Creating A Safety Net


Most artists, no matter how experienced, tend to say that facing a blank canvas or sheet of paper is the most exciting, and terrifying, part of the artistic process. Here we explore a number of methods to create a ‘safety net' in order to make the final translation from life a lot less elusive.

Most artists, no matter how experienced, tend to say that facing a blank canvas or sheet of paper is the most exciting, and terrifying, part of the artistic process. This is especially true when working from life, when attempting to bridge the gap between what we see and how we wish to transpose it can be a rather daunting process. At LARA we use a number of methods to create a ‘safety net' in order to make the final translation of life into art a lot less elusive. 

Stage One: Block-In Sketches.

This example shows how students tackle painting from the model but the process can be used for all subjects when working from life. Students create a series of drawn block-ins which simplify the overall form and gesture and break it down to its most basic ‘blocks’. These sketches express the main elements of the pose in their simplest form. The process sees the creation of at least three well-thought out drawings resulting in the generation of a structured plan for the overall design of the finished work. Small sketches also help students to work out problems with tone or shape before they are encountered within the larger drawings. Quick drawings are generally created using pencil and small pieces of paper and usually take about 3 hours to complete.

Stage Two: Colour Studies/Quick Paint Sketches

Quick colour studies enable the exploration of various tonal and chromatic ranges as well as effectively ‘keying’ the piece. Student Sofia Welch’s quick sketches of ‘Henry’ show how this process can work towards the final piece. Shape and drawing are less important at this stage and the focus is on capturing the overall tone, atmosphere and chroma of the image. These small paintings also allow the student to play with colour, value and contrast before committing within the larger work. Sketches are generally done on a piece of canvas taped to boards and should be generated quickly- usually over a three hour period.

When working on sketches it is important to consider what the essential elements of the pose or painting are. If you are painting a figure, what is the body type of the model you are working with? Develop a strong idea of what you are painting before moving forward (In this example, Henry is a tall, blonde man with strong facial features and a moustache in a relaxed pose. His weight is held mainly on the leg nearest to the viewer and his arm is raised and also baring some weight.) Gain a good mental picture of the fundamental elements of the pose or object. All questions should be worked out in these initial colour studies giving a firm grounding about what will happen within the larger painting.

Stage Three: The Work-Up

Now is the time to move onto the large canvas or paper. When approaching this stage there should be few questions remaining about how the final piece will look and how it will be tackled. As shown in Sofia’s example, the colour palette is worked out in full before it is applied to the final painting.

At this stage, most of the information required has already been explored and decided upon. The student now knows roughly the elements of the gesture, form and pose that they wish to capture, and the key, values and chroma to be used. With this information, they know how to approach this final stage with confidence rather than fear. By now all of the elements of the work they may come up against have been resolved and they know roughly what their finished piece should look like. Completing this process allows them more freedom to explore the subtleties of the form.

Stage Four: Making Use Of It

Having created a safety net it is important to remember to keep it handy and put it to use when producing your final painting. It’s often tempting to forget about this early work when fully engaged working on the final piece, but these early sketches and studies are a goldmine of information that you can draw upon at a later date when facing challenges or working out difficult passages. By retaining a clear mental idea of what you are hoping to portray, and using the work you have already done, you will be a strong position to create an effective and pleasing painting.

Other things to consider:

Tackling The Portrait:

The portrait can often prove one of the harder elements when working from the figure. At LARA we recommend that students take a few attempts at this, working it out in pencil and colour in order to capture the model’s facial features. They then use these as reference when handling the final painting. Remember you are learning how to capture your subject, you may not understand it fully in your first attempt.

Using References:

It is important to use information from a number of sources in order to work out issues or things you do not understand. The more information you can draw upon to inform your final work when learning, the better you will understand the subject when you handle it in later pieces. The foot doesn’t look like a foot? Research the anatomy of the foot and practice drawing it in pencil a few times before committing to tackling it in your final piece. 

‘Keying a piece’:

By ‘keying a piece’ we mean establishing the tonal boundaries within which you will work. By putting down the ‘darkest dark’ and the ‘lightest light’ you can easily tell whether the mixes you are applying are within these established boundaries. In Sofia’s painting of Henry, the darkest dark was the background and the lightest light was area on the shoulder. (This should not be confused with the highlight.) She made sure that everything was painted in comparison to these two areas. It is also a good idea to put the most chromatic element of the piece in at this stage (in this case, Henry’s lips.)

Words by Drucilla Burrell. Images by Sofia Welch

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