Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Planning & Painting

The Puppies! Three weeks old and getting terribly cute and friendly . . . due to various life crises on the part of some of the buyers, there are now four of them available, so let me know if you're in the market. :D

Last week (before my life got slightly crazy with going to the zoo, puppies, mid-life crisis, and other indoor sports), one of my blog readers asked a good question. She asked:

Dear most wonderful Maggie (okay, I made that part up, but the rest is true):

You can create these beautiful, big, well-composed paintings fairly quickly (at least it seems quick from the rate of posts) and I'm wondering what kind of prep work you do. I find it way easier to work on something once the painting is underway - the planning stage is where I procrastinate.

Do you work from well-composed photos, or do you sit down and work out compositions first? How long does that take you? I saw your WIP posts of the big horse - do you do that level of planning for every painting? How much time do you spend planning out focal points and contrasts?

This is a question I get a lot at my workshops. Artists tend to be perfectionists, and insecure ones at that. Combine the two traits and you end up with paintings that take 2.5 years to complete.

I am no exception, but I've come to grips with both -- most of the time. Basically I've given myself permission to create a crappy work, because I'll just do another one. You'd be surprised how freeing it is. And you'd be surprised how much more you improve when you paint 300 imperfect paintings a year instead of 5 perfect ones.

That aside, onto the Maggic of it. How long it takes me, and what exactly falls into the definition of "it."

(by the way, everything I'm about to say applied to my acrylic paintings but not necessarily to my colored pencil pieces -- which are a bit harder to do fast that large).

SIZE: 16 x 20"
MEDIUM: Acrylic
TIME SPENT: 3 hours

First of all, I want to say that part of why I'm so fast is by virtue of creating a painting or drawing every single day for two years. It means that a lot of the prep work becomes automatic. What I used to agonize over, like choosing a good crop, now takes five minutes. Figuring out values and adjustments from the photo used to take another three or for years. And then color choices? Oh man. I remember a simple 8 x 10" colored pencil piece that took me two weeks of work, off and on. Now that piece would be done in 2 or 3 hours. So keep in mind when looking over these steps that, like everything else, practice makes perfect. Or at least close enough to perfect that no one else will notice.

So. First step is choosing the photo. Or taking the photo, depending on your subject. (Or setting up your subject if you're working from life) I really recommend taking your own photos as practice for building good compositions. A good rule of thumb is that crap photos make crap drawings, at least until you're ace at manipulating them. If you're unsure if you can pull it off, stick to good photos with nice lighting. Do not agonize over this step. Remember, your painting will take you 3-4 hours, so you can always do another if it didn't turn out perfectly (and they never do).

Step two is cropping and composition. Composition is a wonderfully complicated subject that I didn't care about at all when I first began. I didn't understand it was important. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that composition makes a huge difference. Take a look at the first photograph -- well, the second. Not the cute puppies. The shot of the Irish town. Then take a look at the painting. The uncropped photo shows you a beautiful town, but it's not as pleasing to the eye as the cropped painting. For any photo, there are usually dozens of options for cropping. Pay attention to the basic compositional rules and then pick the one that pleases you the most. Not your husband, dog, friend, artist partner . . . you. Because cropping and composition will become part of your style.

Now there are a lot of different composition rules, and I can't tell you why they work, but the ones that I consider pretty crucial are:

  • You should have a focal point.
  • The focal point will generally be the point of greatest contrast -- if it's not in the photo, it behooves you to make it thus in the drawing or painting
  • Divide your canvas into thirds. Your focal point should lie roughly on one of the intersections of these lines (see how the road vanishes on one of the thirds? That's my focal point. And the front car lies on another one)
  • Don't divide your painting in half. Your horizon line should lay on one of the thirds
  • Every corner of the painting should be different.
Every other compositional element is negotiable. I play with the photo in one of my photo editing programs for about five minutes before I begin the painting. If it's a complicated image or I'll be cobbling together a lot of reference material, I do a preliminary drawing, like the one I did for the colored pencil piece I'm working on today. In that case, I do a very brief 2 minute sketch with only three values to work out where everything goes and what problems I might encounter. I do up to four of these sketches if a piece really stumps me. If I can't make it look clear in a three-value sketch format, I pitch the painting and start over.*

*by the way, I'm getting very close to the end of my sketch book and I'll be drawing a name out of my blog-subscribers to give it too -- so subscribe if you want a chance at winning it

Step Three is slopping down the actual paint. This used to take me longer as well, until I did the John Singer Sargent project in January of this year. Sargent told his students to slop down paint with confidence instead of dragging a dry brush across the canvas, showing the world how you hesitated. With that in mind, I work quickly when I paint. I don't do a preliminary drawing on the canvas. Instead I block out the rough shapes with a warm color for the foreground shapes and a cool color for the background shapes. This takes literally ten or twenty minutes, because I'm talking very rough and very ugly.

I let that dry for about a half hour while I mix up big globs of paint, and then I start putting down more realistic colors. With each step, putting down more realistic colors, I refine shapes and tighten up details. This process take me about two hours, maybe three if you throw in a half hour here and there for drying time.

Really the secret is not to second-guess yourself and to start rough and refine as you go along. Don't waste time doing a detailed drawing on your canvas. It'll work itself out. (Well, if it's a portrait, you might rethink this. People tend to like their portraits to look like the subject).


Rose Welty said...

Maggie...that step three...could easily describe Monet's process. You're in good company. When I was reading about Monet's process, I wondered if it would really work with CPs as they are transparent?

Or do you defy all odds and slap around the CPs too?

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Um, yes, actually. ;) That's why I like working on the sanded surfaces like pastelbord and colorfix with the colored pencils -- it really does let you lay down blocks of color and then refine it. Not as much as the acrylics, but still, very very similar.

Jo Castillo said...

Thanks Maggie.

Super hints and good advice. Practice does increase your confidence, your touch and your speed. I like to work fast, too. I think giving yourself permission to mess up has helped me to tackle harder subjects. It is only paper or canvas, etc., after all.

I still haven't tried pencil on Pastelbord, here I go .. tomorrow.


Rita said...

I'm getting back into oils (need to break up the cp work) and something like this is just the refresher I needed to see/ read. Thanks for posting this Maggie!

SHERI C said...

Love to see your works in progress. I enjoy your style and it shows in every work. Thanks for sharing your art tips and the images of those DARLING PUPS!

Serena said...

The pups are getting more gorgeous by the day!

Thanks so much for the informative post, Maggie....it's been very helpful ~ :)

Tracy said...

Great post Maggie , and timely for me. I'm working to commit more time to paint more (one of the reason's I started my blog. Now I know it'll be a while before I become a "daily" painter, but I'm finding that what you've said is so true: the more small paintings I complete, the faster and more confident I become.

Thanks for all you do!

Cooper Dragonette said...

"Maggic" is brilliant!!! I love it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my question so thoroughly and usefully!

All great info, but my main takeaway is "practice." I know we shouldn't care about messing things up, but it's harder to actually do it. :D

And I *meant* to say Dear most wonderful Maggie.

Christeen said...

Thanks so much for posting this- it was a great read, and very helpful :)

Lindsay said...

This is wonderful, no nonsense advice. Since I've started working in oils this is very hand. And I'm signing up for a subscription.....I'd love one of your sketchbooks.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Jo - at first you'll hate the pastelbord. At least, I did. I hated the feel of working on it and I hated the way the finish looked up close. But after the second piece . . . I started to get the hang of it.

Rita, Sheri, Serena, Tracy, Christeen & Lindsay - you're welcome!

Cooper - you're right, Maggic's where it's at. ;)

Meg - it was a great question!