Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mary and Martha oil painting: Reworking Faces

It’s taken me almost six months to finally be happy with Jesus’ face, and I’ll probably change it more. One problem with working at this scale is anticipating how it will look in reproduction, which will almost always be tiny compared to the original.

Sometimes I found myself pleased with a facial expression, but after photographing it and viewing it on my laptop or iPhone, I then found the expression indiscernible. Or I found even more troubling errors.

Illustrators working at a drawing table have long been able to use a tabletop attachment, configured like most desk lamps, with a reverse magnifying glass— a minimizing glass— to be able to anticipate how the image will look at reproduction size. The old masters surely had to envision how an alter piece or fresco would be seen at a distance, such as from the back of a chapel. Michelangelo painted the 50,000 square foot Sistine Chapel ceiling to be viewed from sixty feet below, but he could not have seen it from that distance until the scaffolding was removed. How did he know not to waste time on details no one would see? Clearly, Mike was a lot smarter than me.

Stage drama is played differently than screen. Opera singers have a reputation for being lousy actors, and some of them deserve it. But I’m thinking of a young soprano who plays a character as well as anyone in Hollywood, whose facial expressions give marvelous meaning to the slightest glance. Unfortunately, you can’t tell from the balcony— at least, not without binoculars.

I know that most viewers of my paintings will never see the original, and I want them to know my characters’ emotions.

Some of my reference photos have Jesus’ profile silhouetted against the dark wall behind, and some have the white of his robe showing behind that elegant nose. I chose the photos with the expressions I wanted, without thinking about contrasting the lighted face against the background. I found later that the highlights on the nose were lost against the white robe. I’ve been trying to create shadows between them, which look fine up close in the original, but still washed out when viewed on screen. Should I move the robe? I might yet.

The figure of Martha is the closest to being done. But the energy in her eyes is still lost in reduction. Mary, below, looks up to Jesus in anticipation of his words. I have the most work yet to do on her.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Resurrecting a Painting: Mary and Martha

I don't mean to imply with this headline that this painting is dead. But my oil on canvas of Jesus in the House of Mary and Martha sat on the easel for months without progress. Originally, I told myself I was just too busy with illustration work, which was true in December, and with preparing for wedding shows in January, at which I demonstrate my live wedding paintings. But eventually I had to admit to myself that I was avoiding it. In fact, I avoided looking at it. I'd painted myself into a corner, and was deeply discouraged. I found myself thinking of it as a failed painting. I didn't think it was redeemable.
There were problems with the initial drawing of hands and faces, and I would look at those problems and rue that I wasn't classically trained, or at least classically disciplined enough to do regular figure studies, regularly review my anatomy and proportion books, and essentially be a better draughtsman. I can rework these issues, but it would be more professional to get them right in the first place.
But as long as I'm redrawing faces, how about the whole composition? I had doubts about the whole layout. The floor in the front seemed wasted, but I liked how I'd centered the action of Jesus, Mary, and Martha. I'd wanted a more crowded household all along, but in organizing the photo shoot, I just couldn't get more men. I was so impatient to shoot it as soon as possible. I thought I'd have the painting done in a month. But would have been better to have postponed the shoot until I had all the models I wanted. Now, having come to the conclusion that I need to add more figures to the composition, I am forced to bring in one model at a time, or invent them without a model. The first casualty of this rebuilding is proper perspective— how tall is this figure in the foreground compared to those in the center of the room? I flirted with the idea of calling in all the models and my photographer friend for a complete re-do.
So what was I to do with this possible reject on my easel? The canvas became my sketchbook. I brushed in a wash of hypothetical figures in the foreground. Some visitors thought they were ghosts, others asked if they were shadows. I added some shadows. I nibbled at other parts of the painting; the bricks, the glow of the fire. My neighbor from Ballard came down to the studio to model for one of the figures on the left. The guy with the great face who was Doubting Thomas in my painting called It Is the Lord did the same.
At last I committed an evening to buying some fish and painting them above the fire. It was then that I had an epiphany, while puzzling over the image in Photoshop. I copied and pasted a part of the painting, moved it a little into the foreground, and there it was. I became excited about this painting all over again.
All it needed was another table. It wasn't more than five minutes' work to slap to some naples yellow down, and I began to see it as it should be.
I won't need another photo shoot. I'll use elements of the first one, and some vessels I have around the studio. I'll buy some more fruits, maybe. I do need a couple more models, but they can just come to the studio for an hour and throw some cloth over their heads. I have people in mind. I'm thrilled to have this image riding my mind again. The painting is saved.