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TUTORIAL: Evolution of a painting “Suspicion.” Step by step in oils

I thought I’d show my process of painting, as well as demonstrate how digital tools like Photoshop can be a time-saver and life-saver for an artist. Sure, I’m an old-school traditional painter, but that doesn’t mean I’ll turn my back on new technology completely!

(Click on the thumbnail to see a bigger picture.) Some progress paintings for “Suspicion,” oil on 8×8″ linen panel.

  1. Probably 3/4 done. Eyes are too high up on the face. (Checking in Photoshop helped me see this.) Highlights (on cheek and chin) are too bright and harsh. He’s got a wall eye (on our right side, the eye is looking off in a different direction.)
  2. Much better. Eyes a bit too big (but I didn’t really mind that). “Muzzle” of face (mouth, chin, under nose) is pushed out too much. Makes him look slightly ape-like. That will not do!
  3. Almost done. Eye on our right still strays a bit too much. Area around the mouth not quite to my liking. Creases above eyebrows not quite correct.
  4. A few more tweaks. Fixed highlight above upper lip. Reshaped the lower lip a bit. Tiny bit of adjustment to eye direction.

I don’t usually photograph my paintings when I’m in the middle of working on them. (I will have to do that sometime in the future for tutorial purposes.) So unfortunately I don’t have a picture of this painting in its beginning stages. So this is the best I can do—to show how I can go off the rails with details and proportions, and how eventually I get things set to order in the end. It’s almost always a gradual, ongoing process.

Part of my “problem” is that I paint (“draw”) freehand. 😉 By that I mean, no grids, no tracing a photograph. I like to draw and paint from life (the model sitting in front of me) when my schedule allows, and without reasonable freehand drawing skills, that simply wouldn’t be possible. So being overly dependent on drawing aids was never much of an option. I find that my drawing speed is reasonably efficient and it only gets better, the more I practice.

Some artists (particularly portrait artists) are very accomplished and can produce something fabulous-looking within a short amount of time. But I’m not one of those artists. 😉 Yes, I can paint relatively fast(ish) and can produce something okay-looking in an hour or so. But those little details and flaws that can break a painting—they afflict me! Rarely do I paint something “perfect” in one sitting. I wish it were so . . . oh how I wish it were so!

My primary drawing aid of choice is the computer and Adobe Photoshop. If I see problems with a painting-in-progress (and I always do), I make notes of what needs to be corrected and keep these notes with me for when I work on the painting again. This helps me keep out a sharper eye for areas where I tend to have difficulties. If I traced (or used a grid with lots of tight little squares) every time I painted something, how would I learn where my problem areas in drawing were?

So, I have to let a painting sit for a day or two, let it simmer on my brain’s back burner, and then I can see where I’m going wrong. The computer helps me find problem areas. Sizing the artwork down to thumbnail size helps me see how it would look from a distance. (This is vital!) Flopping it (mirror image) in Photoshop helps me see where things are off-center or slanting to one side or the other. (They always are. Always.) Before I had Photoshop I would hold up the painting to a mirror. I sometimes still do this if I’m in the midst of working on it and sense something is off. Some artists have a mirror with them in their studio at all times, just for this purpose.