Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Painting's Journey: Day 1, Choosing the Subject

Yesterday I started work on the above painting, Truro Lighthouse, and thought it would be interesting to follow a painting from start to finish as I work on some new ideas. Below is my first post. Feel free to travel with me and post your comments along the way... 

Day 1 - Choosing the Subject

I was in the studio on another hot and humid Monday morning here in Elmira, NY - the fan whirring loudly as my bottle of water condensates on my work table. I wasn't sure what to do and was sitting at my desk reviewing notes from workshops I had taken on the Cape last Fall as a number of photographs of the Cape loosely fell between my fingers. I looked up at my post-it note goals, two of which are: increase your inventory of Cape and/or boat paintings and, push yourself to venture into new and unfamiliar territory. 

I took another look at the small stack of photos and lock in on this snapshot of the Truro Lighthouse and it took me back to the day I visited. I was alone on a rather brisk, grey November day. Here, high above the Atlantic Ocean, was a place I hadn't been to since I was a young child. I remember the feeling of anticipation I had while walking up the sandy path and then, as if a vast curtain opened there it was. The beautiful, formidable, strong fortress mothered by a warm, clapboard Cape house breaching the sky like a whale's tale. And her surrounding split-rail fence invited me in to continue walking. 

The wind picked up as I followed the path out to the top of the bluff and embraced the ocean view, the salt air filling my lungs. When I turned back to look at her, there stood before me this image and it caught my breath. Her solid cement foundation rising out of the sand dune seemed to rustle at my soul and I quickly picked up a blank canvas and decided this is what I would work on today with my passion fires brightly burning. How long as she been there? How many ships caught her beacon to safety in a gale? How many people have worked and lived here? 

I then got to work. I took my time between the photograph and the canvas. Back and forth. Back and forth. And then boldly determined and drew in the three dynamic "composition lines" that I learned from Cynthia Packard during one of her workshops (which I now remember took place the week before this photograph was taken). This step sounds easy but it takes some study and practice because where you place the image on the canvas can make or break the painting, and if it's not determined BEFORE you start painting then you will, most certainly, fail. Trust me...and the paintings I've tossed over the balcony.

When I felt I had this step down I began to sketch in the next layer of dynamic lines. I should have stopped here because I drifted off and started sketching the subject itself. This is the "kiss of death" according to Cynthia, who, along with her mother, Anne Packard, feel that you really should only paint from life. And while I agree, I am going to use this approach to help abstract out my lines. We will have to wait to see how this pans out.

Next, I begin the under-painting process. This is when I block in the shapes, lines and form and plan out the high contrast areas. I then sketch in, with the paint brush, the dark lines to solidify the main graphical elements. Then, with the foreground still staring blankly at me, I rather quickly paint-sketch in the fence posts with an exaggerated purpose. 

I step back and like how these help to lead my eye back into the painting. It feels a bit too realistic for me but I trust I can handle that later in the painting process and decide to leave it. I fix some of the errors at this point - the lighthouse was too "fat" and some of the buildings needed adjustments (and still do, which can wait until later) - and at this point I start to like where it is going and feel okay leaving it until tomorrow. 

I tease some color onto the roofs which I know I shouldn't do as one of my "rules" is to never begin to add color until I've determined what colors will be on my palette so I do stop at this point and start thinking more about where I want to take it. What is it about this lighthouse? It's history. It's purpose. How did it make me feel when I first came up to it and when I looked back at it. What is it that draws us to them? And more technically, what colors would convey these feelings? A more muted approach or a more bold, colorful approach? I leave the studio with this door of thinking wide open and with eager anticipation to return. 

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