Artist's Studio—Bryan Larsen

I've just started work on a new painting. I'm excited about this one, and I'll be sharing my progress as well as some thoughts about the composition here in The Artist's Studio. If you're inclined to follow along, and have any questions or comments as I go, I encourage you to write in and add to the conversation.

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Step 1

From loose concept to refined composition. This painting started with the general idea of kids reading, and the way their imaginations can take a story and turn it into something really incredible. The way kids view the world is a constant source of inspiration for me, as an artist. They have a sense of optimism and wonder that is often lost or suppressed in adults, but that I am always trying to capture in paintings. When they hear something amazing in a story, it's something possible. I made use of my most convenient models, my own kids, and spent a couple of mornings loosely staging a handful of scenes at locations around our neighborhood. One of the shots that really stood out happened to be an impromptu pose of my older daughter reading to her little sister under a tree on a hill at a local park. I had taken a dozen photos while they weren't paying attention, which is often the only way to get good poses with kids, and between them I had enough to piece together a drawing for the foreground of the composition.

When I first started thinking about this composition, I envisioned the child or children reading as a vignette in the foreground, with the story as it was playing out in their imagination in the background. This is an idea I am still planning on working with, but a couple things lead me in a slightly different direction with this painting. The first (and biggest) factor is that I have been slowly leaning a new direction with composition ideas over the last few years.

I keep coming across the idea, stated slightly differently but consistent in its meaning that 'the future isn't what is used to be'. Or at least, what people envision when they think about the future is vastly different from what it used to be. I'm an optimistic person, but not totally naive. I'm not suggesting that I think the future should be some utopian paradise. What I find interesting, beautiful and worth trying to capture is the optimistic attitude toward the world and the future that seems to have been replaced by a certainty that we are heading for some apocalyptic, dystopian nightmare. So, rather than painting purely contemporary scenes or scenes of what I think the future will really be like in a literal sense, I want to make pictures that evoke a feeling of wonder , optimism , unlimited possibility and anticipation about the future. But, I want to paint those pictures in a subtle style influenced by what I love about the naturalist/classical realist/romantic painters of the 19th century. The idea is to paint as if I were a naturalist or genre painter of the romantic bent who happens to be living and working in the version of the present or near future I would like to think is possible. Bouguereau/Norman Rockwell meets Jon Berkey. Or something like that. It's not exactly science fiction, but maybe a blend of that with historical fiction told from a future perspective. I've been calling the idea 'Optimistic Futurist Realism', which isn't quite right, but it's approaching it. Ideally, the themes and subjects would be similar to what I've worked with before, but there would be subtle differences in the backgrounds or costumes or settings that would slightly change the meaning.

In any case, this seemed like a perfect piece with which to start exploring the whole concept. Why have the foreground be a vignette juxtaposed in front of a background scene when that scene could be the actual background? So, the girls are sitting under a tree in the park, reading a book. Pretty timeless. What to change? Not the costumes. I'm not shooting for science fiction. Not the actual, physical, paper book. It's iconic. No room for misinterpretation of what the girls are doing like there would be with a tablet or other electronic device. So, the background beyond the foreground trees then. The reference photos were taken in the morning and were strongly backlit which exaggerated the washed out atmospheric effect of the valley and mountains in the background. So, I thought, a valley and mountains, but different. This is where the second factor comes in.

Somewhat coincidentally, in the weeks leading up to actually shooting the reference photos and refining the concept for the painting, I had decided to do a few small, faux-plein air paintings for practice and to get a feel for what I would actually want to take with me were I to go on a plein air painting expedition later in the fall (which I would love to do, but have no prior experience with). My intention was to do three of four little 8x6 inch paintings and then move on. After the first three or four, I found that I was really enjoying working on the little studies. I was able to play with the effects of brush strokes, different color combinations, different pigments, different effects in a way not possible on a larger scale or when I had definite idea for how I wanted the finished painting to turn out. But, I was getting a little bored, so I decided on a whim to drop a classic, Ray Bradbury era, science fiction-ish rocket into one of the paintings. It was fun, so I did another. And another. A little narrative began to emerge that I wasn't even really aware of at first, but that became more intentional when I started adding the suggestion of an astronaut or two on EVA outside the rockets. I realized I was really enjoying myself in a way I hadn't for a long time, and that something about these little paintings was making me really happy. The response to the ones that I posted online was overwhelmingly positive as well.

I realized that one reason I was so excited by these weird little compositions was that they were striking a chord that resonated perfectly with the 'Optimistic Futurist Realism' idea I had been playing with. The rockets were becoming more than just rockets for me. They were becoming symbols of a different, more optimistic, wonder-filled view of the future. And the ability to create an intriguing narrative with the addition a couple of dots of white paint was absolutely fascinating. So, while I was playing around with different ideas of what exactly to put in the background of the 'kid's reading' composition, just for fun, I dropped a rocket, on a pad in the middle of a lake or bay, and some futuristic-looking architecture into the valley behind the girls on the hill. I immediately loved it. So I spent some time refining the idea, moving things around until I like the composition, redesigning the rocket, etc. until it was just right.

Step 2

At this point, the conceptual work is mostly finished, and it's time to figure out how to take all of the ideas that went into the relatively simple compositional drawing and make them work effectively in the much more complex form of a realistic painting. Some of this process is just busy work. For example, I need to get the drawing, in this case 20 x 12 inches in graphite on nice heavy drawing paper, onto a 40 x 24 inch aluminum composite panel primed and prepared for oil paint. My current prefferred method for accomplishing this is an oil transfer. I've detailed the process HERE, but in summary, I take the to-scale-drawing to a copy shop and blow it up to full size on a huge copy machine. Then I coat the back of the full-sized copy with a very thin layer of oil paint. Something that will dry quickly and is a wak enough pigment that it won't bleed through the final painting. In this case, Burnt Sienna. Then I fasten the oil-coated copy of the drawing over the waiting panel and carefully trace over any lines I want to transfer over. It's a painstaking and tedious process, but it works surprisingly well.

While the transferred drawing is drying, there is still conceptual work that needs to be done. It's one thing to lightly sketch in the shapes of a rocket, a few buildings and some geography into a simple line drawing. It's quite another to paint them convincingly and have them feel like they fit with the elements I'm painting from reference images. I decided to take advantage of my recent faux-plein-air 'Rocketscape' painting experience and do a quick 8x6 inch color study of the foreground trees and grass with the new background. I based the colors, values atmospheric effects, etc. on those present in the reference photos, and came up with this:

Not only am I really happy with the little painting, but as proof of concept for the larger painting, it gives me a lot of confidence going forward. Now I have a much better idea of how to approach painting the background, and I have already worked out my palette. This is something other artists do all the time, and now I feel a little silly for not adopting the practice earlier.

Step 3

Having worked out the drawing, transferred it to the panel, and completed a color study for the background, I was ready to start work on the actual painting. Using the color study as a reference, I started in the furthest distance away from the viewer and began moving forward; first blocking in the sky, then the distant mountains and cityscape, the rocket, then the body of water. Obviously, it was a lot more work than the 8x6 inch study version, but having the palette all worked out ahead of time saved me a lot of time. It also kept me from second guessing myself on the colors, even though at the large scale and in contrast to the color of the primed panel, they looked a little strange. I knew that in the context of the foreground colors, they would work perfectly.

Over the next few days I kept moving forward in layers from the mountains on the left to the architecture on the right, through mid-ground trees and hills. The whole time I was referring to the color study both for color and value decisions. Again, having much of that conceptual work done already allowed me to move much more quickly and with fewer adjustments and changes as I went along. I didn't have any real reference material for this part of the painting, and figureing out the lay of the land and the foliage was a lot of fun.

The color scheme of the composition really started to fall into place once I got to the darker, silhouetted areas nearer to the figures. I very roughly blocked in the shapes of the trees on the left and a few leaf shapes from the drawing. I put a lot more work into the leafy canopy on the right, but tried to keep it loose enough that it wouldn't draw too much attention. I also blocked in some silhouetted leaves in the bottom right to push the rest of the landscape back further into the distance.

I continued moving forward with the background hill and grass until I reached the figures. The closer I got, the more detail and contrast I allowed. I went back into the silhouetted shapes of the trees on the left and added some detail to the bark and the leafy vines growing around the trunks. By now enough of the painting was finished that the colors were all working together in context, and the color study had served its purpose.

Step 4

Both figures in this composition are sin the shadow of the big trees on the left. This means the apparent primary light source is the cool, ambient light refracted by the sky and coming from the right. This means the flesh tones are darker and cooler than they would normally be, which can be a really tricky color mixing challenge and is one major reason why I like to have the background painted before working on the figures. If I were to try and paint the girls first, without the visual context of their surroundings, making correct color choices would be much more difficult. Even with the background in place when I started working on the older sister, It was hard not to doubt my color choices while I was painting the face. Everything looked way to dark, and very purple. But once I had the hair blocked in, everything seemed to snap into place. It's a fascinating phenomenon, to me, how at a certain point, enough visual information is in place for your brain to stop reacting to the paint on the canvas as a lot of weird, colored shapes, and instead recognize a particular object in a particular kind of light. Once that switch gets flipped, refining the colors and forms is so much easier.

Once one section of the figure is finished, in this case the head, painting the rest of the flesh tones is usually much easier. The color still looked much too dark on the palette, but once they were on the canvas, their relationship to the finished face made them feel correct. I continued working from back to front so that I was never trying to paint up against a finished edge. The darker color palette in the shadows really started to feel right after the white pages of the book were finished.

I kept moving forward, painting the shirt, the shorts, the right leg and the left shoe. By now color decisions were pretty easy. There was a lot of visual context for them, and I was familiar with the palette from previous days of painting in the same area. I generally take some photographs of my progress at the end of each work day. It allows me to get a different view on the painting, and I often catch little things I need to fix. It also serves as a sort of visual work diary. What is often very interesting about photographing paintings in progress, is how the camera interprets the image. Even my Nikon DSLR has a really hard time with exposure and white balance, often requiring that I shoot in full manual mode...but my phone camera, which uses complex algorithms to try and make every shot as 'good' as possible, can get really freaked out. I can usually tell when the color scheme of a painting is starting to work when the cameras stop trying to 'fix' the flesh tones. That finally started happening at this point...although the wee computer brain was still certain the exposure was wrong.

With the completion of the right arm, the older sister was finished.

Step 5

Before I could start working on the younger sister, there was all that grass between the two girls that needed to be painted. Did I mention I like to work in layers?

Obviously, the closer in the picture frame I am working, the higher the level of detail I need to render, and at this point that means I'm painting a lot of individual blades of grass. Rather than try to adhere exactly to the grass in my reference photos, which would be more than a little crazy and completely unnecessary, I used the reference photos just for the basic lay of the land and rough local color reference. That meant that I was basically making up the grass as went, which turned out to be a relaxing and quite enjoyable way to spend a couple of days. I even decided to throw in a few 6-brush-stroke flowers. I stopped as soon as I got to the point where the grass was starting to overlap the legs of the younger sister.

As long as I has a palette full of lovely green paint, I spent a little time refining some of the other foliage in the painting, adding some areas where the sunlight was shining through the translucent leaves.

When going from painting lots of adults and older children to painting a two-year-old, be advised: their heads are basically spherical. I had continually stop myself from putting angles and planes where they didn't belong. She was a lot of fun to paint, though...especially little things like the rim light around the left edge of her hair and shirt and the sparkles on her pink shoes.

I did end up changing a few things. My model had just the slightest hint of red in her hair, but I decided to push it further because I liked the contrast with all the green around her. I also changes the print on her shirt from a large butterfly pattern to the smaller planetary theme. The original felt a little too busy.

In spite of the fact that this little girl has weird ghost arms at this point, I stopped working on her for the time being. The combination of pigments in her yellow shirt proved to be unusually slow drying. Everything was going so smoothly, and the closer I got to finishing the painting, the more nervous I became about making some little mistake that would set me back. Something like accidentally smearing a little yellow shirt all over the place while painting arms.

Step 6

Coming soon...

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