Monday, January 21, 2008

Flora, Ernest, and Alvah Become a Painting.

Lately I've been doing a lot of art work in
encaustic and collage and haven't done a canvas painting for some time. I started a new painting last Thursday at my friend Diane's studio. Seeing a lot of paintings in New York recently inspired me to get back to canvas and paint for awhile. After I got to Diane's for our weekly studio get-together, I felt like I wanted to start a painting immediately. Diane and I went to Art Media and I got a 36" square canvas. I have a show coming up in a large space so I wanted to do something BIG. When we got back to Diane's I roughed out this composition, based on this old photograph of my great-grandfather and his siblings.

I've been fascinated by this photograph for quite a while. The children have to hold so still, yet it seems that their personalities come through.

I decided to do this painting in acrylic, though usually I use oils when I have a large canvas. The time factor was the reason for this decision, as acrylics dry much faster and I could paint more quickly. I also wanted to work quickly because I wanted to work more loosely. One trick that helps me work loosely is using a fairly large brush and resorting to small ones only when absolutely necessary, such as for the highlights in the pupils.

Here to the left is the initial underpainting. I found I was able to be really loose and get the drawing down quickly. Often paintings from photographs look stiff. Here I had a photograph where the children held themselves stiffly to pose. I wanted them to look alive and like real children struggling to hold still.

I wanted the girl, Flora, to be the main character in the painting. I cropped the image when I put it on canvas, even more after the first draft.

Painting from a photo also offers a series of questions about how much to try to copy the photo and how much to create your own interpretation. I wanted to go for the characters of the children as I saw them, not just copy realistically.
(I don't tend to be able to copy an image exactly, so it is a good thing I don't want to.)

Below left is the next stage. I moved the older brother, Alvah, so that he was partly cut off from the frame. This was a modern kind of crop that I thought would be interesting in contrast to the old fashioned children. No face for anyone but Flora. I then gave the baby Ernest and Alvah faces. At this point Flora's dress seemed to be getting too stiff. I finished going over the background with a lighter color. Alvah's pants got very dark. His hands were too long. I went to bed.

Then oh dear, Alvah lost his face. For some reason I had trouble with it. On the other had, baby Ernest's face came into focus just the way I wanted it to. (Ernest grew up to own a general store in Nebraska. He and my great-grandma Nellie, daughter of a Civil War veteran, came to Oregon in a covered wagon.)

I used Photoshop to try out new shirt colors for Alvah. The purple is an example of what would not have worked. I was glad I tried it in Photoshop first!

Here is as far as I have gotten.
Alvah has a new face. I softened Flora's to be more like the original sketch. I got some family feedback that her hair looked odd so I parted it in the middle
and reduced the poofiness. Alvah's pants got lighter. The stripes on his shirt got darker. The curtain has a brighter pattern. I fiddled with the background and floor, changing it and then putting it back more where it was earlier. I improved the hem of Flora's skirt.
I changed her hands, making them truer to the sweet way she posed them in the original photograph.

Now, I really need to let this painting sit for awhile. I love beginning paintings and find the finishing to be the most challenging for me.

When I am sure it is finished I'll take a good photo and post it on the blog. Now, I need a rest!


Judy Wise said...

Brava! I love looking over your shoulder and hearing your thoughts as you solve problems and develop the work. Your faces are always so delicate and understated just wonderfully; the face of the youngest boy that I am looking at right now is excellent. Thank you so much for this generous post.

Serena Barton said...

Thanks,Judy! I appreciate your generous feedback. It feels kind of revealing to give an illustrated account of the struggle to "birth" an art work, but I am glad for the opportunity to share my process.

gl. said...

i -love- reading about your process! it makes it seem less mysterious, but no less miraculous. :)