The artistic process is a mysterious feat of conjuring. It involves varying degrees of knowledge, skill, persistence, seeing, and orchestrated chaos. I’ll cover all of that and more in this blog over time. For now, we are going to choices that account for the orchestration of the chaos.
Millions of individual decisions go into creating each work of art. Sometimes it is about making the right decision. Just as frequently, it’s about making an okay decision, evaluating the results, then adjusting your next decision based on what you see in front of you.
Here is an early stage of the Self Portrait with Bandana, which debuted in the previous post:
A few choices had to be made before ever touching the paper. What direction would I be facing? What expression would I have? What would be in the background? Importantly: what did I want to *accomplish* with this painting?
I wanted this piece to be a fair likeness. I’ve struggled with this goal in the past. I decided to focus on the relationships of light and shadow on the face as a means to achieve an objective representation of my features. Overall, I think this worked.
Once the aim was set, I sketched out my composition, lightly, with my beloved 0.5 mechanical pencil. Next, I laid in some broad areas of washed-out color, leaving the very lightest areas of the image completely free of color. This included the white areas of the bandana, and the very brightest highlights on the nose. A close look revealed that even the “whites” of my eyes were actually in shadow, and not truly white, save for the reflected sparkles.
By the time the picture acheived the appearance shown above, I’d already taken a second pass: deepening the shadows by adding more color in the darker areas. At the same time the realtionships betweent he areas of color got a little more exact. The overall skin tone ranged from light greenish-yellow in the highlights to a more orange tone in the mid-range. The bags under the eyes revealed themselves to be somewhere int he magenta family, and similar in color to the lips.
Next, I really deepened the colors. Above, you can see that the bandana was given some dimension by shading right side, suggesting some folds, and putting a touch of light blue shadow in the white areas.
In the photo of the early stage, you’ll also see that the creases on either side of the mouth look very deep and pronounced. In the final version, they seem to have almost vanished (directly above). This isn’t because I lightened the shadows in the creases, but because i *darkened* the key shadows elsewhere. They became lighter by contrast.
The final version really benefited from a darkening of the eyes. My eyes are especially deep-set – I get this from my maternal grandfather. But most people’s eyes are a bit deeper than we think. They benefit from some bold shadows and real attention to the folds and relationship of the shapes.
Finally, when I was mostly convinced that the guy on the paper could be said to resemble the guy holding the brush, I put the mirror away and took a step back. I went o refill my coffee mug. When I returned to the drafting table, I took another look at the image before me. No longer thinking of it as a likeness, I took the whole thing in and looked for what worked, and what parts fought against the others.
The gray hoodie just didn’t feel right. The handling of paint was just too stiff. I tried one thing and another to try to get the folds just right. One of the last things i did was to loosen up and smear a bunch of very watery paint across the right shoulder. The result looked a lot less like my clothing than it did before – but a lot *more* interesting; free and painterly. The painting was done.
Ultimately, knowing when to stop is one of the most important decisions the artist will make. Quit too early, and the painting will look incomplete: more like an exercise or student work, than a work of art. Press your luck too long, and the result is overworked and lacks the spark of life.
Many pieces have been ruined through over-working the painting. The piece in front of you is rarely a faithful incarnation of the image you envisioned. Who cares? No one but you will ever see that imaginary piece, and art is always best when it has an audience.
So, audience: what would you like to see in the next self-portrait I do? I will incorporate your responses into a future piece!