Wolf in Acrylic
Interview with Jenny Heidewald
Wolf in AcrylicBehind the Art
by Melissa Acker
I recently acquired a bunch of Ampersand's gessoboards and have since been on a bit of an acrylic kick. They are a fantastic painting surface and work very well with my style. My technique works equally well on canvas or board, however.
A lot of planning goes into a painting, even a small one. Let's get started.
Here's a set of reference photos I pulled out of the archives. They are all similar, but the subtle differences will be important.
Here, in red, I've drawn in the directions the eye moves around in the composition. The lines of the top of the head and the legs direct the eye, but the way the eyes are looking is another one. We instinctively want to see what the wolf is seeing and look where it is looking.
This photo is not too bad, depending on how I want to crop the composition. The parallel line at the top of the head bugs me a little.
This one could be a little better. It has the parallel lines of the head and eyes, and the almost-perpendicular lines of the nose and legs. It's interesting.
This one is interesting, but in the end all of the lines point one way, and that makes for a difficult composition.
After some thought, I decided to work with the second image. Either of the first two could have worked, but I like the way the wolf's eyebrows are raised as he looks to the side.
I often do studies before I start the painting to work out problem areas before the paint hits the canvas, so to speak. At the top is a quick value study. At this stage I draw straight from my computer monitor. That way I can alter the values to see the shapes in dark areas when I need to, or turn a color image into a grey one if the color is giving me problems. The monitor is also brighter than my photos print out on my printer.
The feet, I knew, were going to cause a problem. Anything with that much foreshortening is enough to drive one mad. So I spent a lot of time making a very detailed study of them, measuring constantly and trying to understand the anatomy.
Now that I had an understanding of the challenges the various parts of the anatomy would pose, I could start working on the composition. These thumbnail sketches were completed in only three basic values, and whenever possibly I pushed the values in order to lose edges and create abstract shapes. I experimented with cropping things in or out. One of the aspects I played with the most was how much of the feet to show, and how much negative space to leave in the bottom of the painting.
For some paintings, I will 'draw' with my paint, and measure as I go. With the challenge of the feet, I knew nothing short of a slow, measured drawing was going to work. As you can see, I measured the pants off this piece, comparing angles and using drop lines to maintain accuracy. I still altered it a little, but the differences between my drawing and the painting are purposeful.
Once I was happy with the drawing, I scanned it and printed out a copy.
Assembling all my reference material (photos, sketches, and the copy of the final drawing) at hand, I lay in the initial ground layer. Using raw sienna, red oxide, pthalo green (blue shade), and a little titanium white, I blocked in basic values, paying no attention to detail at all at this stage. I used my brush strokes to suggest fur in some places.
The refinement begins! I used the same colors as before, and added hansa yellow light and quinacridone red to my mixes. Quina red and pthalo green make a very intense dark that used for my darkest darks. I blocked more of the subtle value changes, shaping the planes of the face and the paws. I added the pupils, because if the eyes aren't right it isn't worth it to keep going. The colors are brighter in the light areas and greyer in the shadows.
Notice how similar the values are on the dark side of the face, particularly the muzzle compared to the ground.
Using the same colors, I added more fur detail. Almost all of the detail is in the light areas. I finished this layer by adding in some almost pure-white highlights. These will be glazed over later. I started to become concerned at this point that the dark areas of the brow and muzzle might be too dark.
I also worked the eyes in, paying close attention to the sketches I'd made before (printed out, almost all the eye detail in the photo was washed out).
I added more fur detail, and glazed, glazed, glazed. I used some ultramarine blue, pthalo green and hansa yellow (all in different areas) to glaze over the highlights I'd painted earlier. I also blocked in the claws and sculpted the paw pads, paying close attention to the areas receiving reflected light off the ground. A neutralized grey I'd mixed went over the farthest paw, in order to draw attention away from it.
A few quick notes on glazing with acrylics, while we're on the subject.
If you can, use only transparent or translucent colors for glazing. It will say on the tube whether it is transparent, translucent, or opaque. This, incidentally, is why some colors -- raw sienna and burnt sienna, for instance -- come as their regular 'opaque' versions and a transparent version. Glazing with regular old burnt sienna sucks. You can even buy transparent mixing white, which I use sparing in many of my paintings.
Be careful how much water you add to a mix. If you find when you are mixing your paint that you're making a lot of air bubbles, you've added too much water and compromised the integrity of the paint. Add some matte medium instead. A giant bottle is less than thirty dollars and will last you years. Wait until the paint is completely dry (at least fifteen-twenty minutes) before you add another layer, or you'll find your brush will scrape some of the previous area off (which is really annoying for large spaces of color).
Notice how very little I touched in the dark areas in the last two steps.
I had a decision to make at this point. Looking at the painting, it reads as a brownish or reddish wolf, painted in saturated colors. There's nothing at all wrong with that, but I wanted to depict the whitish-wolf from my reference. I could work with that -- after all, no one looking at this painting (besides you good folks) will know it was supposed to be a white wolf -- but that strikes me as cowardly. After all, what's the worst thing that will happen? I might ruin a painting.
That's not nearly as big a deal as you might think it is. Onward!
This is the completed piece. The trick was to make it look white while keeping the saturated color I want. I mixed titanium white with the mixes I used previously (new batches, obviously) and plenty of matte medium, and started painting in more fur. In areas where I wanted only the very thinnest sheen of white, I used transparent mixing white instead of the titanium white (which is very opaque).
I also added in a lot of small details in a few places, such as the eyelashes and the whiskers, and a few dashes of suggested greenery in the foreground. The green contrasts against the red-brown of the ground nicely.
I still didn't touch the dark areas at all. The nose, in particular, hasn't been touched in many steps. It didn't need to be, so I left it well enough alone.
And that's about it for this piece. The versatility of acrylics make them a joy to work with. You can always go back and fix problem areas, which makes it less intimidating to experiment with bold ideas. It's a great way to make yourself grow as an artist. Good luck everyone!
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