A Familiar Uncertainty, 16 x 12 inches, oil on linen
If you have been following Studio Notes for a while, you may remember that last year (or was it the year before?) I started this project where I set out to do 100 figure studies in black and white. This was actually an assignment that I gave to my students as a challenge of sorts, and in an effort to walk the walk as well as to encourage, I decided to do the challenge myself.
For the most part, these studies were to be done using short-pose (2 to 20 minutes) drawings as references. (I gave the students the option to use Old Master drawings as references if their own didn't have enough information)
It took a while but I did my 100, and along the way, I had this idea to use these studies, once I reached my goal, for experimentation and to take them further. This summer has been quite busy with other projects and commitments so I haven't been able to do much on this personal project, but I've been able to do a few.
For this one, I remembered to take some process shots early on, so I thought it would be interesting to share. This one is no.14. The number is chronological at the time of the b/w study - I'm not necessarily finishing them up in that order.
This is my original drawing, pencil on paper. It's probably a 10 or 15 minute pose- the drawing is small. I'm working on an ordinary copy paper.
Using the drawing as a reference, I did this black and white study. It's a little sloppy but I liked it. I could have just kept it as is, but that wasn't my plan so I had to get over feeling too precious about it and just dive in.
The first thing I did was to draw back into it and make some corrections. Mainly, I wanted the figure to be sitting slightly more upright (a la the original drawing) I used a thinned out brown color (Asphaltum) and redrew with a small brush.
This may seem like a scary thing to do, but it isn't at all, because if I really messed it up, I can just wash it off with medium or solvent and wipe it clean, and start again (because the underlying painting is totally dry). No risk here. I didn't have to do that, but it's nice to know that I can always restart.
I then mixed my flesh tones–one for the light side, and one for the shadow side–and blocked in the figure. The light / shadow pattern is already there in black and white, and I also have the original drawing to refer to, so this was a straightforward task.
The initial block-in was very simple. Now I it was time to add some variations - I began by adding violets to the shadow side. At this point, I have no idea whether I'll keep that color or not. Unlike my plein air studies which are more or less representational without too much mucking about, my studio paintings –especially figures and cityscapes–are processes of abstraction without a specific end-image in mind. I allow myself to take risks, experiment, push and pull, re-do passages, and change my mind as many times as necessary.
I also knocked in the bedsheet in light and shadow. I imagined a simple white bed sheet, so I warmed up the light side by adding yellow, and cooled down the shadow side by adding blue-violet and dropping the value. The light-shadow temperature shift is more or less consistent with that on the figure.
The figure now has another, lighter value added. Not strictly highlights, but moving in that direction - we now start to see some volume.
I added color to the background and on the floor. Again, I don't know whether I'm keeping these colors. Chances are, I'll paint over them more than once or twice.
This is after several hours. I forgot all about taking photos - sorry. But you can see I pushed the color of light a little bit, so all the lit areas have more yellow in them. I'm experimenting with textures and edges with each layer. Lost edges can be seen at her calf and shin, among other places.
One big change here is that I decided to light the front plane of the bed. Before, it was in shadow but there was also shadow within this shadow (the lower leg casting it). This was a little confusing so I made the decision to light it more clearly. The other option was to get rid of the sharp edge of that cast shadow from the lower leg, but I recognized that I would be throwing away an excellent opportunity to play with the abstract shape in that area. If I got rid of it, or had softened the edge (as I would have had to, if the whole front plane were in shadow) the sharp-edged shape couldn't exist. I'd also end up with a sliver of light going down the far side of her shin. While it's not impossible to work with, something so linear and contrasty (it would be a sliver of light surrounded by shadow) would have too much unwanted impact.
When I lit the entire front plane, one problem it presented was that the light shape(s) of the bed extended all the way to both edges of the canvas and felt like it was leading the eye off the page. It also seemed too simplistic. By adding a cast shadow to the left (shadow cast from an unseen bedside table?) and darkening the right hand side slightly, the problem was alleviated.
When I pushed the yellow in the lights, the blues in the shadows became too much, so I grayed them down. By now most of the surface have had to be painted and repainted a couple of times. I spend a lot of time losing edges in unexpected places, and re-establishing them once I confirmed that it didn't work.
I thought I was done here, but when I looked at it after letting it sit around for a few days, I decided it was too...safe. I've been trying to push abstraction more with other paintings, and this one didn't look abstract enough, so I went back into it.
And this is my result. It has a lot more texture, and obscured edges. I kept asking myself, just how much information do I need in order for the figure to be a figure? I kept taking things out, putting things back in. I like that the anatomy is almost lost in many of the areas.
I toned down the yellow as well. I liked the combination of yellow and blue that I had, but perhaps not in this picture. I made a note to try using that in another painting.
The right edge of the bed now shows a corner - you actually see a piece of the foot of the bed, which allowed me to darken that area into shadow more reasonably. I lost the swoosh of the folds, but having that curve there didn't make good design sense (it was counter to other movements in the composition) so good riddance.
I kept flip flopping, too, whether to make the face darker than the background. In the previous stage, the face area was light on dark. In the final it's dark on light. I think it could work either way, just a different mood.
The photo made it look darker than it actually is - I'm reminded just how difficult it is to photograph dark, gray paintings accurately.
I think that I could have stopped at an earlier stage and I would have had an OK painting. Five years ago, I would have. but with these 100 studies, I promised myself that I will use them for experimentation - taking risks, and finding out what happens if I did something I wouldn't normally do to a straightforward representational painting. If by taking myself out of my comfort zone I ruin one of these paintings - or all 100, I'm OK with that because I will have learned a lot of things that I otherwise would never have.
Luckily, I like what I ended up with No. 14.