Art in the Making

My Painting Process: Four Stages + Joys & Challenges Of Each One

Yesterday I posted a snapshot of this painting in progress on Facebook and said it was in the “tremendously gratifying stage, where brushstrokes are loose and shapes take form quickly.”

a snippet of a current Stage 2 work in progress

It dawned on me that since I started painting on a regular basis I've noticed four distinct stages to my paintings, each one bringing its own joys and challenges. I thought it would be interesting to dissect them here because, well, that's what I do. I dissect.

Stage 1: Get the paint down and play.

The trick to not being intimidated by a blank canvas is to let go of expectations and just play. Throw paint on it, spread it, scrape it. Stay free!

I usually start by choosing colours that call to me, or specific ones if I have a palette in mind. Then I start layering the paint on my canvas. I may use various tools to apply the paint: palette knives, brushes, sponges or even my fingers. I might spritz it with my water bottle to create drips, I might turn the canvas around and do it again. I start noticing colour combinations, marks or shapes that please me, but I don't get too attached to them.

an example of early mark making

For the most part this is intuitive and quick. Sometimes there is intention behind my marks, but I try to keep things light. (Creating interaction between marks is something I learned about in Pauline Agnew's online art course, Draw and Paint What You Love. I highly recommend her course if you're looking to bring more technique into your painting.)

I rarely encounter challenges at this stage except maybe over-blending some of my colours, but that can easily be remedied by adding yet another layer of marks.

The goal in Stage 1 is to just start layering paint and create a background for what is to come...

Stage 2: Loosely shape the marks into what's asking to be painted.

This is where I take my canvas full of marks, flip it around and keep adding to it until I see organic shapes that somehow look like something I'd want to emphasize or build on for an end product.

Sometimes I'm looking for something specific, for example, if I want to paint a portrait I'll turn my canvas and add marks until I see something that looks like a potential contour of someone's hair, a neckline or facial features. Sometimes shapes come out unexpectedly as in “Whoa, that looks like a house and two people walking! Let's work with that and see where it goes.”

Once I've identified a potential shape I take my brush and loosely “pull it out”, which means I start defining it without being too uptight about it. I might try to find a reference photo to help me out. This is also where I usually start limiting my colour palette, working towards something that will be harmonious in the end product.

I LOVE this stage because it's often very gratifying with quick and obvious results.

"La dame au chapeau rouge" at the end of Stage 2

with defined shapes, but still pretty rough

If it doesn't work out I go back to Stage 1, but if I like what I'm seeing I'm off to the next stage, often with a wee bit of apprehension...

Stage 3: Tweak, refine, repeat.

I'll be honest, this is NOT my favourite stage; it requires focus, patience and commitment. Tell me, where's the fun in that? But it can still be gratifying, just in a more subtle way.

In this stage I take a step back and look at my painting with a critical eye. Is something “off'”? Do any of the proportions or colours need tweaking? Are my edges soft where I want them crisp, or crisp where I want them soft? Are they sloppy?

Sometimes I take a photo of my piece and look at it on my computer screen. Things may jump out at me through the screen that escape me when I'm looking at it on the easel.

Ultimately, if this stage doesn't work out I return to Stage 1 and start over. It's rare, but it happens, and it takes a good dose of self-honesty to make the call. Am I throwing in the towel because the piece really isn't speaking to me anymore or am I simply feeling lazy?

A quick gut check usually tells me when I need persist and when it's best to let go.

One coping mechanism I use to help me through the minutiae of Stage 3 is to take progress photos as I tweak. Changes are subtle, but seeing the before & after shots side by side keeps me motivated.

So many adjustments to her hat where it meets her hair on the right...

and see the difference in the shadows on her neck between 1 & 2?

P.S. These are only three pics out of several progress shots.

Stage 3 pushes most of my buttons and requires a certain amount of self-awareness and discipline, but I try to plug through and keep at it because I know that eventually the reward is the all glorious Stage 4...

Stage 4: Declare it complete.

I've tweaked, I've toiled, I've most likely cursed, but the painting is done and DONE. I have declared it complete and now bask in that sense of accomplishment. I take photos for my website and may even post some here or on Facebook.

The painting may be one of my best or it may not be; either way it's time to move on.

Moving on is especially important if I really like what I just painted. Why? Because the longer I bask in the satisfaction of a piece I love, the more intimidated I become at the thought of starting something new that might not live up to it.

It's a fine line that one and the best way I've found to navigate it is to pick up a new canvas and get started.

Which brings me right back to Stage 1...


Dearest reader, you've made it this far. Does this mean you can relate to any of this? Did you find it helpful?

I'd love to know.

Art in the Making: Matisse Inspired Woman

I love how Henri Matisse used bold lines and colours in his paintings and drawings, it's no secret that I am quite smitten with his work.

Last week I completed a painting using Matisse's Green Romanian Blouse (Blouse roumaine verte) as a reference. I love how she turned out!

A glimpse into her making...

Matisse Woman - Initial Marks

Most of my paintings start out with marks on canvas. I had no clue where this was going to end up.

Matisse Woman - First Sketch

The flowy lines in my marks reminded me of hair and fabric. I searched for a reference image to help me out and found Matisse's The Green Romanian Blouse.

Matisse Woman - First Shapes

Painting the large shapes, giving her form.

Matisse Woman - Background

Filling in the background, trying to choose colours that would be harmonious and make her blouse stand out.

Matisse Woman - She's done!

Finally, solidifying colours, refining some of the edges to my satisfaction (see where her forehead meets her hand, how it's different than the previous photo?), and declaring her COMPLETE!