March 26, 2011

Painting Progression One - The Tea Thief Toad

Rather than using my first post to write about the fact this is the first post and explain what I intend to do with this blog, I feel like I should post something with a bit more substance.  You know, make it really official!  I've also chosen this route because I haven't quite decided what I intend to do with this blog.  So for now, I'll talk a little bit about a frustration I experienced as a much younger artist and look at the progression of a recent watercolor painting I've completed as a relatively older artist.

If you've ever looked at finished painting and tired to figure out how it was done, as I often did as kid and still do as *shudder* an adult, it can be really hard to figure out just where and how the artist started.  If you've ever made a trip to a gallery or museum, or even something that hung in your grandmother's dinning  room and thought, I want to do that too! but couldn't quite figure out how to start, I've been right there with ya and it's a frustrating place to be.

I've found this to be especially true for really detailed or defined paintings.  Abstracts and more impressionist stuff seems to be easier to breakdown as far as technique, where as paintings that directly portray their subjects... to a younger me, those paintings seemed like they were always completed. Where did the artist start? Where do I start?

Years and years (in my rather learning-disabled case, though for others it may be more like months and months) of learning what colors, brushstrokes, brush types, paint types, paint consistencies, blending techniques, and all those other subtle aspects of painting that made me say "Screw this!" at one millionth time or another, eventually uncovered the secret of a completed painting.  I learned more or less how to make lamps glow, drapes wrinkle and water flow through the very inefficient practice of trial and error, and error, and error.

If you're artist, or you want to be one-- and you absolutely can be, I don't think there's a way around it. But, I hope that by sharing my starting point and revealing a couple steps of what led to a finished painting, the idea of getting there won't be quite so intimidating.

In other words, this will be like a seriously less comprehensive photo version of an episode of Bob Ross' Joy of Painting. (I hope to review a couple of those in the future.)

So here's the story of a watercolor, let's call it the: "Tea Thief Toad".

First, I need a reference. Sometimes that reference is my imagination, which is a decent reference for things like the idea of putting a thirsty, audacious and unapologetic toad in a tea cup, but it's not so great for stuff like light and a shadow.  Cameras are much better remembering that sort of stuff.  Unfortunately, my camera is more of a cell phone but it usually cuts mustard.

So on a sunny, light and shadow conducive day, I set up my reference photo using a few books and a tea set.

Once I get a decent enough shot that I can imagine fitting a toad in that teacup, I then decide to make life a little easier based on my current watercolor skill set.  This is done by simplifying the image in a photo editing program. What some art teachers will refer to as cheating, but I'm not trying to reproduce this photo as a painting, you can do that with a couple clicks in Photoshop (which I consider a little closer to cheating).  Remember, I'm just trying to create a reference that will make this image easier to attack (paint). I don't do much to it-- up the contrast here, reduce the sharpness there, perhaps a little nudge of the saturation to establish the light and shadow, and give me a better idea of where my lines are, where certain colors start and other colors begin.
Sometimes it's just nice to make the grass a little greener and get rid of those details that don't add so much to a painting as add years to your face...

We have tea, we have books, now we just need a toad.  I don't come by toads as often in my day to day life, so I reach for what's probably the most used book on my shelf.
And there's our starring player.

I then map the image using watercolor pencil, drawn with very basic guidelines.  It's less a self-made paint-by-number than it is layout that helps me keep lines fairly strait and gives me an idea of where certain colors begin and end.

Now, the following progression shots are few.  I didn't have this blog post in mind when I took them, so they probably aren't a particularly helpful stage-by-stage breakdown. At the very least, I hope you can get an idea of how I attack this painting in portions and eventually get to my finished piece.

The deepest shadows are filled in and the background is being taken care of, with the exception of the foreground book I must have wanted to get out of the way.

The tree bark, the texture of the teapot and most of the book detail have been established.  The background object shadows and some of the foreground greenery are in the works. Tea Thief Toad is still just a simple outline, as is the hijacked teacup.  
Just look at em. He's totally remorseless.