Often, one of the most difficult things about creating a painting is simply getting started.
Disclaimer, for art purists: There is absolutely no substitute for improving your drawing skills by participating in critical life drawing workshops. (By ‘critical’ I mean managed by an instructor who is willing to tell you your drawing is off and how to fix it). You can usually find one in your area. Drawing from the figure or head builds your drawing skills by training your mind/eye connection to accurately judge proportions and measurements. No matter how good you get at painting, you will always be making measurements — whether or not you deviate from absolute accuracy will be a matter of skill and/or style or choice.
You may want to start a painting before your skills are top-notch. And that’s okay with me. I made a living for the first eight years of my illustration career before I began to learn to draw well from the figure. My painting improved once I learned, but for the bulk of my 17-year illustration career, I used three methods of layout: an optical projector, the grid method, or multiple tracings and transfer.
In the example above, I demonstrated to a private student how to use the grid method. I can go into this in more detail if enough people are interested, but essentially, your source material (photo, magazine image, quick sketch or cartoon, etc…) gets a grid drawn over it with equal divisions (unless you are trying to distort it, use perfect squares). Then, on your painting surface, larger or smaller, place a matching grid. It must match line for line, also with perfect squares, same number of squares. Whether the subsequent squares are larger or smaller does not matter but will make your drawing proportionately larger or smaller. You will use this to assist you in drawing accurately the contents of each square — example the left-most eye starts at the intersection of 4 across & 3 down on both the source and final.
Next, begin laying in the distinct shadow pattern. Treat it as if you have only a black marker and white paper. Get the pattern in. Just get it in. In this example, I am using a warmish mixture of Alizarin, Ultramarine Blue and Raw Umber for my darks.
You will want to paint in lighter values. Don’t. Get the shadow pattern in. In areas that are dark, but may actually be lit by the source light, make them dark anyway. You can always lighten them later. Try to connect all shadow areas to others. No islands.
My apologies for the huge reflections in the wet paint. I had set the camera up over my shoulder using window light, before there was paint on the canvas, then just reached over my shoulder to snap new shots, and did not anticipate the reflection.
After you get the shadow pattern finished, fill in the light area with an average mid-value color for the light side. Reserve your highlights for later.
Be careful not to over-model the halftones in the light pattern. Keep your lights and darks separate. Mind your cool highlights if working with north light.
Once the masses are in, then you can play with edges. Edges are to a painting what spice is to food; what music is to romance. Edges help the viewer see what you see, and guide them to what’s most important, what to spend less time looking at (the edge of the hair/background), what to know about the structure (cartilage under skin vs. soft cheeks vs. hair).
Annie in Yellow Sweater
• 8″ x 10″ • Oil on Canvas Panel
by David R. Darrow
Collection of Larry and Kay Crain