Saturday, October 30, 2010

Evolution of a Studio Piece

I've been asked periodically to show a progressive series of images on how I work. It is a lot more convenient to document one's work in the studio than it is outside, as the working pace is not constrained by the changing light. There are natural stopping points indoors... a phone call, a meal, a bathroom break, or just to step back and judge the progress, assess the overall balance, decide what's left to do, etc.

I am doing some new work for a group show of Pixar artists at the Holton Studio in early December. As gallery owners and framers deserve to be kept in the loop when the clock is ticking down towards a show, I initially shot this to apprise Tim Holton of what was coming his way (and to assure him that I was actually working on something). Anyways, I took the opportunity to document the progress of this work, as much for my own curiosity as to to satisfy anyone else's interest.
The images below were taken over a week's time, some the same afternoon or evening. This is from a pastel study I did on my last Sierra trip in August to the Little Lakes Valley on the East side of the Sierra. Some notes on my process are given below each image. I should mention that I enjoy studying the game of chess, and a great part of that pleasure stems from reading over the annotated games of players, where they record their strategic ideas, plans, hopes and fears throughout the process of a game. There is a similar process in the creation of a painting, in my mind.

Here's the starting point. I'm working large (for me). This is a 17 x 21 sheet of Canson Twilight taped onto a piece of foam core. I have my field study and a reference photo off to the right. Working in the living room on a Saturday. I'm just laying in all the big shapes. A painting is a 2 dimensional pattern of value and color relationships, regardless of the subject, so my initial marks are just to cover all those areas with a basic foundation color and value. Basic proportions are judged relative to each other. Trying to avoid jumping into any one area, and just keep moving, but you can see I want to play around in the trees against the background on the right. There's some rich color and interesting edges up there.

Clearly started on the right, and headed left. Keep in mind pattern relationships are not necessarily object based, they are simply the major visible differences in the image... masses of things, shadow shapes, etc. These shapes and relationships form the underlying structure and composition of the final image.

Continuing the journey to the left side of the image, but starting to work back into already established zones with the color I'm aiming for, pushing values and temperatures around, and refining edges. This is where a field study is invaluable, as opposed to only having a photograph. One's own color impressions and perceptions are often significantly different than what a camera is necessarily capable of recording. I usually reference my field study for the range of color, value, and my subjective impression of the experience, while the photo provides a more accurate reference for detail and placement of edges and forms.
It was fun to knock in the boulders on the lower left like a bunch dinosaur teeth. Most marks are kept pretty chunky, but I am starting to gradate color in the sky and the background peak that runs off to the right, as it moves towards the light. The upper left needs a cloud, and two layers of overlapping forms before I can justify more work in the foreground. Overall, I've probably put 90 minutes into the work, broken up into a few sessions over one afternoon and evening.

Sunday Session: It's raining out, I've got a Flemish pot roast burbling away in the other room, and the music is turned up. Olfactory and auditory sensations are good! Time to immerse. The upper left has been laid, bg peak, and midground blue cliff all have some level of detail in the appropriate value and color range to keep it subordinate to the main contrasting zones of the image. I may make subtle adjustments and refinements to these areas, but they are pretty much done.

Monday Evening: I've got a cold, and am sneezing and dripping. You can see some evidence of that condition right at the horizon of the sky and the curving ridge above center. I've added warm light to the cloud and pushed the atmospheric light temperature on the upper right side of the image, behind the trees, and in front of the snow patch. The entire tree line has been indicated across the top of the cliff. At this point I've got the whole image up and running, and am now looking to balance and refine certain areas. At a glance, it can almost feel done, and the challenge from this point on is not to overwork it, but find a way of gracefully exiting the process after further resolving certain areas. The cliff is full of creases, crevices, and a range of differing temperatures on its faceted surface. Danger! The boulder field on the left needs to progress further, the cool talus slope below the cliff in shadow can use some more definition, as can the trees on the upper right. I again refer to my field study to see what I thought was important information when I was there, as the photo reference shows 'everything' in excruciating detail, and a far blander color scheme to boot. The lower right quadrant of the image has a level of loose handling, and luminous color relationships that I'm happy with, so I use that as a guide towards resolving the rest of the image.

About an hour later I've reached this point, and am feeling good enough to send a picture of it to the gallery. There's still more to go, but it is a careful dance of leaving out detail you know is there, but may not necessarily improve the image, or throw it out of balance. I've touched the meadow, the talus, the trees and the cliff, moving and adding color, levels of detail, and form description. Still need to remove the sneeze spots...

The High Country
16 x 20
Pastel on Canson Paper

My real job kept me busy the rest of the week, so I wrapped this up the following Saturday morning, working the lower left boulder field, the more distant cliff slope behind it, and readjusting color temperatures and contrast on the central cliff. I think I missed a bit of the earlier more luminous trees up top, but I at least managed to quit at this point.


Carolyn Jean Thompson said...

Wow - thanks for sharing your process. Gorgeous piece. I enjoyed seeing how you do such amazing rocks.

Carol Horzempa said...

Thank you for sharing a demo in pastel. I always had a problem with cliffs and rocks so this is very inspiring to see it painted so well. The whole scene is beautifully done!

keith cormier said...

Wow Bill, thank you for doing this great play by play! Very enlightening!

ddd said...

This is awesome, Bill! Thanks for posting your process, it is very generous.

Donna Van Tuyl said...

So beautiful.

wataru said...

I like art of Dice Tsutsumi very much.  The he likes your art very much. I understand reasons well.
 I want to go to visit the Nature when I watch your art.

Bill Cone said...

Thanks everyone for your kind remarks.
Regarding painting rocks, I think what is important is painting the behavior of light on those surfaces. Its really one of the primary reasons that the Sierra is such an interesting place to paint. The reflected light into the shadowed spaces of the light colored rocks projects such a clear statement of color at times. That effect alone can be a motivating factor in choosing something to paint.

I should also mention that when I paint outdoors, the struggle is more intense, brief, and not always successful. In a workshop I had this summer, several of my students documented such efforts. I may post something from that soon. It is hard enough for me to do a demo, and it is compounded by all your mistakes being recorded for posterity by a camera.

In comparison, studio work, bolstered by studies and reference is nowhere near as nerve wracking.

Unknown said...

Bill, thanks for this demo!!! I admire your work and was always wondering how you do it.
I made a post about you and this demo on my blog. Please take a look

Ida M. Glazier said...

so wonderful!! I am so glad you posted this piece this way on your blog, and wrote out some of your thoughts toward progressing. Its really beautiful, as we know the Sierra's can be----and your work on Canson is amazing---just love it, and love seeing it. So worth all the struggle us common folks go thru to see what an amazing artist can accomplish with the same tools!!!Thank you!

Artbymarion said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. It was interesting to see how the image appeared. Your descriptions of your thought processes were very interesting and insightful.

Chris and Patricia said...

What a great discovery to find your website! You're an amazing inspiration as a pastel artist. So much more to learn from others. Keep up the great work!

Adriana Meiss said...

I've been waiting a long time for this demo. Thank you! What amazes me the most is how you manage to get such radiant scenes on Canson. I'll be looking at this over and over. I'm looking forward to your on location demo!

Olga Drebas said...

Hello Bill, thanks a lot for letting us take a peek at your work process!
I had this question in mind, couldn't find your email anywhere so.. Posting it here. Would you agree to let me translate the essential information of the work process into Russian and post this as a lesson from you on the local resourses? You see, I teach drawing at a small studio, and some people there are interested in pastels, so I thought it might be very helpful for them.
I'd sure include a link back to your blog anywhere I post.

Bill Cone said...

Thanks everyone for your kind remarks.
Olga: I sent you a reply in email. Thanks for asking permission.

Many folks over the years keep commenting about the use of Canson paper as if it is a difficult or unrewarding surface to work on. As it has been my primary work surface for about 14 years, I'm used to it. I did try some wallis type paper this summer, and was able to think about the differences between them.

I think the most significant character of the Canson is that, with soft pastels, (softer than Rembrandt) one can use a range of very light pressure to get pigment to release onto the paper. If you think of the range of volume one can achieve with a single piano key, from quiet to loud, that gives you an idea of how to employ soft pastel on Canson. Practice making 'quiet' marks. You can build up color for quite a long time if you don't pile it on early, or use so much pressure as to flatten the surface down. I use the smooth side of the paper, btw, as it has a more random and subtlet grain pattern. Canson simply rewards a light touch, I think that is the most significant strategy to consider when using that surface.

I did a few studies this summer in Oregon on what I think is called spectrafix paper (?) and enjoyed them, and took note of the character of the surface:

1. There is a fair amount of 'resistance', i.e. friction, to moving the chalk across the surface.

2. Detailed edges and marks are harder to achieve, as the roughness of the paper breaks down any edge you might have, or simply accepts pigment in a grainier fashion.

3. Besides the 'feel' of it being different, due to the roughness of the surface, the paper clearly will accept a lot more pigment, and since it comes off the stick easily, and rewards the use of more pressure.

I think this final quality of the sanded surfaces is probably what makes many people uncomfortable with Canson. You can't drive much pigment into Canson for very long before it refuses to accept anymore.

However, if you lighten up your touch, and I mean REALLY LIGHTEN it, you can build up color throughout the entire process.

Caroline Peña Bray said...

Fantastic and fascinating post, Bill. Reminds me to use my head more when I work and also to muster all the patience I have. Thanks for sharing!

Be said...

Very good! Always nice to read you.

Got a question for you:

Do you have image-quality problems with blogger? I often have to ajust color saturation and contrasts in photoshop for my paintings to look like the real thing on my blog.
And still, i'm rarely satisfied.

You pastels look great online.
Got any advice?


Jen Betton said...

Thanks for the demo Bill - it is always so instructive to watch you work. I went pastel painting with Phyllis and Tom this weekend, and we kept talking about the need to simplify!

Thanks for sharing - it's lovely and I look forward to seeing the new show when it goes up!

Anonymous said...

Hi Bill, I'm searching for a way to contact you. We'd like to invite you to participate in a plein air festival... If you could contact me with an email or phone number, it would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks, Cinnamon Rossman, Peninsula School of Art, 920.868.3455,

Anita Stoll said...

Thank you this so very insightful post. I have used Canson paper since I began painting with pastels in the 90s and I agree with your assesments. Wonderful demo.

Nexxorcist said...

awesome and so helpful.

Anonymous said...

Bill, trying to reach you to interview you for an article in PleinAir magazine. Please let me know how to send you questions or call you. Thanks, Steve Doherty Editor (