From Raw to Refined

phase tilesThis page describes more thoroughly the process of one of my paintings. It shows the very first image I begin with — the concept— and proceeds through the various stages of modifications to the finished work. It’s been a small challenge to describe how a painting comes about and then, once an image is settled upon, the logistics of forming it into something more than the original.

Stamps from Japan: Explaining this process came about because of stamps. One of my friends sent me a booklet of postage stamps from Japan. A Japanese artist created each stamp by  depicting rural scenes across the country during a particular season. The accompanying booklet, written in Japanese kanji, displays some of the photographs that the artist used to create his stamps (see the bottom of this page for a scan of one of the stamps and the corresponding photo). Seeing how this artist conjured his image, my friend wanted to know how I developed mine. So here it is, start to finish with the really boring parts left out.

The Original ImageA-original photo with insetThe original photo is approximately 2′ x 3′. The outlined area above shows what part of the shot I liked the best, it’s only about 4″ square. This is a shot I took while riding the ferry across the Savannah River one day this spring. I pointed my camera over the water while the ferry buzzed along and held the shutter button down until it stopped clicking. A few shots I aimed for, this was one of them. You can see there’s nothing sensational about it at all; it’s not even a good shot. However, when I reviewed all 350 shots I took that day this one stood out for it’s patterning, as I thought it might. I had to examine it for a while to determine whether it was worth spending time thinking about.

Selected Portion from the OriginalB-inset with contrast adjustThis is the 4″x4″ area I chose. I loved the patterning, but was I going to find any worthwhile colors in it? Removing the glare was the only way to reveal this.To remove the glare from this shot I chose to do a simple “auto contrast” in a Photoshop-like program. Jeez, then I saw all this gold, orange, red, yellow, umber and ochre with just a hint of green glazing. Now, you know, the red family and the green family make a gray family. In watercolor terms that means mud. So getting green tones into this painting was going to be a challenge I would have to tackle along the way.

The Drawing3small sketchThis is the first drawing. It’s about twice the size of selected area from the photo. At this stage of the drawing process I modify shapes and edit out what I deem to be unnecessary, confusing, or nuisance detail. This is kind of a tricky time because I have to think and imagine a full color painting that’s 3 times larger than this little drawing. Too much detail makes it fussy and visually pedantic & mires the viewer’s intake of the whole painting. Too little detail makes the painting shallow. The first drawing is done with a fine point Sharpie on plain white paper and then scaled up to the size the painting will be.

Scaling the Drawing4scaled drawingHere is the finished drawing scaled to the size of the watercolor paper. It’s about 20″x20″. Remember, the selected area from the original photo was 4″x4″. I scaled the drawing to size by scanning the small drawing, scaling it up to final size and essentially printing off a grid, each grid containing a portion of the drawing. The grids gets pieced together and then tracing paper is laid on top to copy up the drawing for the transfer process.

Making the Transfer Drawing for Watercolor Paper5flip for leadingThis is the transfer drawing. The tracing paper has already been placed on the scaled drawing and been re-drawn with a Sharpie. From here on out I can’t permit changes or mistakes. The drawing needs to be as final as possible on the tracing paper before the transfer of lead. The image is re-drawn with a heavy lead pencil on the reverse side. The next step is to transfer that lead down to the watercolor paper.

Transfering the Drawing to Watercolor Paper6flip for transferThis photo shows the transfer drawing now mounted onto the watercolor paper. Once again I’ll draw on top of the image with a pencil and as I do the lead from the reverse side will lightly transfer down to the watercolor paper.  Having the drawing perfected before the lead transfer insures that there will be no erasures, changes or mistakes on the watercolor paper. Trying to fix a drawing on the watercolor paper is like adding an egg to a cake after you’ve started baking it.

Phase 1: Washing, Detailing & Masking7 1st 3 washes & laydown

It’s hard to detect here, but there are at least 3 washes of yellow. After each wash masking was laid down achieving preservation of the highest & lightest colors before the heavy duty washes get laid. I also laid in reds, oranges and green and they, too, are masked.

Phase 2: More Washing, Masking & Detailing8 masking & detailingDeeper yellow washes have been laid down here. Again, the lighter yellows, red, oranges and greens are all protected by the masking. As I wash a new color I can do it in broad, fast strokes that are really wet knowing that the new wash will simply bead off the masking. I can also be free at this point to push, scrub, salt, lift or saturate the paint in order to texturize the background without affecting the foreground detail.

Phase 3: Deeper Background Washes9 bg washesThe background is now being gradated with washes of orange, ochre and raw umber.  I’ve added more green and red detailing some of which I masked and some not. Now I’ll work in smaller areas bouncing mid-range colors up and down.

Phase 5: Final Saturations10 washes & detailI’ve decided at this point that I’m done with the big washes and essential detailing. The masking is still in place so it needs to be lifted. The masking fluid (liquid latex) has a fairly yellow tint to it once it dries; this tints interferes slightly with overall color assessment. Once it’s removed everything becomes more intense because now whites and subtle colors are true. Occasionally this is a “holy shit” moment precipitating some repainting that can sometimes take a week or more to rework. Very often, though, it is a “aaahhh” moment. Spontaneous hand clapping might occur or a simple “whew!”

Phase 6: The Completed Paintingcompleted paintingIt’s done. The painting took about 5 or 6 weeks to complete. I could have done several more sessions on this painting, but that would have lead into over working the painting and forced my mind to over engage in minutiae that would not have enhanced the image.

Japanese Stamp

stampHere is a photograph (top) of a country scene in Japan and the stamp that was created from it. What a nice translation it is.


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