Balancing Passion and Logic: A Painting Demo

Apple Juice (oil, 30×24)

There are a lot of people who paint passionately without putting any thought into their work. They end up with a lot of paint on their canvases, but at the end of the process they still don’t know what they have; the work doesn’t look the way they want it to, and no one understands the piece. Conversely, there are people who are so intellectual that they can’t put any passion into a piece. They put their minds into every part of the painting until it ends up becoming a strict, emotionless rendering.

The trick is to be able to combine the strengths of both passion and logic. A businessman is just as passionate about making a dollar on an investment as an artist is about painting a great piece of art, and both get depressed when their ventures fail. The difference is that a painter often jumps blindly into a piece without thinking, while a businessman wouldn’t jump into an investment until he’d done his research.

So think like a businessman: Spend an extra 10-15 minutes thinking about what you’re going to paint before you even start the painting. You should understand so well what you want to do with a piece that you could verbalize the idea to someone else. Think about the form, the values, the colors, the atmosphere, the perspective, and where your focal point is and whether or not the subject matter is going to keep you involved for at least a couple of hours. That way, when you start to paint, you won’t be distracted by the details that require thought and precision. You can paint passionately and expressively.

Passion and Reason in 5 Steps:

1. The Road Map

I primarily paint on panels, and I don’t like paint to become absorbed into the surface of the panel, so I don’t use gesso. I prefer to sand my panels and then use latex exterior house paint to seal the entire thing. This practice allows me to paint wet-into-wet. If I don’t finish the painting in one session, then I put it in the freezer to keep the paint wet, and I return to it the next day.

I use life and photographs only as references. I have such a short attention span that I’m afraid if I spent any time doing studies I might already be tired of the image I’m painting

2. Creating Depth
It’s important for me not to be held hostage by what I see in real life. If there isn’t a “hook” in a scene—something that catches my eye—I create one from my imagination and build around it. At this point in the painting process, I created a mental road map of the design, the focal point, and the imaginary lines that would lead to my center of interest.

Here I made the left side of the painting warm and the right side cooler, based on the direction of the light source. This choice served multiple purposes: It allowed me to add hints of color to a gray city, and it created an illusion of depth. Remember: Warmer colors advance, while cooler colors retreat. When this principle is used correctly, a two-dimensional painting takes on three dimensions.

3. A Foundation of Spontaneity
Once I resolved many issues regarding the composition, I was free to make the switch from intellectualizing the work to painting with passion. The more I paint, the more automatic that resolution becomes, and the easier it is to be expressive in my work.

Here I worked on the foundation painting. This only took about an hour to fill in because I used big brushes and a lot of paint. Again, I was painting with pure passion—no thinking allowed. Using large brushes, I also started to place some of the bigger brushstrokes into the focal area. I didn’t allow myself to get caught up in painting the details of the scene.

4. Adding Information
I filled in the foreground, fleshed out the focal area and added to the foreground shapes. The beginnings of cars and people started to appear here; I wouldn’t allow myself to be too specific.

5. Back to Intellect
Finally, I returned to the intellectual part of the painting process, when I elaborated on the design and brought in more details. I wanted to make sure that the focal point—in this case, the building at the center of the piece—was attractive to the viewer.

The detail I the focal area here contrasted nicely with the bold brushstrokes from the foundation, so there was a nice play between the details on the surface and the abstract shapes underneath. The result is Apple Juice (oil, 30×24), which shows Times Square with its punch of neon in a purple-gray environment. The wet day allowed for reflections that made the boring asphalt street come alive with color.

Ken Auster
lives and paints in Laguna Beach, California. He’s represented by Gardner & Colby Gallery (Edgartown, Massachusetts, and Naples, Florida), Howard/Mandville Gallery (Kirkland, Washington), MJW Fine Art (Balboa Island, California), New Masters Gallery (Carmel, California), Objects & Images Fine Art (Bronxville, New York), Red Piano Art Gallery: A Morris Whiteside Gallery (Hilton Head Island, South Carolina) and Thomas Reynolds Gallery (San Francisco).


To read the rest of “A Meeting of the Minds”, see the July/August 2006 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

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