Artist's Studio—Bryan Larsen

In 2003 I did a painting of a woman astronaut aboard a space station looking down at the Earth far below. ‘How Far We’ve come’ was about humanity’s incredible achievements in science and engineering, in understanding the laws of physics and using that understanding to go places and do things we had never done before. As somewhat of a space nerd since childhood, it was also a great excuse to paint the Space Shuttle and a view of Earth from orbit.

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Step 1

Now, 15 years later, I still love that theme, and that subject. I’ve been thinking of doing an updated version of ‘How Far We’ve Come’ for some time and even had the opportunity to do a 16 by 8 foot version as a commission in 2015. But there were a lot of ideas that didn’t make it into that commission piece. In fact, I have been thinking that taking that idea of ‘how far we have come’ and extrapolating it forward to ‘how far we can go’ would make an excellent theme for a series of paintings.

Over the past few years, my love of space exploration as a subject has become pretty obvious. Looking through my portfolio, since 2013 it has found its way into at least 12 serious paintings and scores of smaller pieces. It allows for visually interesting and dynamic compositions, poses, color schemes, and narratives, and is an excellent vehicle for portraying what is beautiful to me about human achievement, and about humanity’s place in the universe.

With all of that in mind, I’m starting 2018 off with the first painting in the ‘How Far We Can Go’ series.

In homage to the original How Far We’ve Come from 2003, I’m starting with a single female astronaut in Earth orbit, aboard a space station or possible an interplanetary ship. The station is clearly heavily inspired by the cupola on the international space station, which has provided a vantage point for some of the most breathtaking views of our planet ever captured, including the handful of images that I am using as reference material for the background of this painting. (Maybe someday I’ll get the chance to take my own reference photos from orbit, or do a little plein-space painting, but it’s currently way outside my budget.) The astronaut was drawn from reference photos I did take myself... of a very patient model.

Instead of looking down at Earth, this figure is arched upward, posed almost as if flying in the microgravity of the station. She is reaching toward the stars, away from the Earth, the Moon, and the places we’ve been before.

Instead of the shuttle outside the window, I’ve placed a section of another rotational-gravity station (or possibly ship) which is clearly beyond anything we’ve ever put into orbit although completely within our capacity to design, placing the scene in the future, but not too far.

This to-scale drawing is ready to be blown up to full size and transferred onto a 32x40 inch aluminum composite panel.

Step 2

Once I have a final to-scale drawing for the composition finished, the next step in my process is to transfer that drawing to the surface I will be painting on. These days I paint on Aluminum Composite panels instead of linen canvas. If you’re curious why I decided to make the change, I wrote at length about that and about how I prepare the panels for oil paint here

For this painting, I have a prepared 32 x 40 inch panel all ready to go, and I just need to get the drawing onto it. I use a method called an ‘oil transfer’ which is basically a scaled-up, oil paint-based version of the carbon copy paper you find in check books. I’m a huge fan of this technique, and it’s another topic I have posted about quite a bit. If you’re interested in more on that process, you can read about it here, but, in summary, I have the drawing blown up to full size, cover the back with a very thin coat of oil paint, fasten it over the panel, and carefully trace over it. It works like a charm.

Now I’m ready to actually do some painting! In the past, I would just dive in at this point with full color, but I’ve added an intermediate step the process. An underpainting. This is an old technique, but I’ve been a late adopter. What it entails is pretty much painting the entire painting in monochrome, and then painting the entire painting a second time over the top in color. It sounds like a crazy amount of extra work, but the more I’ve worked this way, the more I love it. It allows me to solidify the overall value scheme for the paining and work out any compositional issues that I might not have resolved in the drawing. Because it’s done in monochrome, I can easily push different areas back and forth, lighter or darker, until I get the balance just right, without having to be concerned with color. This is particularly useful to me in paintings set in a very dark overall key like this one is, where subtle changes in value in the shadows can be difficult to judge until they are all in place and working together. The shades of gray in the gradation in the walls of the cupola, for example, were almost impossible to discern from each other on the palette, but in context on the panel, they are quite obvious. It’s so much faster to make these changes in monochrome that I’ve actually found that the extra work of the underpainting is often saving me time overall, and I think it’s making my finished paintings better…which is even more important.

Really, the underpainting is a refinement of the drawing. It’s a great place to play with details like the design of the space station outside the window or the cloud patterns on the Earth. Things that are hard to communicate in a line drawing, like the brighter backdrop of the Milky Way behind the astronaut’s head and outreached arm, are easy to convey in paint. And while I hint at form and depth with a little hatching in the scale drawing, I am able to really begin to create some space with the full value range at my disposal. Well, almost the full value range. Because I want to really punch the glow of the earth and stars, I’m forcing myself to save the brightest values for the overpainting by not even putting them on my palette. I’ve also painted the Milky Way slightly brighter in the underpainting that it needs to be because I will be glazing over it in the color stage which will darken it. But I’ll get to that. I’ve got another few days of work to do on the underpainting. As soon as it’s finished, I post some images and get ready to start adding color.

Step 3

Well, it’s been ‘another few days’, and the underpainting is still not finished. My attention for the past week or so has been split between work on this painting and various other projects, not the least of which was installing ‘The Triumph of Daedalus Over Fate and Futility’ in its new home. However, while progress has been a little slower than I had anticipated, there has still been progress! The once disembodied head and right hand are now much more comfortable attached to a torso and one leg, for example, and I also was able to refine some areas of the face although those refinements might not be readily apparent on a computer screen. Notably, out young astronaut is still missing one leg, but enough of her is finished for the overall lighting scheme to be apparent, and so far, I think it’s working.

But, it’s tricky to get a good photo because the dark, wet paint is so glossy. There is a trade-off between lighting the painting from above which creates fewer reflections but yields a dramatic drop-off of light from top to bottom, and head-on lighting which is more even across the painting but creates so many reflections as to make the image almost indecipherable. Unfortunately, the camera tends to exaggerate both effects, but I have found that it’s easier to ignore the vertical light drop-off if you can see the painting in the context of its immediate surroundings (as you do when you view a painting in person). So, rather than crop right up to the edge of the painting in this progress shot, I’m including the easel and some of the studio wall in the background.

Step 4

I did finally finish the underpainting, and after a few days the paint had dried sufficiently that the effect of the reflective glare off the brushstrokes was reduced enough for me to get a pretty good photo of it. More importantly, the overall composition seemed to be working really well, and I decided it was time to add some color.

I started with the ‘sky’ using a layer of transparent glazes, thin layers of paint the allow the underpainting to show through, to build up the oranges, purples, and pinks, deepen the blacks, and refine the shapes of the dust clouds in the Milky Way. Into the glaze layers, I blended increasingly opaque paint to gradually build up the light from the dense clusters of stars toward the galactic center and the halo effects around the brightest stars, and then finally drop in the pinpoints of pure titanium white for the individual stars. I also took advantage of the wet glaze layers to blend in the atmospheric effect around the edge of the Earth. I didn’t bother including an image of the painting at this point because the glaze layers were so shiny that is was impossible to get a good photo.

Next I spent a few days working on the Earth. I took a somewhat similar approach, laying down a very thin, blue glaze layer and then gradually building up the basic cloud patters with opaque whites and grays. Then I let the glaze dry enough that I could work in thicker opaque whites and blue-grays to drop in the finer details and add highlights where the sun would be catching the leading edge of the cloud-forms.

Next I turned my attention to the moon and the space station which ended up being almost identical to paint from a technical standpoint. In both cases, I stared with a fairly dark, burnt umber (a very warm, transparent brown... almost a dark orange) and black glaze layer that dropped the overall value and warmed up the grays of the underpainting while allowing the details and textures to show through. Then I used layers of opaque cool and warm grays and white to refine the details and textures, and punch up the highlights on the sun-lit surfaces. I also added a few details to the shadow side of both objects, very subtle in the case of the moon, to account for the light being reflected off of the Earth. To the station, I also added a touch of color to the AXIOM text, and the hint of a few windows lit from inside.

Now, in reality, the incredibly bright sunlight being reflected off of the earth would completely overpower any details that might be visible on the shadow side of the moon, and it would definitely obscure not only the Milky Way but also most, if not all, of the stars. But what I am after here is not a perfect visual recreation of what this scene would really look like, but a visual representation of what I think this scene would feel like.

Once everything ‘outside’ was finished, I started work on the interior of the station/ship structure in the foreground. As I mentioned in the first post, the space the figure is floating in is heavily based on the viewing cupola on the International Space Station. I made it much, much larger, elongated the trapezoidal windows around the sides, and drastically reduced the complexity. The actual cupola is riddled with wires, anchor points, actuators for shields for the windows to block direct sunlight, straps, handholds, temperature sensors, electronic gear of every imaginable type, and labels on absolutely everything. It’s actually pretty awesome. It’s cluttered, but very purposeful. When I first started this painting, I intended to include a lot more of these little details, but once the underpainting was finished, and increasingly as I finished the color in the milky way and the earth, I decided I wanted the focus to be on the astronaut and on the view out the window of the place she started and the infinite possibility she was heading toward. In that same pursuit of creating a visual representation of the way the scene should feel, I decided to include the bare minimum of detail in the station interior that would give it some credibility, but otherwise let it recede into the background. With everything now in color except the astronaut herself, I think that was definitely the right decision.

Here are a few images of the painting at this point…with everything basically finished except the figure. The glossy glaze layers have dried enough to be less distracting, but I still had to find a balance between that drop-off of light from top to bottom and the reflections off of the brush strokes. The result is a little extra glare in the sky and cupola walls toward the top of the painting, and a loss of detail toward the bottom, but it’s about as good an image as I will be able to get until the painting is finished.

First a shot of the painting on the easel for lighting context:

And a cropped shot of the full painting with the levels adjusted just a little in Photoshop to try and mitigate for the various deficiencies in the photo:

And finally, a combination image showing the painting more from the side and a detail shot.

Step 5

As much fun as the Earth, the Milky Way, The moon, and the space stations were to paint, and as lovely as they are on in their own right, in this painting their real value is the context they provide for the figure. The composition is really all about her, as a symbol for humanity, for human achievement, and for human potential. So when I say I’m finally getting to the fun part of the painting, it’s not that working on the rest of it wasn’t fun(far from it), but it’s particularly rewarding to see the figure coming to life.

My approach when painting flesh tones over an underpainting is a little different than the way I approached the rest of the painting. I have found that working into a glaze layer is actually detrimental to achieving the subtleties and precision both of form and color required to paint a face or a hand. So I am working in straight tube colors directly over the top of the underpainting in pretty much the same fashion that I would have before I started doing underpaintings. The difference is that I have the underpainting as a value guide against which I can judge the lightness and darkness of my colors…a huge advantage, especially in dramatic lighting situations like the one in this composition, where it would be really easy to exaggerate reflected light in the shadows or lighten the skin tones too much in general. The underpainting also provides a background support for the darker colors which tend to be more transparent and can be frustrating to work with over a light ground.

The face, the hands, and the small areas of visible skin at the midriff and ankles were all painted this way... directly applying oil color over the underpainting. For the hair, however, I did apply a fairly dark, ivory and raw umber glaze layer, which darkened the entire area significantly while still allowing the details of the underpainting to show through. Then I was able to use increasingly opaque colors to slowly build up the forms of the hair and eventually add the highlights. For this model’s dark hair, it worked really well and made it much easier to deal with the transition from the hair to the head in the deep shadows on the left as well as the soft transition from the hair into the patterns of the Milky Way.

I’m including a few different images of the painting at this stage, since it’s still tricky to photograph.

First, a shot of the full painting. As you can see, everything is basically finished now except for the flight suit/uniform.

And finally, a combination image showing the painting more from the side and a detail shot.

Next, a closer view of the figure from the knees up. There is some glare on the face, hair and upper hand, but it gives a better feel for the texture of the painting and the colors in the lower hand.

And finally, one close-up each of the hands. The image of the figure’s right hand also provides a good close-up of the face and hair.

Step 6

The painting is finished! When last we saw our astronaut, she was painted in full color with the exception of her flight suit. I took two different approaches for the shirt and pants. I painted the shirt first, and decided to go with a dark blue-black glaze layer with the highlights blended in with opaque paint. This ended up being a more difficult job than I had anticipated, partly because of the transparent quality and relatively weak tinting strength (compared to titanium white) of both ultramarine blue and ivory black, and partly because of the subtlety needed to get the wrinkles in the fabric to read correctly while still rendering the underlying anatomy. So, when I got to work on the pants, I decided to skip the glaze layer and just paint over the under-painting with opaque color. It was much easier.

Once the outfit was finished, I spent some time making final adjustments and touch-ups to the rest of the painting…softening some areas of the face, brightening some of the stars, adding some texture to the clouds on the Earth, that sort of thing. Then I let the painting dry. Finally I was able to add a light coat of varnish to bring back the color depth give the painting an even sheen.

Then I had the painting professionally photographed. Photographing artwork is tricky business, and more complex than simply having a good camera. The lighting setup is critical, typically consisting of two light sources, one on each side and at 45 degrees to the painting, polarized filters on the lights and a perpendicular polarized filter on the camera to eliminate glare off of the brush strokes. The color temperature of the lights is also matched to the color profile the camera is expecting to get as close to true color representation as possible. With large paintings that I envision eventually making their way into a print run, it’s definitely worth the expense to have the job done by a pro.

And here is the result:

I present ‘Ad Astra’ (To the Stars) 32”x40”, oil on aluminum composite. The first in what will be a series of paintings on the theme of ‘How Far We Can Go’... the natural evolution of the theme from my 2003 painting ‘How Far We’ve Come’. It’s interesting, to me at least, to compare these two paintings created 15 years apart.

I am extremely happy with how this painting turned out. While there are always little things I think I could do better ‘next time’, this one really came together, and has just the feel I was hoping for when I started. I really like the dark key and the strong contrast between the black of space, the station interior and the flight suit and the whites and blues of the earth, moon, background station and the face and hands. I’m also really pleased with how the Milky Way turned out. Thank you for following along with this painting’s progress. If you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear them! Ad Astra!

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