Read on for Aaron Nagel’s Step by Step
Words & Images Courtesy of AaronNagel.com
The idea of documenting the process and my thoughts on a painting from start to finish initially sounds exhausting, and as usual, I’m always wary of providing too much information. Not that I have some top secret painting techniques or anything, but more that it generally feels a little more personal than just posting a finished piece and allowing people to process it their own way. (there’s a fine line between being a private guy and keeping a blog on the internet for the world to read…and that fine line was likely crossed years ago so I should probably stop worrying about it). And of course I’m constantly asking myself if people really want all this information? which is another moot point — it’s my own blog, and if people weren’t interested, they wouldn’t read it right? why worry? Besides, I’ve done ‘step by steps’ three times before, [here] & [here] & [here], and people seemed to enjoy them. I also read other artists blogs constantly, and find them entertaining and very educational — if anybody gets a little of that from anything I post here, i’m happy.So there you have a very abbreviated version of my thought process on these entries, and a preview of the meanderings to come. Am I aware that I felt the need to justify posting on my ownblog? yes I am. You’d think with a couple websites, a facebook page, a decrepit myspace profile, a half-ass Twitter account, and who knows what else, I’d be comfortable with the presumed ego one needs to self-promote. Which is not to say I don’t have an ego, because I do, and it’s awesome. But I digress…I’m ready to get serious now.
This piece will be a bit of an experiment, in that I’m consciously planning to both loosen up a bit, and to purposely leave some elements of the piece drippy and incomplete. I’m doing this for a number of reasons, not least of which is that I’m feeling a little too comfortable with where I am with my own work right now — and that’s boring. I’m also afraid I’m dangerously close to reaching that point where the subject is too rendered, too crisp. There’s a sweet spot i’ve become very aware of: where a painting is realistic but still a painting — it could look like a photo from a certain distance, but the brush strokes and movement aren’t lost upon closure inspection. Personally, I don’t want to have to use a magnifying glass to see the obvious signs an artist was there. And It’s very easy for me to obsess over a painting’s detail and render it into oblivion. I love it when a painting hits that sweet spot, and I’ve been trying to keep that in mind lately.
Lately I start all of my paintings the same way: a light sketch/line drawing in pencil, then a wash to tint the canvas. In this case, I’m covering only the figure loosely since I don’t have my mind made up as to how I want the background. This [at left] is a mix of cad red and burnt umber I believe, cut with lots of Gamsol . I’ve experimented with a bunch of warm/dark color combinations for this initial wash, but it hasn’t made much difference. anything darkish reddish brownish seems to work fine for me. I find tinting the canvas rarely affects the way the final painting looks (or if it does, it’s really subtle), but painting onto an already warm tone is much easier for me than onto stark white. the reason being; that anything rendered next to unpainted canvas tends to look a little cartoony, a little too illustrative, which makes attempts at finding the right values much harder.
So that’s the tint. once I’ve picked the cat hair out of it and let it dry, I’m ready to start in on the figure.
Probably one of the most important things I’ve learned painting faces, is that things are going to look horrible until the face is almost done. the hard part is having the confidence that I’m on the right track, and not messing things up before I can actually tell what’s what. I have a much easier time with it these days, but I thought I’d bring it up anyway (plus it serves as a nice caveat for these first few process shots).
here [above] I’m starting with mids, trying to keep loose and using a big daVinci #16 flat brush i’ve become quite fond of*. (the colors are off a little in these images, but they’ll make sense once there’s more paint on the canvas – my camera tends to compensate for the lack of light and reflection by over-saturating)
*a word on brushes: I know next to nothing about them, and I’m constantly overwhelmed by the variety available. I know I prefer stiffer synthetics for laying down a lot of paint, mongoose for tighter work, and sable for glazing — aside from that it’s just a lot of trial and error…and money. any advice on awesome brushes I may need to try is welcomed.
once I establish a mid-tone, I start moving towards darks from that mid-tone. then the other way towards lights. at this point, and for the majority of the first sitting, I’m not really concerned with getting the darkest and lightest values down on the canvas. I’m also trying to avoid any detail until the foundation of the face is down and looking right.
Lately, I’ve been trying to lay in the all the features of the face as early into the process as possible. I used to get caught up with rendering the skin before everything was down, but no matter how good skin looks, if the subject is missing an eyeball, it’s going to look wrong.
Now that all the features are in place [above right], I’ll add the lighter values, which will fill in the blank spots in the face, and give me an idea of how things as a whole are looking.
this is maybe 5 or 6 hours in, and now I can get into highlights, detail, and bringing the values to where I need them. I am going to do quite a bit of glazing when I’m further along with this piece, so I’m not worried about getting everything exact at this point. I’ve also got into the habit of adding a bit of background tone around the face [at right] to give me a better idea of where my values are with the right background contrast. it seems to help with this final stage of adjusting things and just generally getting this initial foundation nice and solid. it’s also nice to render the edges when both the figure and background are wet, giving me a little more flexibility to play around with sharp vs. loose edges. i’m going to work back into the face a bunch later down the line, but this first sitting is by far the most important.
now the funny part, I added the dark background and softened the edges at the end of this sitting, and totally forgot that I was thinking of maybe making the background light. oops. I’ll fix that later.
also, I forgot to take a picture of my pallet, so If anybody wants to know exact colors/brands of paint I’m using here, leave a comment and I’ll be happy to list them all. any comments and/or questions (including “why does that look like the Bride of Frankenstein?”) are also welcome.
Now that the first pass on the face is done, the rest of the body is generally smooth sailing. I’ll approach the body shape by shape, as if each area created by the sketch is a separate little painting. As I’ve said in the past, there are probably some huge advantages to working on the entire painting at the same time, slowly bringing all the elements toward the final product together, but I really prefer working with wet paint — if I attack the whole piece at the same time, there’s no way i’ll be able to fully render the first pass of any part of it in one sitting. maybe there’s a happy medium of the two approaches, but I haven’t found it yet (or maybe I have, and i’m already there, who knows).
here I’m following basically the same approach with values as I did with the face: start with mids, then work dark and light from those mids. highlights and deepest darks last. I find that establishing a middle value first gives me the most accurate base to render darks and lights. they will almost always need to be pushed darker (and lighter) when I get into the glazing, but it’s much easier for me to do it this way than have to back down values that I may have pushed too far on this first pass.
this part is a bit of an experiment. I generally save any drippy sloppy bits for studies, but I’ve been wanting to try it on a big piece. It’s definitely something that won’t look right until the whole piece is done, so I’m not going to over-think it too much now.
progress at the end of day 2, excuse the glare.
More of that fairly smooth sailing — and a little auto-pilot, as I didn’t do nearly as a good a job taking progress shots. my process here is more of the same though, working back to foreground on the torso, same approach to values. amazingly, I’m sticking with my light background idea, and adding in little swatches of background with each adjacent body part, allowing me to play with the edges with wet on wet paint. I’ll usually soften all the edges to varying degrees, either allowing elements further in the background to be a little looser, or creating a little movement outside of the lines. (I don’t have any good detail shots of edges at this point but I’ll post some further along).
I’m also continuing the drippy bits, as I did on day 2 — basically completing an area and then going back into it very loosely with my background color, and a lot of extra turp. it’s tons of fun actually, and feels at the time like I’m really stepping out and getting crazy. (i know).
A quick long word on mediums: At this point in this particular painting, I haven’t used anything but paint (aside from those turp drips). I will most definitely incorporate mediums as I get further along, but lately I’ve been tying to keep them out of my first layer of paint. the reasons for this are two-fold: one, I’ve read a lot about the advantages of working ‘thick to thin’ with oil paint, allowing every layer to to be thinner than the one underneath it, so that everything remains stable. I personally don’t paint with a lot of paint at all, very thin layers, so keeping my first layer as pure as possible just seems like a good idea.* The second reason is that I found I was really only using mediums on my first pass of a painting to make the paint more pliable (again this doesn’t apply to glazing, or subsequent layers). Because I paint with so little paint, things dry for me (enough to work back into them) in 2 or 3 days at most, and that’s fine for me — so I don’t really need drying time sped up. Instead of using mediums on the foundation of a painting, I’ve found that using softer paint and more rigid brushes helps a ton with the pliability issue, and it actually helps me loosen up a bit too.
* correction: this is totally wrong. I’m referring to the “fat over lean” concept and at some point I must have switched this around in my head. (this occurred to me at 2am last night and I have subsequently done some much needed re-research). It’s actually the opposite, and refers to ensuring that additional layers of paint do not dry faster than the paint below it, which can cause instability and/or cracking. “Fat” paint can be just a lot of paint, or paint with oils added to it. “Thin” paint can be just thin layers, or paint thinned with a drying agent. (so it can be either quantity, or the addition of mediums). In my case, I don’t paint thickly, and I rarely layer over and over (in most areas, it will be a base layer of paint, then a couple layers of glazing), so It’s probably not something I need to worry so much about. but good to know and keep in mind! [welcome to the nagel-learn-slowly-as-you-go painting school]
When I do get into working with a medium, I have been using Walnut Alkyd. It’s great for working back into areas that have already been painted and it works pretty well as an oiling out medium when cut with gamsol/turp. It was recommended to me by David Kassan, who offered it as a healthier alternative to Linseed Oil and Liquin [he is a fantastic artist, make sure you check him out if you haven't before]. It’s non-toxic and plays really nice with walnut oil-based paint. (I use a lot of M. Graham colors, which is the only walnut oil-based oil paint brand i’ve found…but they’re great). It also works just fine with Linseed and Safflower based paints.
Walnut Alkyd doesn’t work for me when it comes to glazing though, it’s a little too thin and takes too long to set – so I always fall back to the always dependable and über-toxic, Liquin. That stuff is funky but it works great. I’ll get a lot more into glazing further along in these posts.
progress at the end of day 4
Finally getting rid of that dark background mess with my light background color. It’s hard to see here, but it’s a mix of unbleached titanium pale and titanium zinc white, a little burnt sienna and a little raw umber. It makes a sort of “white” — but with a lot of depth.
Here [above], I’m working on my edges — going back in with flesh tones over the wet background color, recreating a wet on wet look. This is where using some Walnut Alkyd and/or Liquin really helps blend in additional flesh work over the already dry paint. Plus it has the added benefit of adding some gloss to an area that could very well sink into the first layer of paint, hopefully avoiding dull spots further along. [For those that oil paint, you'll have experienced when a bottom layer of paint absorbs the oils of an upper layer, creating dull spots that make colors look kind of horrible, especially darks. It's easy to avoid by using a little medium, and just as easy to correct once the paint is dry by rubbing a little medium into any dull areas].
Once I’m done with my edges and things are looking less flat, I lay in the rest of the background [at left]. again, I’m trying to add some subtle color variations in the “white”, and also use some loose brush strokes so things are a little more interesting than just a solid color. It’s not coming through so great on these pictures, which either means I was a little too subtle, or paintings never look right when photographed. probably a little of both.
I usually wait until the background is dry to start on the hair, so that I can play around with detail and not lose any of it in wet paint…but I’m still trying to loosen up here, so I went right into it. I’m really happy with the result. Hair can be a huge pain and it’s very easy to overdue, especially for me — i’ll zone out and catch myself two hours later trying to paint every individual strand. It took me a while to figure out that in reality, hair doesn’t really look super detailed unless you’re right up in it. from two feet away, it’s the same as everything else: shapes…not solid lines — so I’ve been trying to paint it accordingly. I worry about the detail where it is most obvious; the hairline and maybe some select highlights, then just improvise and loosely add in the rest. the hairline, or where the hair meets the dry paint of the face, can also be really tricky. I’ve gotten in the habit of stopping a little short of where the hairline should be on this initial pass, in order to use glazes (once things are dry) to move it into the right spot. the reason for this is that a lot of the hairline, especially when hair is pulled back, is made of little wispy hair that is super hard to paint — it’s much easier to suggest it with glazing.
phew, a lot of detail there.
Now to fill in the painted parts of the figure. I do generally actually paint my models with black acrylic paint so I can portray it accurately, but I often end up changing the placement and quantity in the painting, since I usually have enough reference to improvise. I really love the way the black paint reacts to the harsh highlights — and if painted limbs are placed correctly, the paint will reflect the flesh tones and really do some neat stuff.
I try not to use any actual black paint if I can help it. my blacks are generally a mix of van dyke brown, raw umber, ultramarine blue, and alizarin crimson. the highlights here are done unbleached titanium pale and a little titanium zinc white. again, i’m trying to keep things very loose, especially with this “painted” part. It goes against my inclination but I’m generally much happier with a looser approach on this first pass.
I forgot to take progress shots of this first pass on the hands, but it’s more of the same. the flesh tone reflecting in the models right hand is my favorite part of this piece so far.
now that I’ve laid in a first pass on everything, I’ll generally spend a few hours (on and off) staring at the painting and reference photo in order to understand and plan where I want to take everything with additional layers and glazing. the next few days on this piece will essentially be just adding detail, increasing contrast, and fixing anything I didn’t get right the first time through. while things can look pretty far along at this point, I’ll look a lot different after next few days.
After I have a solid initial layer on everything, It’s time to correct and refine anything that needs it, and start glazing. for this piece I’m glazing with Liquin, mixed with various amounts of pigment. I’ll start with darks, gradually pushing my values to where they need to be. i’m using similar colors to what I used in the foundation, but generally much more colorful/saturated. for example, by slowly building up that shadow by her right eye [below] with more crimson and purple shades, the final result is a very warm but still dark area…and the lack of actual black or brown pigments prevents it from becoming too muddy.
glazing goes pretty fast, but the glaze does have to dry between each pass. the glazed darks on the face below were done in multiple layers (3-5) over a few days. also, whenever I glaze, I use a dry brush to blend the edges of the glazed area into the already dry paint. and unlike the foundation, I don’t want brush strokes in my glazing, so I use very soft brushes (generally black or red sable) to lay them in.
Here [above] is a good example of how I start glazing my lights, before I work the edges with a dry brush. as with darks, I find I get much better results if I gradually reach the values I need through repeated glazes, rather than try and get there in one pass. a lot of this has to do with the aforementioned brush stroke issue, if the glaze is more opaque, it’s much harder to make it look like a glaze (a subtle color variation), and not a sloppy thin layer of paint. It also yields a much richer result.
there is some progression of glazes [above] I promise, a couple of days worth. I make sure never to glaze lights with too much white, even in the harshest highlighted areas, as I find it kind of screws up the temperature and can make things unintentionally cool (with the exception of the black painted areas which reflect a much cooler light).
i’m almost finished with the glazing [above], and while the figure looks close to where I want it, the background is looking a little too flat — so I re-painted it. I was looking for a more uniform look at the top of the piece, and a more layered look for the bottom where the figure degrades into the background to give the whole thing a little more depth. It’s lost a bit in these pictures (as usual), but I think the change, though subtle, makes a big difference.
almost done, final pictures in the next post!
And it’s done! This was a fun piece, and I’m very happy that I didn’t ruin it with all the experimenting (there’s been a bit of that recently). Unless anything changes, this piece will be part of the Arts Fund Expo at the W Hotel, for this year’s Art Basel in Miami.
- Aaron Nagel View These on Aaron’s Blog Starting Here
Aaron Nagel: I’ve been drawing since I was in kindergarten. I remember drawing a jet on a pillowcase we were making and being pretty excited about it. I can still draw it. I didn’t get into painting until my early twenties when I started experimenting in my garage and doing album art for bands. ( Below check out a behind the scenes look at the artwork for Gavin Castleton’s latest album done by none other than Aaron Nagel.)
Aaron Nagel: This list is endless, but here’s a few: Rembrandt, Ingrés, Pasini, Sargent, Jenny Saville and Sean Cheetham. (See Aaron’s blog where he writes about seeing works of several of these artists on his site.)
Aaron Nagel: Actually, never. I listen to audiobooks, always have.
Location: Oakland, California
Find out more @ http://www.aaronnagel.com/