Thursday, September 2, 2010

What happens when your reference doesn't help

I'm in the middle of a big moose painting, with two bulls sparring. The idea for the piece came from a quick sketch I did, and I liked the sketch enough that I wished to do the finished painting with the animals in the same postures, from the same angle.

In order to convincingly paint animals when you don't have a very intimate knowledge of them, you have to either have excellent reference photos, access to live animals, or you must have the confidence to "fake it". In the case of these moose, with all the great photos I've taken of bull moose in Grand Teton NP, I didn't have any photo that came anywhere close to matching the poses in my original idea. But I spent much of a day looking at every bit of moose reference I had available, and continually reworking the original sketch and refining details from pieces shown in various photos, until I was satisfied with both the general shapes of the animals and the details of body structure. Perhaps the trickiest part of the whole exercise was at the point where the bulls actually physically interact--the tangled antlers. Moose antlers are complex structures, and "fitting" two sets together so that it looked like they were intertwined, while still being true to the angle of view and showing enough of the faces to give some expression to the fighting duo, took a lot of drawing and erasing.

So I plunged into the painting. When I do paintings I tend to work in planes within the image, with the farthest plane first and then successively closer planes. In this painting, it was the background suggestion of trees first, then the ground (grass) in front of the trees but behind the moose, and then the legs of the moose themselves. And here I began to run into snags.

Yes, I had the general body structure worked out in my preliminary drawings. But what I didn't have was the shapes of the highlights on the moose. I had decided I wanted warm, strong low sunlight hitting the bulls from the side and very slightly behind them--raking sunlight across their flanks. This is yummy light, but requires a sure knowledge of how far different parts of the body "stick out" more to catch the light, and whether those stuck out parts throw shadows or just round back into shadow. And in a subject like this, where you want to depict muscles straining, the musculature has to be both complex and convincing, so the various shapes where the light strikes those muscles are going to be complex as well. And while I did have some photos of moose in different poses and angle to the viewer but with the light hitting them at the proper angle for one of the moose, I had nothing on the other.

I spent much of the morning trying to work out the shapes of light and shadow I wanted from my existing reference, but was getting nowhere, and having to paint over or wipe out some of my attempts. So I finally stepped away from the canvas and went to the computer. Actually, I photographed the painting as it was, transferred the photo to Photoshop, and began to draw in the shapes of the highlights on the screen. It was basically coming up with a blueprint that worked...that was a convincing, if perhaps not anatomically perfect depiction of what the light would look like striking those struggling animals.

A painting can be a rendition of near perfect reference photos, where one simply recreates the shapes of light and shadow in the reference image. But somehow it's more satisfying, if also more difficult, to make up stuff, to have the confidence to modify very imperfect reference or to strike out boldly into totally uncharted territory. After all, I always tell myself...you don't have to know everything, you just have to know a little more than the average listener or viewer, and assert your knowledge positively. If somebody goes out and photographs two moose doing what my moose are doing, in the same light, and finds out my shapes of light and shadow aren't right, so be it. But I'm confident the major muscles are shown and hopefully the light is convincing. We shall see if that confidence is misplaced when the moose are actually painted, rather than blueprinted on the computer.