Some years ago I used to paint commercial murals, in theme pubs and the like.
I can clearly remember the experience of my first big mural, largely because it was one of the most horrendous working experiences of my life – entirely of my own doing, I might add.
The space I had to fill was roughly twenty metres across, and the mural was to be the centrepiece for a themed cafe being built as part of a big refurbishment job, a huge warehouse being converted into a night club in Stoke on Trent. I had six weeks to do it, I was one of the last on the job, and holding up the opening was not an option.
When the time eventually came to travel to the venue and start painting, I had a few sketches of the layout and a rough idea of what it was going to look like. But nothing could have prepared me for the moment when I saw the space I had to cover for the first time.
It was huge. I was terrified.
I worked 16 hour days from start to finish, going without sleep for a couple of days towards the end to try and get it finished in time. I did finish in time, but only just.
I was in my mid-twenties then, and didn’t have much idea about anything. I certainly didn’t have much idea of what was involved in painting large murals.
Over the next few years, I did more of these jobs and gradually learned the golden rule of large murals on tight deadlines:
If the piece isn’t carefully planned, you’ll not only wear yourself into the ground getting it done, but the final result will be pretty bloody awful.
And that’s the theme of this post.
This little painting is a bit smaller than that first mural. Well, it’s a lot smaller. But I put more time into planning this than I did into the mural.
None of the paintings I’ve done prior to this one have had any real planning at all. I’d just set some objects up, shift them around till I thought it looked ok and start painting.
That’s fine, because pretty much all the work up to this point has consisted of sketches, practice pieces. But lately I’ve started to think more about how I get from sketches to something more finished. It’s time now to start putting together a portfolio of more finished pieces to go and hawk to galleries. It’s time to start trying to make a living with my brushes.
For the remainder of this post, I’ll briefly recount the various stages I went through to put this painting together. What I hope to show is that a bit of forethought can make a better picture. Not a great one necessarily, but one which is substantially better than it would have been without taking the time to solve a few problems before the brush hits the canvas.
The Set Up
I knew I wanted to paint this old silver vase. I like to paint silver, and this particular vase has some nice colours in the tarnish that caught my eye.
I knew I wanted this teaspoon too, and that I wanted it back-lit. There’s a still life painting by Chardin which features a back-lit teaspoon, and I’ve always loved it. So this was going to be my homage to Chardin’s teaspoon.
As for the dried flowers, they just seemed like a good idea at the time.
I did all the initial sketching for the set up with the camera and photoshop. If you’ve read many of my other posts, you’ll know that I’m no great lover of cameras, and particularly not of working from photos. In my clumsy hands, cameras distort the tonal balance and the colours of the subject, and I’m of the opinion that it’s hard enough as it is to correctly judge tones and colours without complicating matters.
I’m not completely against cameras, or even working from photos, if it’s done with the right approach – that is to say, not just copying the photo – but it can result in just a bad copy of a holiday snap if not done with care and a certain amount of sensitivity.
Using a camera to try out different compositions for the painting
But the camera came into it’s own here. I tried various different positions, different kinds of lighting, and gradually, the composition took shape. Here’s one of the first pictures of the set up:
This is not very far from what I ended up with. The vase and the teaspoon are in pretty much the final position. I thought that this looked pretty nice at the time. But after reading the chapter on composition in “Creative Illustration” by Andrew Loomis, a few things jumped out at me as being very wrong.
The first thing is the position of the leaves. Pointing over to the right as they do, they act as little arrows which lead the eye off to the side, away from the focus of the set up (the vase) and right off the side of the picture. If this was sitting on a gallery wall, I’d be directing the viewer to the painting to the right, which might be by somebody else, and we don’t want that now, do we?
However, the reversed ‘S’ curve of the flower leads the eye up the vase to the teaspoon quite nicely, and also echoes the shape of the right side of the vase. That sets up a little rhythm which works quite nicely. So what I had to do was find a way to lead the eye in and up from the bottom left (we tend to read images left to right in western cultures) and up to the flower.
Simple enough, just turn the leaves around:
This shot is from a bit further through the process, with the fern hanging down to carry the eye on past the teaspoon and up. I was starting to think more about the track the eye was going to take, or the track that I wanted it to take, through the picture.
The vase has moved a little against the background, too, so that the teaspoon is now profiled against a light part of background. Stronger contrast creates a focus.
Moving the vase against the background has also brought the right side of it into sharper contrast, which I also liked.
A lot of composition is about creating a focus. That can be done both by leading the eye and creating strong contrast where the focus is. Higher chroma colours should do the same thing, but this picture doesn’t exactly have alot of colour to play with. I lost the contrast of the right side of the vase in the final painting. Although it’s obvious to me now, I must have missed it at the time. Maybe I decided I didn’t need it. Composition is a complicated business.
What I lost here that irked me most was that by turning around the flower and leaves, the shape of the flower no longer echoed the right side of the vase. The only answer was to pull the flower off the leaves and turn it back round again. A bit artificial perhaps, but justified.
The only real change from this point was to remove the fern and add some hanging flowers on the left, to (hopefully) bring the eye back round after the teaspoon has directed it out of the top of the painting.
Using thumbnail sketches to try out compositions
About this time I started doing some thumbnail compositions sketches, trying to figure out how to lead the eye through the picture. This idea came from the Loomis book again, and it’s very helpful.
Establishing the tonal balance
More than anything, I wanted a feeling of light in this painting, so the values were going to be important.
I’d done a number of charcoal tonal sketches to give me an idea of what I was aiming for, but it wasn’t untilI started painting that I really pinned it down.
The two little sketches here were done to see how the same relationships between the tones would work in a high or a low key. I have a strong tendency to paint in a low key, but for this picture, the higher key sketch seemed to have more light. The picture on the left here is the final painting in grisaille stage. I rarely do this, but for this one I wanted to concentrate as much as possible on getting the tones right.
The only change from this stage was the addition of the purple flowers. The painting needed something, and they seemed to be it. The fact that I added something right at the end perhaps shows that I didn’t do my planning all that well.
This really was the first time I gave some deliberate thought to composition, and I’m beginning to realise that it can make or break a picture. Certainly it’s something I intend to spend a lot more time investigating through the next run of more finished paintings. The more I learn the more I realise how little I know.
Does planning a painting carefully kill creativity?
Now there’s probably some people out there in Internet land saying to themselves that careful planning will spoil the spontaneity of the picture and take the creativity out of it.
Spontaneity, maybe. I’ve had a couple of paintings turn out quite nicely that were done on the spur of the moment and were completely unplanned, but I have to say that they’ve been the exception rather than the rule.
As for taking the creativity out of it, I don’t think for a moment that it does. If anything, it enhances it. If you like to work in an automatic manner, like the surrealists and Dada artists did, then this kind of planning is bad news. But surrealism has had it’s day, and it was a pretty short day at that. That’s even more true of Dada in my view, although it seems to have become the blueprint for modern (and much post modern) art.
I’ll admit to a dark secret here, I quite like some Dada work. Not as art, particularly, none of it is beautiful or remotely inspiring. But some of it makes me laugh. I’ve always found Duchamp’s urinal a pretty amusing joke, given the time it was done. But a joke is only funny the first time you hear it, and doesn’t deserve to be revered as “Great Art”.
To my mind, cultural movements that are based almost entirely on a reaction to existing conditions are relevant only as long as those conditions persist, their meaning is limited to their specific time. It’s no too dissimilar from seeing punk bands these days. What’s the point? Like the Dada spirit, it’s still being flogged to death despite the fact that the conditions that gave rise to it have changed out of all recognition. How meaningful is it to cock a snoop at the establishment when you are the establishment?
But I’m rambling again. Still, it’s my web site and I’ll ramble if I want to.
For me, the bottom line is whether planning the picture before hand makes for a better end result. As far as I’m concerned, in the vast majority of casesit does. This painting might not be the best example of it, but it’s a fair start.
I’m just re-reading this post today, in early 2015, and I feel I can’t leave it without clarifying something that I’d got very wrong here:
The concept of “leading the eye” in picture composition has been conclusively proved to be nonsense by experiments and studies done on people looking at paintings with eye tracking technology.
What actually happens is that we look first at the elements of the picture which resonate the most psychologically with us. So faces will particularly draw our eye first. Then we scan around the picture, pretty much at random.
So, I’d strongly advise against spending huge amounts of time trying to create a composition that leads the eye around the picture, as I did here. It’s time wasted. The harsh reality is that we have very little control over how people look at our pictures, and the idea that we can lead someone’s eye around a picture as we please is a fallacy.
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