To begin, I am writing about my painting technique because I am often asked how this or that is done. I do not in any way profess the following to be the best way, let alone the only way. That said, quite a bit of what I do may seem unorthodox to some purists since I put my own twist on things to suit my own personality. My painting technique is fairly straightforward. The following notes are what I have found work best for me on a regular basis when illustrating, where speed, accuracy and good reproduction qualities are at a premium. These methods focus on a traditional hand and brush approach using oil paints.
No matter the art, everything starts with drawing. Before I do anything else, I draw as many small sketches as necessary to arrive at a suitable composition. For any beginners reading this, this ‘thumbnail’ stage is of great importance. Most often illustrators, and artists in general, do not sit down and paint what comes to mind when their painting has specific criteria to meet. By doing loose little drawings, say 2”x3”, no time is wasted on unnecessary detail because you do not proceed until the overall composition is arrived at, or at least until an idea crystallized. At this stage you establish basic size relationships, shadow patterns, and the like with no effort at all. I never stop drawing until I have something which works. (Click here to see some examples of my thumbnail sketches.)
Once a basic idea is arrived at, it is time to gather reference. This is also a very important step. I’ve heard it said that an artist is only as good as his reference. This may be true for some, but certainly not for all. I know I have made entire paintings up completely from my imagination. Whenever possible, it is great to work from life, but when working with the figure and animals – and a great many other things – this is not always practicable.
Because of this, virtually every working pro has accumulated a scrap file in one form or another that is indispensable. Personally, I began filling a four drawer legal sized file cabinet (some artists have several) when in art school by ripping up every magazine I could get my hands and categorizing the images. This eventually morphed into @ 30 categories, such as “Animals” being subdivided into mammals, reptiles, fish, and other, or “Backgrounds” into different seasons. Whatever suits your sense of order. I cannot overstate the time this has saved over the years when a particular subject reference was needed. These files are usually augmented by countless personal photo sessions and voluminous book collections in most artists’ studios as well.
Lastly, it is important to understand the difference between using props or photos as reference and using them as crutches in the sense that they are slavishly traced or adhered to (not to mention problems this may cause with copyright infringement on photographers). In this regard, as an artist it is important to know what you should leave in, what you should leave out and also to have the ability to invent what is not there at all. Photo reference is a tool and should be nothing more. The goal is to use the reference intelligently to serve the completion of the original concept.
If the opportunity is there, the easiest way to get from point “A” to point “B” in a highly representational style is to photograph the elements of your original idea as precisely as possible. This is usually done when using people, since they are the hardest subjects to paint without good reference and are not willing to sit hours upon end while you paint them from life. Sometimes, such as when working for paperback companies, the publisher picks up these costs. There are photo studios, which specialize in this sort of photography. They have books from all the major modeling agencies to book models from. You set up an appointment (usually for one hour), go in with your concept sketches (the more detailed the better so as to give the models something to work from), make sure you know what lighting pattern you need and off you go. The person running the studio sets everything up and clicks the camera as you direct.
When considering lighting, strong shadow patterns are recommended. These are achieved by using a singular source of light with a filler, if desirable, to give a touch of detail in the shadows. This is called Form Lighting. Carravagio and Rembrandt are great examples of this type of lighting effect. Its benefits are that it is the best way to achieve three-dimensional effects, which make a picture ‘pop’. In terms of illustration inparticular, this is highly desirous as it makes images grab the eye immediately.
When using photos to which you have either the negative or original digital file, it is a good idea to use three versions of the same photo: one light (to see detail in shadow areas), one dark (to see detail in highlight areas) and one normal as an overall guide. I could write a book here as pertains to the difference between photos and life, the proper use of edges, etc. but can’t. Keep an eye out for these things when seeking out more in depth sources.
SCULPTING OR DRAWING FROM IMAGINATION
When there is no way to get life or picture reference, such as in painting aliens or other imaginative subjects, the artist has two choices: to sculpt what is needed, or draw and paint completely from imagination. The former is desirable for several reasons if one has the time. I have found sculpting to be informative on several levels. Making things in 3D always serves to better understand the underlying structure of what is being painted. It also, of course, makes it very easy to light the subject from any direction using a variety of techniques, all of which provide extremely good reference. (Click here to see some examples of my sculpted reference materials.)
Drawing realistically from the imagination, although seemingly difficult and mysterious to the beginner, is actually quite simple when looked at from a logical point of view. All you need know is how to draw a sphere, a cone, a cylinder and a cube along with their shadows as a light is cast on them from any one direction. If in doubt, shine a light on a similar object and see how easy it is; any basic art book will outline the principles. Once these fundamental things are understood, you have the potential to draw realistically from your imagination. Anything you can imagine is essentially made up of these basic shapes. All you have to do is combine one shape with another and off you go. Start simple (kids drawing books can be very informative!) until you get the hang of it and make your images gradually more complex. Practice and patience will open up a whole new world of creativity in this regard. (Click here to see some examples of my drawings from imagination.)
In either of the above cases, all that needs to be done is to combine what you have sculpted or invented with the other elements of your reference and move to the next step.
THE COLOR SKETCH
Although not everyone uses this step, I believe it is a very important one and I rarely proceed without it in some form. It can be very tight or very loose, but its benefits are enormous in terms of time saved.
The essential thing about a color sketch is that it is a quick way to solve whatever problems you may encounter in your painting before you begin. It is far quicker to adjust an incorrect color on a 5”x7” sketch than it is to correct one on a large original. Also, in a color sketch you are not worried about being neat; all you are interested in is solving whatever problems will pop up.
And what are these problems? They include drawing, composition, color, and value. It can all be summed up in two words: picture making. Picture making is one of the most fundamental aspects of being a painter. There is far more to being an artist than being able to copy something realistically. The latter is important in and of itself as a matter of craft. But at some point the next step needs to be taken in order to use that skill creatively. The artist controls the eye of the viewer so as to guide him through the painting in a deliberate way. Whether in making some statement or telling a story, picture making is the term I use to describe how that is done.
To effectively make a good picture, one must understand what I call ‘the skillful use of opposites.’ It is by using opposites in varying degrees that we create the contrasts that progressively focus the eye of the viewer as desired. In simple terms, where you want the viewer to look first, you create the greatest contrast, where you want the eye to go next you create a lesser contrast, etc. This can be the lightest light against the darkest dark, the biggest vs. the smallest object, the brightest color next to the dullest color, action against non-action, hardest edge next to the softest edge, etc.
Color sketches are ideal for working out these ‘opposites’ to create the desired visual dynamic in a painting. Intellectually, it is easy to understand, and when watching it being done it seems easy as well. Unfortunately, my experience has been that what I understood intellectually took some time before it managed to flow off the tip of my brush! Practice and constant review by someone who had a good eye was essential for me to arrive at a professional level. This is why working small and without the pressure of producing finished work was so important for me. (Click here to see some examples of my color sketches.)
While I work in oils virtually all of the time for my finished paintings, I often paint my color sketches in acrylic because of that medium’s quick drying time. I use the liquid acrylics, as opposed to the ones in the tube. I find them far more convenient and easy to work with.
It would take a book to properly describe how to create a good picture if I were to start from scratch. The best I can do here is to say that it is important to decide where you want the viewer to look in your painting and compose your painting accordingly. Do not detail a painting all over. Generally, put detail in either shadows or highlights, but not equally in both. Sharp edges bring objects forward; blurry ones push them back. Cool colors recede and warmer colors come forward. Aim at designing a picture which reads clearly. Great artists and illustrators to look at for this sort of thing are Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Carravagio, Howard Pyle, NC Wyeth and Norman Rockwell.
Once the color sketch is resolved, I am ready to begin the finished painting. For me, this usually means starting with a 30”x40” two ply 172 Bainbridge hot or cold press illustration board (respectively meaning perfectly smooth or textured - according to taste or need) and back it with 1/4” foam core board for support. I attach the two via photo spray mount and tape the edges with 1” masking tape. I find this provides a light, suitably rigid, durable painting surface when prepared properly as described next.
I then mix @ one part white Gesso with two parts water (possibly more towards the water end) and stir well. I apply this mixture in thin coats with a sponge brush at least 3” in diameter – avoid air bubbles. Usually three or four coats will do it. Allow time to dry between coats. I try to keep surface texture to a minimum, but a rough texture can be had using a paint roller; a glass-like finish can be achieved by sanding with a fine grit sand paper. If I am painting smaller, I then cut the whole sheet into whatever sizes I need and retape the edges.
When precision is needed, I create the final drawings in detail and transfer them to my board by either projection or tracing paper. Sometimes I draw freehand on the board itself, but changes seem to make a mess after a while and I’d rather refine them on paper first. I usually use 9H or 6H leads to draw on gesso. When transferring them via tracing paper, I shade the reverse side of my drawing with a softer lead (HB), place the paper on my board and trace over the lines which leaves the impression on the board. Another way is to finish my initial drawing on a letter sized sheet of paper (because this is the largest size I could fit in my projector) and then project it onto my board. In either case, unless the subject is small, I usually spend very little time shading the sketch in any way as this is done much quicker with paint. I am careful not to make the lines too dark so that they are easily covered when I paint over them. If any erasing needs to be done, I find a kneaded eraser works best on a gessoed board; other kinds, particularly plastic ones, seem to smear more than erase when they are used by hand (although I’ve found that an electric eraser could work well with them).
Once the drawing is transferred, I usually spray it with workable fixative so that the drawing won’t smear when I paint over it. I let it aerate for a day to let the fumes dissipate.
The board is now ready to apply paint. There are several ways to progress. One is to choose the overall local color (another good reason to have done a color sketch so as to know what the color scheme will be). Another is to underpaint everything in earth tones (usually burnt umber) to establish values and provide an under tone to tie all the other colors together. Still another is to roughly block in all the different colors. If I choose either of the first two steps, my next step is usually to mix my colors by matching them to my color sketch after which I quickly block in the entire painting. In the “Step by Step” section, the Wonder Woman painting uses a simple, burnt umber underpainting approach. In time I hope to post other paintings showing the other ways.
Once this is done, I finish the painting in detail as needed. This means rendering in the important areas, and leaving non-essential things less rendered. This is a good reason to underpaint all over rather than finish areas completely a section at a time. I find it very beneficial to have an overall view of the painting as, even with the color sketch, there is a great deal of spontaneity which can take place when painting the finish.
I use rounds, flats and filberts, as well as the occasional fan brush. The general rule is to use the biggest brush you can to do a particular section well, but I can use rounds as fine as 10/0. I rarely use bristle brushes (except when working on canvas). I used to use red sable for the smaller brushes. I now use synthetic sables for most things. While they wear out relatively quickly, I find they have advantages. Instead of using the gradually eroding point of a very expensive sable brush, I’d rather replace that brush three times with a synthetic and get a fine point each time. I find having good tips on my brushes to be essential.
As far as paint is concerned, I usually use Utrecht oils. They’re what I got used to in art school and stuck with them because I’ve never had a problem. I also use the traditional brands such as Windsor Newton, Grumbacher, DVP and Rembrandt. There are differences between brands to some degree and over the years I have discovered my favorites. For instance, I prefer Rembrandt’s burnt umber to all others because I have found that it has a smooth texture and dries far slower than the others.
I also premix and tube many of my own paints. The empty tubes can be bought from Pearl Paint. This is very useful when using a ten point gray scale and its corresponding colors as described previously. I mixed my grays in equidistant values from 2 through 9 with one being black and ten being white. I did the same for my reds, blues, greens and oranges. This way I save much time when preparing my palette at the start of each painting:
• For the Grays start with titanium white and progressively add ivory black and burnt umber (to neutralize the coolness)
• For reds I use alizarin crimson, cadmium red dark, cadmium red medium and Cadmium red light for values 2 through 5, and then I add white to the cadmium red light to get values 6 through 9.
• For yellow/oranges I start with burnt umber for value 2 and gradually add cadmium orange until value 5. Value 6 is cadmium orange, followed by cadmium yellow-orange, cadmium yellow medium and cadmium yellow light for values 7 through 9.
*** NOTE: If you mix the corresponding values of a red, a yellow/orange and a gray, you will come up with a basic flesh tone for that value (i.e. a #5 value in each of those colors, when combined with eachother, will produce a #5 flesh tone).
• For warmer blues I use ultramarine blue as value 2 and then progressively add titanium white for all the others. For cooler blues I use pthalo blue as value 2 with the progressive addition of titanium white for the other values.
• For cooler greens, start with viridian as value 2 with the progressive addition of titanium white for the other values. For warmer greens, start with pthalo green as value 2 with the progressive addition of cadmium yellow light to get the others.
Note: If you are a beginner, I would refer to the Grado or Faragasso books listed at the end of these notes before mixing your first batch.
I generally use no medium other than Turpenoid or another high quality, odorless paint thinner. If I do need a medium, I use a touch of linseed oil. I paint relatively thin and usually have no problem with drying time. I usually can paint over an area the next day. If quick drying time is needed, I use cobalt drier. If extended drying time is needed, a drop of clove oil will keep oil paint workable for what seems like ages.
IMPORTANT: No matter how good the scent of oil paint may seem (I love it), it is not good for you – especially when used in conjunction with turps and mediums. After a bad reaction to all the above after 10 years of working with poor ventilation, I developed my own ventilation system above my palette which I leave on 24 hours a day. I highly recommend developing such a system..
To close this section, I would also add that there are times I throw all of the above out the window and just attack a white canvass with no planning or preparation whatsoever. While doing loose color sketches often serves to get this need out of my system, there are times when nothing else will suffice for complete spontaneity. I just go where the mood takes me. For me it is about getting what is in my head onto whatever surface I am working on. To that end, I will use whatever works best: I do not think there is an “absolute way” – the only thing that matters is to be creative and have fun. I would hasten to add that for me, without all of the above, such sponanteity might not have been effectively possible: it is discipline and experience that eventually allowed the efficacious use of that freedom. In short, I had to “know” it before I could usefully discard it.
Some artists, who may not absorb something when taught one way, will instantly access it when it is taught another way. A major breakthrough for me in art school was deciding to surround myself with those teachers who taught in a way I could relate to. In my opinion, beware the instructor or the psychology that looks down on the importance of craft in painting, or any of the arts for that matter. I found it prevalent in art schools to stress the “creative” at the expense of “craft.” On the contrary, I believe an artist should be in such control of his craft that it need not be thought about when expressing his idea. I think lack of craft actually stifles creativity. An artist in complete control of his craft has far more time to devote to creativity. Also, while craft can be taught, I do not believe true creativity can be. Learning different techniques can be hard work, but like learning anatomy, when gotten out of the way early the dividends will pay off for a lifetime. After all, the greatest creative thought in the world is useless if you can’t properly express it.
To close, I reiterate that what I’ve written is one way of doing things, and not the only way. My thoughts only point an arrow in a direction. Needless to say, a proper over view of such a subject can fill volumes.
There are many books, which go into many of the processes I use, as well as many others, in much greater depth. These are some of the ones I’ve found to be of great use:
• Rockwell on Rockwell by Norman Rockwell (Watson Guptill)
• Mastering the Craft of Painting by John Grado (Watson Guptill)
• The Riley Method by Jack Faragasso (Going on memory with the title)
• Problem Solving for Oil Painters by Gregg Kreutz (Watson Guptill)
• Any and all of the books by Andrew Loomis! These offer superlative instruction with entire books devoted to individual study such as illustration, painting and drawing. They are out of print so far as I know (they were written in the 50’s) and are tough to come by, but well worth the effort if you can track one down.
I would also give the Dover book catalog a good going over as there are many tremendous books to be had there, particularly on the study of all kinds of anatomy.