Abstracting Dan … a many step process
Abstracting from the model is not my long suit, but my late afternoon class at the Art Students League is all about just that. It’s usually four 20 minute poses each class and ideally one of them will be worth turning into a real painting.
The last week of September we had a great model but one 20 minute sketch after another wasn’t going well. Miraculously, the 7th one showed some promise. I brought the pad home, propped it up in my studio and kept staring at it, trying to figure out how I could “fix” it.
Dan’s left shoulder was too prominent and it was just too obvious what was foreground and what was background. I needed to pull some of the ‘background’ forward and push some of the ‘foreground’ back. Maybe if I took the pattern of orangy yellow blocks and pulled it over his arm… So I started by painting ‘Dan’ and then cut up blocks of a file folder and laid them over the background on the right and then over his left arm. That was better but the color was wrong. So I painted a few of the blocks to see what would work. Then I painted them on the painting. Much better. Next I tackled the left background. I added a pattern of yellow flecks to try and bring it forward. That helped, but it wasn’t enough, so I added green flecks to the pattern. But then, it occurred to me to move the green flecks over part of his right arm, thereby pushing it back and pulling the ‘background’ forward. I decided to test it by cutting up some old, faded green construction paper and letting it fall on his arm. It worked, so I painted it.
When I showed the painting to my art friends, they thought the orangy yellow blocks weren’t strong enough to offset the dominance of his left arm (I had faded the blocks as they moved toward the center of the painting). So I intensified the color and then also added a green border to some of the sides of the blocks. That made the blocks come forward and his arm move back.
Finally, I showed it to Frank O’Cain, my teacher, who suggested I might want to do something to make the three burnt sienna objects (Dan’s two arms and his face and neck) less of a repeating pattern. Watercolor is a very unforgiving medium and erasing something already painted usually falls somewhere between difficult and impossible. However, I have recently discovered that the Mr. Clean Magic Eraser (intended to clean walls and sinks) also will magically erase watercolor without totally damaging the paper. So I wet the Eraser and started rubbing away the side of Dan’s face. Many stops and starts and a day later, I’m happy with the result. I signed it.
I suppose if you’re someone like Frank O’Cain with oodles of experience in abstracting from the figure, something like this might just sorta happen, all in one fell swoop. For me, it takes a lot of planning and testing and trial and error and erasing. Oh yeah, and painting.
And who knows? A month from now I may look at it and think, “Aargh, how did I not see that? I have to fix…”