Thursday, October 6, 2016

Midwest Artist Studio Project - Inside the Creation of an NF Portrait - Anne Noble

Anne Running the Boston Marathon - 30" x 24" Oil on Canvas. 2016.
This blog post is inspired by the Midwest Artist Studio project in which I was asked to document from start to finish one of my NF oil paintings. It was good for me to examine how I go about this project, how long it takes and just how indebted I am to the NF hero to get me photos, get me his or her biography and just be an active participant.

Example of the images sent
To start these portraits, I always ask the person to look through existing photos and if that doesn't work, then he or she needs to ask a friend or family member to take photos of them doing whatever we've decided would work well for the painting. In this case, Anne definitely wanted to be running or doing something connected with running. She had a lot of photos from her lifelong pursuit of the activity, but typically something about each one wouldn't work (for me) with them. Many of them were full body shots of her running which make for great photos, but lose too many details for me when I create the paintings. I need close up photos from only waist up and I like to have the person doing something with their hands if possible so it looks a little more active. I also do not want the person to be wearing sunglasses in the painting as the viewer doesn't get to see their eyes that way.

Initial sketch
Additionally, I don't want images of the person looking right at the viewer smiling or taking selfies. The whole painting project, in part, is inspired from Vermeer's paintings. His work is always a glimpse of someone in the middle of her work with us as onlookers. Typically the subject in his paintings are just people doing everyday chores completely unaware of our presence. In that same way, I wanted the NF portraits to just be us getting a glimpse into the lives of these NF Heroes that didn't look staged or stilted. We've all seen commissioned portraits, typically royalty or rich benefactors who gaze at us wearing suits or gowns standing in front of their stately mansions and/or possessions. Those are nice, but always have a hierarchy which suggests that they are slightly above us as a viewer. I want these NF portraits to feel more comfortable, more like this a friend you just haven't met yet.

I don't spend a lot of time trying
to make a nice even tone to the canvas.
I know I will paint over it later.

Anne and her family purchased the rights to a multitude of pictures from when she ran in the Boston marathon. Most of them, again for me, were just too far away. Some of them had people in front of her or she was smiling and looking at the camera. Finally, we found one that would work and it was really pretty good. I didn't initially like the dark shadow that her baseball hat was casting over her face, but I knew I could lighten up that shadow in the painting, eventually. When I printed out the picture for the painting, I used Photoshop to lighten all the shadow areas, so I could really see them.

Charcoal Drawing on Canvas
Before I do any painting, I always send a sketch. Sometimes I stay faithful to the photograph fairly well and other times I will completely put in a new background that fits thematically into the painting. This time, I liked the background of the photo but felt that the other runners were distracting so I got rid of them. I also liked the sign that sort of let the viewer know we were in Boston and that there was only 1 mile left to go--so a partial sign, sort of a clue that we as viewers are almost done with her on this journey too--and we, as viewers, can cheer for her to finish the race!

After I send the initial sketch to the participant, I wait to see what his or her thoughts are. This time, I lucked out and Anne really liked it with no changes or alterations. Sometimes the person will want a different background or wonder why I changed it or just have questions.
Once I get approval on the sketch, I transfer it to a toned canvas. I always tone my canvas with burnt umber. I have artist friends who will tone it in ultramarine blue, some will do burnt sienna or a combination of yellow ochre/ultramarine blue, etc. I think toning a canvas is a personal preference. I do it for two reasons primarily: 1. I like to get rid of all the white of the canvas so none of that peeks through in an annoying way while painting and 2. a toned canvas gives me a nice range to go lighter and darker. White canvases are designed to simply paint darker. I know en plein air painters who do it that way, but for me, I like toning it first.

Charcoal with Turpentine
Now it is time to transfer the drawing on the toned canvas. I know a lot of painters who will use projectors or they will grid the drawing or they will use Saral transfer paper. I have used all of those methods before depending on what I am transferring. Each has its benefits and drawbacks. I used the Saral transfer paper when I did the portrait of Loni Directing Cupids because there were so many logos in the background that I did not want to take a chance on messing one of those up. On Anne's painting, the background is so simple that I just did a loose grid. With the exception of the CTF logo everything else is negotiable and can be fudged. I do the entire transfer with a B grade charcoal pencil. B is a good grade because it isn't very dark and it can be removed with a kneaded eraser if I really need to get rid of something. I typically don't ever erase because I know that I will be painting over it soon enough anyways even if there is something wrong.

Starting to put in paint in the
areas that I know will need
several layers of paint.
After the charcoal has been applied, I go over the entire painting with a small brush and turpentine to solidify the charcoal into a watercolor-like paint sealing it to the canvas. At this point it is no longer a drawing on canvas, but is now really the basis for a painting. At this point I also know what needs to be done first and what will need coats of glaze. For this painting, the hat and blue tank top with the logo and the running sheet will need several coats. I also know that I will need to paint that white logo to get it really white. I tend to paint everything as saturated as it possibly can get, as if no light is affecting it initially knowing that I can always go back later and apply the affects of light to in the form of glazes and highlights. Sometime, the background will be very busy and I will paint those first knowing that I will be going over them multiple times (David Preparing BBQ Beef Brisket for example).

I then like to put an entire watercolor-ish thinned down layer of paint on everything just to establish a general sense of the color that will be there eventually. I know that I will do form painting later, but this is a good way of establishing a base. At any given time, there will be areas of the painting that are in the midst of thicker form painting (less painting medium and more paint) while other areas are still thinned down with oil paint and turpentine.
I usually just tape my reference picture
right onto the canvas so I can see it. I know
some painters who will work from the images
right off of their computer screens. I like to
tape the images really close so I don't have to
look too far while painting.

My palette consists of these standard colors and then I will add extra colors that are specific to the painting and cannot be mixed (like magenta, dioxazine purple or whatever if the painting needs that is unusual):

Zinc White or Soft Mixing White (I don't care for Titanium White and Flake white is toxic and really heavy)
Naples Yellow (Everyone questions that I use this and just don't mix it...we all have our quirks)
Yellow Ochre
Cadmium Yellow Pale
Cadmium Orange
Cadmium Red light
Cadmium Red Medium (Alizarin Crimson--sometimes)
Terra Rosa or Burnt Sienna
Cerulean Blue
Ultramarine Blue (Cobalt Blue sometimes)
Burnt Umber
Payne's Gray
Lamp Black (I use Ivory Black as well and sometimes Mars black)

I use Liquin as a painting medium. Again, many painters will question me about this practice because Liquin comes with Damar Varnish already mixed into it and Damar varnish will yellow after decades. This means I could mix my own painting medium or I could spend a lot more money on Maroger. However, I don't. At this point, Liquin is fine for me as are store bought heavy duty pre-stretched gallery wrapped canvases. Here is the rationale: when I was in college, I had no money so I could save money by buying and stretching my own canvas. As I got older and had children, I realized it wasn't money that was the main problem, it was time. As in I don't have any so what time I do have, I try to maximize it. I simply do not want to spend my time stretching and applying gesso to canvas if I only have two hours to paint at night after my kids go to bed. When I get a couple of hours to paint, I am ready to paint. Everyone has strong feelings about these topics: what kind of paint to use, what kind of canvas or linen to use, what kind of brushes to use, what palette of colors, etc. I used to be such a fussy painter as well and would only use Innerglow painting panels shipped to me from New York and I would only use Vasari paints, filberts, etc. Over time I have really mellowed out about all of these "rules". Honestly, I mix so many different brand of paints these days it is ridiculous. I do like to make sure I check the permanence rating on the labels, but I have lost my brand loyalty that used to be so important to me years ago.
I typically do not wait this long
to get the background painted in.

I typically have more than one of these portrait paintings happening at a time. I find that I like certain areas to dry before I continue, so I will usually jump over to a different painting and work on that one for awhile or work on a sketch, etc. Ideally, I have three of these paintings all going on at one time in some stage from initial prep to final form painting. That way there isn't a day that I can't work on something. If I am getting close to one of the paintings being finished, I will tend to send emails to a new participant asking if they have had time to get their photos taken, etc. If there is one thing I hate it is waiting which is ironic because living with NF is all about "wait and see".

I will send out multiple emails to different potential portrait candidates because not everyone has the time or family member available to be able to get photos quickly. Or they may just not be interested in the project and that is okay too. There are many people who have gone years and will send me a snapshot every once in awhile asking,"How about this?" It usually doesn't work. These paintings really need to be done from someone with a good camera who took good close up photos.

I spent a long time redoing
an impressionistic back drop
and remembered all the
American flags from other
reference photos, so I added it
at the last minute.
I've uploaded pictures of the progression to show the development of the form painting all the way to when I decided to add the American flag in the background. I thought it added a nice touch to what was a rather boring background. Plus I had seen flags in so many of the other photographs Anne had sent, so it was nice to incorporate it into her portrait. I painted the entire background very light in value, saving all the contrast and vibrant color for her. I also painted it somewhat loosely, saving all the care and careful paint handling for her as well.

During the time I am painting the subject is working on his or her biography. I will always display their biography next to the painting. There is not a lot of room on the placards, so I keep the biographies to about 300 words. This can prove to be difficult for people battling with NF as just one surgery or experience can take up that amount in a heartbeat, so they learn to edit or just consolidate all their surgeries into one paragraph. They typically include what life was like growing up with NF and any struggles they may have endured and what they are doing now to raise awareness. Each person is really different on what they want to share. Some people will not talk about any struggles and only talk about the positive impact they are doing today while others have no problem sharing stories about being bullied or a difficult operation. I think writing a biography is very personal, so I let them decide what should be shared and what they want to keep private.

My paintings are simply a way for me to introduce amazing individuals living with NF to a new demographic who, most likely, has not heard of the disorder. In that way, I am just making introductions using oil paint. If my painting is interesting enough, it is my hope the viewer will then read the biography and learn more about the person. If they are interested in the person, they might just want to learn more about Neurofibromatosis and perhaps go one step further and donate to the Children's Tumor Foundation or NF Network.

I have had people just ask why I don't take photographs or just have people send me pictures they've had taken and just use those? After all, there would be an immediacy and quickness to it and maybe even a farther reach. Besides the main issue of consistency of the image, I like the process of painting and talking via social media with these individuals while I paint their portraits. Sometimes depending on where they are from I find myself using Google Translate to try to correspond with them. There is a satisfaction for me in the idea that a collaboration can happen even when there isn't a common language between us.

Lastly, there is a fairly well established tradition of portrait painting and most people know that the paintings take time. They also know that portraits are meant to commemorate someone. It is just that with this project, I as the artist, decide whom to commemorate and that is so empowering. I enjoy getting to know each participant. I'm not looking for a quickie awareness campaign that is also forgotten within a month. I am fine with taking my time and painting a portrait that the person will enjoy and remember for quite some time. I am not in a rush. Oil painting is a slow process and I don't plan on going anywhere until a cure is found so I am not in any hurry to move onto something else. Slow and steady wins the race, and in this case, the Boston Marathon.