New Painting: Power Surge

Lately I find myself thinking about doing paintings that have more going on in them. What I mean is, I’ve spent many, many years doing paintings of male nudes, some in landscapes, some not, but mostly they’ve been pretty literal. That is, they are what they are, and although there’s often a bit of a story behind the image, basically it’s a painting that says, “Isn’t this a beautiful man?” I love those paintings but I’ve been doing them a long time and I’m thinking, I want to add something. So along about September 25 I was doing some sketches of Christian at the pool. In one of them (left) he’s throwing a beachball into the air. When I began sketching that image, I thought, wait a minute, let’s make this a little less literal. Why not make that beachball into something else? Like a moon—or a planet? So I began the pencil sketch with that in mind, and it worked. In fact, I liked the pencil sketch so much I went in with colored pencils and darkened the sky and added some stars and went over the whole thing in color. Just to see what would happen.

So this is what happened: The sketch at left, which I really loved. There was something about it that moved me, and I wasn’t sure what. And I knew I didn’t need to know exactly what was going on. The important thing was, I felt some emotional connection to the image. I thought: this is definitely worth turning into a painting. There’s more to explore here!

The next day I decided to do a second, larger study before tackling a major painting. I proceeded to do an acrylic sketch on paper which was extremely valuable–valuable because it showed me some things NOT to do. For one thing, the figure is a bit stiff and wooden in this one. It’s still a nice figure–it just has less life and motion in it than the one in the first sketch. Another major difference is the treatment of the pool. In this second study I saw that I should keep the pool more or less looking like a sunlit backyard pool, even though I’m changing the sky from day to night. A big thing that’s not working is to have the moon/planet reflecting in the pool. That’s way too literal. (I don’t want to "anchor" the moon/planet in reality to quite that extent. We don’t know yet whether it’s real or not, and maybe we should never really know.) Another more subtle difference is the texture in the first sketch which resulted from using colored pencils and having to color in large areas. In the second study I used acrylic which makes it easy to do large areas and keep them more or less flat and smooth. But in this case flat and smooth meant flat and kind of boring. So I had a hunch that the finished painting would be better with some texture.

So, the following day, armed with all that I’d learned from the two preparatory studies, I cut out a big piece of canvas, put it on my easel, and began drawing on it in soft pencil. I spent almost a whole day just getting the drawing right (I especially wanted to make sure the figure had a sense of life and motion). At the end of the day, I painted my usual purple wash over it and let it dry. The next day I began painting.

This is the exciting and dangerous stage where I make color decisions that will affect the entire painting for better or worse. I used the initial colored-pencil sketch as a taking-off point and kept the colors similar—but richer and deeper. More oranges and reds in the figure, for example. I also made the "moon" more red/orange and less yellow. I’m also aware, right from the start, that I’m going to need something happening in the upper left. As an experiment I make a semicircular portion of the night sky lighter near the figure. Not sure if that’s going to work or not.

The next day, I start again and decide that lighter area on the upper left isn’t really working. So I repaint the sky in that area and make it uniformly dark. I also add a bit of an aura around the figure’s head. I’m working all over the painting by now, refining it area by area (which always works much better than "finishing" one area and then moving onto the next—this approach results in a more unified piece). I go into the pool area and vary the lightness and darkness to give it more interest and a bit more depth. I also add some blue, for no other reason than that it looks kind of cool, to the area just to the middle left of the figure. That upper left still needs something but I don’t know what. I decide to try a wisp of blue something, who knows what, rippling across that area. It kind of works. I’ll leave it for now.

This painting has been going on for several days now and while it’s going well, there’s a lot going on in it and I’m still trying to reach an overall balance. The main area that’s challenging me is the sky. And the stars! I decide they’re too cartoonish and literal; although that could work in some cases, it’s not working here. So I paint out almost all the stars so I can see the area blank and maybe decide what WILL work there. I also get rid of that blue "wisp" which is interesting but not quite what I want. In its place I experiment with some blue "clouds." Still not quite what I want, but closer. In place of the cartoonish stars I decide to try some more realistic stars, but in different colors, to pick up the colors going on in the rest of the painting. Not sure if that will work, but I like them so far.

I add more of the colorful little stars, mostly near the figure and the moon/planet, and after much experimentation I decide on some more solid, geometric "wisps" in the upper left. I don’t know what it is exactly, but it works. Still not quite right, though; so I add some hazy blue clouds around them. That works, but it’s too much, so I tone down the clouds a bit. And then everything falls together. It works! I decide to call the finished painting “Power Surge.” (Note: Final image on left is a scan, so the colors are more accurate than the in-progress snapshots shown above.)

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