Fine-tuning Your Art

In The Cellist, Victor Sweatt expresses the paradox constantly facing the creative person: That by concentrating intently, you’ll eventually reach the point at which you can finally relax and just create. Using oil pastel, Sweatt nicely captures this magical moment in a performance when the musician becomes one with his instrument and delves into the core of the music-making process.

Areas to Work On
Although he was concerned with the transition from the light background to a darker foreground and also with the value of the cellist, Sweatt mastered these challenges rather well. But he spent so much creative energy on these particular issues, that he missed out on developing some more critical painting elements such as solid drawing, composition and color.

Principles At Work
Drawing on reality. The bottles in the background give the impression that the performance might be taking place in a bar, where a bass—as part of a jazz trio, for instance—would be more typical than a cello. In addition, the instrument here seems overly large for a cello and, in fact, is held by the musician more like a bass. This causes some confusion for the viewer. Due to this, the painting might more aptly be called The Musician, because whether the instrument is a cello or a bass isn’t central to Sweatt’s message. However, the title confusion does underscore the need for closer attention to detail and some basic drawing skills.

Another problem I see in this otherwise realistic picture is the overly large hands and instrument face. These discrepancies suggest to me that Sweatt used a photo reference but didn’t compensate for camera distortion. Also, the right side of the musician’s face is larger than the left side, which could be another result of painting from a photo. In the drawing at right I’ve indicated how to diagram the face structure for greater accuracy. This exercise can be done at the beginning of painting and then repeated to make sure nothing gets altered.

In addition, it’s not clear by looking at the hands whether the musician is playing (in which case the strings shouldn’t be perfectly straight as they are here), resting or about to pluck the strings. Doing a study of the hands from life before painting would have given Sweatt a chance to work out the hand anatomy.

Composing the design. Sweatt chose a close-up view with a diagonal motif to express the moodiness of the scene. However, I feel he made the scene too intimate. Leaving more room around the musician would have allowed Sweatt to indicate some key location details, which he started to do with the bottles on the left. The location details can be subdued, but should be clear enough to help the viewer understand whether the musician is in a bar, in a rehearsal hall, or at home. I’d also like to see more clearly whether the musician is sitting or standing.

More important, however, is the missing source of light. In this composition, it’s unclear where the primary source of light comes from. The light reflects one way off the instrument and the opposite way off the face. Although in performance situations light can come from a variety of directions, Sweatt should choose a consistent source. And in terms of selecting the primary source of light, a good rule of thumb is to take the focal point of the painting—in this case the expressive face of the musician—and key the rest of the painting to this. Sweatt has painted the musician’s face predominantly as if the light source is from over his left shoulder, so the rest of the painting’s highlights and shadows should be in keeping with this.

Playing with color. Sweatt wisely chose a limited palette to emphasize the moodiness of his subject. But he may have kept his palette too limited. In a painting as realistic as this, the skin tones and the color of the instrument wouldn’t be the same color. Generally, instruments have a much redder finish. To clarify the scene, Sweatt could have used some English red or burnt umber in the instrument, for instance, and more sienna in the musician with some added touches of blue, purple or green to cool the skin.

When you look carefully at the hands, Sweatt did a good job of defining local color—I was particularly struck by the touch of green on the veins of the left hand. He could have continued this careful painting of local color on the instrument, though. By contrast, the instrument shows an almost flat abstract color that isn’t appropriate for a realistic painting. Rather, Sweatt could have taken advantage of the reflected light and included elements of yellow or magenta to bring the browns of the instrument to life.

Color also needs to be incorporated into the shadows of the instrument. In The Cellist, these important shadows are black. In nature, shadows are never black. They’re deep pools of dark values made up of colors from the subjects, surrounding objects and reflected light. Using some deeper blues, for instance, could have made for more lively shadows.

Lessons Learned
In all, Sweatt succeeded where it counts most. He created a moody picture that speaks to the viewer. To translate this into a great painting, he needs to improve his drawing and color observation skills, and to clarify his composition. These needs apply to nearly all of us, and I heartily advise carrying a small sketchbook and a small set of oil pastels with you always. Then any time you’re waiting, practice your drawing by sketching what’s in front of you. Practice color observation by doing color studies of what’s in your shopping cart, for instance, as you wait to check out. Since oil pastels are dust free and don’t require any equipment other than your fingers, they’re great to use for quick practice sessions.

Victor Sweatt jokingly says his favorite medium is the eraser. By making preliminary studies and practicing his technique, in no time he’ll be able to throw that eraser away.

About the Artist
“Time is the best teacher,” says Louisville, Kentucky, artist Victor L. Sweatt. “Give yourself to your art and it will give itself to you.” He’s received several local awards for his art, including honors from the Kentucky Arts and Crafts Expo Center show and the Actors Theater of Louisville African-American Exhibit.

Ernest J. Velardi is an artist and workshop instructor. He taught for 32 years at Cal State University Northridge and five years before that at Western College in Oxford, Ohio. He received his MFA from the University of Illinois. He lives in Northridge, California.

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