If you haven’t run across it already, I’d suggest you take a look at this demonstration of the “form painting” method by Tony Ryder. It’s pretty close to the procedure I learned from Dennis Cheaney. Dennis and Tony are both students of Ted Seth Jacobs. (I should be clear that I have no connection to Tony Ryder whatsoever, and I have only met Ted Seth Jacobs once.)
The method proceeds through several stages.
This is a small painting (5 × 7” or so) done quickly, to develop an overall sense of what the final composition will look like. It is painted entirely in big blobs of color, with no detail and no gradations (i.e., no blending). Each blob represents the overall average color of a big shape, such as the hair of the subject of a portrait. It’s best to do a lot of squinting while completing a poster study. Poster studies never look good enough to display as separate works of art, as studies by some artists do. If it looks that good, you didn’t do it right.
The poster study allows you to solve a lot of painting problems beforehand. You quickly come to understand your composition in a way that thumbnail sketches do not allow. You see color harmonies evolve and figure out how you are going to mix most of the colors you will need. Lots of mistakes can be caught in this manner before you ever touch the final painting. Once you start, the poster study becomes a reference to refer to as the final painting progresses.
The next stage is drawing the forms on the canvas (which is white, not toned). Tony does this in vine charcoal, then inks in the underdrawing in diluted paint. Dennis sometimes also had us do this in dilute paint from the start. The idea behind the drawing is to linearly delineate all of the important forms throughout the painting, with a high degree of detail. All the important decisions about placement, shape, and structure are made in this stage.
Note that you must be able to draw accurately for this to work. Then again, if you can’t draw well, there isn’t really much point to trying to paint realistically.
The next stage is what Dennis calls the “color wash” and Tony calls the “wash in.” It involves application of diluted paint to the canvas, approximating the final color. Although Tony doesn’t mention it, Dennis emphasized that you should never use white when doing the wash in. This is a transparent application of paint in a manner similar to watercolor, in that the lights are generated by the white of the canvas. The entire canvas is covered in the wash-in, so that virtually none of of it ends up pure white. While the level of detail is not as high as in the final painting, the wash-in gets pretty detailed. In his demo, Tony says this:
The wash-in helps solve many of the problems that we would otherwise encounter if we were to paint a finished painting directly on white canvas. One such problem has to do with knowing whether or not the colors we’re applying to the painting are indeed the ones we want. Colors, by themselves, are never right or wrong. They can only be judged in their tonal context, i.e., in the painting itself. That context is never fully realized until the painting is done. Consequently, while the painting is in progress there is always a degree of uncertainty involved in the choice of colors. However, we can take steps to lessen the degree of uncertainty.
Dennis also calls this “painting opaquely.” Over the color wash, you start in one area and slowly create the final appearance of the picture. You can now begin to use white, which is part of what makes this stage opaque (you also stop diluting the paint to a watery consistency). This is called a “window shade” technique because you attempt to create the final appearance of one area of the painting, move to an adjacent area, do the same thing, and continue. The painting appears slowly, as if pulling up a window shade. The procedure is therefore basically a direct painting method, applied over the wash-in (which has dried very quickly because it was applied so thinly). It may take many days to complete the painting, but each section is finished before you move on to the next. (Corrections are allowed, of course, but the goal is to not have to do any.)
This is not how I actually paint nowadays, although there are strong similarities. I am often too lazy to do a poster study, although it would be a good idea. My underdrawings are usually done in paint, not charcoal. I almost always tone the surface rather than paint on a white ground. Because I don’t like to dilute paint to that degree (I am concerned about its technical soundness), I don’t do a color wash. I do at times deliberately work in layers rather than directly.
This is an effective way to paint realistically, however, and I may go back to these roots more over time.
30 November 2008: I should also note the strong opposition to working from photos that proponents of this approach espouse. All work is done from life or from the imagination, never with mechanical aids and never from photos. I myself find photos to be pretty bad sources of information to use for realist art, although I am not nearly so opposed as Jacobs and his direct students are to “cheating.”