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Figure Painting in Oil in Just 5 Steps

Andrew Conklin demonstrates how he paints his figures from life rather than from photos.

Follow along below as artist Andrew Conklin paints this figure, Motion Capture Athlete on Yellow Chair (oil on panel, 18×13.5), in five steps.

The working environment of a motion capture studio is the subject of Andrew Conklin’s pictures. Using a painting approach that harks back to the Baroque era, he depicts the denizens of this corner of the digital world. He depicts the technicians peering at screens. And the models stretching and acting, in the same way that a 17th-century painter might construct a classical scene.

Inside a Motion Capture Studio

A motion capture studio is a creative workshop of the digital age. It’s a place where human movement is recorded to provide a basis for animating the figures used in video games and films. The process is highly technical. Models are fitted with small reflectors placed at key points on their bodies. They then perform movements in a space that’s encircled with infrared lights and cameras. This equipment records the spatial position of each reflector at each moment in time. It provides a blueprint for actions that can be used to endow a digitized creature with credible movement. When an avatar in a video game leaps, crouches or raises a weapon, the movement is built on this practice.

A 5-Step Figure Painting Demo

By Andrew Conklin

Working with a favorite model, who is also an artist, I painted this oil study in four sessions of three hours each. My commitment to working from life rather than photos is one I keep as often as possible, for the following reasons:

  • I prefer envisioning my subject unmitigated by a lens, which seems to change what I see with the naked eye.
  • I find the process of collaboration exciting and creative. By working and talking with another individual during sketching sessions, I find that chance and contingency play a vital role in improving any given work.
  • I see part of my goal as a painter to absorb, maintain, and transmit the lessons of those painters I admire; they used a similar process, including my teachers and artists of the past, all of whom inspired me in this vocation.

Step 1

I began with a small panel I had prepared before the first painting session. The panel consisted of high-quality paper bonded to cardboard. This was coated front and back with two coats of rabbit skin glue. The second coat on the front contained powdered earth pigment from Kremer pigments in New York; this tinted the white paper a warm sandy-brown color. I wanted this study to contain a series of triangular shapes; the model and I began by trying out a dozen short poses as she sat on a chrome, metal-framed chair.

Step 2

Once the pose was set, I drew, on tracing paper, a contour line scaled to the size of the panel. Next, I interposed a sheet of blue Saral transfer paper between the trace drawing and the panel. Then I traced the contours with a color pencil to transfer the lines to the panel surface. I also laid out my figure colors on the palette: flake white, Mars black, raw umber, transparent Earth yellow, Spanish Earth, Venetian red, Naples yellow, bohemian green Earth, alizarin crimson, Indian yellow, ultramarine blue, neutral tint.

Step 3

The model posed again, and I proceed to block in the shadows of the figure with mixtures of earth colors. I used flat watercolor brushes, (golden sable or white taklon) of various widths: 1/8, 1/4, 1/2 inches. Then I remixed colors on the palette with Holbein MX painting knives. I also used the knives to apply paint, or blend areas on the panel.

Step 4

After a session with the model, I mixed up large batches of gray paint, which I applied to areas around the figure to define the background walls. The model returned for several sessions, during which I added the lights, carefully modeling the form in ever-smaller areas, working with particular care in the face, in order to get the direction of her gaze. Before each session, I would apply a thin layer of medium  (stand linseed oil and Gamsol) to ‘oil-out’ the matte surface.

Step 5

To complete the study, I rendered the details of the chrome, and added a few yellow traffic cones, which not only added a few more small triangular shapes to the design, but also created a larger triangular envelope to anchor the form in the composition.

The Final Work

Motion Capture Athlete on Yellow Chair (oil on panel, 18×13.5) by Andrew Conklin

Meet the Artist

Andrew Conklin studied painting at the National Academy of Design in New York City with Harvey Dinnerstein and Ronald Sherr. Conklin later earned a master of fine arts degree from the Academy of Art University (San Francisco). Conklin has exhibited widely in the United States and won a number of awards. His work has been exhibited at the American Academy of Arts and Letters (New York City), The Terra Museum of American Art (Chicago) and Fairfield University (Conn.). He’s a member of the National Arts Club and teaches at Tribeca Flashpoint College in Chicago. He makes his home in Chicago with his wife, the painter Helen Oh.

A version of this article originally appeared in an issue of Artists Magazine.

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