I’ve gotten in the habit of photographing my work at different stages as I paint. What began as a simple recording of daily progress, sort of like keeping a journal, has become a valuable tool that allows me to review the lessons that every painting seems to want to teach. Below are three painting progressions I hope you enjoy, along with some of the things I learned along the way. What they all share in common is that I begin with photographic references and/or compositional sketches that are 8×10 or smaller. I prefer painting in large formats, often as large as 4-6’ canvases. I find that using a grid on the smaller sketch allows me to get the proportions correct on the much larger canvas. My goal in the initial charcoal drawing on the canvas is to be accurate but not precise. From that point of accuracy, large brushes and palette knives loosen most things up.
DUCKS IN A ROW
Thin wash of raw umber gives a neutral, organic toned canvas, 36 x 48. Charcoal sketch, accurate not precise. Blocks of color and reflections also sketched in charcoal. Laying in the darkest value anchors main lines of composition of these pintail ducks.
Laying in the lightest values, along with starting to sort out some medium values in duck’s head. I like to establish the darkest darks and lightest lights first, so that all other values can be compared to them. I often view the colors I’m putting on the canvas through a red filter to reduce everything to simple values of darks and lights. This way I can make sure my original lightest lights and darkest darks stay that way.
Defined warmth of light through the duck’s breasts and background colors. Negative space painting around the dark sticks and grasses allowed me to push and pull the edges, leaving some sharp and some out of focus. I particularly used my fingers a good bit to get the soft blurry edges.
Warmed it all up, let the reflections fall off the edge of painting, giving strong vertical line to an otherwise horizontal composition. Photo reference credit Leslie Morris.
40×40 cadmium red toned canvas POPS. The color will peak through the whole painting, kind of like a glowing backlight. Charcoal sketch, accurate but not precise, sorts the main blocks of the turkey’s complex feather patterns.
Darkest darks laid in, mix of ultramarine blue, purple and raw umber. Attention to dark value shapes in feathers now establishes the lighter patterns to come. I always like this stage of just the toned canvas and the darkest values.
At this point I would usually paint all the lightest lights next. But this guy was fun and complex and I wanted to develop him pretty much completely before laying in the background. So I began painting the lightest lights within just the bird. Then continued to look for changes in values and paint them darker or lighter in comparison to the initial darks and lights.
Lot going on in that fan. The key to painting a turkey might be looking for the blocks of shapes within his plumage and painting those, not the individual feathers. And no repetitious strokes or widths or shapes. And my husband says ALWAYS show the beard and spurs, even if you have to make them up.
Knew the background needed to be lighter around the bird’s body, but wanted it to be out of focus so all attention was on the big guy. Left plenty of cadmium red glowing in foreground and within the bird’s body. Photo reference credit Paul Brown.
Wash of yellow ochre toned canvas, 48×48. Began this one knowing it would be a limited color palette, mostly gold and gray. Brought some order to charcoal sketches of birds with the shallow water ripples that form a triangle, moving the eye from upper right corner to left and back down to the only piper looking straight at you.
Laying in the darks, prussian blue and raw umber.
Adding the lights and then various medium values, always comparing them to the darkest dark and lightest light. Added more darks into the reflections of birds.
The fun part. Negative space painting. It’s when you can correct those edges, make them sharp, let them fall away, or wave into a reflection. Added some warmth to the bird’s reflections.