I've never done preliminary color studies of my paintings. Always before, I'd simply do thumbnail sketches to work out the basic composition, then redraw the sketch full size, transfer it to the canvas, and start painting. I didn't want to expend a lot of energy in a preliminary painting, energy that would better be utilized in the finished work. However, this approach requires that a lot of decisions on color and value be made during the course of the painting, and while doing so can be interesting and rewarding, it can also result in a lot of interruptions of the actual flow of putting paint to canvas, and if you make the wrong decision it can require large portions of the painting to be redone.
Enter Photoshop. While most people think of Photoshop as a photo retouching and photo "faking" tool, in recent paintings I've found it to be one of the best tools for composing a painting that I've ever used. The current painting is a good example.
I started out with the idea of doing a 40 X 60 painting of three Mexican wolves in a Sonoran desert setting. I had a general concept of what the wolves would be doing and what kind of background I wanted behind them. But instead of doing thumbnail sketches on paper as I once did, I immediately went to my extensive collection of photos of the Sonoran Desert around Tucson, AZ, looking for photos that would depict the setting I wanted. I found a photo of Gates Pass at sunset, looking toward the valley of Tucson, that was pretty close to my concept for the painting. However, there was not any kind of good middle ground and foreground in that photo, so I selected another photo of a big rock and saguaros in the same area under the same lighting. The rock would serve as the middle ground behind the wolves. I'd pretty much make up the foreground rocks, gravel, and vegetation where the wolves would be walking.
Then I started browsing through all the wolf photos I've taken over the years, looking for interesting poses that fit my original concept. I found one photo of a Mexican wolf, taken at the Desert Museum, that was fairly close to what I wanted for the wolf on the left, although it would take some modification and clarification. I found photos that were close to what I wanted in the other two wolves, but in one of them the wolf's head was too low, so I morphed the head and neck from another wolf onto it. Both these wolves were northern wolves, not Mexican wolves, so I knew they'd require some modification.
Next, I arranged the photos I'd selected in Photoshop into a composition, playing around with fitting the background, middle ground rock and saguaros, and the three wolves together, until I had the basic composition arranged. At this point, I have an actual color composition of most of the major elements of the painting on the computer screen.
The next step is to actually sketch the wolves on paper, the exact size they will be in the finished painting, using the Photoshop composition on the screen as a general guide. At this point, I'm making the modifications and clarifications necessary to make the wolves fit my ideas of what they should look like, not slavishly following what they look like in the photos. The most important part of this is making the two "northern" wolves into Mexican wolves. Mexican wolves, being adapted to a warm desert environment, have thinner and in places shorter fur, larger ears, and the ones I've seen have muzzles that are slightly different in shape. So as I'm sketching the wolves full size, I'm making these modifications in my sketches. I'm also slightly changing leg angles and facial features to fix what I perceive as less attractive or more awkward things in the photos. In other words, I really don't want to slavishly copy the photos, but to make my wolves better than the photos.
In this photo, I've completed the full size sketches, and here I'm cutting out one of the wolves with an Exacto knife.
Here I'm drawing the basic outlines of the landscape on the canvas. What you don't see is my computer screen, which is on a desk just to my left. My Photoshop composition is on the screen, and I'm using it as my reference in drawing the outlines. These are just bare outlines of the major landscape features, with no details drawn in. When I finish with these outlines, I'll trace the outlines of my cut-out wolf sketches onto the canvas in the exact positions I want, again using the Photoshop composition as my guidelines.
At that point I'm ready to lay some paint over most of the canvas. Here I've laid in the sky in a simple three color gradation. The sky will remain simple in this painting, so it's almost complete already. The farthest mountains have the basic shadow color laid in, but will get lighter, warmer color to add some detail. The same is true of the closer mountains behind the wolves. The big rock and the foreground rocks and gravel have gotten a quick wash of color that is pretty close to the general tone they will be in the finished painting, but of course will get a lot of detail and other colors during the painting process. The saguaros and bush, as well as the wolves, are still blank canvas. This is about all I can do at this point, because I've still got some decisions to make on the Photoshop composition. I'm planning to add more saguaros receding into the background, and since they will be a powerful part of the overall composition they are going to take some planning. The same is true of any other vegetation I will add to the foreground. I'll actually "paint" in those elements freehand in the Photoshop composition. Stopping on the painting itself at this point for the evening will give the present colors time to dry a bit overnight, so they will be easy to work on tomorrow.
Early morning update on the painting...laying down highlights on the
background mountains. I decided that the basic shadow color in those mountains was a bit light, so I first went over the lower (closer) mountain shapes that you can see to the left of my brush with a bit darker color. Then I mixed a lighter and slightly more red color for the highlights in those mountains, which is what I'm adding here.
Doing landscapes with various "planes" of objects from far away to close up is in some ways rather formulaic. I decide upon a general color of the shadows, based upon the time of day and light conditions. Mid-day shadows are usually blueish; late evening, low sunlight shadows tend a bit more toward violet. The clearer the atmosphere is, the less color and more darkness there is in the shadows. So my basic shadow hue in this painting, a very low sun but quite clear evening setting, is a slightly violet, somewhat grayed blue. I take this basic color and mix a different value of it for each plane of the painting. The farthest away plane gets the lightest shade, and successively closer planes get successively darker shades. You can see three main planes in the background of this painting already, and there are actually three secondary planes within the farthest away mountains that I'm working on here. Ordinarily, that shadow color in each plane will be the darkest color in that plane. When I add the lighter details, on each successive plane they will get more intensity.
If you know elementary color theory, you will note that I used the three terms to describe a color above. Hue is the actual color on the color wheel--blue, violet, red, orange, yellow, and green, along with all the gradations between. Hence my shadow colors being violet-blue in hue. Value is the darkness or lightness of the color, from next to white to next to black. Intensity is how bright or how dull the color is, done by mixing either gray or some of its complementary color into it--or not.
From the album: This shows a lot of what I mentioned above. I've done the details in all three major planes of the background, and you can see that as you come forward, on each successive plane those colors get brighter. In the real world, landscapes look like this simply because the farther away an object is, the more atmosphere there is between it and the viewer, and air, no matter how clear, lightens shadow areas and grays highlights by filtering out some of the pure light that is coming from the object to your eyes.Note that I've started the detail in the foreground rocks, but all I've done so far is put in some rather random dark lines and shapes, very quickly and simply. I've also done most of the detail in the big rock in the background, along with the basic details of those cacti, but both will be altered and refined somewhat before the painting is finished.
Here I've been working on the rocks in the foreground. As I was beginning the area of the rock ledge at the bottom, I hadn't planned on that kind of ledge, but my random brushstrokes to establish some darks to work with took on the suggestion of a ledge, and it worked in the composition as a whole, in some ways echoing the positioning of the three wolves. So I liked it and decided to make it into the ledge that you see in the left bottom of the painting. I'm emphasizing the low position of the sun by making the vertical part of the ledge lighter than the horizontal part, catching more of the almost horizontal sunlight. Basically, while it looks like I've been very carefully painting in each rock in the gravelly area under the wolf, it is actually still almost random brush strokes that loosely followed the dark lines and shapes I'd painted in randomly before. In the ledge, the "rock-ness" is emphasized by the dark cracks and light knobs that I've also painted fairly randomly. There was a time when I would have used a photo I'd taken and very carefully reproduced the cracks and knobs in it, but after all these years I think I can do something that has random shapes and textures like rocks without referring to a photo. Still, the rocks in Gates Pass are a specific type, and so I am trying to reproduce the texture of that rock type rather than doing some kind of "generic" rocks.
...I have laid down my base color for the wolves, will
spend the rest of today refining the background. As soon as the
background color on the wolves dries, I will be ready to start detailing
Starting on the wolves today...feeling really great about the painting thus far. As many artists will tell you, feeling great about a painting is a luxury! I've still got some spots on the painting that I'm not completely happy with, but overall I think it's going very well. On a painting this large, it's important to stop occasionally and step back quite a distance to study it, so yesterday I took it outside and leaned it up against the garage doors, both to be able to back off 20 feet or so to look at it, and to see it under different light. I also took a quick digital photo of it, and then came back inside and downloaded the photo into Photoshop. I wanted to play around with the values in the foreground rocks because they didn't seem to have "enough sunlight" on them. That's another great thing about the computer technology...you can try out modifications to your painting before actually painting them!
Okay, here I've lightened up the highlights in the rocks, and have been working on the wolves. The left wolf is the farthest along, the right one is the least far along. The right wolf mainly has the major darks roughed in, the middle wolf has some major lights roughed in as well. The left wolf has some color added and I'm beginning on detail. The reason the three wolves are in different stages of completion is because I work on one until it's time to let it dry a bit in order to continue, then go to another one, bring it up to same level, then the third. By that time the first one is ready for further work.
Below you'll see the wolves after another day of work. The left wolf is now getting fairly close to completion. It still needs some further additions to the lightest highlights in the fur, some detail work in the face and paws, and the addition of a bit of the tail between the two hind legs. The middle wolf is less far along, especially in the face. The right wolf still needs a lot of work. One more day of work should see them all nearly complete.
Here I've added detail to the other wolves. The left wolf is mostly done except for the eyes, tongue, nose, and paws. The other two need a few more color glazes and some more emphasis on darks and lights.
Once I get all the wolves up to the final level of detail, it's time for the eyes. People always ask me why I do eyes the last thing. Many artists do the eyes first. But the fact is that I KNOW the eyes will turn out right--eyes are easy. The expression in an animal, like that of a human, is in the facial features around the eyes, not in the eyes themselves. But eyes add a sense of aliveness to the animal. If I can get the facial features right without the "distraction" of the aliveness of the eyes, I 've accomplished my purpose, and the eyes are just the finishing touch.
But people are often freaked out by the "zombie" look of my animals before eyes are finished!
Wolf eyes are various shades of yellow which vary with individual animals, but the irises are always darker toward the center where the pupil is. Here I've added the dark to the iris.
Now I've added the yummy yellow of the outside of the iris.
Now the pupil is added in black. This might be a good time to talk a bit about the artistic license I take in the eyes. First of all, with the sunlight in this painting as low as it is, the light would be hitting the eyes pretty directly, and there would be very little shadow at the upper edge of the eyes. But painting them with so little shadow would mean that the pupil would be entirely surrounded by the bright iris colors. Anytime you do that, the animal (or a person, for that matter) tends to look wide-eyed, almost manic and staring. It's not usually a good look, although I'll use it purposely when depicting prey animals being chased, because it makes them look more alarmed. But here I don't want that look so I add a little more dark shadow than pure photographic realism would dictate, so that when I add the pupil it will connect with that dark shadow area.
The final touch is the little white highlight, which is the reflection of the sun in the eye. I've often seen artists make a mistake here by following their reference photo too carefully. I've seen reflections of two light sources--the photographer's flashes. I've seen reflections of light coming through zoo bars! I keep it simple--if the sun is hitting the animal, it will be a small, white or near white, dot in the animal's eye. In this light situation, the sun is hitting the animals almost directly from behind the viewer, so it would reflect very near the center of the animal's eye. But here I take another bit of artistic license...I don't want that white highlight to be within the pupil. It just doesn't look good. So I move it a bit off center to where it is near the edge of the pupil.
And finally, a quick photo of the finished painting before varnishing. On a painting this large, my photo set-up won't handle it, so I'll have to take it to get it professionally photographed.
In the end, I made a number of last minute changes to the painting. I thinned the legs and neck of the center wolf. Added a bit more color into the wolves as well as darkening the shadow areas on them a bit. Darkened the lower legs and paws a little to make them fit into the landscape better, and added some light highlights in the rocks to better match the lights in the wolves. Added some blue-violet into the rocks beneath the wolves to make the foreground relate a little more to the background. Worked some more on the plants in the foreground. And worked on some edges here and there to better define them, especially the backs of the wolves.
Hope everybody enjoyed this. I'll do it again on a different type of painting with different challenges.