Thursday, October 15, 2020

A Tale of Two Paintings

The year was 1953.

In June Everest had finally been successfully climbed.

And more importantly, to me anyway, in September my parents got married.

There's an interesting family story about the run-up to that wedding which includes some intrigue, maybe a bit of deception, and certainly some secrecy, but like I said, that's a family story so I won't be repeating it here.

What is relevant to this post is that this year (2020) Dad has been gone for 10 years and when I was sitting at the table in mid August going through our stack of virgin greeting cards to "take care" of family events for the next few months, (Under the careful eye of The Wife, which is the only way to guarantee such familial obligations actually get taken care of. Not that I'm the only one at blame here though. Most years it was receiving a card from my Aunt that reminded the two of us of our own anniversary. Now that my Aunt is gone - well - now we don't remember at all most years.) it occurred to me that I wanted to do something a little more personal for this particular wedding anniversary than a greeting-card picked off a retail shelf months ago and stuck in a folder titled "cards for future events". (where, in our humid climate, the envelope flaps stick and have to be steamed back open again, but that too is another story I won't be repeating here - unless I already did?)

So right then and there - OK, OK, in reality it wasn't until after I ate lunch first, but in my defense, we only eat the one meal per day and I didn't want to miss that! - I started digging through old files until I found the photo above.

This was taken on the beach near Pensacola Florida in March of 2001.

I hadn't seen this photo in - well - forever, but it was pretty much as I remembered it.

Even better actually.

Most photos, at least most of mine, are not even photo-ready, let alone painting ready. Even the best of them usually need some content "editing", along with quite a bit of compositional adjustment, to turn them into a halfway decent painting. But the content of this one was exactly what I was looking for and the composition was also surprisingly close to being "right".

The single-point perspective of the waves and dunes, which force the eye towards the vanishing point - the target out there on the horizon - which, even without adjusting the height of the horizon, pulls the eye right to the main center of interest, the figure's heads and from there down the diagonals of the arms, which, other than the perspective lines, are the only diagonals in the image so they are highly noticeable, to their entwined hands.

We're off to a great start!

Yeah - if only it was that easy - - -

Because, as tempting as it was to use this near-perfect photo as-is in a painting, as I was doing a practice study to work out some things, (I may play at being an artist but at heart I'm still an engineer and scientist and tend to work things out carefully, usually too carefully for good art.) I had to remind myself that this was supposed to be a painting and if I copied the photo in nearly every detail I might as well just print the dang thing out on glossy paper and send that instead.

So I went back to basics.

After all, the critical part of this (imagined) painting was the two figures so why clutter things up with extraneous detail?

The main point for this wedding anniversary commemorative was to depict the pair of them in a form recognizable to the remaining member, my Mom, in a pose that embodies what I see as their essence as a couple.

Not only did they spend countless hours literally walking hand-in-hand on beaches, and trails, and campground loops, and neighborhood streets, but they also figuratively walked hand-in-hand for the majority of their lives as together they navigated friendship, marriage, parenthood, teenagers, and aging.

So after a number, a whole lot-a-number, of sketches, (Some of you might know that I'm not much of a people person and that shows up in my drawing as well.  Landscapes, animals, buildings - I can handle all that passably well, but throw in people and I suck!) I finally came up with one I could live with, which I then transferred to what I, optimistically and incorrectly as it turned out, hoped was the final sheet of watercolor paper.

OK, OK, first I transferred my drawing onto tracing paper and from there onto the watercolor paper with a light-table, but I have a good excuse for cheating like this!

First off you might be wondering why I put myself through the pain of creating a separate drawing in the first place instead of just taking a tracing right from the photo. Well copying figures directly from photos is a bad idea, a really bad idea, especially if they are of people you later have to sit across from at family get-togethers. Our brain knows the shape of a person, so "sees" where the edges of torsos, arms, legs, heads curve away into the 3D space, but in the process of converting a 3D subject into a 2D image, film or digital, no matter how good the lens, the camera doesn't do a good job of capturing that curving-away-into-3D-space phenomenon, instead it flattens things, and in the process spreads that waistline out, fattens arms and legs and heads. None of which is good for familial relationships. That "the camera adds X pounds" saying, while trite, is true!

Secondly, once I had a sketch I could live with, transferring it onto tracing paper and then copying that onto the final paper kept me from screwing up good, and expensive, paper with erasure marks while trying to re-do the sketch directly on that paper all over again from scratch!

Besides - you know that saying "you learn most from your mistakes"? Well in that case you'd think I would be a friggin' genius by now!! But that's not the case so there was a better than even chance that I would have to start over again before I finished this project.

And sure enough, once I got the brushes out I completely screwed the pooch on the first attempt,  so that tracing came in handy when I had to start all over again.

The scariest part of most paintings is laying down the first brush strokes (The second scariest is laying down the last strokes because I'm positive I'm going to ruin all the work I've already done!)

In this case, even though I had edited out all the extraneous detail of the original photo I didn't want to just leave my figures hanging out there space, so I intended to add just a hint of some abstract shapes there behind them to inject some spacial context and additional depth into the scene.

There are many artists that can do incredible abstract backgrounds like this completely free-hand by cutting in around the main subject using large, expressive hake brushes without making it look labored and stilted, I know because I've watched dozens of their demos - but I'm not one of those artists. So, even though it's a pain, I completely masked out the main subject so I could flow my background brushstrokes more freely right over top.

In order to keep the background fresh and - well - backgroundy, I stuck to using washes of just unadulterated cobalt blue and burnt sienna (The burnt sienna shows up in this photo a little redder and less earthy than it actually is.) with the only mixing being what happened right on the paper.

I also took this opportunity to lay down the shadow under the subjects without having to worry about cutting it in around their feet later. For that I used the same cobalt blue mixed with just a hint of burnt sienna to grey it down a little. 

After hours of futzing around (Not really because futzing with watercolor is a sure way to make it muddy and dull and create unwanted blooms and back-runs - but it was hours of careful, hold-my-breath-for-every-stroke, brushwork.) I was ready to call it good enough. 

The next step was to "crop" the painting down by removing what I considered excess paper from all four sides - after the fact of course! After all, why make things easier on myself? I could have done this with a straight-edge and blade, but decided that, should Mom want to stick it on the fridge with a jokey/cute/inspirational magnet, (After all, I'm her kid, so she almost has to!) deckled edges would be more interesting that knife-cut.

Hand-molded paper comes naturally deckled, but getting a deckled look on fresh edges requires tearing the paper, and I'll admit that tearing at my freshly minted painting was a bit scary.

The trick is to fold the paper where you want the edge to end up, burnish the fold well, then fold it back the other way and burnish again, then STOP!  Any more folding and burnishing will create too clean a tear. And since I was foolishly doing this on a completed painting, I made sure I had very clean hands! Not always a given with me.

In the photo above it kinda looks like I'm tearing the paper up against that straight-edge, but again, that creates too clean an edge. What I'm really doing is using the ruler to hold the paper down with one hand while I pull the strip of excess paper straight away from the painting, very carefully, tearing it 1/8th of an inch at a time, with the other. This is quite a workout for the fingers since we're talking about 140 pound, 100% cotton paper.

We all know what happens when paper gets wet, even heavy paper such as this, so the final step with many watercolors is to dampen the back-side of the paper then firmly press it flat while it slowly dries. This allows the fibers to relax and removes most of the buckling so the paper lays relatively flat again.

Since this step is necessary for most every watercolor painting I do you'd think I would have some fancy contraption for this, but no. I just grab whatever is at hand and hope for the best.

Sorry for the smear down there to the right of Mom's feet. I forgot and signed the painting before I photographed it. Can't go spreading the family name all over the interweb! So I blurred it out.

What I was going for was something that Mom, and maybe a few others, would recognize as her and Dad together in an oft-repeated, contemplative and peaceful moment.

So did it work?

Frankly I don't know. I'm too invested in it to see it objectively anymore.

But I'm also too invested not to send it. So off it goes anyway.

And I haven't forgotten that the title of this post does allude to two paintings.

To shake off the tight, eye-crossing, stress of the first painting I treated myself to something much looser for the second.

Same theme. Same exaggerated single-point perspective, but this time, since they didn't have to be recognizable, after I completed the rest of the painting I was able to slap in the figures with a few therapeutic brushstrokes. No painstaking drawing, no tracing, no fussing.



  1. Heck, yes, it worked. I’m no good at making art but I can appreciate what you did there.

    1. Thanks.

      Mom said the same thing, but then again, she sorta has to. . .

  2. AWESOME!!! Friggin' AWESOME!!

    Now, about those female nudes?

    1. Yeah, well - I always seem to get distracted and the painting never happens