Nittany Lion Inn - "Change of Classes" In-progress journal
Karl Eric Leitzel July, 2009 main web site
This page will serve as a journal of the actual painting of the commissioned painting, "Change of Classes", as it is created in late July of 2009. New photos and commentary will be added after each days work until the painting is finished. There were, of course, several months of preliminary work, including small plein air paintings on campus, hundreds of photos and several small prototype paintings. There were also a number of meetings with the committee headed up by Jim Purdum, the general manager at the Nittany Lion Inn, which is where the finished piece will be hung in the newly renovated lobby. This journal is being created to enable the committee to follow along as the painting progresses, but will be made accessible to the general public after the unveiling on August 20, 2009.
The Sketched Outlines
The 36" by 54" canvas has been stretched over 3/4" MDO board, making a rigid and durable support for the painting. I then double primed the canvas with acrylic gesso, with the final coat tinted to a warm neutral color. I prefer starting with a colored ground (surface) rather than bright white. It helps me better envision the final light/dark relationships as I work and also adds a bit of warmth if any ground shows through thin areas of paint. You can see the main working photo below the canvas, which has all the people, trees, and architecture carefully sketched on. This was all hand-sketched by measuring from the photo and multiplying by a factor of 6. The photo is actually a montage, with many of the depicted people added from other photos taken during the same couple of days in late April. Angle of movement and lighting must essentially match up, though, with minor adjustments made during the actual painting. Sketching on all this detail actually took parts of a couple of days.
I'm working outside today and will do much of the painting outdoors as long as the weather allows, but in the final stages I'll look at and adjust the painting under a variety of lighting, including artificial indoor light, since it is important that the color and texture work well under a variety of potential lighting situations.
Beginning the Painting
A painting this large will be worked on more in layers over time than a small piece, and so the early stages give only a glimpse of the finished effect. I like to block in the general colors of the sky and other "background" elements first before starting on the main subjects, but before long I'll begin bouncing around and working on whatever seems to want attention next, rather than in any systematic order.
At this stage, I have a good idea of the finished look I'm after, but it is not a perfectly defined idea. The elements and their placement are all set (unless I decide to change things a bit as they develop), but when working in a loose, impressionistic style as I do, the object is not to render photographic detail. Rather, the idea is to provide just enough information to make each part of the painting seem alive, while allowing the viewer to subconsciously finish things off in his or her own mind's eye, thus making the work more universal and interesting. It's like a story that makes the reader work to figure out how it all fits together, or a song that sets a strong mood but leaves the setting and events somewhat ambiguous. In this case, I want the viewer to feel as though they can walk right into the flow of the crowd, or imagine that one of the barely suggested figures in the background is a close friend, or even the viewer himself. The light, form, and composition are much more important than minor details.
Roughing in More Background
As I reach the end of the workday, I finish roughing in most of the tree trunks and areas of grass and sidewalk. As with any painting at this stage, this roughing in only sets approximate colors and forms and the paint in applied in a fairly thin layer. Everything will be gone over in later stages after the whole painting is covered and the interplay between elements makes more subtle needs of color and texture evident.
In these early stages, an element of faith in one's ability as an artist is needed. The distance to travel between the blank canvas and the finished painting in my mind's eye is great. The final piece will be the result of many thousands of brushstrokes, all interwoven and each affecting the other. There is not time to carefully consider each stroke, and so the process becomes very intuitive rather than intellectual, with the experience of many years and many paintings informing the quick mix of the next color, the dabs here and there, the stepping back to look and see the next spot that needs attention. As I get intensely involved in the later stages, there will be times when I stop noticing the passage of time, or being hungry or thirsty, or much of anything else short of the house catching fire. That, I suppose, is what is meant by saying an artist is "in the zone". I expect that tomorrow things will begin to get intense in that way.