Detail - Passion, Purgatory and Perfection
I cannot deny it, nor have I ever tried, to me detail is everything.
In many ways’ art is more than an occupation, it is a way of life. Perhaps it is only something another artist can truly understand, perhaps not? But whatever our occupation, no matter how diverse, we are all driven by something. And as far ranging as those roles may be, we can all understand how something can push us on. On the good days, the bad days and even the days when it leaves us altogether. We go back because of it and never in-spite of it.
For me the great driving factor is detail. I remember drooling over the paintings of David at the Palace of Versailles for the first time. Transfixed and moved at the same time. We can all look at that which we covert, but it is when we truly see, that we realise our path. For me looking has almost become an occupation all its own. Scrutinising detail, colour, form and shape. Making mental notes and images. Somehow overcoming the ‘awe’ and seeing the work. Finding the threads among the masterpieces and working out ‘how’.
Transferring that which we learn from studying the great paintings we love into our work can be very challenging indeed. We can fill our heads with great ideas and our hearts with the passion and motivation to strike out on our own. But then seated at our easels, with a blank canvas before us, sometimes that former exuberation can fade. I have often found myself drained when I begin work. It can be hard to translate everything in one go. The simple answer to this is to break things up in to manageable and organised stages.
I like to break drawing and paintings stages down to ‘manageable details.’ Firstly, the drawing. This has to be done precisely, as I am a great believer that if the ‘under layers’ are well executed then the resulting piece will come together all the better. I use the ethos that,
‘ With each well executed layer,
progress will always be fair.’
Poetry and puns aside, it is truly a simple but very effective method for me. It keeps me on track and while at times we might like to skip or rush something with find laborious. In the end it is always better to keep on track.
After the drawing stage comes the first undercoat layer. This simply removes the blank whiteness of the canvas. And in many cases is a choice of colours that will benefit the finished work. Then onto the first layers of painted detail. Making sure we leave markers for significant points. With equine portraiture, this is the layer in which the horse you are representing appears truly for the first time. I think if I can capture the likeness and feel of the animal here, then things will go well. See below an example of an equine portrait in first layer painted detail. (Fig 1)
The next stages are ones of colour and tone. With the initial detail in place, I like to concentrate on blocking in the piece. This can be quite a few layers, as some areas can be shaded and others tinted, if you will. For example, a bay horse is never simply brown, a black never just black and so on. Colours and tones can be cold or warm. With shades such a pink, purple and reds creeping in. Seeing and looking past that which your brain tells you is there can be a revelation. Seeing more than brown and chestnut and seeing intense detailed tones can really bring a painting to life. Sometimes at this stage I like to add the first elements of the background. Whether this be a landscape or simply shaded backdrop. I think it helps give the piece balance and sometimes highlights the central focal image.
Backgrounds are often blocked in at this stage. Nothing more than shape and shadow. (Fig 2)
Then comes perhaps my favourite layers of the painting. With most of the shape and colour now firmly in place we can concentrate on the finishing details. But by finishing it does not necessarily mean that they are quick or easy. Sometimes this stage can take the longest. It’s a case of refining and glazing and adding little touches that make the image breathe. While our tastes in painting vary a lot, my penchant is for paintings that have a perfect finish. By this I mean a flat surface. And for this, paints are used in thin layers built up. And with this I like to achieve (hopefully!) a seamless finish where colours are blended, or almost bled. Using an almost hidden layering system. And these finishing layers of tone and detail are almost for this reason the most important of all. (Fig 3 & Fig 4)
At this stage it is often hard to know when to stop. When to say to yourself, yes, I’m happy with that. Sometimes the quest for perfection can overrun without the piece ever improving. It helps sometimes to take time away and look at it with a fresh eye.
There is always more I can do, I tell myself that every time. But for me art is still a learning curve, perhaps it always will be. Yet I know every emotion I go through, passion, anger and frustration are all worth it. And yet ironically, when we hang our paintings, displaying them before spectators, we hope that none of that is obvious. Only that it is well executed and hopefully seamless. Every brushstroke will look purposeful and planned. And hopefully they find it very agreeable.