Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Mind of the Illustrator


The Joy of Reading  © 2016 Karen Mathison Schmidt
10 x 8 inches • acrylic on cradled GessobordTM
Commission • New Orleans, Louisiana

For almost thirty years, my job as a graphic designer and typesetter included some illustration here and there. When I first started it was still more than a few years before personal computers and desktop publishing came on the scene in a big way, so I used to collect pictures of objects, animals, people, buildings, places and design elements that I might use as reference for freehand drawings, when it wasn't feasible to hire a model or set up a still life. I had file folders with my own photos, pages from magazines, catalogs, newspapers, and books, which I would go to when I needed an idea or a picture reference.

Then along came the Mac. And Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. And CD's you could purchase chock full of stock photos.

And then. My first digital camera. And the internet. 

Oh, my. 

Now we can take thousands of photos without having to buy film and waiting for developing, and there is literally a whole WORLD of reference at our fingertips. Of course, I’m the first one who will say that as an illustrator you should always take your own photos or use your client’s photo for reference whenever possible, and always be sensitive to copyright issues. That being said, now it’s so easy, fast and fun to put together a composition, especially if you know the basics of an application like Photoshop.

A while back, friends commissioned me to do a painting from this photo as a surprise gift for their daughter, a reading teacher passionate about her job who had taken the picture of one of her students as she sat upside-down in a chair, engrossed in her book. 

I loved the picture, and set about making a solid, more colorful composition from it that would remain true to the original snapshot in feel; that is, candid and casual, unposed, spontaneous, unarranged. A fun everyday moment.

My favorite part of this is the shoes. Sure, our subject may have to wear a uniform for school, but she has determined to express herself in her choice of footwear!

Color decisions for the background elements were made by looking at my subject apart from her surroundings in the original photo ...

... and going with complementary colors. Her shoes are easy: red. So complement would be green. Her skin, visible only at her ankles and the top of her forehead, is a beautiful warm caramel (my painting brain translates this as “Mars orange and burnt sienna”); so complement is blueish. Her khakis have a yellowish cast, and yellow is a dominant color in the cover of the book she’s reading, so complement is – okay, everyone, all together now – purple! So now I know the background will be a cool mix of blues, greens, and purple.

Using diagonals is a good way to add interest and liveliness to any composition, and the original photo already had natural diagonals, so I carried those diagonals into my comp. I made the decision to bring the rug more into the picture so that it would be the main background pattern, and I also made note of the simple and bold design of both it and the gold and white zigzag pillow that you can just see lying on the floor to the right of the chair. I had the feeling that these things were chosen by our teacher for her classroom, so I went “shopping” on the internet for pictures of similar furnishings to use in putting together my picture. 

SIDE NOTE: At this point I would like to say that home decor is like a drug to me. And foraging for design elements amongst all the home furnishings available on the internet, while one of my very favorite things to do, is also quite a precarious activity for me in that if I’m not very careful I can spend hours and hours trekking through Interior Design Land and without even realizing it I will have long since lost sight of my goal of finding a rug and a pillow, and have wandered off into curtains, dining chairs, tables, lighting and kitchenware. 

And while we’re on the subject, it’s nothing short of brilliant marketing for Hobby Lobby to have their art supplies in the very back of the store so that when I need to pick up a bottle of picture varnish or some acrylic glazing medium I first have to make my way through acres and acres of vases, pitchers, furniture, mirrors, clocks (my VERY favorite!), baskets, and a vast array of antiqued metal and turquoise colored items. If I can get to the art supply section – and, oh yeah, BACK again – to arrive at the checkout with only my little bottle of varnish it gives me a real sense of accomplishment. Of course in the dozens and dozens of times I’ve been to Hobby Lobby to pick up one or two art supplies, I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I have managed to do this successfully. 

Anyway. Back to our composition.

It didn’t take me long to find this rug, on the Pottery Barn website. Aqua: PERFECT!




And this pillow, which I think I got from Target. Or maybe it was Pier One.


I played around with angles and arrangements ... 

... and ended up with this as my final reference photo. Putting our reader a little off center and letting the right side of the round chair go out of frame just a touch on the right adds to the casual feel. 

I stretched the rug out from left to right at the bottom of the photo, so that the perception would be that it is actually lying on the floor and the viewer is standing right at the bottom of the picture looking down, so the design is bigger right at our feet and slightly smaller toward the top of the picture where the rug is a little farther away from our eyes. Same thing with the size of the pillows.

The thing that took me the longest was deciding where to put the pillows. Bringing them over to the left and letting them go out of frame on that side helps balance the whole composition, both mass-wise and color-wise. At first I had made the floor peeking out from under the rug at the top of the picture a darker blue, but then decided to brighten it up to bring out the bit of blue in the book cover. 

And now, the painting! 

Usually I use the grid method to draw my subject onto my Gessobord, but in the interest of time in this case, I printed out my pic and used transfer paper to trace the composition onto the board. 

NOTE: Perfectly okay to do this if you’ve composed your own photo. However (and I’m talking to myself here, too), DON’T LET YOURSELF DO THIS TOO OFTEN or you might get lazy with your drawing skills. Practicing drawing from photos and especially from life is the BEST way to hone your SEEING skills.

Okay, NOW the painting!

I did this one entirely in acrylic, and my palette was:
violet, ultramarine blue, cerulean blue, cobalt turquoise, phthalo green, cadmium yellow light, Indian yellow, cadmium orange, pyrrole red (LOVE this bright, true red), medium magenta, quinacridone magenta, yellow oxide (similar to yellow ochre), burnt sienna, burnt umber, ivory black and titanium white.

I started my underpainting with an acrylic magenta glaze (acrylic glazing medium mixed with my paints) over the background area, then a glaze of cerulean blue inside the shapes on the rug.

Now, a more transparent glaze (more medium, less paint) of magenta over our subject, and turquoise on the book. You can see I’ve also started with cadmium yellow glazing over the top pillow ...

 ... and continued with the yellow everywhere except the floor areas in the top corners and the bottom part of the rug where the chair and her feet are casting a faint shadow. I wanted to keep it cool there.

Developing the shadows of the chair and the darkness of her hair with glaze of violet, and the shadows of her khakis with phthalo green glaze. Also starting to redden up her shoes a little more here, with the pyrrole red. Adding detail to the book cover, plus some Indian yellow and cad orange for the highlights in her hair. Starting to add white on the pillows, the pages of the book, and the metal of the chair frame.

Also, you’ll see here that I decided to add a headband, which I will paint the same color blue as the floor and the bit of blue on the book cover. I achieve a bit of outline effect by painting the area darker, then not going quite to the edge of the headband shape with the blue.

Painting in the white on the rug design and the book, and continuing to whiten the pillows. Bit by bit, whitening up her khakis, but still letting the shadows be defined by the colors of the underpainting peeking through. More red on her shoes. LOVE that pyrrole red! Also starting to add some turquoise mixed with a little white to the shapes in the rug. And adding some Indian yellow to the orangey gold design on the pillows. Trying not to get too caught up in making that design perfect, because I’m going for a looser, more fun, impressionistic feel, not photorealism! 


Notice that the turquoise on the rug is painted in loosely, to let the blue and purples of the underpainting show through, especially in the shadowy area toward the bottom of the picture. After it dries, I added just a touch of yellow glaze at the bottom right and top areas of the rug, to sunny it up a bit.

 Starting to work on those splashy shoes!

Finishing the shoes and her ankles, and developing the shadows on the pillows. You can see how I added some variation in the blue of the floor, too, in the final picture below.

A little more yellow added to the sunny areas of the rug and pillows, and just a little more color in both the shadows and those fiery highlights of her hair ... 

... signature ... and done!

Happy Painting!




6 comments:

Robyn Bradshaw said...

Thank you for sharing this with us. Appreciate your generosity of heart.

ArtbyNicolaMcLean said...

I normally switch off when reading step by step painting techniques in art magazines but this was a really interesting read-perhaps because it was in acrylics which is my medium of choice or because the subject was such a great composition or perhaps because you have a wonderful way of explaining your process, whatever the reason I loved this post and the painting is fabulous. I wish I understood photoshop as being able to create your own photo reference like that would be so much easier than trying to piece together bits from different photos which I currently find myself doing!

Joan said...

Karen - You and your artwork are absolutely amazing. Love this!

Leslie Bishop said...

I love this painting and so appreciate your sharing your process. What a great gift - for both her family and for us. Thank you!!!

Karen M Schmidt said...

Thank you, everyone, for your comments! I'm glad you like the step-by-step, I plan to post them much more often. Happy Painting!

Unknown said...

Karen - I was just thinking that I would love to know more of your process, as I am so inspired by your beautiful, colorful paintings! Thank you so much for sharing; I'm looking forward to reading more step-by-step posts. Question: what brand of brushes have you settled on, since your favorites were discontinued (you mentioned on your website)? I am trying to find something that isn't as stiff as a hog bristle, but with enough spring to hold it's shape when I'm painting.
Thanks again--Marjie