Two Years in the Making

Part 1

I had been waiting until the completion of this project to post anything about it.  That time has FINALLY come, so here it is!

Choosing an Image

Since studying the art and poetry of William Blake in my senior year of college, I have been obsessed with this image: a deity/demiurge of Blake’s devising named Urizen, depicted meting out out the structure of the human world with the specious indifference and objectivity made only attainable with the aid of a mathematical tool.  At first sight, I was struck by the composition of the image and its resonance with freemasonry; I thought it was cool and wanted one of my own.

After I finished the first project in my most recent return to painting lessons, a study of a head of Aphrodite, I began to look for a project that I’d be able to work on at home.  I was hoping to find an image that I could copy in acrylics, rather than in oil paints which I’d been working with in my lessons.  It was my hope that I could apply the techniques that I’d been learning while continuing to use acrylic paints–a clean-up friendly, water-soluble medium with which I’d had a lot of recent experience.  I decided on Blake’s “Ancient of Days” both because I wanted a copy of it and because I had a print of a more cartoon-like version, which I assumed would make for a simpler project.

Starting Out

I knew that I wanted to make this project larger than those I’d worked on previously, but that I had to consider the ratio of width to height so that I would be able to cheat use a grid to place the image properly.  I wound up with an 18″ x 24″ canvas, which I primed first with acrylic gesso and then with a layer of a light to mid-value brown paint (details below).  After it was primed, I added the grid both to the canvas and to a copy of the reference photo so that I could ensure proper object placement.  I outlined the objects first in pencil and then lightly with a middle value brown paint.

After the objects were roughly placed, I began massing in areas of light and dark in order to create a sense of depth.  I did this by working with a monochrome spectrum ranging between a light value (titanium white + yellow ochre pale) and a middle value (burnt umber + raw sienna, combined with the light).  By keeping the two ends of the spectrum relatively close together in value, (as opposed to a range from white to a very dark dark,) the objects remain in close relation to each other (a too-dark spot in the middle of a light area can look like someone burned a hole in your painting).  Nothing is so dark or light that it’s hard to cover it up (or color correct) if you’ve made a mistake.

A Turn for the Worse

As I worked on it, I came to discover that neither my plan to employ the oil painting techniques I was learning in acrylics nor using the cartoony version would serve me at all… especially because I was sort of switching off between the two reference photos.  Evidence of a bad plan:

I could tell at the time this picture was taken (2008) that this obviously wasn’t working, but it wasn’t until much later that I had any clue as to why.  My current assessment is that the above image resulted from multiple bad ideas as well as a lack of knowledge about paint mixing.

First of all, I was doubly misapplying the technique of establishing the painting in a monochrome, light to dark spectrum.  The purpose of beginning a painting this way is to establish form and depth through variances in light and shadow before rendering it in color, so the first problem I would encounter should have been quite obvious: when you’re working from a cartoon-like image, there isn’t really much form or depth to speak of.  The viewer knows that the arm is separate from the face because the boundary is demarcated by a line, not a shadow or a difference in color or the way one object reflects light.  Using a light to dark scale *should* give the painting a sense of dimensionality, while above it gives it… brown lines.

The other problem with working in monochrome is one that I had the experience to anticipate, but failed to consider.  Acrylics are very transparent, and not in a way that gives a painting subtlety or depth.  They’re so unforgiving that if you lay down some paint in the wrong place and let it dry (which takes all of ten minutes) you’ll have a hell of a time covering it up.  For this reason, it’s not the best idea to make an underpainting in a color that is different than the colors you want to see in your finished painting–you’ll never get rid of it.

Another problem was the choice in background color.  Since it looked to me from the reference photos to be black I, with blatant disregard for the caveat to use a limited spectrum in an underpainting, went ahead and painted it… black.  Now, I’d been told several years ago not to use plan black in a painting because it looks flat.  There’s no mystery, no dimensionality; it just looks flat.  The secret to making large, dark areas is to use a very dark, warm brown.  I’m still not entirely sure why this works, but I know that one reason has to do with the transparency of the paints.  The pigments used in ivory black are very opaque and tend towards the cooler side, which appears sort of flat.  Earth-tone browns like burnt and raw umber and raw sienna are more transparent, which lends a lot of depth.  When combined with prussian blue and alizarin crimson, the result is a rich, shiny black that does not behave like a black paint.  This discovery required a lot of assistance from Amanda and the internet but ultimately resulted in a much better color, which… isn’t really noticeable in the photographs but makes a huge difference.

The last failing I can identify from this phase is one that I had been warned about by my art teacher from middle school: I thought I could think and paint at the same time, and I… can’t.  Few people can, particularly when starting out.  It had been my plan to take elements from both of the versions of the painting linked to above, picking the parts I preferred from each as I was going.  Now, this isn’t impossible; if you know which elements from each photo you want to use you can physically (or photoshoppily) collage them together, and some people are just good enough to effectively improvise a collage as they’re going.  I can’t do the latter (yet) and I didn’t have the foresight to do the former, so I just kind of switched off willy nilly, forgetting which elements of each I used as I was going.  The result was… well, it was a “too many cooks” kind of scenario.

…But There Was Hope!

Although there were some major problems to remedy at this point, I didn’t consider the project a lost cause.  Most of the object placement was correct, and while I knew I wouldn’t be able to cover up my mistakes by continuing to work in acrylics, I could easily switch over to oil paints and continue working.  (Note to anyone thinking about it: don’t try this in the opposite direction!  Water-soluble paints cannot go in top of oils; they will not adhere.)

I resolved to switch over to oils (and, thus, resigned myself to many more hours of total cleanup time) as well as to stick with a single reference image, the first one linked to above.  The later stages of working on the piece were slow-going, but these decisions prevented any subsequent major overhauls.

To be continued!

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