Blog posts tagged “realism techniques”
I love process in art–seeing it, knowing how things are made, reverse engineering them, speculatively forward-engineering them, reflecting on my own process and learning from that reflection… so enjoy these progressions of 2 recent paintings.
1. “Vernal Fugue”, oil on panel, 18 x 24, 2019
2. “Civilization”, oil on panel, 36 x 48 inches, 2019-2020
About 10 years ago I leveled up my artistic practice in all areas after discovering the classical atelier system of art education.
Before that time I had been piecing together my own slow, winding learning trajectory in the realism painting genre, unintentionally slowing my progression with an over-reliance on photographic reference. In contrast, the atelier system is based on working directly from life, whether it be a live model, a still life, or a landscape.
In short, observing directly with one’s own eyes forces the brain and the artist’s hand to convert the 3 dimensions of real life into the 2 dimensions of a flat canvas.
Over time our eyes-brain-hand feedback loop becomes seamless, and we learn how to reproduce exactly what we see. The real-time, real life mental calculations of angles, lines, curves, planes, perspective, light and shadow, and millions of color possibilities have a measurable result: if the drawing or painting looks indistinguishable from what we’re observing, then those myriad calculations are overwhelmingly correct. Of course, eventually, an artist needs to learn how, when, and where to diverge from absolute accuracy in order to create a work of art that transcends the mere replication of reality…but the learning process that we submit to in order to reach that point is surprisingly valuable in its own right.
Arguably the single most important artistic discipline or skill, simple life drawing is actually a fairly complex amalgam of skills, requiring at least a rudimentary working knowledge of geometry, physics, optics, and the ability to plan sequentially. True life drawing begins as little more than primitive map making–the plotting of coordinates in space–and ends ideally with an incredibly nuanced understanding of the physics of form, mass, and light.
This great article I stumbled across got me thinking about drawing; what it forces our brains to do, and how it benefits our brains. While intended for the non-artist reader, it makes great cross-disciplinary connections and serves as a nice reminder and motivator for anyone who is an actual practicing artist, of just how valuable drawing is to our art.
Something I’ve never been a fan of doing is revisiting older paintings after some time has passed. The process of reconstructing or even merely re-approaching the original mindstate, inspiration, and vision for the painting feels spiritually regurgitative in some unclean way. Like digging up a dead issue in a relationship with your partner. I’ve never been one to want to dwell in the past, favoring the pursuit of new goals and the exploration of new territory over the retread of old ground.
But since embarking on a landscape painting journey over the past few years I’ve seen some of the masters of the genre doing just this–picking up old plein air studies to breath new life into them, perhaps making them more presentable as a truly finished piece to a buying audience–and had stared at some of my early plein air studies long enough to realize how I too could push the sense of drama or atmosphere in them.
Not to mention, more hours logged in the practice of landscape painting, more hours logged studying weather and outdoor light with more intention and discernment, has had the natural and inevitable effect of expanding my critique ability of what I’ve previously done as well as eased some of my fears about ruining those original results. This shift is the tangible, or at least quantitative, proof that learning is happening–awesome!
So in a brief fit of discontented boredom lately I pulled a few early landscapes off the wall and put my glazing knowledge learned from many hours of studio still life painting to use on some formerly alla-prima studies that looked a little flat.
Oil glazing truly does replicate the phenomenon of translucent–but not completely transparent–atmosphere that we live in and see through every time we gaze into the distance. Which makes it a perfect tool in the landscape painter’s skillset. For advanced stages of realism in any genre I find it to be absolutely indispensable, and enjoyed the practice of applying it to my new pursuit of landscape painting mastery.
I just shipped out my painting “Dying In America” to Gallery 1261 in Denver, for the 11th annual International Guild of Realism juried exhibition, mentioned in my last blog post. My painting is for sale and available through the gallery for the duration of the exhibit, so please contact them with inquiries.
I had a chance to check out the online preview of the entire show and WOW, it’s full of nothing but mesmerizing realism in representational art. It is a stunning representation of classical painting and drawing technique, that as you will see here, is still very much alive and well today. I am honored and humbled to be included.
I won’t be able to attend the opening reception or see the show in person but if you’re in that area of the country, do yourself a favor and have a look. Digital and printed reproductions of this genre of art, and especially the oil painting medium in particular, do absolutely zero justice to the live experience of the paint’s luminosity and depth.
The popular text message shorthand TMI, as most of us growing up in the cell phone era know, means “too much information.” Normally not a good thing–except when it comes to my realism oil painting strategy.
To be specific, I find it useful to paint as much information as possible in the beginning stages and opaque layers of my photorealist paintings, so that I can pick and choose where to obscure it during the final (semi-transparent) glazing layers. There’s perhaps a bit of inefficiency involved in this approach, but it allows for a more organic development process overall, and a greater degree of control during the final artistic choices of what to emphasize or subordinate into shadow.
The human eye is capable of seeing every detail of any given view, but the brain, our computer processor of sorts, is wired for efficiency and baseline survival, and as such is instinctively tuned to only allow us to focus on what is most important in any given view. Details and countless bits and pieces of any scene get stitched together from memory, assumption, and expectation, while a vast majority of the remaining minutiae are simply discarded as inessential to whatever task is at hand.
Some of my favorite realism artists were masters of this concept, knowing exactly what to emphasize or subdue in order to pull the viewers attention towards their focus and tug at their heartstrings with an effective narrative or use of symbolism.
Notice in John Singer Sargent’s portraits how little attention was paid to large areas of dress, allowing inessential areas to become black or brown silhouettes with no detail. He created a hierarchy of importance within the picture that mimics the way our brains naturally function, using the aforementioned technique to subordinate certain areas.
Andrew Wyath used the technique of reserve just as brilliantly towards the goal of depicting scenic vistas and landscapes with a completely lifelike–yet surprisingly graphic and simplistic–appearance, setting the often somber and peaceful mood with just enough detail to draw us in and keep us looking.
And so I too try to keep the artistic concepts of hierarchy, subordination, and reserve in mind while envisioning my final result, with the goal of creating a visually appealing image, rather than chaotic overload containing a factually truthful amount of information, yet lacking cohesion and harmony.
I think these concepts become especially important when painting anything approaching the photorealism genre. Micro details are common and often necessary to complete the desired illusion in this style of painting, and yet conversely, a closed-minded and strict devotion to every detail of one’s photo reference or still life arrangement can result in a less aesthetically pleasing work of art.
Visual information, as with most things in life, can in fact become too much of a good thing. To make sure I hit my desired sweet spot on the information spectrum, I’m not afraid to paint more detail than will ultimately be needed, only to lose it in deep, rich, believable shadows. The most effective of these shadows will still contain the faintest traces of the details underneath, yet not so much detail as to clutter and distract from my desired focal point.
I came across this quote today by a plein air pastel artist, and found it to be a perfect description for the process of realism painting. In my own work, time and again, I find I need to come back to basics in order to accurately portray the form and mass of an object or the atmosphere of a scene–to see things simply, before choosing to add complexity and detail. The ongoing challenge that all of us who undertake the realist genre have is depicting the true, unmistakable essence of an object or scene without being a slave to reference or the infinite detail of reality. When we manage to accomplish this tightrope walk, we create an illusion that ironically seems more real than reality, in turn creating a sense of awe and wonder in the viewer.
Simplify the Scene
by Richard McKinley
“Because light changes, it’s important to work with efficiency and power when you’re working en plein air. Detail is not an artist’s friend; it’s easy to believe it holds the answers, but in fact it becomes the diversion. Simplifying what you see is a necessity. Remember, it isn’t individual blades of grass that make the field rise and fall across the landscape.
“Without light, we see nothing, so light falling on form is the key to communicating what we see. It’s by arranging shapes and creating the form that you represent the scene to the viewer. Your goal isn’t to create a painting that’s polished and finessed, but rather to capture the essence of the light and the magic that captured your attention in the first place.
“Ever since the arrival of photography, artists have had to fight the urge to see it as the master of what is real. There’s no doubt that photography, used carefully, is a valuable tool. What limits its usefulness is the belief that it can’t tell a lie. That can prejudice your thoughts more than you realize. Try to imagine what artists thought the world looked like two hundred years ago. It’s difficult to do when you’ve never known a time without the printed picture as a part of your consciousness.
“When you take photos back to the studio to use as reference, be sure to ask yourself: What is it that the camera won’t capture? That’s what you want to infuse into the painting.”
I found this photo I’d taken a while ago of the value wash-in of my recent painting Sacrificial. I had written about this painting earlier this month, but forgot to include this progress photo.
In order to make achieving the final vision of a painting seem less daunting, I often break the process down into as many easily-approachable steps as needed. One way to do this, of course, is to begin with nothing but value, or light/dark relationships, in a heavily-diluted wash.
I finished painting #12 in the Apostasy series, now tentatively titled Sacrificial, a few days before my recent galavant to Galapagos. Didn’t get a chance to post anything about it before I left, but let me just say: That trip was crazy. So crazy that re-entering the studio upon my return was like landing in a time warp to a long ago era. Like a cat in a new home I sniffed out the place to make sure it was still real, still my life(?), in this current place and time, and then gratefully got the fuck to work on some prints for an upcoming group show (more coming soon on that).
Good to get outta here for an adventure, but good to be back in the creative womb with some new entries in that cluttered/overflowing filing cabinet called mind.
So, to get myself caught up, here’s the now foreign-seeming latest:
For anyone actually reading this blog on the regular, the technique of layering to achieve high levels of realism should be at least somewhat familiar by now. Yet, within this broader process of applying paint in separate layers lies the specific technique of applying paint in small amounts, during the progression of a single painting session, or layer. In other words, a wet-into-wet paint application which mimics classic Alla Prima techniques, yet occurs within the quite contradictory process of indirect (or layered) painting.
For example, the basic form and colors of the gloved fingers shown below had been established after one opaque paint layer (which I usually call the block-in). After that first layer of opaque paint was dry, subtlety and detail were added in the subsequent layer shown, but this increasing complexity, not surprisingly, requires increasing care during application. Towards this end, paint is added sparingly, in thin amounts, and blended down to join it seamlessly with the dried block-in. I move through an area, micromanaging approximately 1 inch square sections of the painting, each receiving the same apply/blend treatment.
I use Galkyd Slow-Dry medium with all of my paint mixtures, and pay close attention to the viscosity of the paint when mixing on my palette, since overly fluid or thick consistencies can make this stage of the painting process incredibly difficult.
Finally, where mini-layers come into play is when the application and blending process is repeated during the same painting session. I revisit many of the 1 inch square areas while the paint is still wet, and re-apply another thin layer of color, blending that out very carefully so as not to destroy the first application. …And so on, until these wet mini-layers have accumulated thick enough that I deem the layer no longer workable. At this point, the session is finished and I wait for that layer of paint to dry before revisiting the same area again.
The sequence below shows some of these steps. If you look carefully, you can see tiny areas of paint being applied and then smoothed out. These same areas were worked over once more in the same fashion, with certain areas receiving a third pass during that same day’s work.
And lastly, a studio shot of my reference for the piece, which was perhaps the most complex and densely detailed of the series thus far:
After a few experimental forays I returned to the studio recently to continue work on The Apostasy series, which has been my major ongoing project for the past year. Due to time and size constraints, only the first 10 paintings in this series debuted at Last Rites Gallery for my solo show in May and June.
I’m still very inspired by the themes and subject matter of these images, so it was great fun diving back in–I felt like I picked up right where I’d left off before my show. The most recent painting I completed was a perfect example of the realism artist’s need to deviate from a strict reproduction of the reference material in order to maximize the intended symbolism or desired aesthetic qualities.
Using Reference Effectively
In this case, my reference image, which in itself had been highly manipulated from its original photographic state with Photoshop, featured a metallic instrument rather starkly silhouetted against a harshly lit background of tender skin. I was faced with the artist’s “executive decision”: to ride the simple, graphic power of the flat black silhouette, or to increase the nuances of its surface texture in order to emphasize the effects of the hard light behind it. Either choice works just as effectively within the overall composition, but caters ever so slightly to a different level of meaning within the piece. Power of steel instrument to manipulate the fleshly realm, or power of the light of truth usurping man and all his manipulative tools?
I chose the latter. So, this involved the invention of some extreme lighting effects on the surface of the instrument. These I hoped would more fully express the metallic nuances and form of this foreground object, as hard backlighting bends around it, creating a bit of a warm flare. In general, I thought this increased action would add some more life to the piece. You can compare these deviation attempts in the provided sequence of photos, which starts with the specific area of my reference image, and ends with the corresponding section of the completed painting. (Image of the full painting coming soon…)
Ultimately this entire issue is of minimal impact to the outcome of the entire image, and for those unfamiliar with the quirks of extreme realist painting, may seem like an exhaustingly trivial matter. However, I enjoy it as yet another example of the myriad opportunities for creativity in a genre often mistakenly deemed uncreative. Often, the creativity in ultra realistic styles simply operates at an unexpected and far subtler level than most viewers are trained to recognize.
Far from a mere copy-machine, the experienced realism painter works often with fully premeditated intention on every minuscule aspect of the painting, making a countless number of creative decisions and unique departures rarely noticed by the undiscerning eye. In fact, if the artist’ technical skill is strong enough, there’s no way that these aspects can be noticed. Like a magician, full acceptance by the audience signifies completion of the ultimate illusion.
My Black Sauce
In order to add richness, subtlety and depth to the darkest areas of my paitnings, I avoid the use of the color black entirely (i.e. Ivory Black, Lamp Black, etc.), opting instead for my own dark color blend.
I’ve found through my experience that the mixture of several dark colors creates a new color approaching the solidity of true black when applied in enough thick layers, yet yielding enough translucency in thinner applications to open up a much wider range of subtle color variation. This flexibility and translucency in turn creates the possibility of much more realistic shadows and a truly convincing “absence of light” that the viewer can still see into.
I use a simple demonstration during my instructional seminars to prove the necessity of what I call “translucent shadows.” I find a well-lit patch of space in the room and hold an opaque object in front of my outstretched arm, casting a prominent shadow across it. I then invite the audience to answer the following rhetorical questions:
- Did the colors of my arm magically change into the colors of the shadow, like a chameleon’s skin changing to match its surroundings?
- Assuming not, did the colors of my arm therefore stay the same as they were before being cast in shadow?
- Similarly, were you able to still see the shadowed area of my arm, or was it completely swallowed up by an opaque, black, absence of light?
- Assuming it was visible, would you conclude that there was still a percentage of indirect light still present within the darkened shadow area?
What this demonstration makes obvious is the need for mimicking the processes of physics and light in the natural world within our paintings, as a method of making them accurately replicate that world. This means painting objects or spaces close to their fully lit appearance and then obscuring them by using translucent shadow glazes, to the proper degree, and with the necessary color hues.
Of course, with experience, shortcuts can be taken on this process and this rule of sorts can be effectively broken for even further nuanced results. In my own work, I don’t paint every single object or space in its fully lit colors before glazing it into shadow–instead I often aim for a middle point, knowing that after one or more glaze layers it will have the same appearance as if I hadn’t taken the shortcut. This saves time and effort, while maintaining the high level of control necessary for realistic illusions.
Logically, it also follows that if you take too big of a shortcut by matching a shadowed object’s final color during your underpainting, then glaze a translucent shadow over it to create the convincing, full-bodied richness of a realistic shadow, the cumulative effect will obviously make it darker than you had originally intended. Simple trial and error yields the correct steps, shortcuts, and glazing formulas to achieve the exact results you had intended.
Here’s the followup and conclusion to my earlier post featuring a texture experiment with some new subject matter. The results are now in, and personally I feel that the styrofoam packing peanut texture attempt #1 was a success. Here’s a detail sequence of the major steps of the layering process.
This painting will debut at a Copro Gallery group show curated by renowned dark pop-surrealist Chet Zar, which promises to be an amazing display of the elite fine art talent in the tattooing scene–which has long been denied access to and credibility within the mainstream, or establishment art world.
But, times are changing, and Chet is an impromptu ambassador of sorts, working on the forefront of this shift while treading the boundaries between several art scenes with his own career. Many thanks and much respect goes out to him for his efforts.
Just as a tiny version of a future full-size drawing is referred to as a thumbnail sketch, the term study is often used to refer to a smaller, quick, “warm-up” or practice version of a future painting.
If memories of sitting in your school library reading textbooks in preparation for a final exam come to mind with the use of the term, you’ve got the right idea. Artists’ preliminary studies are exactly that: a chance to recap the ideas and memorize the information before embarking on the final challenge, in order to ensure success. It’s a professional artist’s studio practice dating back hundreds of years, becoming a necessity for many artists as they began to undertake works of monumental complexity and extreme precision.
The practice of completing preliminary studies wasn’t something I undertook until I started painting larger dimensions a few years ago. I had always found that the time and work involved in painting at extremely small sizes didn’t warrant a practice run beforehand, as the potential mistakes to be made at that scale would themselves be smaller in scale–and able to be corrected in a reasonable amount of time. Essentially it seemed like I’d be completing the same work twice.
But as I took the plunge into attempting larger scale paintings, I suddenly realized the larger scale problems that could occur, costing days or weeks of time, money in expensive materials, and frustrated energy backtracking and correcting. It was time to take up the age old tradition of completing a practice run to head off any potential problems before they occurred. At first it seemed like a hassle–an extra step preventing me from diving right into the joy of spreading those first layers of fresh paint on a new surface. But now that I’ve gotten into the habit, I really savor the opportunity to “prime the pump,” get familiar with the subject matter, acquaint myself with its nuances and palette, work quickly, intuitively and loosely…and most of all, make mistakes as I work out any ideas I may have.
I’ve found that the painting process following these studies goes much more smoothly, resulting in works accomplished in less time with less hair-pulling moments of indecision or bewilderment. As I’ve written before, the degree of meticulous patience and strategizing that goes into the thin layer buildup of my paintings is crucial for their success. Thus, anything that allows for more opportunities to plan and prepare, such as completing one or more preliminary studies, in turn allows for more complexity and refinement of the final illusion, which is the ultimate goal.
The studies you see here were completed in around 5 hours or less, and are actually way more refined than a preliminary version needs to be. They can potentially be completed in minutes, and can be incredibly sloppy. As long as you figure out what you need to do in the final version of the painting, the study has served its purpose.
Splatter technique is one of my favorite methods for laying down a foundation of random texture on a painting. This is usually done somewhere in the beginning stages of the piece and layered over until the desired illusion is achieved. Naturally, the opacity of subsequent layers dictates how prominently the random splatter pattern/texture will feature in the final result–determined according to the needs of the chosen subject matter.
Just having finished a major series of paintings with a very tightly focused aesthetic and subject matter, it’s time to mess around and try some things out. Stir up the creative juices in order to open myself to spontaneous discoveries and new visions. This is usually when toothbrushes turn into paintbrushes and messiness moonlights briefly before suffocating yet again underneath the lead blanket of clinical precision.
Here’s a progress shot of an experimental piece I’m hoping to complete for an upcoming group show. My first attempt at a realistic styrofoam texture. Level of success to be determined…
Working Smarter, Not Harder
These paintings were executed (almost) entirely in Jeff’s very direct Alla Prima working process, with his stripped-down palette of Titanium White, Alizarin Crimson, Prussian Blue, and Transparent Orange.
The goal during the several hours it took to paint each of these was, first and foremost, to let the spontaneity and expressiveness of each brushstroke remain apparent, to let the paint breathe in all of its wet, visceral uneven glory. In other words: not turning into a self-indulgent artist and over-brushing everything to death. Or, in other, other words: not using my normal sharp-focus realism techniques or process.
The theory behind this approach is that over-working the paint takes you out of the moment, masking the raw emotion that may be transferred from body to brush to canvas, that infuses a picture with a sense of life and mystery. Emphasis is placed on accurate and efficient reproduction of what you’re seeing: hold brush confidently, make your mark with discriminating force, leave it alone. As a realist, this exercise is a valuable lesson in efficiency, allowing you to access the ability to commit the most information with a single stroke. More accuracy with the least amount of physical brushwork or artistic manipulation.
Its simplicity is quite beautiful, really, like Buddhist meditation practices.
It’s also quite painful for the neurotic who wants everything to be smooth and perfect, everything resolved and solved so that the final illusion is primary while the physical surface of the painting melts into oblivion. The working process I’ve developed over the years is patterned after many of the Renaissance masters who used many layers and subtle glazes to achieve convincing illusions. These results are often dependent upon a process of highly refined brushwork, and arrived at through precise technique, planning, and strategy. So, needless to say, each of these candle still lifes were a monumental struggle from start to finish, as I forced myself to make marks and then leave them alone–moreover, to make “mistakes,” and then leave them alone.
Ultimately, I’m pleased with the results as well as the experienced gained from the exercise. When I returned home and began painting again in my usual manner, I found myself able to loosen up my brushwork to achieve illusions more efficiently. Incorporating the ‘observe, make mark, move on’ attitude helps me, as a painter of realism, focus on committing only the necessary information, more accurately and more quickly. I see this as the next level of learning, after an artist learns simply how to work with paint. It’s the process of learning how to work smarter, not harder. To achieve greater results, in less time and with less struggle.
After recently finishing my newest series of paintings for my show in May/June at Last Rites Gallery, I had a chance to revisit an experimental painting I’d started this past summer while attending a workshop by my friend Jeff Gogue, a phenomenal painter and tattoo artist in Grant’s Pass, OR.
To backtrack a bit: I convinced Jeff to lead a workshop for me in an attempt to break away from my well-worn habits and artistic routine. I find the intentional abandonment of familiarity and comfort to be a crucial element of any learning process, and knowing that Jeff has a drastically different technical approach than I do, I knew I could round out my own knowledge and expertise by absorbing some of his.
This proved to be quite challenging and downright frustrating (perfect! or in the words of comedian Will Arnett, “that’s how you know it’s workinnng!”), as I grappled with my ingrained artistic tendencies. (Side note/Cliffhanger #1: I’m preparing a thorough explanation of this concept for a future blog post).
I started a simple painting that week, abandoning myself to Jeff’s process, with no clear vision of what my end result would look like nor how I would get there. My stay in Oregon ended before I could see this painting through to its conclusion, and I quickly forgot all about it for months while keeping busy with other projects.
Fast forward to March, and here I am with a unique challenge of revisiting what I’d learned at the workshop in order to finish what I’d started several months prior. I finally had a vision of where I wanted to take this piece, and I made the decision to adapt the foreign process I’d started the painting under, to my own familiar process for finishing pieces, creating an interesting synthesis of two peoples’ techniques and approaches. A mental collaboration, with only one person executing the plan.
Here’s a step-by-step document of a portion of the painting, consisting of wafting tendrils of black smoke, being completed with my familiar glazing process. Glazing over previously dried layers is the only way to build up smooth transparencies of color–perfect for the illusion of smoke. I’ll post the entire completed painting once it’s been properly photographed.
(Interesting side note/Cliffhanger #2: In deconstructing this process by studying the progress photos I’d taken, I realized a much more efficient method of layer buildup that I could have used, which I predict would also be conducive to even more realistic results. A compare and contrast to the 2 approaches will be the subject of a future Realism Techniques post.)
This is the start of an occasional ongoing series on this blog where I’ll be discussing the process and techniques of sharp-focus realism oil painting.
Here’s the evolution of the painting I began at my parents’ house during a recent visit. The phases of development you see here represent approximate divisions into layers, i.e. major progress stages of the painting (click on the image below to make it larger). In actuality, there were a few more partial layers and back-and-forth adjustments made to various areas of the piece which are not shown here, as they didn’t constitute major turning points.
Generally speaking, after the first two complete layers, it’s then possible to break off into intense development on one section of the piece if desired or needed, since at that point enough information has been recorded to establish a failsafe foundation upon which to build endless subtleties. I believe that the most convincing photorealist paintings cannot be achieved through anything other than this subtle progression of multiple layers.
This piece is part of a new series nearing completion, which will debut officially on May 26th at Last Rites Gallery in NYC. More details of that show will be available in the coming months.