From a working perspective on my current method (bear in mind this is current and is subject to change. In fact it is expected and encouraged to change organically with my development as an artist):
Part of my work is the use of expressive underpaintings, done in “action painting” style process. Early on I used this extensively to use the canvas as a mirror in which to look and learn to see better, stronger. And to both define an unseen subject as well as disregard subject in order to focus more directly on other tasks within the artistic pursuit. To look at an unformed image and acknowledge and outline complicated form, tone and color. And time has gone on I have used this less and relied more on incorporating more advanced sketch technique to begin a work, or to define precisely what I wanted in a work from the beginning. The expressive underpainting is also a key to what I am trying to illustrate. I have been able to, and will continue to attempt to incorporate previously disparate styles and elements into a world where their cohesion is based on the proper placement of said styles, methods, and elements within a studied structure of meaning, symbolism, and purpose.
My works for the most part contain many revisions and layers, as studies over studies. If only I could separate out the layers, I would have 20x the amount of available works for sale. Often my studies are contained within the process of my finished works. This is important in my overall method. In recognizing and within the desire to utilize many styles and elements as part of a broad language of visual art, it creates quite a bit to learn and absorb. It is even more challenging to keep so many possibilities at the forefront of my mind and on my mental palette for purposeful use. One method I have developed to assist with this challenge is the idea of taking every moment and every opportunity as a study. Layering in my work is a natural way to achieve depth and to effectively revise and tweak a painting. But I tend to take it a step further, lay in extra layers and use the entire process as a study at every step.
I could create a finished work from a path extending outward from each layer. The layers are used as depth technique in the spirit of the Flemish masters, and yet they are used newly as sketch technique and for the purpose of learning as well. I would call the Flemish technique linear in it’s purpose. Layers laid in to achieve the greatest depth possible, working in conjunction toward the same composition and image. My process is not linear in that I am doing this, but sacrificing some of that smoothness of depth where possible in order to incorporate an endless series of “what if” questions and answers into each work. The layering serves both the depth of a linear finished work, and the open development of the artist. It serves an understanding of form, a taste for seeing what effect revision takes on, and a thorough exploration of color, transparency, techniques, and more. It is sketching while finishing, it is depth with understanding flatness, it is technique turned inside out, it is Davinci’s anantomical study applied to the anatomy of paint and image. The layering becomes a non linear path to both finishing and complete dissection, and all the possibilities within a work, the choices within that work, and the flaws within that work are revealed along the way for understanding and overcoming them productively.
At this point in the learning process, the end result is less crucial than the process and everything learned within it. My foundation is my self and process, and the work must follow that. Not the other way around where the work is the only important element and the process is enslaved to it. The strict adherence to the 4 layer or 7 layer techniques is an art of an artist following a work. In a broader sense, it is an artist’s enslavement to the object. There is no freedom and truth for artists in following the art. The artist must be able to lead and have the art follow, this is newness.
The end result and placement of it at the peak of meaning of a training process for an artist defines a strict set of methods to achieve a particular result. For instance, not many artists can be effective within landscape work with a very wide range of oil colors squeezed onto a palette. This often confuses tone and other considerations. I have brought images of famous painters into Photoshop (Lucien Freud for example) and found that while sampling colors from all different points of the work the general base color of them was virtually identical across all tones dark and light. Very little variation. That says two things in my mind. Excellent artists wield great control over color and tone. And, it pays, even with the best of artists, to limit the palette which I am sure even Freud did. Perhaps.
I definitely agree with that. However… One aim of mine is to find ways to speed up the process of development by putting the focus entirely on the artist and letting the art only follow. I limit the palette, but am constantly altering it from layer to layer to achieve the same ends with differing paint colors in combination. This is a set of choices with a wide range of benefits, and that is the biggest point of doing it this way. I am able to focus on the effective use of a limited palette as most any artist would be doing, but learn more about effective color pairings, undertones, overtones, slight color differences, and the overall use of all the paints in the same range of time. Multi tasking within the learning process. Just a small example of a bigger idea I seek to execute in ever aspect in the studio. Shake everything up. Learn why it is done why it is done, then do what fits. Doing without understanding is a guaranteed failure before the beginning.
In my studio methods I attack this from many angles. I am just as likely to do something the wrong way on purpose to discover it’s limitations as I am to strictly apply myself in learning the proper method and eschewing all other methods. How does making mistakes on purpose serve me?? One key word – why. Rather than having the answer to the question – why do it this way? – disregarded or answered for me, I learn why. And in the process learn the entire of validity within an action. What can be stretched, what cannot be altered, what is the essence of any art? And I take that one skill fully learned and am able to apply it to any question freely. How it affects conservation, composition, tone, form, symbolism, etc. etc. In learning something as you are taught you gain a skill. In learning something as you discover it you gain a tool. A skill is a repetitive singularity. A tool is yours to decide how to use, an organic permanence.
As an overview to this post, I am focusing on learning in the studio through both failure and success, through both doing and undoing, from every angle and approach without missing a moment of working time on repetitive action.
I will invite you, as an exercise, to take the following Lucien Freud work and save the picture to your desktop.
If you have Photoshop, bring it into the program. Navigate to the color picker and the eyedropper tool, and check most any spot on the entire figure to see the color. The foundational color will generally and miraculously stay within a very small range. Yellow orange to red orange and in between. Everything else is dependent on shade and tint, and color intensity. There is an inordinate range of possibilities with, realistically, what could be in actual use, a 5 color palette at most. One black, one white, red, yellow, and perhaps a brown or blue. Or if you want to work traditionally, a white, a black, an ochre, a muted red and that’s it. Many renaissance painters functioned within the use of Flake White, Ivory Black, Yellow Ochre, and Red iron Oxide for the vast majority of their work. Add a blue and you can create just about any color. Of course juxtaposition of tone and color and the composition of such only adds to the possibilities.
Getting back to the point, working within a small palette is a time honored method of study. And realistically you could spend an entire career doing so and still have much to learn when you go six feet under. I alter that palette consistently to widen the range of study. One day it is traditional, the next day it may be Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow, Lamp Black, Indian Red, and Cobalt Blue. The next possibly Unbleached Titanium, Mars Black, Jaune Brilliant, Perylene Red, and Ultramarine. After a while, we’re developing not the particular use of a set of colors but the understanding of how to read their use. I am not particularly concerned with what Cadmium Yellow can do, it’s specific mixing use and it’s undertone and the other details of the color. That is information more for a reproductive painter, or a paint maker. As an artist, I am concerned with my own ability to recognize the use of the color, to see it where it is, and to be able to take one splash of it onto a palette and be able to read it’s use, it’s undertone, etc. If I develop the ability to see it in all it’s scope and what it is capable of, the mastery of it’s use is now as easy as with any other color on the pallette.
That ability to see also develops my abilities in the other parts of the studio process, and that is the key. After enough time, I have not only gained the use of my paints as a tool (whether or not I have even extensively worked with them), but also added an ability to recognize. The ability can be applied to anything within my work. I am chasing after my self at every step, so every step multiplies upon itself in my development in a non-linear exponential fashion. All things affect all other things, and this what I am attempting to shift the focus to and to refine within my process in the studio.
This is just a specific and singular example. Apply the compounding ability to learn and BE an artist, and that ability can be applied to anything an artist needs to consider.
Creating a painted image can be an exceedingly complex set of questions. There is nothing in art more potentially challenging than an empty canvas. This thought occurred to me while doing Calligraphy for the invitations for my upcoming wedding. I took on the responsibility of doing them, as an artist, for the purpose of simply learning something new. And while studying a bit, I discovered this. While the art of scribe can be a beautiful life’s work which requires great dedication, it pales in comparison to the work of the painter on canvas. Ink, pen, words. Different hands, layouts, there are great possibilities within it. However, painting on a canvas involves all of the considerations calligraphy can present and many many more once you take in the scope of what a painting can mean, express, and represent in every way it can do so. Art on the canvas is as wide open as any mode of expression can possibly be.
Compounding your ability to learn is crucial to be a truly expressive painter. This is what drives my daily studio methods. Working with a firm commitment to the questions art poses and a desire to create freely, and putting aside specific devotions, I am left with all the possibilities and only my self to discover them.