Thinking in Blocks
The more difficult a thing is to do – the more method is required. Breaking an image down into broad tonal areas (as outlined above and below) is one method that makes it easier to analyse an image and easier to paint. Think broad to begin with and add layers of detail gradually.
The secret to portraiture (or any fine detailed painting) is patience and time. Portraiture is something that requires endless practice. It may seem an obvious thing to say but, we live in a different world from that of Velasquez. Our world, due to: the internet; social media; mobile phones; multi-channel TV; 24 hour rolling news broadcasts is a global world of “the instant”. We want to be able to do anything, see anything, go anywhere and we want to do it now. Unfortunately, painting is different.It does not lend itself to instant gratification.
The detail of the face must be built up gradually, subtly, with long observation. This is where the original investment in the under painting comes into its own. Its at this stage that you must have already established the exact positioning of every feature through your original drawing. If not, you will start to “draw” instead of painting. Remember, drawing and painting are two separate processes. With drawing you are busy comparing: establishing distances; length of lines; positioning etc. With painting you are layering colours and tones down and “sculpting and coaxing them into position to describe form, shape,shadow, highlight, colour, and tone. When it comes to the facial detail, each small area has to be carefully observed, then blended and assessed and re-assessed. it would be no exaggeration to say that after all the big broad areas of tone and colour are in place you should work on square centimetre areas one by one across the face until it looks exactly right.
Painting has been described as the last great craft. A craft is exactly that. It takes years of endless practice to recreate a piece of music by Bach or Mozart. It’s the same with painting. There is no instant magic formula. Velásquez lived in a different world. He was born in 1599 in Seville, in Spain. When we think of the “old masters” we are really talking about the art of white, European, men. Who lived in countries with little political or social resemblance to contemporary Europe. Their training would have regimented and academic. Spain (and most other European countries would have been almost wholly Christian (Catholic in the case of Spain) Religion was everything. All major commissions were of Christian subjects and paintings were made to the glory of God. No free thinking, romantic artists here (Romanticism; the idea of an awareness of the “beauty” of things using sense and emotion to create free-thinking images of your own, as opposed to reason and intellect was two centuries away.) Velásquez’s art would have been creating within that one context. Today we can go on Amazon for art history books and see ancient cave painting beside the French Impressionists or Picasso. All out of their original context giving the impression that everybody lived at the one time and were familiar with each others think and practices.
Today, we still have strong echoes of the “Romantic” artist, a tortured intellectual striving to create something lasting. For me that’s just a train of thought that would seriously get in the way of practical workshop practices and being able to paint at this level. Keep it real. painting is about a methodical achievement of specific goals. Learn your trade/craft/art. A friend of mine a very good and successful painter stated once that “I wouldn’t even talk to an artist who hadn’t at least fifteen years professional practice behind them” bit extreme, but I knew what he meant.
The picture above is the painting about 85/90% finished. As we have seen. There are ways to do this. Each procedure must happen in sequence. An absolute accurate drawing is key to success. Once the foundation of the brown line drawing is in place. The oil painting stage begins with the artist thinking “broad to narrow” beginning with broad areas of colour and tone and gradually adding layers of detail.
You may ask, why bother? This has all be done before? My answer is simple. You’ll be a better painter. It’s great practice. What musician would not benefit from trying to copy Beethoven, Bach or even The Beatles? The use of overhead projectors, putting in place a strong detailed drawing, studio disciplines of keeping brushes and mixes clean, sequential methods, practice and planning, thinking in blocks, working broad to narrow, all this establishes a “fence” around your thinking and focuses you on the task at hand. These are useful guides for any painter (or any project) Like any thing else worth doing, you only get out what you put in. There’s nothing simple about painting like this. If you are serious about becoming a skilled painter then practice, practice, practice.