Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Good Day

There is no big idea to this post. This is just a description of how I came up with a painting and started it. I hope it's a little interesting.

This past Monday, I had a good day in the studio. I was starting a new painting of Piera, painting #17 of her in fact.

Sometimes you have OK days in the studio, sometimes you have really deeply lousy ones. Monday was a good day.

Here's what happened. There are different ways you can be in the zone. For me, there is being technically in the zone, where you pull off technical stunts of impressive dexterity; and there is being spiritually in the zone, where you get to the core of something to do with soul in your painting. You almost have to be technically in the zone to accomplish anything spiritually in the zone, but on a day when you're in both zones - or at least when I am - it's being spiritually in the zone that defines the day, because the spirit is more important than the tricks.

So I was starting painting #17. It's based on this drawing I did of Piera when she was pregnant:

Piera 2/22/2010, ball-point pen on paper, 15"x11"

She was seven months pregnant at the time, and just really feeling kinda worn out. I liked this drawing, which was awkward and clunky. I thought it had a lot of character - that she had a lot of character, and I adapted to meet it.

So two weeks ago I did a preparatory sketch for painting #17 based on the original drawing:

Preparatory sketch, graphite and white pencil on Rives BFK Tan paper, 22"x15"

This is how I always start a painting - it gives me time to evaluate the emotions my idea is bringing out, and whether or not the idea is any good. It also gives the model time to adjust the pose to match their own natural sense of position, which makes for a more organic unity in the eventual painting.

Then I agonized about what size to make the canvas - 30"x40"? This would result in a 9.5-inch face. It would be powerful, but not intimate. I'm not making a statement with this painting. I'm trying to put you in company with a person. I'm working on plenty of other paintings where the concept is more foregrounded (more on that soon) - this one is about character.

How about 28"x22"? A face about 5.7 inches tall. Intimate, but weak. Too weak. The viewer is too powerful.

Then I realized I had a 30"x24" lying around the studio. A face around 6.5 inches tall. Perfect.

So I did my usual finicky underdrawing on the 30"x24" canvas:

I try to take as much drawing out my painting process as I can with these underdrawings, but really, once I start painting, all bets are off, and the painting hardly ever winds up looking exactly like the underdrawing.

I wanted this painting to have mass, substance, presence - in short, I wanted it to have subsurface scattering. There's no way to do that but the long way around - layering paint over dry previous layers of paint.

I decided to start with a layer of Indian red (I kid you not) for the lights and burnt umber for the darks. Why? Because I know it works - I did it one time before. This is the Vadim painting where I used the same mix:

Vadim 1, oil on canvas, 20"x20", 2008

Only that's with all the layers in place. Here's how it looked before I painted in the lights - and the real darks (the version below actually still exists - I started over because I liked how the underpainting looked, and also three smart people in a row told me to stop where I was):

Vadim 0, oil on canvas, 20"x20", 2008

So I went into Monday's session with Piera having this plan in mind. And this is what I came up with:

Young Mother, sitting 1, 30"x24", oil on canvas

Now I really like that - I think the character and presence remain intact. I wanted her to be tired, and perceptive, and rich in mass, and slumped, and herself and nothing else. I think she's all of those things.

That was what made Monday a good day.

Wish me luck in not totally screwing it up as I go along. I'll share progress with you.


  1. Daniel, I for one think this post was a little interesting. I absolutely love to learn how others work the craft. I can watch me paint all day and never learn a thing, but reading a post like this makes my day. Good luck on the painting. I can tell that you know you won't screw it up.

  2. Fantastic. I am looking forward to seeing the progress on this one!

  3. Kevin - I'm so glad you got some use from the post; I like reading about other people's processes as well. I don't *know* I won't screw it up. I do know I may sweat blood not to.

    Ed, I'll post it... if I don't screw it up.

  4. Very interesting and very timely. I just finished writing out notes about three different ways I like to "start", thinking about which one I will use for a piece I'm setting up. Really like your start on this one.

  5. McG - I'm glad you enjoyed it, and I hope you'll write up a blog post about your notes; I'd be interested to see how it goes for somebody else (it's not *always* fun being the only person in one's universe).