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How does a painting evolve?

When you attend a concert, be it a rock concert or a full orchestra, you hear the music as it is intended by the composer, the conductor and by the musicians. What you don’t hear are the hours of preparation, missed notes, re-writes, etc., all the steps required to reach that final sound. The same holds true when you view art, whether in a museum, a gallery or other art venue. You see the final work, as the artist intended. You rarely get the opportunity to see all the steps, sometimes messy steps, that the artist had to work through to bring the piece to completion. In this week’s post, I will attempt to take you through a single artwork from start to finish. Bear with me, this post could be longer than usual!

Photo & value plan

It all starts with an idea. This can come from within the artist’s mind, or in many of my realistic pieces, it begins with a photograph of a scene I encountered somewhere along the way. In this particular piece, it was those gorgeous purples and the repeating spheres in the bin of the local farmer’s market. I sifted through my MANY photos that I took at the farmer’s market and decided on this one of the red onions. (Still trying to understand why they are ‘red’ onions. In my artist’s eye, they are usually more purple!)

I did a sketch to establish the composition. It is at this stage I sometimes make adjustments to the positioning of shapes to make a stronger composition. I also may do a value sketch to plan the location of the major darks and lights. I refer to this plan throughout the painting process to be sure in my excitement of using all those luscious colors, I maintain strong value relationships.

Initial block in

Once happy with the sketches, I lightly block in the major shapes on my surface that I have previously toned, in this case a dark blue gray. This helps to position everything according to sketch.

Next, I roughly block in the first areas of color. I approach each piece

Vibrant pastel set
Initial application of color

differently. In this particular piece, I had a brand new box of “vibrant” colors that I just couldn’t wait to use, so I jumped right in with the magenta/purple tones of the onions. (Sometimes I block in with complementary colors, or colors opposite of what the finished colors will be, in order to create a visual vibration. Look for that in a future post.) This first application of color is instinctive and fun.

At this point, the painting process slows. I look at what I see before me and analyze. Is the color too red? Too violet? Are the shapes accurate? Back to that value sketch – Do I need to darken/lighten to maintain the value plan? Referring to the musical reference at the beginning of this post, is there a visual harmony occurring, or is it just a bunch of ‘notes’ on the page? A song is not just a bunch of notes. They must work together to create a melody. Painting is no different. All the visual elements need to come together in a pleasing arrangement.

Closeup of a finished onion

I continue building the image through layering of colors. Pastel cannot be mixed like wet paints, so sometimes to get the color I want, I must layer various colors strategically. Layering can also create livelier color. I can use a green pastel, but sometimes layering a yellow and a blue pastel creates a more interesting green while maintaining elements of each individual color.

Somewhere along the way, the piece may go through the YUK stage. I will be happy with my progress until I step back and it just doesn’t seem to be working as a unified composition. (You can read more about the YUK stage here.) In this painting, it was the ‘stems’ of the onions that gave me

Those onion tops were my YUK stage!

trouble. I struggled with getting them to look light and ‘papery’ as dried onion skin looks to me. There was lots of scrubbing off of the pastel and redrawing before I finally got the look I wanted. No artist wants to photograph their YUK stage, so you will have to trust me on this, that it went through several stages of YUK, before I got it!

And then it all starts to come together. The process slows considerably as small tweaks are made. Color. Shape. Edges. All are fine tuned. And then you realize that you have reached the end. I set my work aside for a day or even a week, sometimes in a different room so that I will encounter it unexpectedly in the course of a day. It is these fresh views that will typically point out to me where an adjustment may be needed. A line may need to be angled differently. An edge may need to be softened. A color may need to be muted or intensified. When I can encounter the piece several times and no longer see an area that is cause for concern, I know I can call it complete.

© Susan E. Klinger, "Red Onions", pastel


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