My first class of each semester is always a demo. It usually takes about 2 1/2 hours. It gives the newcomers a chance to see my painting process start-to-finish, and it gives the returners a chance to kick back, relax and catch up on the gossip.
As it happened, I had arranged on Friday to meet some friends at the Rex on Queen St. to hear some jazz. (The Jive Bombers! – a real blast from the past…but I digress). I got up there an hour early with my camera and had a bit of a photo shoot. Snow still on the sidewalks but the streets were wet. Got some promising shots. Used one for my demo. (My thanks by the way to Karen for letting me use her in-progress photos during the demo).
Decided to go with a plywood panel this time instead of stretched canvas. Painting on a hard surface has a distinctly different feel. I can’t say I have a lasting preference, but it is good to change it up every so often. Helps keep things fresh.
Doing an acrylic underpainting as usual. Wanted to keep it a bit looser than normal. Less “solid” and more atmospheric. So I eschewed my normal drawing phase and went straight to paint.
A painter may make hundreds, maybe thousands of decisions in the course of executing a piece. Many, perhaps most, of these decisions will be made in the subconscious. The thing about doing a demo is you have to explicitly articulate your thinking process. Sometimes I find, this can be an enlightening process for me just as much as for my audience.
Some examples of the question-and-answer process that came up Monday evening –
The source photo is landscape format, but you are setting up your support for portrait format. Why?
– The photo focuses on the figures. These are interesting, but I think they would be excessively dominant in a 24″ x 30″ panel . I am going to set the figures higher up in the composition and use the lower area to extrapolate out the various lights reflected in the asphalt. This will also give me some scope to brighten up an otherwise very dark picture.
Do you have a focal point in mind?
The human figure is always going to draw interest. So the dark silhouetted figures and the “halo” effect of the lights behind them is going to make for a natural focal point. If I move them up to the upper right quadrant, that feels like a satisfying landing spot for a focal area.
Do you have a colour plan?
(I always tell my students to have something in mind when it comes to colour – a two-colour duet, a hot focal point against a complementary cool ground, warm underpainting under cool finish- whatever. The point is to have A plan rather than drifting aimlessly colour-wise).
Neutral greens of some sort seem like a ‘safe’ bet against the hot reds and yellows created by the reflected headlights and traffic lights. But I will move it around – cooler blue-greys on the left side, hints of purple on the lower right. Then of course we have the irresistable electric blues glowing behind the central group of figures. The generally warm background colours should help make this blue pop.
The underpainting came together pretty quickly. The only ‘rework’ really needed was with respect to the backdrop of buildings, which, despite my efforts to keep things nice and fluid, were beginning to assume greater solidity than I wanted. So some over-painting was called for to “smush” these a bit. (excuse the technical jargon here)
Acrylics are very sensitive to room environment. Monday evening, the room was quite humid – which can be an issue when you want paint to dry quickly – but in this case, it also presented an opportunity to take some tissue an “lift” a bit of paint here and there to demarcate some windows, lights etc.
Speaking of windows – The background buildings had rows of lit windows. To depict all these would have made for a far too geometrical a composition. So instead, I selected a few of them (where I thought they might aid the composition) added some others in a half-light, and dimly suggested a few others. The desired effect was to create an impression of large buildings but in a way that left sufficient “air” for the piece to breathe.
OK now time for oils. Time to LIGHTEN UP!.
Occassionally, people get so enveloped in their dark underpainting that they never come out of the gloom. In this piece, it is quite clear as to where the lightest lights are, so I go straight at them with lots of impasto warm whites. At this point the painting starts to look “extreme”. All stark lights and darks and no midtones. It also starts to look at bit “precious” – that is, a little too controlled for what I had in mind.
One of the advantages of working on different surfaces from time to time is each tends to suggest different solutions to issues. At the moment for instance, I am experimenting with a brayer (ink roller) on the panels – probably not something that would ever have occurred to me while painting on a stretched canvas. A few random rolls of the brayer on a solid surface can mix things up pretty good in a hurry.
Not experimenting during demos is also a personal rule that I think I break in almost all demos – and Monday was no exception. The result though, was not bad. I ended up having to do some “repair” work in a few areas (a couple of the figures and the sidewalk in the lower part of the painting for instance ) but overall, it loosened things up nicely.
Wrapping it up
The icy blue highlights are pthalo blue and white. The warm background colours really did help to make them “pop”. I added the merest hint of features on the figures. I want to retain the sense of silhouette against the background light, but not so much that they appear to be cardboard cut-outs.
People are often mesmerized by street scenes. Deluges of shapes, colours and detail make it difficult so synthesize an ‘essence’ for painting purposes. For me, I often hang my compositions on ‘anchors’. These ‘anchors’ may not be very significant in terms of subject matter, but I can frame a lot of the painting around them. For example, two greenish-brown rectangles floating in mid air may not seem like much of an anchor. But in the lighting in this piece, that particular colour says “yellow”. And positioned where they are in the painting, they will be “read” by a viewer as traffic lights (the backs of them, to be precise). In the real world, we see these objects so often, we don’t see them anymore. And so it is in a painting. Subliminally however, they give the eye perspective. They give you your angle to the road. They tell you how far you are from the intersection, and so on. But ask afterwards, and your viewer will likely not even have been aware of their existence.
These are the parlour games are eyes love to play. It is a primal thing. We revel in our ability to infer a great deal from the merest smudge. Images that spell out every detail are like a parent or teacher pedantically prescribing every move and thought to the child or student. This is not what a viewer typically wants. Visually, a more lasting satisfaction can be found by leaving room for the eye to explore and imagine.