Thoughts about the Painting process

Painting the figure is complex. There are a lot of things that need to be taken under account, such as proportion, anatomy, value, color – not to mention the gesture and expression and how each part of the painting relates to the whole.

The more complexity the artist can retain at any given time, the better off the painting will be, because the more factors would be calculated into each brush stroke. However, in reality, doing all of it at once is too daunting a task. It gets easier with experience, since more and more knowledge becomes automatized, but still, a lot of complexity remains anyway.

So, the artist must come up with a method of reducing that complexity into manageable steps. Traditionally, this is usually achieved by doing a block-in (a simplified drawing of the major lines and value shapes), then painting a light, transparent, monochromatic version of the subject, to figure out the value scale of everything and then finally adding the color.

This way, every aspect of the complexity is dealt with one at a time. In what’s called Ala-Prima painting, everything has to be done at the same time more or less. The accuracy of the drawing, the values, colors and the integration of every part of the painting around its theme or focal point.
However, even in doing this there are ways to reduce the complexity and dealing with it one thing at a time. Different people would prioritize what to “solve” first differently. This realization struck me clearly as I saw a picture of the following painting by Morgan Weistling in mid-stage of making it:

Look at the girl’s left hand, the one not fully painted yet. This, for me, was the giveaway. The interesting thing here is what the artist prioritized – what complexity he chose to target first. In this case, it wasn’t the structure; it was the color and value relationship. As you can see, the hand is still lacking its structure – there are no knuckles, the fingers are not yet separated and the exact outline formed by each finger is not yet accurately described. From this general paint blob, he will later carve out, or add, the structure.
Another thing that was being solved there was the proportion and the general shape. The artist was able to do that because, after years of drawing experience, those things come easily and are well automatized.

With most artists, I believe, the drawing aspect is the one issue that needs to be solved first, because it holds the most complexity, and everything else is then built on top and in relation to that initial stage. (That is the case with me with most paintings, with some exceptions).

I think that there can be two approaches here: One is to first put down the easiest thing to solve, what one already has automatized, and then build the complexity and other aspects on top of that. Or the other approach is to first start with the most complex part, get it out the way and then build the other things on top.
It is much easier, in my opinion, to use the second method, because without it, an artist can get a sense of being overwhelmed with the complexity, which isn’t made a lot better simply because something like the value or colors have been figured out. However, I think it makes for a better painting or drawing when the value is prioritized first, and the structure emerges from it rather than the other way around.

Velasquez is an excellent example of this. He has the structure well automatized that he is able to put it last, not first, and since his primary focus is value and color, he can imply the structure in a subtle yet accurate way, just enough to get the idea across, without describing everything in detail. It gives the viewer a sense of epistemological power; a sense of being able to mentally hold complexity in a simplified form; a sense of control over complexity.

Value, in a work of art, is the primary tool for unification and differentiation. It can be used to sharpen differences between objects of to unify them and send them to the background. Both are important in a work of art, because art described things in a selective way – it enhances the central aspects of a painting and de-emphasizes the ones that serve merely as context or setting for the main focus.

Incidentally, while I admire the painting style of the first artist I shared here by Morgan Weistling, I think he utilizes the same style all over the painting non-selectively. A lot of artists do that, with different styles (it can also be done with photo realism). Compare that to this painting by Ilya Repin, a Russian painter from the 1850’s – notice how the ships in the background are mushed together in value and lack detail to de-emphasize them and send them to the background, while the men are described much more and appear to emerge. I think this selectivity of rendering makes for a superior art work.
Therefore, I think it is wise to start a painting with the values figured out, and then have the structure emerge out of that, slowly and in a controlled way, creating the emphasis only where the artist needs it to be.
The problem here is that it is more difficult to describe (or what I call “solve” or “figure out”) the structure rather than the value, and so if all your canvas has is the general values, the entire complexity of the drawing needs to be solved as you go. Ouch!
I think a solution to that is the wipe-out process, which retains some information of the drawing while still unifying the values across the entire painting.

Anyhow, I don’t feel like I’ve reached a definite conclusion, but rather made some interesting observations about how an artist approaches a painting and deals with its complexity.

I think in most cases, the artist will first solve what is most difficult and what takes up most of their mental space. This changes over time once some aspects become more automatized compared to others (these are usually what the artist is most fascinated with).

I’ll have to continue this line of thinking some other time!

Merry Christmas!


2 thoughts on “Thoughts about the Painting process

  1. i saw MW paint,no preliminary drawing or block in stage, he paints from inside out from one central stroke to the next (for example he starts from en eyes and from that point he will devellop the face ..he deals with drawing, thickness, values, colors, edges all at once..he never blends (he finds it too techniqui) he prefers to find the exact color and value of the area between to spaces,,,his paintings are made of thousands of mixed exact little tiles of color, he paint with bold thick strokes with bristles brushes(mainly filberts)…out of nowhere he creates magic..he squints a lot (every 20 seconds, to compare form and values..and evaluate colors both eyes wide open…he look every minutes in a mirror to see any flaws. he also look away from the subject and look at it again super fast to see (what is essential) to edit all distracting details, to paint the essence of the subjects….in a fast demo he could paint just the shadows…and the lights, then,,,over it he would add the middletones in little tiles taking care of the edges….edges it capital to turn the form…also he advises to look for a shift in color temperature over a shift of values (since there are 7 or 9 values to paint from and tens of thousands of colors)….hope you find it usefull …merry chrismass…Daniel Ouellet 🙂

  2. squinting is also good for simplifiying the form of the shadow masses….when painting from dark to middletones to lights…one must find warm and cool colors in the darks, in the middletones and the lights…the darks are painted in masses (in Velazquez, Sargent and Weistling, the darks are painted a bit bigger that there real size, so when you paint the middletones they go over makes the paint connects. Darks are painted in simplified masses, middletones and lights are painted in (choppy separate strokes) an thicker as they go lighter…stokes could go along accross or againsts the form…3 questions can help you find the exact color of one spot 1)find the right value of a spot? 2) is it a warm or a cool spot? (if it is warm, make it a decisely warm color…if it is cool make it a decisely cool color (do not hesitate-a weak color is a weak spot on your painting) third question 3) is it a bluish or a yellowish color?…hahahaha ok i am started…i will stop soon Ifat :)…usually the technique of those masters requires the use of a fast drying white flake white) you can slow the drying time by adding like,,,titanium white like in a 2/3 fw 1/3 titanium w….and the effects are made by many layers of thousands of strokes…on the contrary if you want a Mona Lisa look..use zinc white(a super slow white)..for a technique that is based on hours and days of blending

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