HOW TO TAKE YOUR PAINTING TO THE NEXT LEVEL:
Random tips and tricks for those that already know how to oil paint and are looking to refine their skills.
BLUR YOUR EDGES:
If you're a realism artist understanding termination points is key in getting your work to look believable. Harsh edges look fake-like a cut and paste, rather than real with believable dimension. Blurring an edge so their is no clear termination point is crucial to make a subject look three dimensional.
NOTE: The further something is from the foreground the more obscured the edge will be.
Blur edges more to further recede them into the background.
See the photo to the right- notice the ear is blurred more than the edge of the face?
You can also blur edges to control focus.
Also Blurring the edge of the cornea of the eye in a portrait painting is a MUST! Often people do not blur this specific edge enough and it keeps the eye from looking as real as it otherwise could.
Understanding the impact highlights have is important to maximize the effect and overall feel of the painting. Make note that there are highlights which are not white- rather a lighter version of a colour. Then there are specular highlights which are the absolute brightest whitest highlight in the whole piece- this is where you want tp draw the eye of the viewer, so proper placement of your specular highlight is important. Making your highlights dimensional so they catch the natural light in the room will enhance the effect they have. Your highlights should always be the "tallest"part of your painting (imagine if you laid it flat, the tallest peaks would be your brightest highlights) So think of your specular highlight as your Mount Everest. The specular highlight should be what sticks out furthest from the substrate. The light in the room (whether its natural daylight or artificial lighting in the evening) will catch the dimensional parts and make them brighter than paint alone can. But it is important to keep in mind that the more dimensional you make these highlights, the more of a shadow they will cast below them. Impasto, G-Gel, or Cold Wax medium is a great way to add this texture.
Another key point to note is that highlights have the biggest impact against darker values. So if your radiant white specular highlight is right against your deepest black, this will draw the viewers gaze to this spot and give maximum impact.
As a portrait painter I reserve this technique for the eye of my subject, so the viewer is pulled to the eyes of who I'm painting. I make certain no other highlights in the piece are as bright as the specular highlight in the eye. And that the darks they are up against aren't as black as the dark value in the eye. This gives maximum impact and really forces the viewer to look where I want them to. Controlling the viewer and manipulating their gaze can be a strong tool to make your work more powerfully experienced.
With all this in mind, it then means that all shadows should have less dimension. The flatter it is, the more it receded. If you paint texturally in a shadow area, you will get naturally occurring highlights on the peaks of those textures.
Textural radiant white highlights emphasize the lipstick on the face, making it the focus of the painting, as all other highlights are paired back in value & dimension.
Specular highlights can also act as anchors when you begin to bring in abstract elements to the work that begin to obscure the subject.
(As pictured above and below, where bright white specular highlights in the eyes, where there are no other specular highlights, help the viewer very quickly find the eyes, and anchor the the subject allowing for easy read the painting.)
Peaks of texture in a lighter tone in the iris of the eye create maximum impact even when surrounded by brighter white highlights around it in the water, bu having the black beside it. If there is more than one focal point to the piece (here it is the gaze of the subject as well as the water), use the 2 ingredients to maximize each respective focal element: 1- Texture/dimension of highlight, and 2-The other values directly against the highlight.
MANIPULATION OF LIGHT:
If you want to create a painting that is MORE than just copying a photo, then understanding how to manipulate light is key! (hello old masters like Rembrandt & Caravaggio )
DO NOT feel obligated to adhere to the lighting of your reference. Instead establish the focus of the painting and use lighting to control the mood/ atmosphere and where the viewers eye goes.
Use light to create a narrative.
Use light to highlight or emphasize points of the composition
Use light to create a new reality or exaggerated reality- an example of this can be seen in the turquoise gaze of my subject in the painting here. My muse for this painting had ice blue eyes that were lost when we photographed him away from the light. I took creative license to manipulate the light to not only bring back his piercing eyes, but utilized it to enhance the intensity of his gaze. Just b/c you may be painting a "realistic" piece, doesn't mean you cannot elaborate on aspects.
Understanding what you want your painting to convey is the first step, and manipulation of light is a very useful tool to help you arrive at your goal.
Another way to use manipulation of light to subvert the atmosphere of the panting is to be creative with lighting. Use lighting that is not commonly seen in nature to create intense moods.
Here's an example to the left, where I used upwards light from below the subject to illuminate the eye opposite of how we see it commonly in everyday life. This creates a tension and eerie atmosphere as something feels "not quite right" yet is a perfectly accurate representation of how light behaves.
By simply shining a light from an uncommon angle, you give the subject a fresh perspective.
Manipulating light doesn't just mean controlling the darkest darks and the brightest highlights, or the direction of the light. It also means using light to say something. Painting is limited in how you can convey a message. When words are not an option, you need to get creative in how you get your point across. Composition, subject, and colours are the most common ways to do this, but a good painting will make the light stand for something. Using light manipulation as a tool to convey a message can be a very important and powerful element to drive the voice of the painting home.
For example, here (right, or below if on a phone) is a painting of a man where I wanted to counteract centuries of men being painted with the typical symbols of power and strength, and instead I wanted to convey a sense of vulnerability. With out writing "vulnerable" across it, how do you paint a man vulnerably? position of the body could be one way, but if there is no body? it requires a bit more creativity and more tools. The jugular- exposing this is a very physical symbol of vulnerability. By turning the face away and extending the neck and jutting forward and exposing this incredibly vulnerable body part, a narrative begins to emerge. But to really drive the intention home, I used a more subtle approach to light manipulation to illuminate the neck. Not detracting from the focus or intensity of the eye, I kept all highlights less intense than the eye, yet much more prominent than the rest of the face or body. I directed my light source to this region of the subject. literally "shining a light on it"
I had to stray from my photo reference and pull out all the knowledge I had on understanding light to direct everything in a believable but impactful way.
If I were to photograph the subject and try to get this same lighting, it would never happen since at the same time it would highlight other areas and shadow areas I didn't want shadowed, and the intensity of lighting across my subject would not be this controlled.
This is where you want to take advantage of painting as a medium as opposed to the limitations of photography.
(left) The light of the water and the light in the eye do not compete with one another since different techniques to highlight them have been used
By lighting the eye from below, as opposed to above as seen in nature (whether outside in natural light, or indoors with artificial lighting), the painting almost looks as though it is upside down (prints of this painting pictured above are very often hung upside down by mistake), however if you flip it upside down, you see it is still not correct, since the eye itself then becomes upside down. By simply tweaking the direction of the light source, a tension has been created.
A good painting isn't one that is just technically painted well, but is something that sparks dialogue through its narrative, or makes you feel something, and a great painting will check all of those boxes.
MAXIMIZE ALL ELEMENTS OF PAINTING:
Speaking of taking advantage of painting as a medium-
Use every tool that comes with painting (colour/tone, values, lighting, composition, subject, ...) and maximize each tool.
Think about what your colours/tones are doing- do the colours provoke a mood? Do the colours manipulate how the viewer sees the subject? do the tones push forward (warmer tones) or recede back (cooler tones)? Do they say something about the subject? Colour and symbolism is big! thats a tool you can use.
do the same thing- running through the questions for all other elements of painting. What does each element SAY? how does it make the viewer FEEL?
Having proper and refined control over these core elements can completely change how a simple or common subject is seen and can make yours stand out from the rest and be felt with more intensity from the viewer. You want the viewer to connect with the work. You want them to think and feel when they look at it. So control the elements responsible for thinking and feeling in the painting. With proper control of the elements of painting, the subject becomes less important- its not what you paint so much as HOW you paint it. Different artists can all paint the same subject, and by manipulation and control of the core elements, you can have completely different paintings with varying narratives and feels.
OVERCOMING ARTIST BLOCK:
If you're an artist at any level, odds are you've experienced 'artist block'. Dipping into the above segment on 'maximizing all elements of painting'- this is a great way to overcome artist block. Don't think of what to paint, and instead choose a common subject and experiment with HOW you paint it and explore the various ways you can experiment with the core elements and control how it's seen through manipulation of colour, value, lighting, and composition.
You can also experiment in ways to get creative with subject- again not what you paint- but HOW you paint it.
(I've painted the same subject- a self portrait using the same reference photo- many different times in a different way each time. Its a great lesson in exploring the core elements as tools, as well as an exercise in flexing the creative part of the artist brain. (If all else fails, you can just punch through that dreaded blank canvas and paint that instead. Don't forget to paint the reddened knuckles lol)
The original and first painting made from this photo reference, was then cut up as if it went through a shredder to create a narrative about the disposable nature of society. The stark white painted linen background emulating paper.
A painting within a painting, where everything is painted flatly (save for the actual dimensional textural impasto details) the illusion of torn paper on linen- this piece clearly becomes about illusion vs reality.
Similar to the first with the cutting, But with a change of lighting & values altering the feel of the piece- We no longer get the narrative of paper through a shredder, & instead get this juxtaposition of seriousness vs playfulness of the disjointed outcome. Making the voice of the painting more about the subject herself than an outward narrative as with all others.
Painted completely flatly using a different technique- oil dry brush, makes this the flattest of these paintings- the addition of the floating dots is what gives the painting its dimension- which is of course a false dimension. which is where we get a new narrative as well as a new feel as there is a bit of subtle comedy in this.
Here I painted myself as a man, on oil paper, then cut it up, put the pieces of painting into plastic identification holders, and then rearranged the cards and riveted them to a painting panel, rather than just painting it directly on the panel. Not only did I change lighting and colour to change the feel but the narrative completely changed to communicate struggle with identity. (black and white is a play on how we see gender as black and white. ID card holders are another symbolism used. Rearranging of the cards and thus the composition is yet another tool used.)
As you can see above where all subject is the same, by playing around with the elements of painting, you can create new intention, feel, mood, and narratives. Pushing yourself as an artist doesn't necessarily mean evolving subject matter, so much as it means exploring your medium. Exploring art. Exploring creativity.. If you're looking to step up your painting game, getting better technically comes with practice, and can come with gaining knowledge of mediums and techniques and their application- but the greatest leap you can take artistically comes from an exploration outside of these fundamental principals of painting and delves into the driving force of why we create in the first place. Brining the humanness to your painting. Bring questions. Bring feeling. Bring intent. Many painting masters were not masters b/c they could execute a painting realistically, rather they were masters for everything else they brought to their art. A perfectly executed painting technically will always fall short if it lacks soul.
The goal should never be how to capture something in paint so well that it's mistaken for a photo. The goal should be to create a painting that sticks in the mind and hearts of the viewer long after they've stopped looking at it.
CREATIVE PROBLEM SOLVING
We're human, making mistakes is inevitable, but learning from them is MEGA in levelling up as an artist.
Plus, unless you want to waste expensive linen, canvas, paper, and lose all the time invested into the piece, you're going to have to get creative with finding solutions to fix the problem. If the problem itself isn't fixable, be flexible with your finished result/game plan. Like the piece in the DRY BRUSH tab, I never intended to have the neck so dark, which meant I needed to adjust the lighting throughout the whole piece to have darker edges, but it works. It really pushes the focus to the features and the dark surround frames the face. I can't tell you how many times I messed up but was too stubborn to throw the piece away, so instead I sat and stared at it to think of a way to "save" it, and instead found a solution that actually made for a better piece anyway. It's so easy to get frustrated if it doesn't go according to plan, and what will save your sanity is thinking of these moments as opportunities to expand your creative thinking and doorways to new potential.
There are so many ways you can save a piece from going to the art graveyard b/c you think you botched it. whether its adding a new element, adjusting the lighting, cutting it up or deconstructing it and reconstructing it in a creative way, or collaging- this is the beauty of these fuck-up moments- they open up opportunity with infinite possibility!
Now sometimes fixing a piece can take more time and sometimes more money to salvage than just starting over, but then you're depriving yourself of that opportunity to expand your creativity and process. So I strongly advise never throwing a piece away, but always pushing yourself to find a way to save it.
Practicing of course makes you a stronger painter, but never giving up on a piece can strengthen you as an artist.
If you never try to fix your mistakes, then every time you make one, your piece will be fated for the dumpster and you're only stunting your potential growth.
Just also know that sometimes a solution to saving a piece doesn't come right away. Sometimes it's as quick as in the moment realizing that a simple light adjustment can save it and even make the piece stronger for it, and other times it can take days or weeks of staring at a piece to come up with the perfect solution. But I promise theres a solution! In the last five years that Iv'e started taking on this fuck-up challenge, Ive not thrown away a single piece. I managed to save every one. And in that time I've grown so much more as an artist for it and my work and process has rapidly evolved for it. I've done entire series based on an idea I had to save a piece. It's also made me think more creatively outside of just my art as well.
One important tip I have for cultivating this new creative mindset is to keep the piece out, or take a photo of it and stare at it. It seems so silly but seriously- actively look at it and let your mind wander. and please know that while you're looking at it and ideas start to come in, it's totally normal to have hundreds of AWFUL ideas before that one good one strikes. The struggle for many artists is accepting the initial error and accepting the horrible ideas. The mistake doesn't make you a rubbish artist and the shitty ideas don't make you a rubbish artist- the only thing that will make you a poor artist is giving up and not pushing through. These moments and self doubt are a part of every artists practice. They are GOOD to be there b/c it's hat pushes us for better and strive for growth. So accept them as a natural and much needed part of the process, and move on. Use the doubt productively as fuel.
Also worth noting that if nothing is coming to you while you're staring at it, it may be super beneficial to print out a photo of it, or pull it up on a device and doodle over the image. Nothing may come at first, but just start sketching- mindlessly, and eventually it will become intentional. I like to pull up an image of the piece on my ipad and in the Procreate app I'll make different layers of ideas... they start off super shit, and with each layer the ideas get more refined until something I'm happy with appears.
This is also a great way to see if the idea you have to fix it will actually work out... Like the painting above- if I had any doubts I could have pulled it up in the app and painted some shadows in on it (or if its too early to tell, paint on the image you're using as reference and see if it works, then use your new ipad painted version as your new reference.)
Being visual artists the VISUAL is key. Forcing yourself to look at an image or forcing a pencil to paper to SEE ideas is much more helpful that staring elsewhere and daydreaming up a solution. This isn't just a personal opinion, this can be noted throughput history for so many successful artists. Don't just wait for inspiration to strike- you can be waiting a life time. Instead you must actively pursue inspiration.
Creative thinking and creative problem solving is a mindset that can be trained. Some folks- like in any area- are more natural at it, where others need to put in more work to get there. If you're not one of those to whom it comes naturally, don't sweat it- if you're willing to work a bit for it, once you begin to train your mind to think creatively by looking for openings and solutions and looking at things from new light and new perspectives, then it gets easier and easier until you find yourself doing it without even trying. It becomes second nature. But just like actually practicing putting paint to canvas to hone your painting skills, it takes the same effort to train a creative mind. THE MORE YOU PUT IN- THE MORE YOU GET OUT.