Artist's Studio—Bryan Larsen

I recently had an opportunity to have two ballet dancers in the studio for a modelling session. I was interested in exploring some dynamic poses that played off the interaction between the two figures and took advantage of the dancers' strength and gracefulness. Of the wealth of material that came out of the session, I was most drawn to the poses where the female dancer seemed to become weightless: she and her partner defying gravity as if it were only a minor concern. Of those, one in particular stood out.

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Step 1

Since the beauty of the figures and the pose was my main focus, I started putting the composition together by drawing them; working from half a dozen photographs of the pose. First I blocked in a rough envelope around the entire pose to establish proportions, relating the tilts and distances between extremities of both figures to each other. Then, step by step, I gradually divided up the larger shapes into smaller ones, constantly checking proportions, until the basic gesture was in place and each shape fit within the context of the shapes around it within the overall composition. Once I felt confident that I had everything in the right place, I went back and refined the details, paying special attention to how the forms interacted with each other.

Now, it's possible that I just have Space on the brain lately, but even before the drawing of the figures was complete, the long curve sweeping down from the female dancer's left hand to her left knee crossed by the diagonal line from her right foot through the male dancer's left foot suggested the curve of Saturn crossed by the plane of its rings. As I played around with the idea a little, I found more thematic ties between the two dancers in their pose and Saturn and its moons. His strength holds her in position just as the planet's gravity holds the moon in its orbit.

The relative motions of the planets have a beauty to them that is much like choreography. Most compelling, though, was how beautifully the composition came together structurally... especially once the moon was placed into the negative space below the female dancer. So, even though it's a little more of an abstract composition that I usually go for, I decided to go with it. In fact, I'm really excited about it. I did a little research and decided "Saturn and Dione" was a great working title (Dione, a moon of Saturn, and also a Titaness associated with love and beauty).

Step 2

Now that I have a lovely drawing on paper of our dancers, Saturn and Dione in front of the actual planetary Saturn and Dione, I would really like to get it transferred onto a surface suitable for oil painting. Fortunately for me, I happen to have prepared just such a surface: a beautiful, 36x40 inch, aluminum composite panel, and I know a few tricks for transferring drawings to such panels. This time I'm going with an 'Oil Transfer' technique. First, I take my scale drawing to a copy center and have it blown up to full size. Super simple. Second, I cover the back of the copied drawing with Raw Umber oil paint anywhere that has lines I'd like to eventually end up on the panel. I use a paper towel (or ten) to rub off all the excess paint. Third, I carefully position the drawing over the panel and secure it in place with a little tape.

The relative motions of the planets have a beauty to them that is much like choreography. Most compelling, though, was how beautifully the composition came together structurally... especially once the moon was placed into the negative space below the female dancer. So, even though it's a little more of an abstract composition that I usually go for, I decided to go with it. In fact, I'm really excited about it. I did a little research and decided "Saturn and Dione" was a great working title (Dione, a moon of Saturn, and also a Titaness associated with love and beauty). Now for the tedious part. Using a mahl stick to keep my hand from touching the drawing, I carefully trace over every line I want transferred with a ball point pen. I like to use red ink because it makes it easier to tell which areas I've already gone over.

If all goes smoothly, I end up with a nice clean copy of my original drawing, entirely in Raw Umber oil paint, on my panel. It will be dry to the touch in 24 hours, and ready for paint.

Step 3

Step 4

Step 5

Having the black of space as a reference for my darkest dark, and the white of Dione's shirt as a reference for the lightest light, suddenly color and value choices are becoming much easier to make. It doesn't hurt that I have so much of the flesh tones finished either, but if I were to do this painting again, I think I would probably paint the black of space, the planet, and then Dione's shirt before starting in on any of the flesh tones. In any case, Dione's right arm was much easier to work on than her left. It's a weird detail to mention, maybe, but painting things like the armpits of a beautiful female figure can be really tricky. There is a very fine line between enough attention to detail to make the anatomy feel right, and a little too much detail such that it becomes an area of focus. I think I managed to walk that line fairly well with this painting, but I'll have to let you viewers be the final judges of that. I was also a lot of fun moving from painting hands in the deep shadow to one with almost all its detail lost in the high light levels.

Next I turned my attention to the last piece of anatomy on the top half of the painting: Saturn's right hand. This was a critical piece of the painting in that is spanned the spectrum from full lighting to deep shadow in one piece of anatomy. Getting it right should really bring the rest of the value and lighting scheme together. I felt like I did a pretty good job, but the final verdict would have to wait until a coat of varnish brought the depth of color back to the darker values of the skirt and other deep shadow flesh tones back.

The last remaining anatomical work was Saturn's legs. Further from the primary light source, they were experiencing a sharp drop off in light... particularly the left leg which was bent at the knee, pushing the lower leg deeper into the shadows... but they were not in deep shadow like parts of Saturn's chest or his right hand. In addition, the figure is large enough, and even though I was painting looser than I have in the past, the focus was tight enough that the model's leg hair became a detail I would have to deal with. I opted to use rougher, directional brush strokes and a blurring of the edges to suggest the presence of the hair without having to paint any actual hair. I think it was pretty successful.

Here is a shot of the full composition with both legs and feet completed.

With all of the figure work complete, all that remained was to give Saturn something to stand on, and add the details of the star field to the empty space around Saturn... well, and to touch up or repaint any areas that turned out to be wrong once a little retouch varnish brought back the depth of color to the shadow areas. I kept the ground really simple... a mid-value, neutral gray with a drop off in light to match what was evident on the figures. I don't have any images of that stage of the painting, because the crazy reflections off of the brush strokes on the freshly painted ground combined with the effects of the sinking in on the top half of the painting were enough to make the effect almost unreadable in a photo. I went on to work on the stars. Now, I am fully aware that there is no way any stars would be visible to the naked eye with the full brightness of Saturn dominating the field of view. But I think they add much needed context to the painting and their details balance the empty space at the bottom of the composition against the busier top half... and I think they're quite beautiful... so I'm including them as well as a suggestion of the Milky Way. The weeks waiting for everything to dry enough to oil in the dark areas seemed interminable, but finally I was able to lightly brush on an extremely thin coat of medium to the areas that had suffered the worst of the sinking in. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that my color judgments had been really good for the most part and that only one or two small areas needed to be repainted... the largest being around Saturn's collarbone. I spent a couple of days dealing with those issues, and then the long wait for everything to dry began. Finally, I was able to apply a light coat of varnish to the entire painting, and get a first look at how it had all come together.

It will be a week or so before I can get a final, professional image of the painting, but when I so, I will post it along with some final thoughts on the project. In the mean time, I would be more than happy to field any questions or comments!

Step 6

Coming soon...

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