I started a new one today. I thought it would be helpful to discuss my process in some detail.
I set up a still life with two old sneakers. I spent some time arranging them and then drew out some quick compositional sketches on 3 × 5” cards. The panel I’m painting on is an odd size—20 × 7.5”—so I want a dynamic value structure that will pull the eye through the painting. After about 10 fast drawings and some moving sneakers and shoelaces around I think I have something satisfactory. It’s hard to overstate the necessity of this compositional step. Just painting some random arrangement, without consideration of how the eye will be moved around the composition, is unlikely to result in a pleasing painting that communicates what the artist is trying to say.
The panel is hardboard primed with lead white. I don’t want to paint on a white surface (it’s harder to judge values), so I mix some burnt umber and raw sienna together, add a little spirits of turpentine, and wipe it over the panel with a rag. Then I start to draw with a 1” flat brush using the same paint mixture. The goal is to get spatial relationships right. That mostly means a lot of measuring distances and angles. Every point needs to be at the correct angle from every other point. I do a lot of holding up the edge of the brush in front of me to get the angle of a line and then comparing that angle to what’s on the drawing. It also helps to hold the back tip of the brush in two fingers to let it fall plum, then comparing whether one point falls on a correct vertical from another point. Same with horizontals.
I’m not concerned with making a detailed drawing in paint. The information I’m trying to put down is about the overall structure of large masses and important points. There is a complex structure of laces that I’ll have to get accurately later, but putting them in now would only confuse things. I am only working with one dark color of paint here. One of the great things about working on a lead primed surface is that it is not absorbent. That means that I can easily make corrections by wiping with a finger or with a rag. I make those over and over as I compare angles and lengths from one point to another.
When I’m done with the drawing it doesn’t look like much. There’s a lot of detail missing. It’s not a tonal sketch in that it consists of a lot of lines drawn with the brush, but some large light/dark areas have been indicated. Mostly it’s just about boundaries.
Then I begin to apply paint to the areas around the subjects. It’s just a neutral at this point, since it’s an initial thin layer and is intended only to be dead coloring. The shift from dark to light as the surface goes back is much stronger here than in real life, as a way to create a sense of depth. The mixture consists of my regular lean neutral dark mixture (burnt umber and natural Mars black) and flake white.
After I’ve laid the paint down, I do a lot of smearing with my fingers. I don’t want any texture in this paint layer. I also want to avoid hard edges generally. So I blend and smear basically the whole surface. I deliberately pull the paint inward over the sneaker edges I’ve established, so that I can then paint back over that layer as I put in the subjects.
That’s where I end the first painting session.