An interesting dynamic in my recent artistic life is the lack of new models. The reasons are varied and not always clear, although living in Lincoln, Nebraska for a couple of years certainly narrowed my options (even though I did discover the beautiful Khanh there!). I love living in Mexico but in that respect it’s been a bit disappointing: it’s hard to find good-looking guys with really defined bodies here. I love the faces but the bodies are just not what I’m looking for. The few times I have found someone I’m interested in, the guys turned out to be undependable or problematic for other reasons.
But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s forced me to get inventive with what I do have, which is a huge archive of hundreds of thousands of photographs I’ve shot of models over the past 30-plus years. There’s a lot there I haven’t really used yet.
I’ve already pulled the low-hanging fruit from that tree, though. I’ve used most of the obviously great photos. What’s left are many undiscovered gems which often need some tweaking. So I’ve begun using a new approach to creating compositions: namely, taking bits and pieces from several images and putting them together to create something I like.
This involves a lot of time spent in Photoshop, cutting up images and putting them together in new ways. Recently I came up with a great composition showing two nude surfers on a tropical beach.
This involved finding a beautiful tropical-beach background, then looking for images from model shoots that would work in that setting. Because the great majority of the photo shoots in my career have been single models, finding two poses that work together can be a challenge. I spent many hours searching my archives for possibilities, and after a lot of experimenting, I settled on a shot of Paulo (a Brazilian surfer who modeled for me in Hawaii back in 2001), and a shot of Kaimana (a Hawaiian surfer who modeled for me near Honolulu in 2006). Paulo is at left, putting on his shorts, and Kaimana is at right with the surfboard on his head.
Although it’s not absolutely essential, my job as a painter is a lot easier if the elements I’ve put together have the light coming from more or less the same direction. This is a lot more important when I’m going to do a realistic painting, but for this painting I’m planning a more stylized, Expressionistic approach, so I can get away with the light not being totally consistent. Which is a good thing because, as you can see, the light is not all that consistent in the composite.
So, once I have the composite the way I want it, it’s time to start drawing. This is where the rubber hits the road and the really challenging part of the job starts. The first drawings are always really loose and rough. I’m trying to get a rough idea of where things should go, what size they should be, etc. The results are not particularly pretty or graceful, but they’re an absolutely essential part of the process.
You can get a sense of how the process works by looking at the above drawings. These are just a few of the many rough sketches I made to try out different approaches for this painting. You can see I’m trying different approaches with the figures, both individually and in terms of integrating them into the entire composition.
Doing all these preparatory drawings serves another purpose, too: I get more familiar with all aspects of the figures and the composition. By drawing them over and over again and pushing them in different directions, I not only discover ways I can make them work together, I also get more confident and start to really “own” the whole composition. That makes a big difference once I start painting, when confidence is a huge factor.
Another thing that can be helpful is one or several color studies. Sometimes I’ll do digital studies on the computer, sometimes acrylic studies, sometimes both. For this painting I tried some digital studies on the computer.
Doing color studies in Photoshop is a pretty quick and easy way to try out color combinations to see how they’ll look. Plus, by using Photoshop’s Layers feature, you can move the different elements around and make them smaller or larger. Above are a couple of digital color studies that helped me get clearer on how I want to approach this painting.
I did one more study before beginning the actual painting, a large acrylic color study of the Kaimana figure.
After several days of making pencil, digital and acrylic studies, I’m ready to tackle the painting itself. I head for my studio up the hill at ArtVallarta.
I begin by cutting a big piece of canvas and tacking it up, along with my reference photos and the best of my rough drawings so I can refer to them while painting, and begin drawing on the canvas. Once I have everything penciled in the way I want it, I use a black acrylic marker to outline everything. Then I lay a neutral acrylic wash over everything. That’s the stage you’re seeing above.
Before I started laying in colors, I “saw,” in my mind’s-eye, a patch of raw sienna right in the middle of the painting, covering a roughly square area next to Kaimana’s arm. I wasn’t sure why, but it really felt right. Getting a sign like this when you’re starting a painting is a gift from the spirits, and I embrace it eagerly. That patch of raw sienna was the first patch of paint I laid down on the painting, and it turned out to be a great beginning.
I worked on the painting for a couple of days and it was remarkably trouble-free. What I mean is, everything fell into place nicely as I painted, and that’s due to how much preparatory work I had done. I already knew the basic color scheme and I had worked out many details of the composition in my drawings, so I was able to just play and throw colors at the canvas and with few exceptions, they worked the first time.
(Sometimes I want to take chances and dive in with very little prep work and see what happens. That’s fun, too. But when I’m doing a large painting like this one it’s great to work out as many of the major decisions as possible ahead of time, so you have a better chance of hitting a home run.)