A Process Retrospective: "If it had to perish twice..."
This piece is otherwise known as "Ava can't do anything in half-measures," and I thought about making notes on the process I used to come about it. I'm still developing my process and I've not yet really had a year of learning art (though we're getting closer to my anniversary).
I started with a reference photo of a waterlily. It's a perfectly healthy waterlily, nice and pink, vibrant lily pads, clear dark water, an almost perfect reflection as well. Great composition in the photograph as well. Obviously I should just take things easy, maybe work on my shading, do a really nice pencil piece with tones and...
I thought about that, and if I had watercolors, I might very well have done that. But fortunately I don't have watercolors yet—I say fortunate, because if I had, I wouldn't have thought to do such a bold piece. I only had my Akashiya watercolor brush pens, which can't easily be used like watercolors—they're more markers that can be blended with water instead of a colorless blender.
Plus I figured this work would nominally be practice for Đông Hồ paintings, which tend towards a limited and bold palette, apparent linework, and is more focused on shapes rather than forms.
But you make do with what you have, and I only had two hours to do this in, so might as well make it a practice piece, you know?
Things I learned:
- If you're going to go for a non-pencil work using water or ink media, it really does pay to use a good 2H pencil and a soft high-polymer eraser. I managed to do this.
- Dashed, thin pen lines can be useful as a sort of more solid guidelines, and is very nice when used with in a design that will end up overwriting them. Worked for the lilypads, didn't really work for the fiery reflection.
- Controlling the Pentel Pocket Brush still takes practice, especially at smaller sizes. However, for bold and smoothly varying linework, it's very hard to beat it at its price.
- Have a very small plain notebook on hand that can take at least pencil and ink somewhat well (curling/buckling is OK), so that you can sketch quick thumbnails to figure out what effects may or mayn't work. This is a way of quickly planning a work on the fly, and the small sizes forces you to work small and fast.
- Multiple thumbnails are a good idea. Try doing at least two, and do more as you increase the amount of departure you take from the original reference. If you need to adjust composition or colors, or test how different materials blend, this is an invaluable tool.
- Grisaille worked for the lily pads surprisingly well. I also used pale orange to fill in the spaces between the fiery reflection petals, but that didn't work as well—most likely because pale orange doesn't really have the oomph.
- Knowing how colors blend is extremely important when it comes to layering transparent/semi-transparent color. I'm lucky the dark black that resulted from yellow ochre plus peony (magenta) plus ultramarine-ish blue worked well at the bottom of the picture. I did manage to use my knowledge of complement color mixing to make the burning/crisping of the center lilypad's edges more apparent.
- Shadows are nice to give dimension even to flat things or stuff floating in the water. What shadows I did use gave just enough definition to the lilypads—plus I seem to like the idea of shadows and colors blending into surrounding elements. So far this has happened twice in more extensive pieces, and multiple times in minor ones.
- Brushstrokes used appropriately can result in nice effects where you need texture, even if said "texture" is rippling water. Inappropriate brushstrokes can result in effects you don't intend, so spending time smoothing out those strokes can pay dividends. Basically, brushstrokes are important to pay attention to.
- Coloring parallel to the axis of an element is an extremely nice way of getting good coverage. Thanks to my art tutor and friend for this tip.
- A picture isn't finished to my satisfaction until I've found some element that can make it pop. I'm still fuzzy on what "pop" reliably means, but so far it seems to mean some unexpected detail (color, texture, etc) that adds a dimension to an otherwise lackluster element. Using my Uniball Signo white pen to add frosting as a wonderful idea—I could better express the crystalline, icy nature of the waterlily, plus frost over the half-dead lilypads on the top half of the painting.
- Connecting areas of a work is a nice way of uniting otherwise disparate shapes. Blending is just one way to do this; linework and color drips are another way.
- Thinking of a scene in terms of flat shapes that should be connected in some way really helps with composition and drawing. And since blending can connect the light-facing and dark-facing sides of an object, this holds true even for form-focused works.
- You'll always come up with extra ideas while working on a piece. Again, use the little pocket notebook to test out these ideas and incorporate the ones that seem to work. That little notebook meant I didn't have an excuse to say, "oh, it's too hard, I don't know what that will do."
- Cropping a work is extremely important to the presentation of the final work. There's a big difference between a bad crop and one that keeps the picture interesting and eliminates unnecessary elements.
- It's always a mistake to try to capture every detail. You only want to capture the important ones, and more details where they aren't needed can even draw the eye away from the central subject.
I hope what I've learned here can help others as well!