Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Artsy Fartsy: How to Paint a Horse...and a Dresser

As many of you know, kids take over your life. Having kids is no small change. My plans certainly never involved working at a daycare or in a restaurant, yet these proved to be the most kid-convenient occupations, to enable me to be with them more than I am away from them, and to avoid paying for stupidly expensive full-time childcare. Presently the hubby earns enough money that I can stay home full-time—a blessing and a curse—and supplement his income by watching the neighbor’s kids three days a week. This neighbor arrangement is coming to a close soon—a relief and a disappointment—so I need to make a little money some other way: Art!

Over the last few years I have dreaded being asked about how much I’ve been painting; since the kids came along I’ve done next to nothing other than change diapers. It’s impossible to get any painting done with needy babies and toddlers everywhere. I know, I know, there’s just two of them, but I never could figure it out.

I am thrilled to say that I am finally getting back into painting, now that my offspring are independent enough to be left to their own devices, at least in part. I am also trying to make a once a week painting day, where the kids go to daycare. Of course it’s really hard not to spend my one day of freedom sleeping for six hours, or getting six hours of massage, or going grocery shopping alone (joy of joys!), but I have forced myself to be productive on occasion, and it feels good to actually produce art again. 

First it was a mural in a restaurant downtown, which not only got me a break from the kids, but got me out of the house, out of ruralville, and made me some decent money. Then there were a few commissions for friends and family. And then I did an abstract a la Mark Rothko, just to tie in the colors in my living room. By Christmas I hope to have two more pieces finished, and having completed the three others in the relatively recent past, I am encouraged. I always worry that I will “lose it”, and while I probably haven’t made progress by letting my ability stagnate, it’s nice to know that at the very least, I can pick up where I left off.

I get major artist’s block sometimes though. I have one painting that I started literally two years ago that I am just stuck on, not knowing what to do next; it’s not done but it’s close…yet something is just wrong. Of course it doesn’t help that it’s a portrait of my grandparents intended for my grandmother, so I am extra picky about the facial features. The idea of working on it again gives me mega anxiety, but I have to finish it.

Just having completed several paintings recently loosens my brain freeze by re-infusing confidence. I also can only seem to finish things if I have a legit deadline. I was up until the wee hours of the morning tweaking the last two paintings I finished, the night before they were “due”, just like in college (*wist*). Another new way I get back into the groove of painting, which I just discovered, is by repainting furniture and other wooden knick-knacks. I was obsessed, for about a week, with painting over all kinds of things in our house, since successfully shabby-chic-ing an old dresser. I did a two mirrors, a candleholder, and a lampshade. It’s kind of like free-writing for the author. It’s also another means of procrastination, which I have learned is a key step in my artistic process. Seriously.

I got a fabulous little cabinet for my artist's table: my Craigslist alternative to a taboret. It actually has tiny wooden wheels on it, which would be great, if I had a real studio, other than my dining room--one with non-carpeted floors. I felt this a necessary (and time-consuming) step in the horse painting process, because I come up with all kinds of outlandish things to procrastinate. I will clean things that have never been cleaned and repaint entire walls and baseboards before I actually put brush to canvas. It’s weird. There have been times when I was free of the kids for the sole purpose of painting, and spend hours doing unnecessary chores and zoning out in front of the TV, psyching myself up, and may end up only spending one good hour working on my art before I have to go get the kids. But once I get in the zone, with my music and, let’s be honest, a beer or two, it is grrrrrreeeeat.

I just finished a rather large horse portrait: 24X48”, in oil. It was brought to my attention that my process might make interesting blog fodder, so the following is my attempt at recounting its development. I should have taken notes to capture more details, but I didn't, so this is just the basics. I’m not going to get too involved in the technicalities either, sparing those of you who’d be like: WTF?

But first, a shortened version of my daily process: 

Get set up: brushes out, oil and paint thinner open by palette. Unload dishwasher. Stare at painting. "Dialog" with painting. Go get a snack. Stare at painting while eating. Check facebook. Dip brush in paint; make one brushstroke on canvas. Stare at painting. Go get drink. Stare at painting while drinking. Make another brushstroke. Almost put paint brush in beverage. Watch three hours of television. Stare at painting. Make two more brushstrokes. Take a shower. Stare at painting. A few more brush strokes. Thirty minutes of devoted painting. Dialog with painting. Get another drink. Stare at painting while drinking. Vacuum entire house. Check facebook. Watch another hour of television. Stare at painting. A few more brushstrokes. You get the idea.

Or, if I try to paint when the kids are home, it’s more like this:

Get set up: brushes out, oil and paint thinner open by palette. Tell children not to touch. Stare at painting. "Dialog" with painting. Tell children not to touch. Go get a snack. Get the kids the same snack. Stare at painting while eating. Check facebook. Yell at kids to stop fighting. Dip brush in paint; make one brushstroke on canvas. Yell louder at kids to stop fighting. Stare at painting. Go get drink. Get drinks for the kids (not the same as mine). Turn on a movie for the kids. Stare at painting while drinking. Almost make another brushstroke, but must run back to children to check on loud thump and screaming. Stare at painting. Make two more brushstrokes. Tell children not to touch. Tell children not to touch again. Tell children not to touch again. Stare at painting. A few more brush strokes. Spend 30 minutes helping the kids do their own painting. Get another drink. Clean up kids’ mess. Stare at painting while drinking. Check facebook. Stare at painting. One…more…brushstroke…

It's a time consuming process, as you may or may not understand. But here's more specifics on the process:

1.      Pick the image. [I know many artists prefer to work purely from their imaginations, a skill I lack and super duper envy. Sometimes I feel like creativity is my greatest deficiency as an artist. I used to be annoyingly perfectionist, and am always trying to break away from a slavish reproduction of photographs with looser brushstrokes and inspired use of unexpected color. In this case, I chose a photograph from a little photo shoot we had with the subject of the painting: a Clydesdale cross named Diesel. I looked for an image with interesting light, shadows, and composition, considering the size and shape of my canvas options. [I hate stretching canvases. Hate. It. So I cheat and buy them.]

2.      Sketch the image on the canvas. [My process changes every time. Sometimes I start right off with paint and skip the pencil/charcoal. I can’t explain why I choose whatever route I choose with each painting, but for this one, I felt like I wanted  an actual sketch before the underpainting. This time I had to sketch it twice, because the first time the image was too far down the canvas (on the left). The second time I sketched with charcoal so I could see it better (on the right).]

3.      Underpainting. [Usually one color of paint, thinned out using turpenoid (turpentine paint thinner alternative) and/or linseed oil. I like using a reddish brown ("venetian red"?) for the underpainting, just cuz it feels all Italian and old-mastery. In this case it was a dominant color anyhow. I also used some blue for the dark areas, and the charcoal sketch mixed with the paint for the dark lines (unintentional, but it worked). The lighter areas are just the white canvas coming through. In other paintings, I've used blue or purple (purple was the underpainting color for the dog wearing the red hat, above), depending on what the main color in the painting, or I pick a complimentary color to the dominant one, since it is not always completely covered up in the end.]

4. I'm done with numbering the steps. It's not that simple.

You may notice that the shape of his face changes a little in each picture. I really struggled with the placement of the nostril, and the mouth/jaw region. Anyone familiar with horses knows that they have individually distinctive features, and this had to look like Diesel. As you can see, the nostrils on the left are too close together, and on the right they're too far apart. I think I found a happy medium in the end.

At some point in all my paintings, I wonder when I should stop. Normally it's not as early as the underpainting, but Dooley liked it so much in this phase that he begged me not to work on it anymore, as I have a tendency to overwork things. So I let the painting sit for a month. Or so. Finally I got back to work on actual painting, starting with the background. I often struggle with backgrounds in portraits, and this was no different. In the two paintings above, I went the abstract route, with solid colors or patterns. I decided to go with a western-y landscape: yellowish prairie grass and a smidge of purple mountains. Typically I hate doing landscape. Trees are really hard for me. I can't find the line between roughly suggesting leaves and painstakingly rendering each leaf, which would suuuuuuuuck. Same goes for grass. I had to stop myself from overworking the grass, because, trust me, it ends up looking terrible if you focus too much on specific blades of grass. I also started building up and developing the horse himself, trying to retain the roughness and movement of the underpainting. The image on the right is almost done; having these side by side, you can see how it's different than the underpainting horse on the left.

So after that point I did the annoying thing that I always do, which is unnecessary tweaking until 2am. I had a particularly memorable struggle with the hair. I wanted it to show more movement and length than in the photo, but got carried away at first. The initial result was so cheesy and wavy that I could only akin it to it to the illustrations on the cover of a romance novel—horsey porn hair. I had to repaint the sky a time or two to get rid of it, quickly and furiously (no time to take a photo…sorry), and then was careful to repaint rogue strands sparingly, and to make them messier. But hair is like grass and trees: annoying to paint.

People always ask me how long a painting took me, and I always intend to keep track on the next painting I do so I have a clue the next time someone asks me that question. So guess what I did? Not keep track. If I had to guess, I'd say it was a total of somewhere between 6 and 40 hours, but probably more like 12.8. I don't know. Here is a picture of the finished product, with really terrible resolution, cuz you know what else I forgot to do? Take a quality photo of the finished product before handing it over. 



  1. The hair is PERFECT. First comment both Paul and Sally made.

    And I will send you good pictures, but probably not until the weekend.

    Thanks again, we love it.


  2. Thanks for sharing! It's really interesting to see the progression. Plus it gives me perspective on this watercolor cat ($200) that is hanging above my head in this coffee shop. Wonder how long it took the artist-- lots of blades of grass... anyway thanks for sharing, it was sortf of a flashback to 2003... the procrastinating I mean :)

  3. Why can't you just be good at art already?

  4. I love the glimpse into your process...all of the staring! I can relate to that. You sure are talented. If you are ever having a terrible day and need a good strong laugh email me and I will send you a picture of one of the horses I tried to paint. It makes me laugh until I cry every time I look at it. It is THAT bad, but also delightful in it's terribleness.

    I'm glad you got back to painting!

    1. I would LOVE to see your wonderfully horrible horse painting!!!

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