Artist's Studio—Bryan Larsen

I'm just starting work on a really interesting commission piece: a 48 x 24 inch painting of a father and son observing a total solar eclipse over Mt. Kilimanjaro. Having never been to Africa, or witnessed a total solar eclipse in person, I'll be working from a wide assortment of reference material and detailed descriptions from my client of the lighting conditions and the visible corona of the sun during such an event. I expect it to be somewhat of an iterative process as I go back and forth between the sky and the foreground trying to get the lighting just right, but I'm excited.

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Step 1

This is the to-scale drawing of the composition ready to transfer to the aluminum composite panel.

And here is the panel after the oil transfer... ready for paint!

Step 2

I've been working on the sky for a couple of days messing around with the eclipse lighting effects, the corona and the penumbra. It still needs a lot of work, but its getting to the point where it's at least recognizable... so here is an image.

This is a wide painting, and the key is going to be quite dark... so glare off of the wet paint is going to be an issue with all of the in-progress photos. Next, I think, I need to block in Kilimanjaro itself to check the colors and valued in the sky and determine which direction they need to be pushed in.

And for Context, Kilimanjaro. I've been working on blocking in Mount Kilimanjaro itself along with some cloud/mist forms to try and establish some visual context for the sky.

Step 3

I've received some critical feedback from my client regarding the corona effect and the sky. I'm going to be changing the shape of the corona to make it appear more dynamic, not a static circular shape... specifically I'm going to make it more asymmetrical as if it were pulsing and shifting. While I'm working on it, I'm going to be softening the feathering around the outside, and blending just slightly into the silhouette of the moon to give a better illusion of the brightness and the light leaking out around the edges of the moon.

I also need to brighten the sky considerable on the sides of the painting where the penumbra fades off as well as change the shape and the extent of the penumbra to allow for more bright sky on the right of the painting and a lightening of the sky just a bit right above Kilimanjaro. Right now the scene feels a little too much like it might be night time rather than daytime with strange lighting conditions that occur during an eclipse.

I think I also need to change somehow or maybe even lose altogether the clouds on the right hand side of the mountain. They're interfering with how the penumbra effect reads visually as well as competing with the profile of kilimanjaro. In order to make this next pass over the sky, I need the first layer of paint to be pretty dry.

While I wait, I've been roughly blocking in more of the mid-ground to give myself even more visual context for the sky so I can make better color and value decisions. Already I can see that I'll need to make some subtle color changes to the mountain, as well as to the cloud layer in front of it. I'm hoping the sky will be dry enough to work on by tomorrow... Stay tuned!

Step 4

Once the sky was dry enough to paint over, I began a few weeks of repainting it, getting feedback from the client, and then repainting it again. It's the sort of iteration that I had anticipated when starting the project, since I had no real way of knowing what the overall effect should look like, and it's a difficult thing to describe. Before walking you through the composite image below which shows the sky at four different points, I would like to offer a disclaimer that will apply throughout the rest of the posts on this painting. This is, by far, the most difficult painting to photograph that I have ever worked on. The more complete it gets, the more the camera tries to correct for how dark the image is and how unusual the color scheme. The result is that the four images below are all over the place color and contrast wise, but they still give enough of an idea of the changes I made over time to be useful.

I began by changing the corona as I described in the last post, making it more dynamic and softer. This is shown in the first image.

In the second, I removed the "spiky" parts of the corona that I added based on several images I had found of eclipses, but that didn't feel right to the client. Based on feedback, I also enlarged the darkest area around the corona. Unfortunately, I also brightened the sky to the left and right of the penumbra, and punched up the light on the left side of Kilimanjaro. I say unfortunately, because once the other changes were made, the level of brightness I had originally painted turned out to be closer to the desired effect.

While I waited for the sky to dry yet again, I made another pass over the midground landscape, darkening the center both of the savanna and the clouds at the base of Kilimanjaro.

By the time the sky was dry enough for another pass, I had come to several conclusions about how to proceed. I needed the Penumbra effect to extend all the way to the horizon in the center of the sky, and be larger than it was. I needed the sky on either side to read as less bright than it was compared to the penumbra. I also needed the sky to be light enough, even in the deepest areas of the penumbra, for the mass of Kilimanjaro to be slightly silhouetted against the sky while still being light enough to allow atmospheric perspective to push it into the background.

In truth, what I needed to do was to account for the fact that while witnessing an eclipse in person, the human eye would be constantly adjusting to the wide range of light and dark as the viewer moved their focus around the scene... something a single photograph could never do. In a photo, either the foreground would be visible and the sky and corona completely overexposed, or the sky and corona would be visible and the foreground would be very underexposed. I also made changes to the clouds at the base of the mountain and throughout the landscape.

Image four, although very much over saturated in color and suffering from an exaggerated range of contrast in the darker colors, shows how the sky ended up. It looks weird now, but will make sense once more of the foreground is painted.

Step 5

Giraffes! Once the background was dry, I moved on to the mid-ground savanna starting with some low lying bushes, a large Acacia tree and a pair of giraffes (which were really fun to paint!) It was good to see the darker colors contrasting with the background enough to push it back in space, although the increased contrast also made the light on the left side of Kilimanjaro read as a bit too bright. Something to address later on.

I kept moving forward toward the foreground, painting the grass, bushes and rocks all the way up to the figures. The tricky part was trying to balance the atmospheric perspective (increasing contrast and color depth... especially in the yellows as I got closer to the viewer) while everything was so dark. On my palette, all the colors looked like very similar shades of dark, khaki greens. Really dark. Almost black. I had to do a lot of testing on the panel, adjusting ever so slightly lighter or darker, yellower or greener, and slowly it came together. All the while I was making small adjustments in the background as well, since the more the foreground filled in, the easier it was for me to see if something was out of place. The camera had a hard time photographing the progress too and wanted to make the scene midday daylight.

I'm really excited to see how everything looks once the figures are painted. Lucky for me, that's coming up next.

Step 6

The next step was to paint the foreground rocks and grass up to the point where the figures are standing. I also decided to block in the colors of the grass in front of the figures (between the figures and you, the viewer) as well so that the bright color of the unpainted panel wouldn't be so distracting while I painted the figures. Once again, my reference material was only so good, so I just kept thinking higher contrast, darker darks, higher chroma colors and more yellow in general as I moved forward in the picture plane. All general rules of atmospheric perspective.

Then I proceeded to paint the boy. I'll admit, the color palette was bizarre to work with given how dark everything in the foreground is. I'd look at the colors on the palette and think, "There is no way that can be right!". But, once applied to the panel and in context, it looked just fine. That isn't to say there wasn't a LOT of adjustment going on on the panel the whole time…because the entire affair was one giant study in the theory of 'mess with it until it looks right', but by the time I was finishing up the figure, I had it pretty well figures out. Hopefully this makes painting the Dad a little easier. Once again: hardest painting to photograph ever. But you get the idea.

Step 7

Painting the dad was so much easier. For one thing, I had already done my time messing around with the weird, eclipse-ish, dark color palette while painting the boy. For another, the more of the second figure I finished, the more the painting started to ‘feel’ complete, and my brain began to accept the illusion of the dark sky and colors as accurate instead of some colossal mistake. Whew. I still had to do a LOT of tinkering…not just with the dad, but with the boy as little problems became obvious the less blank canvas was left. Eventually, I decided both father and son were finished.

All that remained to be done now was to paint the last bit of landscape in the foreground. I had to wait until the figures were dry so I could paint little blades of grass over the top, but I managed to stick it out. Once finished with the grass, I spent a couple of days making little alterations, balancing color here and there, touching up the occasional errant brush stroke, etc. Then came another long wait for the new layers of paint to dry enough for a light coat of varnish.

'Umbral Adventure' 48x24 inches, Oil on Aluminum Composite

The varnish brought back the depth of all the dark colors, and I was able to see the finished painting for the first time. It can be hard to be completely objective about a painting you have just finished. It’s way too easy to focus on weird little details you’ve been staring at for a month. But I could tell that I liked it. It was an absolute nightmare to photograph though. No camera could accept the dark colors as being properly exposed, and even when I manually set the aperture and shutter time, I couldn’t ever quite get good detail levels in the foreground without overexposing it. Either that, or the corona exposed correctly, and the rest was a big silhouette.

Even the professionally shot image above required some digital adjustment before it came close to the original. The interesting thing, at least to me, was that even looking at the original, my eyes would adjust to the darker light level in the image after a minute and make everything look too brightly lit. I’d have to look away for a second, and then look back, or else stand across the room. I’ve decided to take that as a sign that I approximated the dark colors closely enough. This has been a most interesting, and challenging painting, but I am really pleased with how it turned out. Hopefully the clients are happy with it too.

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