Modeling for your Health
Cats Are Hard
News for August
A Controversial Creature, part 1
Library Cats Walkthroughby Theresa Mather
Editor's Note: This walkthrough previously appeared in Theresa's LiveJournal.
I'll try my best to take you step by step through an acrylic painting. The painting is the third in the library cat mini print series since the other two are nearly sold out. Books . . . cats . . . what's not to like? The size of the piece of gesso coated masonite I'm working on is 5x7 inches.
To start a painting, I usually sketch a few lines with a brush or a pencil. I used to rely much more heavily upon reference and preliminary work, but I didn't have time to do that for the carousel panels I did in the 90's so I learned to sketch freehand with the brush directly on the surface I'm going to paint. For me, the first impulse usually proves to be the most effective so working this way helps me keep my art from looking like I overworked it. For this painting, I drew a few lines in pencil and then started with the window in the background. I liked the idea of a glowy golden light filtering in through a garden, but once I started in, it really wasn't working. It was going to be a lot more work than I anticipated and the "leading" I painted was uneven. It would work with a sagging ancient stained glass window but not with clear glass panes.
So I covered the window with titanium white since I'm going to change it into a more traditional stained glass panel. The white will make the bright colors I paint over it pop more, as if they are back lit. I also took some burnt umber and made a more assertive sketch, placing the cats and books.
Next I roughly block in the colors. My first layers are usually sloppy- I tighten up the acrylic later. I will be layering colors and defining things more in later stages. I painted black leading in the window. The cats will be cream and ginger. The room will be paneled but the stone of the walls will be showing around the window. The colors of the books are being defined. I think I need to work on the window next since it will define the lighting for the rest of the painting.
I have now started adding color to the window- straight from the tube acrylic colors like phthalo green and dioxanine purple work wonderfully for stained glass. The more transparent the color, the more the white behind it can reflect light. Bright opaque colors would probably also work, but I like doing it this way. I can see that I'll have to go back in at some point and straighten out the leading, it's just too crooked. But for now, I'm focusing on just getting the colors laid out.
We're now entering the stage I call "noodling". I'm going to fuss and noodle with the brush, starting to pull forms together and doing the first shading. You'll notice I change the colors of some of the books and some positioning of things--basically, I go with what "looks right." I end up sacrificing some realism to style, but that keeps the spontaneous flow in my work that I like to see in it. I'm not interested in making the image photo realistic--I'm interested in making an image that flows and looks well as a whole. That being said, the noodling stage gives me fits because I don't yet fully have control over the image. I'm pulling order out of chaos one brush stroke at a time. I try not to have too many pieces in this stage going at once or I start to feel scattered. Maybe this is just a control issue on my part, I have no idea. Basically, the noodling will continue until everything starts coming together.
I'm now starting to work on the cats, I'm starting to define the books and I'm layering colors. I'm painting some shadowed areas and some highlights. I'm starting to think about where the colored light that's filtered through the glass should fall. It's *barely* starting to come together now, but I consider this to still be noodling. Still, I can see where it's going and am getting a feel for how the finished piece is going to look. I don't usually have a concrete image in my mind of *exactly* how a piece is going to turn out. When I do it usually doesn't look like how I imagined when I finish anyway. The image takes shape as I go, but I've painted enough at this point that I'm confident it will turn out. Only rarely do I abort a piece, and even then I may pick it up later and finish it, sometimes years later as in the piece "Fire Dance" on my website. Only if my skill level has progressed beyond the old half done piece is it considered to be officially "not going to happen". And if I like the concept I may retry it. I have piles of old "not going to happen" pieces stored away, but they're few and far between now. Experience and skill grow as the years pass if you work on any sort of consistent basis and are honest with yourself about what you could do better next time. And that's another of my philosophies--unless it's a major problem that affects the piece, instead of reworking and reworking I just figure it's something I'll work out the next time I do something similar. As long as I think the body of work is moving forward as a whole, I don't worry about making every piece a magnum opus. This isn't brain surgery...like with horseshoes or hand grenades, "close enough" works for me better than "I've repainted the face 60 times and it's still not right".
I'm intensifying colors, defining shapes, beginning to tighten things up.
I'm beginning to think about fur texture, the texture of the leather on the covers (if they're too smooth they look like they've never been opened) and shadows. I'm adding grain to the woodwork and table. I still have a long way to go but it's taking shape more and more. I can see that I need to work on the cats' facial expressions and the orange one looks cross eyed. I want to convey a grumpy Morris type feel with that one . . . Garfield, Heathcliff, for some reason orange cats are depicted as being ornery and grumpy. I straightened out some of the leading in the windows, I may do more of that. I have a list of titles to pick from to put on the books--I try to put titles on where possible in library scenes, sometimes humorous ones, e.g. "Ring Grab, A Tale of Hobbit Greed" by Smaug or "A Field Guide to Mordor" . . . and worse.
I can only take so much of not being in control of the image before I start to feel scattered, so starting in the upper left corner, I'm finishing an area at a time. In this case, the books needed smoothing out and shadows needed defining before I started writing in titles and placing ornamentation on the spines of the books with a very tiny brush.
Next, I straighten out the leading in the stained glass, clean up any slop over from painting in the glass, intensify areas that need intensifying, work on cat's fur in relation to the glass behind it and carry on the finishing of an area at a time. I'm now feeling in control of the image.
For the final stage of the painting, I detail the cats, painting layer upon layer of fur until it "looks right". Eyes, whiskers and facial expressions get a final tune up with the tiny brush. Lighting and shadows are accentuated. I work until I think I'm done, go do something else for an hour and then come back to the painting to look at it with a fresh perspective. Whatever flaws leap out at me when I take a fresh look, I fix. In this case the flaws I fixed in the final stage were the cats' eyes and some of the shading on the faces. The painting is now finished and ready to scan to make prints.
Theresa Mather 's artwork explores a wide range of the fantasy bestiary, from traditional fauna like dragons, gryphons and unicorns to unusual versions of the pets lurking within our own homes, keeping their true nature hidden from us. She studied art at the University of California at Santa Cruz and the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, and now resides in the red rock country of southern Utah, where she enjoys hiking and exploring when she isn't painting or drawing. Her website can be found at www.rockfeatherscissors.com.
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