One of my collectors in Australia wrote telling me he’d love to see a painting of my photograph of Tommy lying face-up in wet sand at sunrise on Diamond Head Beach (it’s in my Diary entry called “First Photo Shoot with Tommy (January 2009).”
Though I always appreciate suggestions from my collectors, as you can imagine, I don’t always follow them—sometimes they’re not in tune with where I’m headed artistically. Other times, I really need a little direction, and sometimes a suggestion from a collector can steer me somewhere I might not have thought of going—and sometimes that makes for amazing art that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
In this case, I was ready for a little direction, so I thought, okay, I’ll give it a shot. I started doing some sketches looking for a way to make the image into a painting. But as it turned out, after working on ideas for a few hours, I found that although I like the image as a photograph, I just wasn’t seeing it as a painting.
But, I was now in the mood to paint something of Tommy from that session…and I came across this one photograph that I thought was just terrific, with Tommy lying in the shorebreak with the golden light of dawn striking his wet body, and the palm trees, and the clouds, the water…just an amazing image.
I would’ve loved to have released this image as a photographic print, but because that photo shoot happened before I was awakened to the wonders of Camera Raw, I wasn’t shooting in that format, and ended up with an image where the colors and textures of the deep shadows just weren’t recoverable enough to turn into a photographic print I could be happy with.
But I knew it would make a great painting! I should say, I knew it could make a great painting. But there was a lot going on in this image and I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. When approaching a project this complex and daunting, I really need to be sure the image has a powerful emotional impact on me. That’s the power that will push/pull me through the inevitable moments of difficulty or disappointment if/when things don’t go well.
One other factor that I had to consider was that I was leaving for Albuquerque to spend Christmas with my family in just 4 days, and to complete a painting this big and detailed in that amount of time was going to be a real challenge.
But I felt that excitement and that emotional charge about this image so I plunged in. I spent an entire day just working on rough sketches. I didn’t want to do a literal copy of the image. I wanted to stylize it because I knew that would be more of an adventure, and possibly more powerful in the end. After making a lot of drawings, I began to get the feeling I was going for.
So now I had an feeling for the overall painting, but I needed to focus on the figure, since that was, hello, the focal point. So that took another few hours of drawing and re-drawing the figure until I had it more or less right. Once I had a figure I could live with, I actually cut it out and pasted it onto an earlier drawing in which I liked the background. Then I scanned that pasted-together image to get it into the computer, where I could start working with it in Photoshop.
In Photoshop, I first had to do a line drawing, which you can see here, then needed to select all the color areas and fill them in. Sometimes I used Fill, sometimes I just painted the area with a ‘brush’ via my Wacom tablet, and sometimes I used a gradient. All this was to give me as close an idea as I could get digitally to what might happen once I started actually painting on canvas.
The result was sufficiently encouraging to get me to the next stage—actually drawing the image on canvas.
Finally, I was ready to start mixing colors. This is one of the most important stages of any painting, and it’s also one of my least favorite. Mixing colors is tedious and exacting (which is one of the reasons I like to do it on the computer first because that’s more fun and flexible!). Fortunately I have been doing this for enough years that I’m pretty good at it. But just because I’m good at mixing the color I have in mind doesn’t mean that that color is the RIGHT color. What looks good on the palette may or may not look good once it’s up there on the canvas in the context of the colors around it. You know you’ve done a good job of preliminary color mixing when you only have to re-mix 3 or 4 colors out of the maybe 15 or 20 you’re using for the painting. At least this is the way it works in my world.
The first areas of color I laid in were the sky (some blue at the top, some pale yellow nearer the horizon), part of the beach, a bit of the waves, and a bit of the figure. I don’t always do it, but it’s always a good idea to work all over the painting, right from the start. It lessens the likelihood of unpleasant surprises later on, which can happen if you’re taking one part of the painting to a high level of finish, then you start working on another area and find the two areas don’t hang together.
I continued working all over the painting, bringing the beach and trees area, the clouds and sky area, and the breaking waves and shorebreak area, to a fairly finished state. I kind of broke the rule I just stated above by avoiding the figure and foreground. I had a couple of diametrically opposed reasons for doing that. One, I was nervous about the figure—if it doesn’t work, the painting doesn’t work! Two, I was excited about the figure and wanted to save the best part for last. Neither of these reasons was really good enough to justify this behavior, but hey, I’m a crazy emotional artist, I’m not supposed to always do the sensible thing.
Kind of a big jump from the previous in-progress photo to this finished work, but that’s because I got so into the painting I forgot to take pictures. Remember, I was working under a deadline, too, so I was kind of feverish. But I was also really happy and excited because everything was coming together! I took a chance with this one—lots of chances, actually, one of the biggest being that I could do it in 4 days. If I hadn’t been able to pull it off I would have had a hard time shaking off that feeling of failure through the Christmas holidays. I was very grateful and happy that it worked out so well, and I went off to Albuquerque with a light step and a happy heart!