Michelangelo started his Last Judgment in the upper left hand corner and, over a period of four years, worked his way down through about 250 nudes. Every figure was started with a “comp” — a paper drawing pounced (with a pounce wheel) and redrawn into place. In many cases the faces were painted first and lesser elements were passed on to assistants.
Surprisingly, many painters today labour from the top down — even landscapes — as if drawing a blind down the canvas. By contrast, Cezanne, more typical of the Impressionists and others, painted “all at once,” a system readily observed in Cezanne’s unfinished works. Other commendable artists, including many modern day ones like the American painter Richard Schmid, tend to start with a center of interest and work outwards, stroke by stroke, wiping off baddies as they go.
There’s no right way. But it’s possible to identify definitive methodologies. Here are a few:
Start with the most difficult area. Your freshness and early patience will help you to get it to your satisfaction and build the confidence to continue. As you move away from the difficult area, which is often the center of interest, natural defocus enhances the focal reality and the freshness of the whole. There’s nothing wrong with finishing up loose.
Start with the foreground. Compositions fail when the foreground is treated as an afterthought. The foreground is the master of eye control. Elements as they proceed toward the back of the painting can be more arbitrary. Furthermore, the subject is often framed by the foreground. When on location, it’s always a good idea to look around at the various foregrounds available. Your chosen foreground is the prompt which invites proceeding with the job.
Start with the end in mind. This may sound rigid but it means getting the whole pattern up early and then getting lost in a perceptibly timeless encounter. This is what Cezanne was perhaps after, and definitely got — the materialization of a unique item that stands on its own as something other than a “scene.” With materialization in play you have magic in your fingers and you become the wizard.
PS: “Nothing, of course, begins at the time you think it did.” (Lillian Hellman)
Esoterica: Pope Paul III brought an associate up the scaffold to pass an opinion on Michelangelo’s half-finished Last Judgment. Biagio da Cesena said there were “too many nudes for such an honored place — more suitable in a bathhouse or wine shop.” Mike continued with the work as he saw fit — he had a written papal guarantee he could do what he wanted. For two hundred years artists were engaged to put breeches on some of the figures.
This letter is adapted from one previously published as “Where to start” on October 24, 2000.
In praise of ‘foregrounds first’
by Mary Susan Vaughn, Weddington, NC, USA
Where to start can be the difference between a masterpiece and a complete flop. I learned over the years that I should start in the background and move forward… back to front — dark to light — cool to warm. Maybe generations of experience dictate these lessons, but I completely agree with you, that when we start with the subject – the foreground — that the energy and patience, excitement and mastery, are plainly visible to all in the finished painting. I also agree that when starting with the foreground, or the subject, that when it is time to work on the background, it can be a bit frustrating since edges may need to be reworked; but, reworking a few edges is far less painful than scrubbing the entire painting. It is best to begin with the subject… the foreground… with the best an artist has to give!
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Watercolor driven by other requirements
by Doris Osbahr
Oh how different and more medium-driven is the watercolor, although there also are very clear different approaches on where and how to start. A friend of mine starts applying the shade washes. I start with the lighter areas and move into the darker ones. Yet, most everyone starts by determining where to leave white areas untouched (the highlights).
Can’t do both
by Keith Donaldson, Minneapolis, MN, USA
What an inspiration you are to all of us who play happily in life’s sandbox or I suppose paintbox. I am surrounded in my studio by the results of 20 fulfilling years of painting whatever moved me. I regularly reject those which do not measure up and consign them to the trash (or paint on the back, I’m a watercolorist). I am much less happy as a marketer, but am comforted by a friend, a world famous potter, who told me once, “You can work at your art or at marketing your art, but you cannot do both without hurting one or the other.” Ah well, the pleasure is in the doing and the living each day.
Thinking from the scaffold
by Linda Stephan, Birmingham, AL, USA
In Art History I was taught that the first panel Michelangelo did was the story of Noah and the Flood. I don’t know whether it is in a corner or not; however, I was taught that after he had done it, he realized he had too many figures in the composition to be easily read by viewers on the floor below. For future panels, he reduced the number of figures and enlarged their size accordingly.
by John MacKenzie, Orangeville, ON, Canada
“Can you help me with the concept of ‘materialization’ as in Cezanne’s aim of ‘the materialization of a unique item that stands on its own as something other than a ‘scene?’ ”
(RG note) “Materialization” is a creative concept where all elements gradually appear on the canvas more or less as a unit and become a “thing unto itself.” The idea in this type of creativity is that the subject matter as rendered often wanders from reality and takes on the automatic and unique style of the artist in the business of making it happen. Cezanne’s style, for example, was distinct from that of other impressionists. Many of our readers noted that half closing the eyes during this process seems to aid the effect — I’m not sure why, but I think they’re right.
Doing a ‘Genn’
by Taylor Ikin, Tampa Bay, FL, USA
I teach art, and over the years my comments, as well as an image or two, have been posted in the Twice-Weekly Letter. In my teaching, I start the day with a reading… and if it is not from your twice-weekly email, then it is often from The Painter’s Keys. You are part of the class, so to speak. I would like you to know you have many friends, here in the Tampa Bay area, cheering you on with prayers and support and multiple positive thoughts. No one knows when our time will come. But one guarantee is that we are only passing through. I thought you might enjoy knowing when I shared your “cleaning out the dogs” painting comments, my group immediately embraced the idea and now refer to it as doing a “Genn”!
Pouncing for fun and profit
by Marian Kemp, Powell River, BC, Canada
What is a “pounce” and what is a “pounce wheel”?
(Sara G note) “Pounce patterns” and “pounce wheels” are a somewhat outdatedmethod of transferring a drawing or a motif from paper to another surface. A pounce wheel is a pen-like device with a serrated wheel at the end that the artist or assistant uses to put tiny perforations along the lines of a drawing. The paper is then taped to the final surface and “pounced” with a “pounce bag” of either chalk or charcoal, leaving a line of dots where the painted line was to go. Michelangelo used this method to lay out the panels on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Some of today’s sign painters and a few muralists still use the system.
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Abstracts require the overall approach
by Connie Cuthbertson, Fort Frances, ON, Canada
I remember you mentioning the importance of beginning with the foreground which I do in many of my landscapes. I also like to start with the exciting parts, the focus of interest, but only seem to do this when painting a still life or figure. Only with my abstracts do I begin with an all over approach like Cezanne. Once the painting has begun the overall approach takes over in all of my work as I begin looking for opportunities to link everything together. I find by working the painting as a whole near the end of the process, it’s easier to create harmony in my work.
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Intuitive and just plain fun
by Susan Thomas, Toronto, ON, Canada
I saw a photo of you painting on an island on Lake of the Woods — my home. I am sure you were near what we called Battle Ship Island where we used to camp. But maybe you were elsewhere — there are 14,000 islands. My father guided on that lake through the Hades Passage and down to Wiley Point as a young man in the ’30s. He taught tourists how to clean pickerel on the canoe paddle and cook it over an open fire. He also made four very nice oil paintings of the Lake but was frustrated as he was driven to be so accurate — a tad anal retentive which he recognized. These paintings still sit in a place of pride on our cottage wall on the Lake and I pray it won’t burn down.
I now have started to change my life with acrylics. Almost drunk with the texture and colour, I painted a stump that sits in the forest beside our home here on the Indian Land above Burrard Inlet. I threw salt and then pepper into my medium and then some sand imported from Bermuda and then as I was looking for crushed leaves, I added a dash or two of paprika. It was just plain fun. I started with the stump — wondering what little animals live there or cower there when the coyotes come at night. I had never seen such magnificent stumps — these massive cedar constructions found on the west coast. I started as I have never started when I was in watercolour — without fear — just drew an outline of that irregular shape and spent the day playing — all intuitive and just plain fun.
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You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Andra Norris who wrote, “‘Wiping of baddies as they go’ Robert Genn… I love your prose! Thank you for reaching out and reaching in.’ ”
And also Dean Wilson of Victoria, BC, Canada, who wrote, “Wonderful picture of the family!”
(RG note) Thanks Dean, and thanks to everyone who went to take a look at that photo and to hear the interview. Our stats went off the chart for three days.
Enjoy the past comments below for On where to start…