I’ve always been perplexed and a tad jealous when I hear other artists say that they start a piece with a fully-formed image in their mind. I have to puzzle it out, unravel what the painting will be (and it takes way longer than I’d like!). Sometimes I start with an idea and then find imagery to suit it..when I started Narrative, it was briefly stained glass windows in stone ruins on the seashore, and briefly a tree growing against a cliff wall…I didn’t know it would be a tree and stars when I started it!
Other times, such as with Silent Solace, I start with something smaller. I had been wanting to paint a cactus skeleton for a long time, so I started with that and sought to find things to pair with the cactus skeleton in a way that felt right, interesting, and began to cobble together some kind of intent.
Since many people aren’t familiar with cactus skeletons and might not recognize it if I went too wild with the shape, I decided to keep it vaguely cactus or tree-like in form. Bright, midday light didn’t feel right with the subject, nor did anything like a sunset, so I knew almost immediately that I was looking for dusk or night colors. I wanted to revel in the interesting contours of the wood, and the idea of having two light sources of different colors would let me explore that.
Now I had something to work with! Initially I played with the notion of having the secondary light source be from within the cactus, but I couldn’t justify it. I’m not sure if it is a reasonable worry, but I am often concerned that my landscapes might be interpreted as over-rendered concept art, and my rule for avoiding it is to never pursue a “cool” visual idea if it lacks meaning.
I used to go for late-night walks around my neighborhood. The streets were quiet, lit by streetlights, lit windows, and sometimes moonlight. It was lonely, but in a temporary, fleeting way that allowed for introspection without isolation. All those lit windows represented families eating dinner, sitting down to watch a movie or read a book, or getting ready for bed. Walking down the street, you’re alone, but surrounded by people. There’s a very nice illustration by J.E. Morris in the children’s book Most People that captures this feeling so well, in a very warm way. I wanted to capture that feeling with the path and lantern, to contrast against the lonely night.
At this point, I’ve arrived at: a lantern and a street (more or less), a cactus skeleton tree, so perhaps also a desert scene at night. It’s a round-about way of determining the subject of a painting, but it is faster for me than starting with an whole concept, like I did with Narrative…I try to save that for when I am able to take my time on a painting.
Tired of transferring sketches my regular way, this time I traced the sketch on Dur-a-lar and mounted it over the gesso, sketch-down. I start with the sky, establishing the gradient early so that I can layer closer objects over it. As the cactus sketch begins to get lost under the paint, I reestablish it with darker paint, knowing that too will get painted over, but counting on it being visible through the paint. Since I pour a gloss medium mixture over the painting every night, masking fluid or tape would be too tedious and unreliable to apply and reapply daily.
Eventually I call the gradient in the sky good enough…after all, it will be covered by clouds and any unevenness will be obscured by them.
When the clouds are done, I start painting in the cactus for real…where previously I was just approximating the color and value to make sure I didn’t lose it under the paint as the sketch was covered up. Since I’m painting in acrylic and would have to paint the tree and sky together if I want to blend wet-in-wet, I usually lay down hard edges and go back and paint in softer ones later, choosing where I want them.
Popping in the holes out the other side, by painting in greenish sky circles, was so satisfying. It immediately lent the tree depth.
Nearing the end of a painting, as things begin to look finished and I get excited to mark another one done, I start a “punch list” on whiteboard to be sure I don’t wrap things up and miss something. It might be an edge I’d like to soften or highlight I’d like to hit a little stronger, but they’re easy to forget to return to when it looks done and I’m excited to finish. It always feels great to wipe that whiteboard clean!