This time I was thinking vaguely about working with safety nets – or being a bit old school and lacking the luxury of my paintings floating around in layers up in cyber-space – the lack of them. Every time it’s all about commitment – and hoping that the faith in ones self was well placed. ‘Course – there is always a constant to-ing and fro-ing – but one persists, hoping that faith will see you through to a satisfactory conclusion.
So, I was perusing some books on my over burdened shelves, and came across this image. This is a french painter, Edouard Detaille (born 1848 in Paris), working on, just one end, of a rather adventurously sized canvass, and looking like he could really do with a real safety net – let alone any kind of digital jiggery-pokery to back him up. As artists, I guess the idea for us is to constantly try and over reach ourselves, hoping to claw our way up to the next level. Well, it certainly looks like old Edouard is going for some serious over reaching here. It would be depressing to think that this kind of epic undertaking of his was just another one for the portfolio. When I look at the discarded sheets of layout paper that litter my trail towards a finished painting, I can only shudder at the thought of the huge swathes of forest that must have been laid low every time he had a creative urge.
And this mammoth undertaking was done before Image Search and digital pocket cameras and projectors. But he did have Absinthe. He was French. I can only think, that as a professional Frenchman he must have complimented his morning croissants and coffee with healthy swigs of the stuff. If it was me, I’m pretty sure that the creative side of my brain would have to be doing a very energetic can-can with the Green Fairy to get me up that scaffolding and start on anything that gargantuan.
I must be getting old – but these days anything that isn’t a single, solitary figure, constitutes a crowd. What I used to think of as a forest is now just a crowd of trees. Though it’s not often, when I can do things for myself they tend to be more stripped down, knowing that the stuff the puts food in the fridge, more often than not demands crowds – of both beings and trees. And these are very difficult to control. The constant tightrope balancing act of keeping, on the one side, an artistic vision intact, the creative energy flowing smoothly – and the other – the sheer grind and concentration of technique and discipline. Let one get in front of the other , and the scaffolding wobbles and any satisfaction in the finished result hangs in the balance. The disciplined grind gives lots of little achievements and areas where things shine proudly, but they risk working independently and selfishly refusing to help towards a final, cohesive image. Not team players at all.
I, as I usually do, became painfully aware of this with most paintings that eventually make it off my easel. This one was no exception. It took far too long and I was sick of looking at it by the time some kind of conclusion had presented itself. Too many elements to control, yet too complex to just instinctively and spontaneously wing my way to a very artistic finish. Through all the years in the trade, I have, probably like all of us, harboured desires and longings to paint canvasses that would make Monsieur Detaille’s efforts look like half-baked preparatory sketches than one would have to squint at to see properly. The Battle of Five Armies or Waterloo painted across the facade of the London Natural History Museum. That’d do. But after struggling with something about 70cm x 50cm – I know upgrading to anything substantially bigger just isn’t going to happen – even if I did have access to Absinthe and scaffolding.
Anyway – the powers that be wanted a crowd, and we need the food so off I went. Straightaway, the imagination is already cluttered with far too many eye-watering possibilities. Dwarves, a dragon and a forest. It’s what I do – isn’t it. And this one is going to be the best ever. The most adventurous ever. As many dwarves as I can fit in with as many trees as possible. So all the little thumbnails start being churned out and a scene slowly takes shape. Trying to juggle figures so they fit together and have a relationship to each other – just like you have read in every other post that Iv’e done here. After a while the artistic imaginings and aspirations are gradually reigned in. If they are dwarves, then the trees have to be comparatively bigger. So fewer trees. If the dragon is going to be a respectable enough size to justify the dwarves turning out in force – then he’s taking up dwarf space. Fewer dwarves. And so, whittling away at it I ended up with something about 70cm x 50 cm and thought it only prudent to dismantle the scaffolding and skip the Absinthe.
In black and white, it all looks very harmonic, reasonably well designed, and very open to the idea of being decorated with pretty colours. But it’s still a crowd, and rumours spread fast, quickly causing unrest and possible upheavals. This does not often become apparent until later on in the process, when I am trying to give them all the same light source values. Also, the very design of the dwarves armour (which I was not responsible for) is just a morass of details. All the reasonably large, organic shapes like helms, shoulder pads and shields are festooned with details which make it almost impossible to retain the larger forms. So, instead of the eye being gently guided around the painting, it is forced to zig zag from one detail to the next. Not really what i had intended at all.But this is a crowd and it’s tricky.
There was also an element of confusion with what to use for the main light source. Well…..quite a few elements of confusion. I wanted some kind of subdued daylight in the forest. A little light filtering through the trees. There was also some backlight from the edge of the forest in the background. And of course – there had to be some kind of flamey thing going on. In hindsight it would have been a lot easier to do the whole thing set at night-time (in a big cave – without trees). Just one light source dominating and dictating everything.The dragon happily incinerating everything and everyone stupid enough to get close to him. But – somehow that’s what dragons always seem to be doing. I wanted my dragon to have temporarily run dry, or, by dint of being stabbed by various pointy things, at least been caused to hiccup or draw breath. Like a vicious punch to the stomach, or some annoying person sitting behind you on an aeroplane who sounds like they are waiting at deaths door – for hours.
So – plan was there would be some localised light from his fires where he had spluttered on to the ground, but otherwise, the glue for most of the scene would be the subdued daylight.
As usual, after two tea breaks and photo ops, I completely forgot to take progress shots. Sorry about that – it’s a question of priorities. Anyway, it started out ok, but as I started working into it, the bigger shapes disappeared under the afore mentioned deluge of details and my poor eyes started darting from one little bit to another constantly tweaking, but without really getting anything done. So I thought I’d better add the pyrotechnics in to see if that would help weld things together and convince the crowd to behave. Of course – it didn’t. One dwarf would have this lighting, the next would have another and a third looked as if he had just wandered in from another painting. None of them looked like they had a plan or belonged anywhere actually. But surely – isn’t this just what it is to be an artist? Working in a blizzard of problems with one or two sunny breaks? It’s just problems to solve in every single painting, sculpture;whatever it is that we do. Unfortunately, it seems that most of the time that’s exactly how it is, but I’m not complaining – it’s just what we do. Maybe I’m just putting into words a gentle reminder that we all have the problems and they don’t go away just because someone’s been doing it for a bit longer. Absinthe would probably make them go screaming off into the void – but the real stuff was recently made illegal, and I’m pretty sure that resorting to that with your croissants and coffee would open up a wondrous portal to a whole new bunch of problems.
So – I think the poor dragon turned out okay with a little bit of light filtering through the trees.
This rather aggressive chap suffered from having to be gently lit by the flames – not too much – but also have a tiny bit of light from the forest edge
These three had fire on the ground as their main source of lighting. The first guy still had the daylight from above , and possibly the forest edge – I really don’t know anymore. The other two not quite so much. And because it is still daytime, I wanted to avoid big dark, dramatic shadows anchoring them to the ground. So it’s all my own fault. I should have gone with night time in a cave. Would have taken me half as long to do and – dare I tentatively say – much easier.
These three were very sensibly hanging back a bit, and consequently only have the diffused daylight to contend with. A little bit of firelight on the big one in the middle, but otherwise no pretty firelight. It is always so tempting, as immense fun is to be had from putting in the little- jewel like highlights and shadows – but restraint is oft times called for, as the whole thing can also run the risk of coming crashing down in a plethora of overdone finery.
I hope Theo (my “art director” at Riotminds) doesn’t get around to reading this. He might get the distinct idea that I am not altogether happy with this one. I think he knows that I’m never really happy with them. Like most of us up even some modest kind of scaffolding, our tired eyes tend to gravitate towards the bits that didn’t work as we hoped, the bits that could have worked better and those bits that just shouldn’t have been there at all. Usually because, when it was far too late, another, much better idea presented itself for our inspection and was unceremoniously told to “You’re late! Bugger off!”. So, it’s a pretty picture with some bits I’m happy with, but I’m not sure it works as a unified painting. Maybe my initial design could have being more simple and dynamic – but then again I find myself being increasingly convinced that everything does tend towards chaos. Especially nature, elemental things like air fire and water. Forests especially. Not very tidy places at all. Even dwarves, dragons and anything with some kind of anatomy behaves according to it’s constantly changing circumstances. If one is not careful, things can be over designed, over positioned and over painted, resulting in a long fall off the tightrope into a big, fat pillow of cliche.
Just in case Theo, reading these confessions has second thoughts and decides not to pay me I’d better close. Sorry about the rambling, that seems to be how my mind works when trying to put into words what I sit and do all day on a kind of automatic pilot.
Right. I’d better go and eat me some croissants. I’ve got a pile of scaffolding to put up for the next one.
Next time just scan it in and hit the “daytime in forest with bits of fire light” button and call it a day. Of course you are too hard on yourself and I’m glad you are.
Glad you are out there somewhere Bill. I can’t find that button on my stupid Danish keyboard. Guess I’ll just struggle on.
Paul, you’re a legend! This painting turned out amazing and your write-up here is incredible! It’s so good to hear your thought process as you work on these scenes (and comforting to know that you too have moments of madness when making them). And wow that close up shot of the dragon is especially nice!
An almost living one! Too kind Justin. I owe you a “comment” and a mail……..I’m on it.
great write up and im gonna echo Justin above and say that dragon head is just sublime. love the subtlety of the lighting throughout the scene.
Many thanks Justin. But I’ll have to heighten my scaffolding to get up to your level of forestry!
Thank you master, for sharing. Love the humor. Incredible how even all the rings in the chainmail fits perfectly!
Sorry for the late reply Rasmus – only just saw this! Thanks for commenting and glad you enjoy my ramblings!
Sorry you struggled with this one, Paul. The result is spectacular though!
That said, the works of yours that have fewer characters and less stuff going on, are just as powerful, engaging and still give the eyes plenty of areas to explore.
Awesome job on this one, and the article was very nice to read. Thanks for sharing!
Just saw this Nico – sorry! Happy you enjoyed the article – and the painting. It just is difficult to keep these bigger, complicated ones focused…………
I have to echo the above comments about the dragon, I can lose myself in the symphony of colour and texture of it all day! But I like the piece as a whole too, getting the flames to work so well is a real feat! Even reading about the things you aren’t happy with doesn’t detract from it. But it is like you said, we all see the “defects” in our own pieces, hopefully these comments above can make you appreciate some of it a bit more at least! Sometimes, I think a good analogy for shifting your perspective on pieces you create is to compare it to looking at a scene out in nature, perhaps a sunset with clouds lit up in all manner of different hues. One wouldn’t start criticizing some of it being “perhaps a tad bit too violet, maybe that cloud could be a bit smaller” etc. etc. it just is the way it is, beyond our ideas of perfection and imperfection.
Of course a painting is not the same thing, because we create them ourselves, and the strive to do something better is an important drive and reason to why we do this at all. But too much of it can be painful. I hope none of this sounds patronizing or so, I just wanted to give a different perspective, and I think you deserve a big pat on the back just for carrying out to the end, through all the difficulties and swampy terrain! When I look at it I see what can be summed up as beauty, patience and presence.
Sorry for my late reply Staffan – only just saw this! Well – thanks for the pep-talk and encouragement! Now I feel confident to get the scaffolding out again! You are right with what you said about nature – it is changing constantly and is usually always a kind of beautiful chaos – and that can be so difficult to catch in paintings. Especially if one is painfully aware of the deep and beckoning chasm of cliche. Tricky enough when dealing with dwarves and dragons, so it would be awful if nature itself pushed one down into the depths! So – we can only keep on trying to walk that tightrope. Appreciate your comments.
Howdy Paul, Perhaps like singer Jimmy Buffet you are a “legend in your spare time.”? This is wonderful. Mind you I prefer the illustrations where the dragons are winning, but this is still terrific. Who knows maybe the tide will turn as the story goes on. My only bit of perplexity comes from the flames around the dragon’s tongue. Left over fuel from his recent burst of flame? That was the conclusion I came to, but I could be wrong. On a tangential note, I remember you once saying you needed to do a Beowulf illustration with the dragon breathing flames. Did that ever come to pass? Best wishes and thank you for the look at this.