I was sketching my friend Tim last night and it hit me so suddenly, the importance of accurate values. It's way more important than color, proportion, detail or any other aspect to representational painting.
This revelation came at the perfect time to me because I was really struggling with a portrait and didn't know what I was going wrong. I think the roadblock I used to have before was to be almost afraid of making the values too dark. This fear is really impeding because most accurate values are towards the darker value range.
So a simple 3 step process for the painting below that I did was:
1. Start with a simple charcoal outline to get the basic proportions
2. Use a large brush and smudges of more opaque paint with accurate values. Don't worry about details at this stage. (squinting helps)
3. Once the basic forms are in place, then you can add minor details and refine it a little bit more, but don't go overboard and lose the planes.
I've realized again the power of paint when it's applied thickly with large brushes. I did this small portrait (pictured below) as a way to prove to myself that this method is right. Earlier today, I was working on a larger portrait and had to scrap it because I was being way too "cute" with it; it had thin paint passages and smaller detail with small brushes.
I know now that I prefer thicker paint and I feel that it looks better and more powerful. What's the point of painting without using a good amount of paint?
“The thicker you paint, the more color flows.” - John Singer Sargent
I was reading in bed last night and got up to jot down an idea I had about the similarities between reading, writing and painting. All three of these disciplines require concentration and most importantly practice. They all have differences, but can be very similar in their ability to transport the writer, reader or artist into a flow state on non-thinking.
I've been thinking a lot (as always) about painting and the fact that painting isn't about slapping paint around and expecting a beautiful result, it requires concentration, patience and a deliberate touch. In the same way that you can't read a book by running your eyes along a page, you have to be present and read each word.
As I said, it takes a lot of practice and I don't think it's something that you can develop quickly. I started developing myself into a reader early in college because I saw how much I was missing out by not reading. I used to read a lot when I was a kid and I always did the required reading in high school, but I wanted to really become a "reader".
I started off with this grand ambition of reading Moby Dick (unabridged) which of course is like trying to bench press 225 lb. your first time in the gym. Or maybe like trying to write a huge novel as your first piece of writing. In painting, it's like trying to paint a full length portrait if you're just starting out. You need to start small and build up the muscles.
So I started out with smaller books and worked my way up to longer, more complex, ones-- my favorite of which is IQ84 by Haruki Murakami, which is just under 1000 pages and took me 6 months to read. I'm not a fast reader, but I read consistently and make deliberate progress.
I hope this comparison sheds some light on different ways to think about art and how it's never easy (nor should it be).
I am always honored to create custom pet portraits for my patrons and the way I do it is often directly from photo references. There's a ton of debate over the use of photo references and I believe it's a balance to find what works for you as an artist. To me, photography is a tool that artists should use but not rely on (as they have for well over 100 years now). The other factor is that it's important to always paint from life as much as possible to bolster your photo references.
The other thing to remember is that a painting is not a photograph and shouldn't be compared as art forms. There are a lot of photo-realistic paintings, which to me are technically very impressive, but often have a lack of heart in them. I never want to compete with a photo in terms of accuracy (because I'll always lose haha) but I do believe I can get more feeling and heart in my paintings.
There are many techniques, processes and pathways to create a painting and however you get there is a special journey and you should use whatever tools you have access to, but having a nice photo reference doesn't mean you'll end up with a nice painting..