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Painting vs Preparing to Paint (& Portrait Request)

Fake Dane's Portrait

Brown Micron Pigma ink and watercolor in large Moleskine Watercolor notebook
To enlarge, click images, select All Sizes

The other day I got a mysterious email from someone calling himself “Fake Dane.” He wrote, “Hey, I think your art is great. I was wondering if you’d be willing to sketch me from a picture. I’m assembling a collection that I’d post. Dane”

And he sent me his photo. If you want to draw him too, just click the photo below and select All Sizes when you get to Flickr and then you can print it out:

Fake Dane's Photo

I wrote back, “Sure, why not?” and did the sketch above. I was going for caricature so I hope he’s not offended. (UPDATE: He replied and said he really liked it and put it on his blog. There’s some funny drawings of him as a vampire there too.) If you want to do a drawing of him and send it to him too, there’s instructions in the “Please Read” sidebar on his blog.

It was a fun, quick painting project on a day in the studio that was mostly spent at the computer, trying to sort out photos and compositions for upcoming paintings, something I don’t particularly enjoy doing. And that made me think about the differences between…

Alla Prima/Plein Air vs carefully planned painting

When I’m planning a painting I consider focus, value, composition, color scheme, etc. I do thumbnails and value sketches. If it’s something requiring exact proportions, such as a portrait of someone’s child, pet or home, I’ll start with a drawing and then work from a photo, tracing it onto the watercolor paper. But even with more carefree subjects like flowers and still life or landscapes, that prep work saves a lot of frustration once painting is underway. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way.

On the other hand, my understanding is that people who regularly paint alla prima (in one setting) or plein air make the prep work quick and intuitive and let go of exactitude, painting their impression of the subject rather than a careful rendering. I’ve done some and it’s a lot harder than people like Kris Shanks, Nel Jansen, Ed Terpening, and others whose blogs I enjoy visiting, make it look.

What I’m trying to figure out is how to combine the two approaches, or how to avoid all the labored pre-planning. Judy Morris, the teacher of the workshop I took in February, said that her favorite part is planning and composing from photos, not the actual painting. For me it’s the opposite — while I enjoy drawing, I love painting more and don’t really enjoy spending a lot of time photoshopping compositions and sorting through photos at the computer. (She does the prep work manually, working with black and white photocopies and enlargements of the subject and background, which she cuts out and assembles.
On the other hand, if I don’t do the pre-planning (especially with watercolor) the whole painting ends up being a study that has to be done over. I guess with acrylics and to some extent oils, one can just keep working on and changing a piece until it’s right, but I’m not sure if that’s a great way to go either.

I’m hoping to find my own way of working that incorporates the best of both worlds.