Re-paint: Ye Xian and the Golden Fish

The story of Ye Xian (final)

The story of Ye Xian (final)

This is the third repaint of a calendar: this time the story I ended up picking is the “Chinese Cinderella”, Ye Xian.

Every year House of Chu in SJ gives out these calendar scrolls for the (Roman) calendar year with descriptions from the Chinese zodiac. The calendars aren’t always correlated to the nearest Chinese zodiac year, but they always have some kind of interesting illustration on them. I use the illustration as the base for a painting of Chinese folktales and mythology: so far, the association between dragons and water gods, and the rabbit in the moon.

I wasn’t sure what to do with this one when I first started, so I painted over the calendar portions and filled in the overall color scheme. I have one more calendar to go (the one with horses) so I filled that one in at the same time too. I kept the other calendars nearby for reference about the overall feel, and after staring at the koi one for a while decided I should fill in more fish. While thinking about fish, I remembered the “Chinese Cinderella” story. I mimicked the style of the fish and painted in the large golden koi and a few others.

By this point I knew I’d make the lilypads the most prominent repeated elements, outlined in black like the clouds and river in the previous calendars. I also wanted to have a hint of Ye Xian here, reaching out to the fish. I couldn’t eyeball the right spots to put them in, so I needed to mock up what to do next. At this time Adobe announced a few new drawing apps, so I tried out Adobe Sketch on the iPad. It didn’t really suit the precision and duplication I needed for this style of mockup, but I made do with a very basic, very rough sketch.

While that was enough to get the lilypads in the right place, it was just looking off. I realized it was just looking way too busy. I took a fresh photo and reworked it in Photoshop to simplify it. The most confusing part ended up being the bushy plant at the top. Once I took that out, it was easy to fix it in Photoshop and pretty straightforward to paint it. When I actually repainted it, I left hints of it visible since it looked like an underwater plant.

The original calendar

The original calendar

Making a "blank" canvas

Making a “blank” canvas

Adding the pink

Adding the pink

Hello fish!

Hello fish!

Adobe Sketch mockup

Adobe Sketch mockup

Hand modeling

Hand modeling

Just...busy

Just…busy

The Photoshop mockup

The Photoshop mockup

Nearly done

Nearly done

Life drawing, and reprogramming how you see

1-2 minutes poses

1-2 minutes poses

I’m seeking out opportunities to do life drawing so I can get a bit more attuned to gesture and anatomy. I’d ultimately like to get better at representing facial expression and body language.

If you’ve never tried figure drawing before, it’s an interesting process no matter what you think of your artistic skills. In a few ways, it moves you into a space that is contrary to how you usually interact with the world. For that alone it’s quite a mind-clearing exercise.

Looking to understand

We’re taught not to stare. It’s a behavior we intentionally adjust in ourselves because of the way it affects others, the many different ways it can be perceived…especially by strangers. Life drawing is a situation that is a direct challenge to this. The model is (usually) someone you don’t know that has given you permission to look as much as you need to, with no further relationship or obligation. It’s up to you what happens then, and what approach you take to understanding their particular truth.

In the first life drawing class I took, our teacher introduced the model, and after describing the structure of the class, said that we weren’t going to draw yet. For the first pose, we were simply going to look. The model disrobed and adopted the first pose, and we spend 5 minutes in near silence except for the occasional direction of our teacher about things to observe. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a very long time to just look. It’s long enough to get past the initial shock or titillation of seeing someone naked, past the self-conciousness of looking, past any fleeting feelings, judgments, or comparisons that could come up. It’s just not possible to hold onto them.

It’s similar to meditation, though instead of making the space for stillness or clarity, it makes a space for curiosity. I’ll try to figure out which muscles are tensed to support weight. I’ll wonder about the bumps revealed by highlights or shadows, and whether those are bones, or muscle, or skin. I’ll follow the curves and how they connect. I’ll look at the whorls and patterns of hair. I’ll think about what the pose itself seems to communicate.

Discarding what you know

Just as hard as it can be not to stare at something interesting, it can be equally hard to make yourself draw what you’re actually seeing. Your brain says “leg” and has an idea of what a leg should look like. If you’re drawing what you know a leg to look like, you’ll miss learning about the qualities of it that go beyond your current understanding.

Interesting things happen when you pretend you aren’t drawing a particular thing. You can bounce between different modes of seeing: seeing edges, seeing volume, seeing shapes, or the negative space around it, or just the highlights or the shadows, or just a color. You can imagine what would happen if the model shifts balance. You can see the whole pose as if the model were a stack of shapes, or just the skeleton.

So…lest you think it’s mostly about embracing nudity and waxing philosophic about ways to see, there’s a mechanical aspect to the progression of these drawing exercises too. These sessions usually start with extremely short poses – just a minute or two each – to get you capturing overall pose and gesture as quickly as possible. It loosens you up and gets you focusing on what matters most. Usually then it’ll progress to longer and longer poses. The ones I’ve been to lately have gone up to 20 minutes poses.

As I have more time to work, I’ve been trying out different methods of capturing both highlights and shadows. It’s probably a little too fussy as I’m running out of time for some of the details…so I’m still figuring out what level of detail I can get to. I am also finding it hard to do the right thing for heads/faces, probably because I’m starting with parts of the body first (usually shoulder area); somewhat the opposite of what happens when I’m drawing from a photo.

5-minute poses, highlights

5-minute poses, highlights

5-minutes poses, sketches

5-minutes poses, sketches

10-minute poses

10-minute poses

20-minute pose

20-minute pose

20-minute pose

20-minute pose

Lena and Manny After Dinner

The final painting.

Lena and Manny After Dinner • 12″ x 12″

The latest painting in this style & size – these are my husband’s parents Manny and Lena, from (yet another) great photo by Alan. I painted this during a return visit to one of Wayne’s painting classes. This time I was able to pay attention to more detail about color and technique.

  • I used long strokes on the table and the bowls, with a bit of perspective on the paint strokes for the table: larger strokes in the foreground, shorter further away.
  • While smoothing the transition on the hard edge of the dish in the foreground, I ended up with a stippled look that I really liked. It has a kind of atmospheric diffusion that I find really appealing. I like stippling anyway but this is the first time I used it to solve a problem in a painting. I’ll be doing more of this.
  • I must remember to use greens in shadows. It’s counterintuitive to me because I keep thinking back to the watercolor instruction I had in college that emphasized purple. That may be to give it more of a luminescent look, perhaps? (a yellow sun, a purple shadow) With acrylic, and this approach I’ve been using, it’s making more sense to pick direct complementary colors to the object. Then: the yellows and reds of skin tones are counterbalanced with purples and greens…and the bright yellow-orange of the the tabletop has a cool blue shadow.
  • Of the many good pointers from Wayne, the ones that stuck out most this time were about artistic focus. First, if you’re having trouble in an area limit your time on it…and consider sanding it down and starting from scratch if it’s not going where you want it to go. Second: at some point, let go of what you see in the reference and choose the logic that makes sense for this painting instead. That led to the addition/removal of some details, and a lot of the color/style counterbalancing. Good stuff.
Initial sketch

Initial sketch

Yellow ochre layer

Yellow ochre layer

Burnt Sienna layer

Burnt Sienna layer

Burnt Umber layer

Burnt Umber layer

Wayne's suggestions for colors

Wayne’s color suggestions

Ultramarine layer

Ultramarine layer

Table and Window detail

Table and Window detail

Skin tones

Skin tones

Bringing in texture

Bringing in texture

Filling in shadows

Filling in shadows

Greens!

Greens!

Notes about final fixes

Notes about final fixes

Final details fixed

Final details fixed

Checking it out

Checking it out

V&G’s Care Bears Nursery

Nursery is ready to go

Nursery is ready to go!

This is a nursery I painted for friends Virginia and Gabe, with a Care Bears theme. The starting point: many Care Bears-themed items, which varied quite a bit in colors and were stuffed full of bears, stars, clouds, and rainbows. To unify these extremely colorful items, I suggested going for a simple sky and clouds theme with lots of little white stars and a few happy yellow stars. (which stars get faces? Did they have names? I have no idea.) This simpler background would also be easy to change into other themes, like space, Super Mario Bros, or others if they want to change it up in the future.

Similar to the approach I used for Hannah and Amanda’s jungle-themed nursery, I took a few photos and made some mockups in Photoshop to get a sense of the scale of the design, and how the layout would work with their furniture. While doing this I started messing around with accent colors and came up with the pink and yellow frames for the windows. We took a look at these mockups together, and it was a go.

I learned a few things along the way.

  • Dots are a test of stamina. While the sky was simple to paint…it was a lot of dots. Let me say that again: it was a LOT of dots, many of which were above my head. It made me a little loopy, which is when I took the little 2001 photo homage.
  • Yellow paint (in particular, of any color) isn’t opaque. I got this tip from the guy at Home Depot so I painted a white base underneath all the yellow stars. This undoubtedly saved me frustration and potential re-paint.
  • Care Bears are a thing again? Apparently Wendy’s has them as kids’ meal toys right now.
One of the Before shots

One of the Before shots

Mockup of the window side

Mockup of the window side

Mockup of the crib side

Mockup of the crib side

Dot dot dot dot dot

Dot dot dot dot dot

My god, it's full of stars

My god, it’s full of stars

Changing area

Changing area

Over the crib

Over the crib

A resting corner

A resting corner

Two-toned windows

Two-toned windows

Stars everywhere

Stars everywhere

Bookshelf area

Bookshelf area

Ta da!

Ta da!

Sketches: Object Oriented wraps up

A brief update: here are the rest of the sketches from my little Object Oriented sketchbook (the rest are here, here, and here). I’ve got another sketchbook going now that’s a different take on objects, so I’ll catch up to that soon.

Greeting card display

Greeting card display

Eerie skull stool

Eerie skull stool

Touch of upholstery

Touch of upholstery

Nearly empty

Nearly empty

Metallic cream

Metallic cream

Tea basket

Tea basket

Little stone bowl

Little stone bowl

Wooden & sturdy

Wooden & sturdy

Dangling spotlight

Dangling spotlight

Comments?

Comments?

Vending

Vending

Cleaning up

Cleaning up

Untapped

Untapped (2014, 24" x 12")

Untapped (2014, 24″ x 12″)

This one’s going out into the wild! It will be auctioned, to be precise. I’ve donated it to the Triton Museum in Santa Clara for their upcoming “Mad About Art” Gala Auction. All proceeds benefit the Triton for their future exhibits and events. If you want to see it in person, it will be on display April 26 – May 2, 2014; the auction itself is on Friday May 2nd.

I wanted to create something to bridge some of the figure work I’ve been doing with some of the object explorations I’ve done in drawing: isolating objects, removing them, that kind of thing. I also wanted to explore some of the positions and expressions people fall into without thinking about it…hence this once, tapping on the phone that’s not there. Or perhaps making a point?

I modified my technique in a few ways on this one:

  • I brought in cooler colors sooner to add a blueish foundation to the leather jacket.
  • I added a true black (Carbon Black) rather than mixing Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber. Black can muddy colors a little bit, but I figured it would look more true for the jacket. Using Carbon Black washes was a refreshing change that reminded me of the monochrome watercolors I painted for the Make It Legit posts.
  • The fingernails? That’s the lacquer part of the painting. I painted those on using the actual polish I wore in the photo. The color is Wednesday, a nice teal color from Zoya

I painted this one straight from the photo reference – no manipulation here. I posed with my phone, which Alan extracted before he took the photo. And, the pixelated shirt (“The DaVinci Code”) is from San Jose’s own Halloway.

This one is a milestone to me because it’s the first time I’ve started a painting knowing I’d probably never see the original again in person, assuming it sells. That’s a distinctly different feeling than creating art for myself, friends, or family, and feels like it’s going to the next level after a long time dabbling in a lot of different stuff. If you’re reading this after seeing it at the Triton, kudos to you for looking up more info about it, and I hope you find a bit of the backstory interesting.

Not meant to be

Not meant to be

Gesso'd and sketched

Gesso’d and sketched

Yellow ochre and ultramarine blue

Warm & cool tones

Bringing the black

Bringing the black

Cooling the skintones

Cooling the skintones

Woodgrain

Woodgrain

Lacquer as art material

Lacquer as art material

Nearly done

Nearly done

Weathered

Front view

Front view

Side view

Side view

This one is for friends Ted and Claire who live in Colorado, land of extremely variable weather. They wanted a painting that reflected some of the color and variety they see on a daily basis. After consulting with them about what they liked, I went through a few rounds of Photoshop mockups of possibilities. The combination of these large clouds with a hint of reddish mountains won out.

I decided to make a triptych out of it rather than use one large canvas. Since these were considerably bigger canvases than I could paint on the table I usually use, I painted them propped against my closet.

The mountains came together right away. Probably helps that the tones mostly matched the base layers of yellow ochre and burnt sienna. They were so fast and natural to paint that it made me think of Bob Ross. He must have made some happy little mountains for all of those happy little trees to be around.

The clouds involved a lot of drybrushing. I end up mashing my brushes quite a bit with this, but I was pretty good about washing them immediately and they don’t seem too much worse for the wear. I skewed a little lighter on the overall look so I could focus on the subtleties in the pink and golden tones while keeping the weight of the big puffy cumulus clouds.

The progression on this one was a little odd in that it hit a stage where I was pretty happy with it early on. That’s good and bad: the good thing is that it’s motivating to see it come together right away, and the bad thing is that it can make me nervous about moving ahead and messing it up. Once I started adding in the pink tones, I could see more clearly how much more was needed. Also, on some paintings I just get a clear sense of when I’m done, like my recent tomato painting. On others, I see a point where it’s close to where I want it to be and I need to stop myself from overworking it. This was one of those.

It’s ready to go to its new home in Colorado.

Original mockup

Original mockup

The painting space

The painting space

First tone layer

First tone layer

Second tone layer

Second tone layer

Carving out the sky

Carving out the sky

Puffy white highlights

Puffy white highlights

Pink tones

Pink tones

Highlights and soft edges

Highlights and soft edges

 

Barbara Makes a Wish

The final painting

The final painting

After painting my grandfather, I wanted to create a portrait of my grandmother in a similar vein. I found a photo Alan took at her birthday party in 2012 with a neat layout and a great expression. The one drawback: the birthday cake was decorated like a giant cheeseburger. It was pretty funny in person, but for this photo it just seemed…odd.

I did a hefty amount of Photoshop work on this to make it look like a more traditional birthday cake. After digging through Creative Commons for a while, I ended up compositing two or three different cakes with a few photos of lit candles to come up with the final reference photo. From there, it was a similar process as the others, with an especially low point midway through. Got to keep on going ’til it works!

This is my third painting in this style (besides Reino and the tomato), and I’m starting to notice where a few bad habits give me trouble later on.

  • Bad habit #1: mixing my color using the brush itself. This is problematic because I end up with way too much paint on the brush. I don’t want to clean the brush off and lose the paint, but I also usually don’t want to use so much. I go ahead and use it, and end up trying to dilute it and push it around on the canvas itself which doesn’t go well. I’ve misplaced my palette knife, so I have been mixing with the blunt end of a plastic sculpting tool.
  • Bad habit #2: relying too much on water. In my studio art classes in college I used both acrylic and watercolor. The acrylic was mostly a means to an end (figure painting) so the focus was more on color, tone, and composition. The watercolor classes weren’t subject-specific and focused much more on technique, which is probably why I fall back on those methods. To use those methods with acrylic takes more patience because I’ve found that water can dilute or scrub off a dry layer of paint. I need to be better about laying down transparent levels of gloss medium to seal it as I go to avoid this.

Now that I am aware of these, I should (hopefully!) be able to avoid them next time..!

The original photo

The original photo

Tone layer 1

Tone layer 1

Tone layer 2

Tone layer 2

Tone layer 3

Tone layer 3

Adding some blues

Adding some blues

First light wash

First light wash

Adding in yellows

Adding in yellows

Almost done

Almost done

Seeing the final result

Seeing the final result

Reino in Focus

As you can see, the real robe is blue.

Reino checking out the painting

Just located my work-in-progress pics for this painting! Here’s a little painting inception here with my grandfather looking at the finished piece.

This is the second painting I made in Wayne’s class – the first being this tomato. While I was working on the tomato, my husband Alan went to help my grandparents with their computer. My grandparents ran their own tool & die shop for many years. So, rather than using reading glasses or a magnifier, my grandfather uses these shop goggles out of habit. This was novel to Alan so he took a photo and sent it to me, jokingly? suggesting I paint it for the class. I thought “why not?”

This uses the same techniques as the tomato pic, though I have a few more photos of the process before the painting started.

First: print out the color and black and white photos of the image, and analyze what’s going on. Where’s the light source? Are there secondary reflections? Are there adjustments to make to the color scheme? For major color and layout changes I would have tinkered with it in Photoshop more before printing it.

Second: make a good sketch. The painting will be layers upon layers of progressive refinement, so getting the shapes and layout right up front is critical. I do the old “grid” technique of sketching a small grid, usually 4×4, over the image to help with scaling it up to canvas size. It’s so easy to mess up shapes and angles otherwise.

The rest is a similar process. I ended up making the goggles edges red instead of blue with the original intent of making a red/white/blue set of colors since politics are one of his primary hobbies. As I got further into this, I decided to leave the robe more of a brownish color so it wouldn’t stand out as much. Burnt Umber + Ultramarine Blue made a nice, rich dark color that I wanted to keep as is.

I left off a few details that were too distracting: a cuckoo clock, and a railing.

A closer look at the source

All of it to be painted over soon enough!

Preparatory sketch

First tone, finishing up that night.

Tone 1: Yellow Ochre

Starting to get a little more variety here.

Tone 2: Burnt Sienna

Last of the warm tones.

Tone 3: Burnt Umber

I was pretty cautious about the blue at this point.

Starting to add blue

Starting to normalize the colors a bit more here.

A bit more color

Progressive amounts of detail from this point on.

More opaque & highlights

The Complete Tomato

The canvas is 12" x 12"

The Complete Tomato

This is a painting I started in Wayne Jiang’s “Paint Like the Old Dutch Masters” class and had sat unfinished since then. A year later – with a few more hours of work – and it’s done.

Wayne deconstructed a really interesting technique through his observations of incomplete paintings in museums. As I’ve been using it, I think about it as three stages:

  • Foundation: painting just the tones
  • Colors: introducing cool tones and true colors
  • The last mile: refining and troubleshooting

For the foundation, painting the tones means thinking in monochrome. I worked from black and white copies of my image. The result looks like an aged black & white photo. Wayne’s technique uses warm tones, starting light and going dark: from yellow ochre to burnt sienna to burnt umber. On a future painting I’d like to try this same technique with cool tone foundations instead and see how it looks.

For the colors, there’s a dance between balancing the cool and warm tones. Since the foundation is all warm tones, the next step is to balance them out with another foundational approach and just use one color: ultramarine blue. After this it usually starts getting closer to the colors but looks pretty Halloweeny…the warms parts look unusually orange, and the cooler parts are a little dark if they were mid-range tones. Here’s where I start mixing up different colors and getting a little more opaque on the areas that need it. At some point in there I usually get impatient about getting to the good parts and need to keep jumping around to different areas to keep it interesting. I prefer to get to detail work, and have found that too much repetition makes me sloppy so that’s my way of throwing in a little variety.

The rest is figuring out how to make it “done”. During the other stages, someone could walk up to it and see clearly that it’s not finished. During this last stage, it could probably be seen as “done” as any time. If it was being painted for a class project or had some strict deadline, it would need to be. As a project by choice, I have a little more leeway to decide whether it’s done enough. It’s easy to overwork paintings, so my focus here is on anything remaining that doesn’t feel right. The subconscious is great at identifying that there’s something wrong. Figuring out why, and how to fix it, is its own puzzle.

When I reached the third stage on this painting, there were problems with the stems (too transparent, then too yellow), the shape of the tomato (weird edges where the shape meets the shadow) and background painting that left a bit of a halo around the tomato. It also took some noodling to get the right sheen on the skin while still looking nicely ripe. I’m pretty happy with how those cleaned up.

It’s gratifying to fix and finish old projects. The tomato is done.

Starting with a sketch

Starting with a sketch

All the lighter tones filled in

Tone 1: yellow ochre

Mid-tones only for this color.

Tone 2: burnt sienna

Just the darkest tones here.

Tone 3: burnt umber

Here's how it's looked for the last year.

A bit washed out at the color stage