Recently a patron commissioned a portrait of Elvis, but she wanted a little something extra: she wanted me to get loose!
The patron was an artist and hoped my experiment would help her own work. It turned out I was the one who benefitted the most. This project changed the way I painted, possibly forever.
This is a tutorial compiling the things I learned during the experiment.
STEP 1: THE PLAN
It sounds paradoxical, but artistic freedom comes from working within frameworks. This is because limitless possibilities are not the same as choices. It is in making choices that art emerges from the infinite chaos. Art itself is an idea imposed upon a given situation, in this case, pigment and paper.
1. Limited Colors. For this piece my color palette was red, orange, and blue green. Why didn’t I use every color? Because when I get too crazy with every color, my paintings turn out gray or brown. This is because all those colors mix and mingle into a uniform neutral. So I picked three colors and stuck to them. Experience has taught me that this is a good idea.
2. Change It Up. Next I decided to paint the piece vertically. The ink I work with is liquid. It runs down the page if you lift it up at an angle. Because of this, I always paint with my canvasses flat on the floor. But this time the patron wanted it loose. I’d been wanting to attempt a ‘drippy painting’ for a while. This was a great time to experiment. I promised myself that no matter what, even if it was difficult, I would continue painting my piece upright until I found Elvis in the chaos.
3. Work Fast. I rarely work fast. I’m a slow, deliberate artist. I usually begin with a Photoshop mock-up practice composite, then I lay down a drawing, and then I fill in the drawing like a crazy coloring book. But not this time. This time, there was no mock-up, only a picture. This time, there was no drawing, only the raw slashes of a brush heavy-laden.
Limited colors painted on a vertical canvass quickly. Let’s see what I learned.
I began with a blank canvass placed upright and no under-drawing. This is different from my usual method. Most of the time I begin my pieces with a tight pen drawing.
Note: The bulk of these images are screen captures from various streaming applications. I like to paint live on Periscope and Busker so that people can watch. If the graphics in the images seem awesome, download some streaming software today, you’re going to love it.
After ten minutes or so, a head began to emerge. The strange part was, there were almost no drips. I was already learning something about a medium I thought I had mastered: You can paint with ink on an upright canvass! It felt great, sitting in my chair, not on the floor, like a human being. Ten minutes in and I had already learned something!
THE KEY TO EVERYTHING: Work big to small, always. This applies to drawing as well as painting. It takes discipline, but it is important to find the biggest shapes and rough them in first. Leave the eyes, nose, lips and other fun details until last. This will enable you to erase or make necessary changes without loosing time spent early on details that need to shift.
I never work big to small. I’m a professional artist, and my whole life I’ve refused to implement the lessons I’ve been studying for 30 years. It’s difficult. I always want to dive in and start drawing the fun stuff right away. For me that means the eyes. The problem? If something goes wrong at the beginning, I often don’t find out until I’ve already invested hours into a piece. Then I’m forced to work around those early mistakes or abandon the piece altogether. Not cool. Better to find the biggest shape and rough it in, then the next biggest and so on. Thirty minutes in and my piece already sort of looks like Elvis. This is record time for me. It usually takes me an hour just to mock up the images I’m going to draw in Photoshop before I even begin!
Forty-Five minutes into the piece, and I could tell upright-and-loose was my new favorite way to work. The problem with beginning a painting with a drawing is that it takes a long time, and all of your lines get covered up any way. It’s important to have a strong foundation, but even at the early stages of this experiment, I could tell this was going to be a new method for me, I’d never gotten such solid results so fast!
With the big shapes blocked in, I began working on the features. Here is where the discipline of working big to small paid off. Initially, I put the nose in the wrong place. Normally, I wouldn’t have noticed this mistake until I’d already drawn the eyes, lips, eyebrows, chin, face, forehead, and hair, but because I started there, I was able to see the error early and correct it without much fuss.
I continued blocking in the features, using the big shapes I’d already laid down as guides.
This is the finished underpainting. Before this project, it would have been an underdrawing that took me forever to finish, but with the new upright, loose, no-drawing method? It was done in half the time. Why is that important? It gave me more time to focus on the fun details viewers notice.
Next I added Liquid Masking Fluid to the Yupo paper to protect areas I want to keep white. It’s really fun to remove. You’ll see latter!
Once the liquid masking fluid was dry, I began adding my second color, blocking in the background. I worked fast, loose, and thick, letting the ink drip and run. It was a blast working with the newer, faster, upright canvass setup. This is because everything was closer to me. When I used to work on the floor, the top of the canvass was further away than the bottom. I never realized how much time that extra reaching cost me until this project. Working upright literally cut my time spent down by a third! Why had I avoided working upright all this time? Fear of drips. Painting with fear is the opposite of painting loose, and should be avoided. I wish I’d figured that out years ago!
A few hours in, I couldn’t believe what was emerging. In the past, I always felt lucky when I got a likeness, but this one emerged effortlessly. The reason? I wasn’t trying. I was being loose. I was working big, fast and sloppy.
With the background and big shapes blocked in, I began adding blue-green from the background on top of the orange underpainting of Elvis. When the colors mixed it created a rich dark that fit in perfectly with the color scheme. Color theory and a little planning FTW!
And now it gets fun. With the foundation laid, the rest was a matter of dividing the painting into areas of light, dark, color, value, texture, etc.
The foundation stages are important, but you can’t worry about them. Everything else is easy and fun, but you have to wait to get there. Art is a process. Enjoy each part!
I spent the rest of the day adding layer after layer of blue-green and orange, letting them mix, neutralize, and become darker. At this point, I was essentially refining what was already there. The painting— the important, critical parts, at least— was already done, and in record time! The rest was details, and details are fun!
The next day I pulled of the liquid masking fluid I’d painted on earlier. It revealed the white of the paper beneath. Hawaiian flowers, letters, and hair highlights emerged!
The final piece included acrylic paint, metallic inks, glow in the dark pigments, and lots and lots of love, but those were details added after the foundation had been established. The important parts happened within the first few hours. That is why it is critical to stay loose in the beginning and only tighten over time. It’s difficult, but you will save time and have more fun. Or I did. Try it, then let me know how it goes!
- Pick a color scheme and stick to it
- Pick a process that will force you to loosen up and see what you learn
- Work fast
These tips are advanced. They are easy to do but require discipline. It took me years to get to a place where I could paint consistently with a system, but you don’t have to take that long, you can start today.
If you like to paint and you’re having trouble, take my advice is to get loose! Try it for one painting. If you don’t like it, you’ll have learned something, even if only that you prefer tighter techniques.
Below are two more paintings made after I discovered this method. It’s probably how I’ll work from now on, the old way was just too… tight.
Thanks for reading. If you’d like to watch me paint, or have questions, download Periscope from the App Store and find me @streetarthustle