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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How I'm painting the Mexican wolf piece

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.

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