From Concept to Canvas | Advice From Stephen Cefalo

“A great narrative piece is always rooted in shapes that speak,” says Stephen Cefalo (Drawing, Fall 2012). “The most interesting subject can be capsized by an unthoughtful design, but through the use of movement, rhythm, light, and shape, even a simple or ambiguous idea can be profound. Have you ever noticed that you can often tell the difference between a strong and weak painting just by looking at a small thumbnail image? This is because the real meaning and power of the piece is in the overall movement of shape. The composition should speak before the images and symbols represented, and it is in the movement of shapes that the content is spoken most directly. These movements of shape appeal to the emotions of the viewer as arrangements of notes do in a song, and they must be carefully considered when developing your image.

Self-Portrait With Palette by Stephen Cefalo

Self-Portrait With Palette by Stephen Cefalo

“In recent years, I’ve transitioned from making strictly perceptual paintings to creating a great deal of imaginative narrative art. After lots of trial and error, I discovered that I can save time and make more interesting pieces by planning with sketches and studies before I commit my concept to an expensive piece of canvas. The following is one type of sketch I make in preparation for a painting.”

painting study by Stephen Cefalo

Study for Couple on a Rock

From Concept to Canvas by Stephen Cefalo

If you’re working on a large scale and are dealing with a complex concept, it will save you a great deal of trouble to make sure that the composition you have worked so hard to develop is effectively translated to your canvas. Several times as a student I made the mistake of copying only the idea of the composition while failing to transfer the actual proportional relationships of the shapes. Without these, the power of the idea was lost.

Couple on a Rock, painting by Stephen Cefalo

Couple on a Rock by Stephen Cefalo

There are many ways of transferring a composition. If the canvas is the same size as the drawing, the composition may be traced. I will take my tracing and simply rub the back with a soft graphite pencil, and then retrace my lines onto the canvas, like a piece of carbon paper. If the canvas is a different size, the drawing may be gridded out. To do this effectively, make sure that the height-to-width proportion of your rectangles are the same, or your image will appear compressed after transferring. I have at times used an opaque projector to trace my smaller drawing to a large canvas–if you do this, take care to avoid distortion from the projector. However you choose to transfer your composition, you will make your life a great deal easier by planning out your composition before working on your canvas. ~CF

Learn five more ways that Cefalo uses sketches as part of his painting process in the Fall 2012 issue of Drawing. And click here to learn more about Drawing magazine, including how to get a digital subscription.

Happy sketching,

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