As a teacher, I tell my students what my professors told me: “Don’t be a slave to your reference!” As an illustrator, I tell myself the same thing. We learn early on to take strong reference photos; how to use and even manipulate lighting to get desired effects; and to play with perspective (bird’s-eye, worm’s eye, macro, etc.) for more dynamic compositions. Top-notch illustrators like Bill Thompson and Dennis Nolan go so far as to build models of animals or architecture if the real subjects aren’t readily available to photograph. During our master’s program, they taught us to do the same thing. Strong reference imagery can make or break your resulting illustration. However, even the best reference is merely that – something to refer to while working. Use your photos as tools, paying attention to the details you need without feeling that you must copy an image in its entirety. There may be foreshortening issues created by the camera lens that you need to adjust in your painting. Background elements, props, clothing patterns may (and perhaps should) be simplified or left out altogether. Colors can be changed or adjusted to better fit your design.
The photo above was taken several years ago for an illustration of the Dionne quintuplets. My best friend’s baby posed for the five body positions. I then found photos of the quints’ faces, and photos of an antique Donald Duck doll, to finish off my reference imagery. You can see the resulting illustration in my post Christmas 1934. Recently, I pulled out the old reference photos, wanting to do a portrait of my friend’s daughter. While the outfit and toys didn’t fit what I wanted to paint, the baby’s expression grabbed my attention. It was a moment of innocent concentration caught on camera, as Claire, distracted from the toy in-hand, was more interested in trying to pull off her knitted sock. It was a moment between the lines of action, between moments of play. Those are the visual stories I like to tell.
For the sake of design and composition, I veered from the reference in several areas. First off, I needed an element to divide ground from “sky.” I moved the blanket beneath her, creating soft abstract shadows to give her a feeling of being grounded. The pink knitted sock and shorts became blue to simplify color scheme. As for props/toys, odd numbers are preferable in design. There are three toy balls in the original photo, but I’ve made them solid red instead of clear plastic. And I moved their positions to form a triangular balance. All other props were eliminated. I’d originally painted a pale yellow background. During critique it was suggested that I brighten and deepen the color to a yellow-orange. This brought life to the piece, creating a complementary contrast to the blues. The underpainting layers were completed at school last spring as an oil demo for my Painting 2 class. The painting then traveled to Virginia with me, where I worked on it over vacation in my grandmother’s oil painting studio. A few weeks later, the finished piece flew with me to California for delivery to my best friend. Let’s just say it’s a well-traveled portrait!
Note: oils can take weeks or months to dry. To speed the drying process, I placed the wet painting near a fan, blowing several hours for a couple of days. Once it was almost dry, I placed it outside in the sunshine for a few hours, where the sun’s heat could basically bake it, finishing the process. If doing this, watch out for bugs! Mosquitos or gnats could become a permanent part of the painting, if you place it outside while still too wet. And, of course forgetting to bring the piece in before evening dew or rain would also spell trouble.
Abstract art is not my thing. I’ll take a Rembrandt over a Jackson Pollock any day…representational realism is more my forte in the art realm. However, I must admit that there can be beauty in abstraction, and that abstraction is easily found within the marvels of nature. JMW Turner’s stormy seascapes (ex. Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth) are tumultuous walls of spray, movement of water in greens and greys. Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night features the abstracted motion of heavenly bodies, with explosions of light radiating from stars and moon. Until my master’s program in 2009, I had not realized how common sights around us can capture moments of abstract composition. Murray Tinkelman (pen & ink illustrator and head of University of Hartford’s MFA Illustration program) gave a memorable lecture where he took famous abstract paintings and placed them next to photographs of the streets of New York. Old rusty doorways, paint spillage at a construction site, brick patterns in a wall…each accidental scene perfectly mimicked the matching Rothko or Pollock masterpiece. Murray called it “found art”.
In honor of Murray’s eye-opening lecture, and as an homage to Pollock’s method of titling pieces, we’ll call today’s post Autumn Rhythm (Number 53). The Number 53 in my title refers to 53 reclaimed wood boards I sanded, stained, and installed as a feature wall in my basement. Is a wooden wall considered artwork? Yes! The studs and braces were my canvas. Stain created a similar translucency to my usual watercolor paint. Natural wood grain replaced ink lettering in playing with line, curve, and repetition. But the design principles remained the same as I utilized contrast, balance, movement, and emphasis in arranging each row of boards. The final composition is truly artistic. As with viewing a van Gogh in a museum, peer closely to see nuances of line and color, then step back to enjoy the overall effect of the piece.
In planning the wall, I chose black as an accent color, using two lighter stains on the majority of boards. Within each row I placed boards end-to-end, looking for continuation of line or interesting patterns. I’d step back to see what it looked like from across the room before nailing anything in place. Each board was approximately 30″ long (donated by a friend from a deck her husband tore out and replaced). I cut some boards shorter for aesthetics, or to fit the needed length. My scroll saw came in handy when cutting a curved slot to fit around pipes. Since I don’t own a nail gun, I pre-drill holes. Tip: when pre-drilling, you can cut the end off one of your nails and use that as the bit in your drill. This saves any risk of breaking a regular drill bit and creates the perfect size hole for your nail. I used black finishing nails (typically used in baseboard and trim) so that the visible nail heads would be small and decorative. Working with old, uneven boards, I did check to see that each row was basically level as I worked my way up the wall. Sometimes I had to file down edges or adjust the tilt of a board to maintain an even, horizontal line pattern. Below is the finished result!So, for those of you who never thought of carpentry as artwork, take a closer look at the movement of line and color in wood grain. It may inspire the Abstract Expressionist in you!
Image credits: Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth, oil, 1842, JMW Turner; Starry Night, oil, 1889, Vincent van Gogh; Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), enamel on canvas, 1950, Jackson Pollock