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Notes on a new painting

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.

Sneakers 1The 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.

Sneakers 2Then 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.

Posted in demo/in progress, oil painting, painting.

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2 Responses

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  1. Katarzyna says


    I’m sorry to com­mu­ni­cate with you this way, but I’m a bit wor­ried if you got my e-mails I sent to you last week. All the best with your new painting.

  2. David says


    I responded to this by email.

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