(Update: This painting won second place for Portrait of the Year on Making a Mark in 2012.)
One night last winter two UPS guys arrived in the dark to deliver a dozen boxes of the flooring materials for my studio. I had started a series of paintings of people at work (still in progress) and asked if I could take their photo to use for a painting. They agreed and were great models!
A couple of months ago he called, asking about the painting, inspiring me to finally finish it. There were some magic moments along the way (see process photos below), such as the one where I did a quick first pass on his hand and then stepped back and said “Wow! That works and I’m not touching it again.”
Since I took the photos at night without flash outside lit only by the fluorescent lights from inside the studio, the photo was dark and the colors were, well, mostly brown. But the UPS slogan is right, BROWN really does deliver! Who knew there were so many shades of brown? I must have mixed a hundred different browns.
Below are photos showing the process of drawing and painting this portrait.
Strauss Family Creamery is a Marin County dairy that produces organic dairy products served in old-fashioned glass bottles from happy cows that graze on sweet grass in the hills by the sea. I enjoy their bottles as much as their cream in my coffee.
I started this painting with a goal to complete it from life in one 3-hour session, as so many plein air artists and daily painters do. I had somehow come to believe that I “should” be painting that way too. But while I met my time goal, I didn’t like the results (see original version below). And that’s when I finally accepted that it’s better to take as much time as a painting needs, and relax and enjoy the process rather than try to rush to keep up with someone else’s “rules.”
If you’re interested in seeing how I got here from there, click “keep reading” and stick around.
At first glance, the corner of San Pablo Avenue and Carlson in El Cerrito is boring, boring, boring: a wide busy avenue with boxy buildings. But when viewed on a lovely summer day from a cafe table outside Peet’s Coffee with pen in hand, it transforms itself into a sketching delight full of fun details and color.
Looking the other way down San Pablo, the Wells Fargo Bank building holds little hope for drawing inspiration. But start sketching and it too transforms itself. There are trees of all kinds and colors. A cerulean sky with only a hint of clouds, a pink apartment building and a gold dentist office. Sun, shadows, banners.
Not boring! I don’t think I’ve ever felt bored when I was sketching. Years ago a friend told me that when I was sketching I looked like I was roller-skating. Whee! Let’s skate!
I accidentally arrived an hour early for a doctor’s appointment at one of Kaiser Oakland’s medical offices that has an amazing hidden garden. The building is an architectural treasure, built around a courtyard in 1912 by Julia Morgan as a hospital and home for unwed mothers (or so I’ve been told). Instead of reading old, germy magazines, I spent the hour in the courtyard sketching, wandering and taking photos.
After working out the composition and colors, I’ve got two paintings ready to start: a full-size watercolor sheet of the above image and a slightly smaller canvas of another garden scene.
Before starting a large painting I like to do a study first, getting to know the image more intimately, and experimenting with pigments and techniques so when I start the real painting I have a plan of action or at least a sense of direction.
Since I only recently began experimenting with opaque watercolor pigments after years of using only transparents, I made some discoveries with this study and took notes as I worked. Here are a couple that might be of interest:
Opaque pigments (Cadmiums, Cerulean, Yellow Ochre) are great when putting down an area of strong color and leaving it (such as when painting in my journal). But they lift too easily when adding layers over them, and become thick and unattractive when trying to mix darks. As I learned in oil painting, darks/shadows are best when thin so they don’t draw attention to themselves with texture. Seems to be the case in watercolor as well: better to use staining, transparent darks that won’t lift or get thick. For the dark green areas in the painting I’ll use Sap Green with Sepia and vary with a bit of Indigo, Winsor Violet and/or Alizarin.
The Legion/Utrecht 100% rag watercolor paper I’m using in my journal lifts incredibly easily. This is great when you actually want to lift paint but not so good when you just want to soften an edge and a bunch of paint lifts off instead!
Here are the original reference photo and the Photoshopped version. As you can see I got rid of some distractions and changed the proportions a bit.
Photoshop CS5 has some great new composition tools, such as “Content-Aware Fill” which I used to fill in the windows, white at top right corner and a tulip on the right margin. You just select and delete sections you want to replace and PS fills them with information from the surrounding area. I also narrowed the image to fit the proportions of the 22×30 watercolor paper using Content-Aware Scaling which preserves the proportions of the important stuff while squeezing in (or stretching) the other stuff.