|Reference photo for oil painting, "Twilight Reverie"|
IDEA FIRST OR PHOTO FIRST?For us realist artists, there are two ways to begin a new work of art: get the idea first and then look for photo references to help create it, or find a photo that inspires you and create a composition based on it. There is a third, of course, which is to get the idea and create the art using no references at all but the artist’s imagination and knowledge of the subject. The third option is not yet within my scope for large works of art; sketches yes, but not major paintings or drawings.
PHOTO FIRST - THE INSPIRATIONIn this case, as soon as I saw the photograph, it really grabbed me emotionally and artistically. It was late September of 2012, my horse was very ill, and I had just turned him out after medicating him. He stood on the hill behind the barn in the early morning light, looking for his herd mates. The backlight on his form was beautiful, and the expression on his face was that of wondering uncertainty. Given his age (he was 27 then) and his health, it seemed the perfect image to convey his circumstance while at the same time portraying a universal theme of facing the unknown.
|composition thumbnails for painting|
GETTING STARTEDOver the months I considered many options for creating this painting. First was what background to use: the one in the photo or some other pasture scene from my references? Coming a close second was whether the format would be horizontal or vertical. The longer I mulled over the choices, the more my artistic gut told me to stick with the photograph background and use a vertical format. Right from the start, I wanted this to be a rather large (for me) painting and for the horse to dominate the canvas. When it came down to the feeling I wanted to convey, the dark background was the best option for letting the horse stand out in the dramatic light of a waning day. I had already decided to change morning light to evening light to fit the theme better.
THE ELEMENTSThe next choices were to decide what elements in the background to keep, what to eliminate or change and what needed to be added. Again, my artistic gut was telling me that the diagonal of the fence and light worked well in the composition. The horse standing on a hill overseeing his world and facing an uncertain future was also crucial to the story.
|value study for painting|
THE VALUE OF A VALUE SKETCHUsually my colors are on the bright side, but with this painting I want to use a limited palette of colors and keep them somewhat subdued and harmonious. The values will also be crucial to the success of the painting, so I spent an hour doing a small value sketch once the format for the painting was decided. I’m glad I did because it showed me that the dark mass of the trees and shaded area needed to be darker than I anticipated if I wanted the horse to stand out.
CHOOSING A CANVAS SIZEFinally I was ready to prepare a canvas for the painting, but what size to choose? Using two pieces of L shaped matboard, I played with various cropping options on the reference photo until I found one that worked. Next, I searched among my canvases on hand and found one that was close to the needed dimensions.
THE MARVELOUS PROPORTION WHEELIn order to determine canvas size, I used a proportion wheel which is a tool I was introduced to in art school and would never be without again. It allows you to figure out dimensions to either up or down size an image using either the larger or smaller size dimensions as a base. It will also tell you by what percentage to enlarge or reduce an image. In my case, I found, using the proportion wheel, that the only canvas on hand that would work was a 24x20 incher. By adjusting the cropping of the photograph a little, I was also able to reach a percentage of 200% to enlarge the image for the canvas. That would make creating a grid so much easier; one inch squares on the drawing would be 2 inch squares on the canvas. That meant no dealing with fractions of inches to drive me crazy.
TONING THE CANVASHaving selected the canvas, I toned it all over with a warm but soft yellow that will help to unify the image. Then it was set aside to dry.
|drawing with grid over it|
DRAWING AND GRIDDINGIn order to get the image onto canvas, I used a two step process. First, I traced the photograph onto a piece of acetate with a technical drawing pen. Yes, I traced the photograph because time is short to get this painting done. Then I scanned that into the computer and enlarged the image and printed it out on a sheet of 13x19 paper, using the proportion wheel to determine the dimensions of this enlargement to allow for the 200% enlargement for canvas. Taping that to a piece of scrap matboard, I then taped another piece of acetate over the drawing and drew a grid over it in one inch squares using one of my big right triangles to be sure that all was squared up.
Having accomplished that, I next turned to the dry canvas and drew a grid of two inch squares onto it. The tricky thing I learned was that although the canvas is a “24x20” incher, it’s actual dimensions are about a quarter inch less than that in each dimension. So, figuring out which two sides were the most critical to the composition, I drew an X in that corner of the canvas and made all my measurements in each direction from there.
|drawing on canvas with grid|
DRAWING ONTO CANVASGetting the image onto canvas is probably the most critical step in the process, and this is where I took a lot of time. Using the two grids, I first drew the outline of the horse onto canvas and then proceeded to refine it. Any tracing or drawing is going to have slight inaccuracies when enlarged, and this is where it is absolutely critical that an artist’s skills of observation and knowledge of the subject be very keen. I spent the most time refining the head since it is very important to the painting.
I don’t care what the “Tracing is cheating” art snobs say. If you don’t have those skills of really seeing and knowing your subject you won’t have a successful image from a tracing. It’s just a tool and a shortcut when time is critical.