by Thomas Torak
This is an excerpt from Robert K. Carsten’s feature article “Alive with Paint” in The Artist’s Magazine (October 2013). To read the full article, click here, or to subscribe, click here.
Painting self-portraits has a long and continuing tradition, from Rembrandt to Vincent van Gogh to David Leffel. It’s a wonderful way for artists to experiment with materials and techniques while creating interesting characters. In the Studio (oil, 40×30) was painted directly on the canvas from life, using a mirror, without preliminary drawings or oil studies. It was completed in 4 days, with 4 to 6 hours of work each day.
1. First hour—Begin with sweeping rhythms: My vision is to have a painting that looks alive when it’s finished; therefore, it must begin in a lively way. Rather than the traditional (plodding and laborious for me) blocking-in method, I prefer to use loose, sweeping rhythms to begin my painting. These rhythms moved up, down, and around this particular figure as I designed the composition. At this stage I’m focused only on the design of the painting; a finished drawing isn’t necessary.
2. Day 1—Develop the form: After I’m satisfied with where my figure or particular elements are on the canvas, I can begin to develop the form. Because I’m creating the illusion of form in three dimensions, I choose to deny the existence of the picture plane and prefer to think of my canvas as an empty three-dimensional space. Instead of building my painting on the canvas, I can let it slowly emerge from that empty space.
3. Day 2—Develop the space, the whole: Before going too far with the subject, I take time to let the rest of the painting begin to emerge. In order for the head to appear three-dimensional in this piece, I have to establish the space around the head. The paintings and sketchpads behind the figure must live in the same space as the figure, so it’s important that all the parts of this painting relate to one another. If I think of “the background” as less important or separate from the figure or subject, the harmony of the entire painting will suffer.
4. Day 3—Focus on intangibles: When all parts of the painting are well established, I can focus on the character, personality, and details. Instead of piling on more brushstrokes, I let my brush move over the forms of the head in much the same way as a sculptor models the forms on his clay figure with his thumb—sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully. I bring every part of the painting to whatever amount of finish is appropriate to express that part. No part of any painting, however, can be more important than the whole.
5. Finishing—Unify the whole with washes: Most artists finish their painting by adding details. Because I want my painting to be energetic and alive, I use the last day’s work to re-establish the breadth of the piece. Sometimes I proceed with a final detail, but more often I use large transparent washes.
No piece, no detail, no brushstroke is more important than the harmony and luminosity of the whole. My focus returns to where the painting began. The canvas is an empty space; the figure stands in that space and is illuminated by a single source of light.
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