As I’ve mentioned before, I have a real need to do personal work in parallel with the work I do for clients. The reasons for this are many—experimentation, learning, personal fulfillment, etc. Of late, the personal fulfillment aspect of things has been vitally important as I feel that much of my client work is increasingly divergent from my preferred aesthetics. More specifically, pieces I’m asked to paint generally contain more stuff in them than I’d normally want to include in an image, and sometimes balancing all the various included elements is draining to me. This isn’t to say that what my clients want is bad or wrong—it’s not. It’s just that sometimes client work—be it concept art or illustration—pushes me in a direction I really didn’t want to be pushed and I look to the personal work as restful, more meditative, break.
Normally, I’d like to be putting out a LOT more personal work than I have been the last couple years. But there have been some life distractions that have gotten in the way and I’ve really only had time to work extensively on the client work, because…well, I’ve got bills that need to be paid and my personal work generally doesn’t do that at this point.
Fortunately, I ended up with some time to finally finish a piece last Friday that I began in May of 2019. But really, this piece began a few years before that, as a quick mini-painting. Here is that mini-painting:
This painting measures five inches wide by seven inches tall and is oil on hardboard. I wish I had process photos of it, but I don’t. What I can tell you of its creation is that it started as a bunch of wet, scribbly paint strokes that I pushed around until I found an image in the chaos. And then I slowly developed that image. It was the bird’s head that I saw first and then I went from there. This little painting was mostly done in a few hours and likely completed with some touch ups the following day.
Before I go on, I want to apologize for the quality (or rather lack thereof) of the truly dodgy cell-phone photos. This isn’t exactly a new issue for me, but in this case, the photos are truly hampered by glare and specular highlights from the texture of the canvas.
Anyway, I sold the miniature painting, but I always had the intention of painting it larger at some point down the road. Once I was ready, I took the scan of the small piece, projected it onto a canvas I had ready to go, and traced it out.
The proportions of the piece changed because of the surface I’d decided on, which was a canvas measuring twenty-four inches wide by thirty inches tall. While the extra room at the top of the smaller piece was nice, it ultimately didn’t add anything to the image and I felt pretty comfortable cropping down.
Once the drawing was done, I moved on to a quick and dirty block-in using acrylic paint.
This is not a pretty block-in, but it did everything I needed it to —it has the simplified value structure, as well as all of the compositional elements. Plus, it was fast.
All that was left was to paint it all up in oils.
Instinctively, I started with the focal point of the bird’s head and then moved outward from there. I realize that this image represents almost no progress and is of little insight, but it does show the painfully slow early days of figuring things out on this piece.
Once I’d gained a foothold, I started to block in a lot more of the piece in oils. I think I realized suddenly that going after any level of detail was ill-advised without getting a better handle on the value structure as whole. I didn’t want to have to repaint important sections darker or lighter because I didn’t have my act completely together, and so I figured out how dark I was going to go and worked backwards from there.
By now, I think I’d gotten a pretty good handle on where I was going and started diving into the details of the ash plume and the wing on the left. I knew I wanted some degree of transparency to the feathers, but I wasn’t quite sure how far to take it. Honestly, I really loved how I’d addressed that in the original mini-painting, but once I’d settled on the amount of lightning between the wings, that solution felt like it no longer worked completely, and so I spent a lot of time addressing the revised lighting scenario.
Still tightening various areas up, getting my details figured out. In the case of both wings, I decided it worth articulating all the various details of the feathers despite the fact that I knew that they would end up being largely obscured by the smoke and ash plume. My reasoning was that it would be more difficult later on to indicate the detail than it would be to glaze or scumble paint over it.
Timeline-wise, the above photo is only a few days into painting the piece. In reality, those few days were stretched over the course of a couple months (between May and August of 2019). The upside to pieces on the back-burner is that there’s no deadline and you can work on them whenever you have time. The downside is that it’s harder to gain any real momentum. Regardless, the time in between stints of working on this piece provided me with fresh eyes each time I came back to it, and so I was always finding things to correct or develop further.
I ended up taking a break on the piece after August of 2019 and then returned to it in November of that same year.
As you can see, the piece is really starting to look finished at this point. Still, I was unhappy with how the eye was moving around the piece. I felt like it kept getting drawn to the lower, left-hand corner, as well as the upper-left. So I did a lot of glazing, painting, and repainting in those areas, all while trying to bring the rest of the piece closer to completion.
By January of 2020, I was feeling like this thing was almost done. But something about it kept nagging at me. I showed it to a couple of different artists and most of them had some nit-picks to address, but nothing major. One person, however, suggested that the wing at left was too small. Given how much far forward it’s suggested to be, my fellow artist felt that it should be a bit larger. He sent me a version of the piece he manipulated (which I can’t seem to find), and I realized he was completely right.
In the end, I did my own digital manipulation and then projected that revision onto the painting. Trying to exactly line up the projection of the painting with the painting itself was…trying. But I got it close enough, then traced the new wing outline with white charcoal on the painting’s surface. Next I got to work revising it.
Click above for an animated gif of the painting showing the revision.
With the revision complete, the painting sat for….about a year. The primary reason I didn’t finish it, was because once I got it to this stage, my wife and I decided to move from Seattle, back to the northeast. Preparing for that, finding a new place to live, and then executing that move took a lot of my time and focus. I ended up having very little time to do even client work for a while there. And once I got into the new place, it took a surprisingly long time to get settled. Instead of clearing the decks of this piece, I instead did little pieces here and there, and the back-burner got pushed even further back.
But then, this year, after a medical issue forced me to bow out of client work, I decided to pick away at this piece again in order to complete it.
The primary issues I felt remained to be solved were the lower, left-hand corner (still), and the way the wing on the left interacted with the smoke plume. So that’s where I focused my efforts (while noodling other areas here and there), and then I put my signature on the piece. So as far as I’m concerned, it’s done.
The finished piece is called Impetus, and is oil on canvas and (again) measures 24 inches wide by 30 inches tall).
Unfortunately, the piece is still wet and I didn’t have time to get it properly photographed or scanned. So the above image is the best I could do. It was difficult to get a good cell-phone shot of it, but what I ended up doing was applying Wylie Beckert’s suggested scanning technique (link) for dealing with texture to this piece, which was causing glare. Instead of a scanner, I just set up my cell phone, took a shot, flipped the painting, took another shot and then blended to two. Crazy. All things considered, I’m not unhappy with the results—especially considering that it only took me ten minutes to assemble the image and color-correct it—but I hope to get a higher quality image taken of it sometime soon.
Here are a couple closeups for those who’d like to see some:
Anyway, there are probably many nits with this piece still to pick, but I need to move on. I have one more piece to fix up (both because I want to fix some things on it and because it got dinged up in the move):
But after this back-burner piece is off the easel, it’s on to new things. Maybe I’ll do a few smaller things before beginning something more ambitious. Regardless, it was fun getting this piece out of my system and I hope it’s something you fine folks have enjoyed seeing come together.