, I moved onto another piece of reference, and just repeated the process. It was only when I got so frustrated, that I would try and do it instinctively, and without reference that I sometimes got close. But I just pushed it over the edge time after time. Hence the snow flurries etc. Sometimes time constraints and blood pressure force you to admit defeat and wait until next time.
Sometimes one can get so engrossed in the fascinating intricacies of “the truth” in the form of reference, that it seduces ones own vision to be subserviant to it, instead of the other way round. And I’d better add here that looking at other people’s work is just as dangerous. Apart from the fact that there are ever increasing numbers of frighteningly talented people, which is seriously depressing (honestly), the inspiration that definitely comes from being amazed by their work, comes with the burden of recognizing that they are on their own path that they found. In terms of the reference or influence that we admit to using – the bottom line is that it’s their truth. Not yours.Very dangerous ground. Especially these days when everything and everyone is at our fingertips. You’ve got to be very selective. It’s very bad and habit forming. As lovely and informative as all these images are that we are bombarded with are; Beware! They’ll try to steer you away from that possible, little path over there in the undergrowth that nobody else noticed apart from you.
Now I’ve really been waffling on (I sense a collective, rather sage nodding of heads. And one or two yawns.) so I’ll try to briefly restrict myself to the few practical and reasonably established stopping off places on my path.
First, sketches. I’ve got to have a stage where whatever has to take place, can take place. Got to be somewhere I can imagine myself tramping off into, sandwiches in hand. Some are based on, inspired by photos. Some made up. Theo, at Riotminds, (who was the best Art Director in the world), never once in 11 years has asked to see a sketch. Not even a scribble. All I get is “We’d like some dwarves gone bad – lead astray – big bad Hrimox – base him on a musk ox – none of that greek stuff, thank you very much – mountains – cold – bit of snow (if you like) – look forward to seeing it when it’s done.” Believe me. I do know how lucky I am (was). So I freeze frame the film in my head, complete with the sounds and smells, and try and find the characters.
I should have taken more photos really, but bare with me. I use a light table to juggle the characters around , play with their sizes until I get little “Yes!” moments for each of them. Accompanied by vivid flashes of just how wonderful they’ll sit in their jewel like perfection when finished. Ha ! Fool!
Next, its drawn up on some watercolour paper, this then being shoved under the kitchen tap to wet the surface, and then taped down to dry. Now the whole thing gets a bit ambiguous again. I do know that I start from the background. Sky first for obvious practical reasons and as it tends to dictate the lighting for the rest of the painting. Then, with my brushes I travel slowly to the foreground – trying to imagine myself doing just that.
I use water colours in tubes, I guess in the same way someone else will use acrylics, gouache or oils. Squeezed out onto a plastic Ikea tray. A pot of water, and off I go. I’ve used them since I was a minor and have seen no reason to change. They are a lot more flexible than people think( apart from the purists, of course….), I can go back and reawaken them at anytime – they kind of give me what I want. I feel that they are my language.
I’m honestly not that aware of darks to lights, lights to darks, or what have you. All those apparent “rules” that people set great store by. It’s not to disparage them. Maybe if I did use water colour in the traditional and expected way – I would very swiftly find out that I would have to abide by those rules – but I don’t – so………… Sometimes I’m blending light tones into darks – sometimes darks into light. I guess its building up lots of layers until reaching the highlights, but I’m constantly darkening things down and starting all over again. I doubt there is any of the original blocked in painting that hasn’t disappeared under subsequent layers and washes.
One definite technique (I’m getting really sick of typing that word) I find I use is to claw back areas I’ve lost, or to get highlight and colours as clean as possible. Then I use a gouache white, to sometimes disturb the layers and blend it in – or to sit as cleanly as possible on the surface. Then, using them in the way those purists would say they were originally intended for I put a delicate wash of the required colour over the whole area. Of course, this means I often have to go back in and redefine other colours again – but I do love that slow building up of things. It could be the whole of the Hrimox’s torso, or just a dwarve’s nose. Rather silly process really, now that I can see it in black and white – but when it goes well I just love it. It can lead to some very “muddy colours” (got it in!), and sometimes I even need to daub off as much as I can with a sponge and begin an area again.
I could have used tons more photos to show all this , but the differences are so tiny. Time lapse might have done it…..
Not much more I can think of to add really (was that a collective sigh of relief I picked up on?). It’s a constant to and fro’ing of dark to light. Light to dark. Colours to sit on top. Others to disturb the layers. Washes to unite areas. White to find forms lost. Washes to blend the white back in. White to sit on top. Washes to colour the pure white. Those are the things I think I do, and now that I’m forced to write about it – it all seems very haphazard, sometimes counter productive, and even a bit silly. But in those striven for moments when things fall into place and everything seems to flow effortlessly… there is very little sequence or set patterns. It doesn’t happen as often as I would like, or as often as I think it should – but that’s when I feel I’m on that path and I’m pretty sure that it will take me somewhere unexpected and satisfying. Thats when it’s best.
Make of this what you will! But if you at least find it interesting, and maybe even informative, I’m a happy bunny. If it answers some niggling questions – even better.
Still don’t know what to do about those ravens though…
A -very- special ‘thank you’ to Paul for taking an extraordinary amount of time to write this post for us! Be sure to check out more of Paul’s paintings at his website: www.paulbonner.net. And for those of you interested in seeing an even larger selection of his work, impeccably reproduced, I highly recommend his book Out of the Forests: The Art of Paul Bonner.