Let me warn you ahead of time, this is a longer-than-usual post. But if you’re interested in the real nuts and bolts of how a very realistic painting like this gets done—plus the stuff I had to go through in my own mind to get myself through it—you’ll find it here.
I got the idea to do this painting because lately I’ve been online a lot looking at other artists’ work, especially others who do male nudes, and there were some I saw who were doing really amazingly realistic paintings and really pulling it off. Their technique was mind-boggling. I thought, I could do that.
What I mean is, with a bit of work and focus, I can do that kind of work. But generally I don’t. That’s because every time I look at someone else’s super-realistic painting, I think, Jeez, I’m glad I don’t have to deal with that kind of detail. I usually see it as incredibly tedious. And being a realist painter is not my goal in life. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it from time to time, but usually I just don’t go there.
Still, I kept looking at these guys’ work and thinking, I would still like to test myself in this area, because it’s been years since I went down that super-realist road, and I’ve grown and changed and it would be interesting to see how it would be. So I was starting to get excited about the idea.
Then I went looking for a photograph to use as source material, and I came back to my favorites, among them Marcus at Angra Dos Reis—our first photo shoot there. There are still a lot of images in that bunch that have promise, and I found one I really liked.
However! I began examining the photograph in detail, thinking about what was going to be required of me, and I found a LOT of things I did not want to have to mess with, especially the kind of detail work it takes to make a dripping-wet body realistic. It’s not just more highlights because the body is wet; there are all these incredibly complex patterns of water on skin, droplets, shadows of droplets, reflections WITHIN each tiny droplet, droplet TRAILS that get lighter and darker in incredibly subtle ways, etc., etc.—it’s an incredible thicket of visual complexity.
And that’s not even mentioning the swirling water around the model!
I decided it just wasn’t worth it. I decided there was no way I would be able to maintain my momentum over the amount of time and work it would take to do a highly realistic painting from this photograph.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Then, a few hours later, I don’t even remember exactly what gave me the idea, but I thought, hey, maybe I could try something like this: paint the whole thing pretty quickly, in a fairly crude, unfinished way, but with all the basic lights and darks and colors in place and fairly accurate as far as they went. It would look finished to someone who wasn’t looking for much detail. THEN, I could go in and, one area at a time, and in a fairly relaxed manner (meaning not a day or two, but weeks), I could refine the surface. I could finish each area to a high degree of precision at my own pace.
Now this was a way of conceptualizing the operation that made me think, maybe, just maybe, I could pull this off.
Because as much as I hate the tedium of doing a lot of detail in a painting, there’s still a real pleasure and reward in really capturing a particularly beautiful piece of visual reality. So I decided to go for it.
Before I proceeded, however, I did something else—I cropped the image. This was partly out of laziness. I didn’t want to have to do all that detail. But the truth is, cropping it made for a better composition and a stronger image overall. So cropping worked for me on a couple of levels.
I also pumped up the contrast and saturation some (left), then made a copy where I posterized the image (right). This is my usual procedure—using the computer (Photoshop) to give myself different ways of seeing and conceptualizing the image before I even begin painting.
Now the fun began. I transferred the image to canvas (just doing a pencil outline), then painted over that with a neutral brown wash. While that was drying, I began mixing colors. Then I started the first phase, the crude unfinished painting which would serve as the underpainting for all the detail that was to come later.
This was fairly undemanding and I did it pretty quickly—maybe 2 or 3 hours—because the whole objective was to keep it simple and just get the basics down so the refinement could begin.
The next day, I started the refining process. I began with the background on the upper left because it looked the most doable, and because it’s generally better to start at the top and work down so your hand is less likely to smear something under it. Over the next couple of days I brought the painting to the condition shown above: the tree shadows and the shallow water behind Marcus are mostly done, as is the slightly deeper water swirling around him on the right.
The next 3-4 days were spent on, in this order: Marcus’ face and hair (this turned out to be harder than I anticipated because his face is almost entirely in shadow, plus the whole photograph is in sharp focus except for his face), his right shoulder (on our left), the necklace, and his left shoulder (on our right). You can see the progression in the image above. Let me just say that water droplets on a human body are a real challenge. The problem with water—maybe I should say one of the CHALLENGES that water presents—is the extremely subtle value changes that happen in situations like this. If you make the water trail a little too dark it looks like a scar on the body. Make it a little too light and it vanishes entirely. This is complicated by the fact that acrylics always dry darker. So if you get it right while the paint is wet, in 5 minutes it will be too dark. Then you mix it lighter and try again. And if you haven’t got the shadows of the body itself quite right, then the water will never work. So it can be a real bitch! You can see the first shoulder I did looks okay, but the second one is better, so I’m learning as I go.
Above you see the condition of the painting about 5 days later. I’ve worked on the chest and abdominal muscles over that time, and there was a lot of painting and repainting. As I’ve continued I’ve gotten better at making the water droplets and trails look realistic, which is a good thing because when you get into the areas where it’s reflected light (the left side of the chest and abs, for instance), the value changes are REALLY subtle. But I’m pleased at the overall look of things so far. And I’m really pleased that my strategy is working: instead of getting burned out on the painting after 2 or 3 days, I’ve been able to come back each day and push it a little farther toward completion. One thing I’ve had to be careful about is keeping track of how each color was mixed. This is more necessary because, given how quickly acrylics dry, to do a painting over several days or weeks requires paints to be remixed several times. I’ve managed to do a pretty good job of this. It’s now been almost 10 days I’ve been working on this painting.
The painting is finally done—two weeks after beginning it. The last 4 days or so were spent working on the legs, the swirling water between the legs, and the big spume of white water gushing around Marcus’ right side. I won’t say I’m 100 percent pleased with the finished work—there are some areas I would like to fix but to tell you the truth, I’m not sure it would be worth it to go in and take the chance of ruining what I’ve accomplished so far. I’m finished with this one, for better or worse. And even with the few areas I wish I’d done better, I look at the painting and overall I think I did a good job. I certainly learned a lot of things that will make my next realistic painting better. Most of all, I’m pleased that I was able to maintain a consistent working pace for a two-week period on a single painting. That’s real stamina, from my point of view, and it’s made me stronger and more confident.
Oh yeah, the title. I’m calling it “Tudo Molhado.” That’s Portuguese and I learned that phrase when I was doing a photo shoot with Eduardo in Rio and I had him get in the shower and get totally wet, then run out into the light outside while he was still dripping. He wasn’t sure he understood, so he said, “Tudo molhado??”— “All wet?”
SEE MORE OF MARCUS IN THE “O GATO” E-BOOK!
If you want to see more uncensored shots from all of my photo shoots with Marcus, you can do so by visiting my E-Bookstore and downloading my e-book O Gato: The Amazing Marcus, with 260 pages of artwork and uncensored photographs featuring my favorite Brazilian. You can also order it on CD.