It would seem that one of the most mystifying aspects of being an artist is “How did you make that?”, and with good reason. For each artist it is a completely personal and variable matter, especially for different types of creators. While I can’t say the same for most artists, my process tends to be long and drawn out, but in the end it becomes worth it.
To explain a little of how I work, I’ve tried to document every step of the way for one of my most recent paintings ‘Usurpers’. Which is almost ironic since the painting itself was actually only a small part of another, larger work and was meant only to be an exploratory piece to figure out how the hell I’m supposed to paint monkeys. Most of my time seems to be spent in some strange paint-ception loop lately.
All of my work as of the last two years starts in the sketchbook with a simple, messy thumbnail. Sometimes it can take a page or two of thumbnails to get the composition exactly right, but I was lucky with this painting and was happy with the first idea. There’s a general triangle shaped composition going on, which I enjoyed because it went with the concept of having many enslaved, but only one who rules. I reminisced about Egypt and the pyramids, so the composition works.
Once I have my composition, before I get into the ‘good stuff’, especially on subjects I don’t often use, I have a phase of drawing studies from random photo references. For this particular piece I focused on the lilies and the monkeys, so I drew a lot of lilies and many monkeys, until I was satisfied that I could execute them confidently on the final drawing. This would be the part where I start an exploratory piece such as this one if I really want to be thorough and make sure I can paint them the way I’d like as well. I often tend to do small color studies at this point as well, especially if there isn’t a plan for an exploratory piece.
I’d like to take a moment here to emphasize the importance of preliminary work. I’ve learnt through the years and from some great teachers that the base of any excellent painting is having an excellent base. So if you spend the time to figure out your composition, and draw all the studies until your eyes bleed and it becomes boring (because that means you’re confident with it!), your final painting will thank you by being the best it can possibly be. While this might not apply to abstract art, as someone with an illustrative tendency it is crucial for everything to work as planned.
My friend Bob likes to watch sometimes.
And now begins the ‘good stuff’! By this point most things are smooth sailing, and the final drawing begins. I like to typically start off with red erasable pencil to block everything in, then I slowly dig into the details and nitty-gritty of the drawing. I find it easier to erase and blend in stuff with the red pencil when shit goes wrong.
Ignore the extra r in usurpers, I was tired.
After the red pencil comes graphite. This particular piece I started with graphite powder to quickly fill in the shadow areas and create some depth. This part is fairly straight forward, I just ‘paint’ the graphite powder on with an old crappy brush and use a kneaded eraser to clean up any edges that I want to be more sharp.
When I’m in a real hurry sometimes I skip the graphite phase and just noodle the red pencil farther than I normally do, which saves some time. But as I said before, a solid base makes for a solid painting so I try to do this step as often as I can.
Typically all I really use is a mechanical pencil, an eraser pencil, a kneaded eraser (not shown), a blending stub, and the red pencil. I also have a mechanical pencil with red lead in it for those times where I refine the red drawing instead of using graphite for cleaner line work.
When I am satisfied with the final drawing, I move on to transfer it to watercolor paper with a light table, then I mount the paper with gesso to either illustration board or a cradled wood panel depending on how I want to finish it (framed or not). Mounting the paper to something isn’t necessary, but it significantly reduces buckling and warping which is something that’s pretty important for me.
Once the paper is good and stuck to it’s stiffer counterpart, I then go over everything with pen and ink to clarify the line work and begin shading. I also like to add in some light ink washes to further begin the shaping of everything before I add color. It really helps on complicated pieces where I might accidentally put a shadow in the wrong spot if I’m not paying attention.
Finally! We have color! My favorite part of art is the painting in colors. It’s where everything comes together and breathes in life. I do color in stages, starting with the background and larger, light washes, then gradually becoming more saturated and adding in the darks. Typically the very last thing I do is add in highlights or details with gouache. This particular piece was just slightly off-white highlights, but in some pieces I like to have whole objects like bugs or flowers painted in gouache, and I like to do that bit last to prevent any mishaps with the watercolor.
It can be a long, tedious process sometimes, but in the end it is all worth it. Generally speaking, on anything over 6″ dimensionally either way it takes me a minimum of 10 hours of work. It can take upwards of 50 hours on even larger pieces! Usurpers was around 20 or so hours from sketch to finished painting.
How do you paint? If you have any questions about my process, I’d love to hear them!