Return of the Mack
After a fruitful year of painting small canvases of landscapes and still lifes (fruit-ful!), I wanted to get back to my favorite subject—the figure. The big figure. This was my thing in high school (I could have had an entire exhibition of paintings of my teenage sister), college (mostly drawings), and then during that brief painting resurrection around 2005. I did a few figure paintings when I started up again a couple years ago, but I hit a wall when I was working on one of them. I had to stop, remove it from the room, and lean it against a wall with its back to me. About this time, I had also picked up Carol Marine’s book Daily Painting, an inspiring read by a woman who, like me, had been an art major, got exhausted with the time and energy of working big and thus worked infrequently, then had a baby and had to change her schedule altogether. Her answer was go small. And, like her, I found it to be liberating. Smalling (I made up that terrible word) has been a great exercise in experimentation, speed, and practice, but I missed my biggies.
I pulled out a photo I took two years ago and a 30-inch-square canvas I bought two years ago (for that photo). I wondered if I’d approach this painting differently after a year of trying new techniques and materials, as well as tons of reading about and by artists. Yes and no.
I changed some of my materials. I had been using Turpenoid as an all-in-one substance for brush cleaning and paint thinning, and I forewent a medium altogether. I bought some new stuff and set it up using the Goldilocks organizational method: A big jar of brush cleaner, a medium jar of medium (heh heh), and a baby jar of straight mineral spirits for erasing and thinning.
I used a much lighter layer of paint to tone the canvas--I used to slather it on—then I lightened it more by wiping it pretty good with the mineral spirits. The lighter layer was just as helpful plus it dried a lot faster.
I worked quickly to get paint down on the largest areas in the foreground, and I painted outside of my lines so that I could carve out shapes with the abutting paint colors. I wanted to be looser and get some more energetic lines. I thought that if I weren’t trying to literally stay in the lines then I’d loosen up. Although I wasn’t going for Impressionistic style, I did want looser brushwork.
I put the most work into the focus of the painting: the head, cup, and hand. This area contains the most color subtleties, greatest areas of contrast, and the most detail.
If I failed with some passage after a couple of tries, I wiped it clean with mineral spirits and started over. This, instead of trying to make it work with more paint, which can in turn make color muddy and paint layers uneven.
I varied my brushes to try new techniques. Turns out that my old bright works great for making a spikey, shorn haircut.
I spent a lot of time getting the drawing right. I outlined it with a thin layer of raw umber, and I stared at that for a long time before putting down any paint. I had chosen a point of view that anyone in my family would recognize—as if I had snuck up on the subject. Which is exactly what I do. The composition was typical of my style and so was the color palette.
I tried listening to new music, but I fell back on my old favorites: ‘90s rap and hip hop played really loudly. Mark Morrison’s Return of the Mack stuck in my head. It kind of felt like my anthem as I returned to painting this subject that I like so much. Nothing about the song is relevant to my experience except the title, but I'm sticking with it.
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