What It Takes
People often ask me how long it takes to paint a painting. I think it's not so much that they are interested in the exact time, but they want to get a sense my typical process from inspiration to completed canvas. In this post I explain the stages and some of the creative decisions that went into my recent painting, "The Family Castle", which began with photos I took of a family at Clearwater Beach, FL. This 40x40 painting took about a month to complete.
My inspiration for this painting began with the image on the left. When I was walking along Clearwater Beach I was attracted to this young family creating a sand castle together. I took several photos and these two were my favorites.
I was immediately attracted to the beautiful posture of the woman at the left. She is standing in a classic contrapposto pose – her weight on one foot – which makes her body look both dynamic and relaxed. The bucket in her hand and her air of concentration tell the story of the scene: the family enjoying working on a fun project together. I also liked how the two sons were working side by side.
In the photo on the right I liked the pose of the standing son caught in a moment of action and purpose. Since odd numbers are always more interesting, I combined all these figures to make a family of five instead of four. I re-positioned all five figures to create a scene that worked in my favorite square format, which you can see below in black and white.
You may have noticed that the photo at left is in the sun and the one at right is under clouds. I planned to modify the skin tones of the standing boy and to add sharper shadows to make him look correct in my sunlit painting.
I used a black and white version of the composite photo (above left) to create my form and value studies (center). The small sketch defines the large shapes which must make an interesting design on their own, without details. The larger sketch is the value study. In it you can see that the darkest shapes are all in the foreground; the woman's hair and top, the three caps of the boys, and the father's shorts. They create a pattern that moves your eye around the canvas. Even though the background in the photo is much darker, I planned to paint it light to make that area recede.
Next I added notes on the value sketch as I planned the colors. I always start with the actual colors in the photo that I like – in this case, the red and black of the woman's suit and the beautiful green/blue of the water – and then I work around those colors to plan all the other hues.
On the right is my palate as I worked on the painting. Generally, I mix multiple hues for each color. The red of her suit, for instance, has at least four versions. For each hue, I start with the darker colors at the back of my palate and lighten it as I move forward. The three vertical lines of color at the left are all versions of skin color. These puddles of mixed color constantly change as I work on the painting and need more space to mix fresh color.
Drawing and Painting
Using a grid on both the photo and my grey-tinted canvas, I started the drawing with a light yellow ochre paint. Next, I used a darker burnt sienna on top of that as I continued to refined the drawing.
On the right are my first marks of color, starting with the ones I was most sure of. I painted very loosely to define the major color notes. You can see I added additional figures in the ocean to round out the composition.
First Pass of Color
On the left is my completed first pass, with only simplified color notes for each color. On the right, I started to modify some of the colors. For instance, I changed the color of the swimsuits of the man and boy, and I lightened the distant buildings and the sand castle. My goal was to make the colors work better together and to make the background recede.
Now the Details
At the scale of these photos you might not be able to see it, but there is a tremendous amount of refining represented in these two images. I continued to lighten and modify the figures, the background, the ocean, the sky, and the sand. My aim was to balance all the elements and to create the statement of a relaxed family working together on a sunny beach. When I felt that I had accomplished that (and nothing bothered me), I finally signed my name.