Each developing artist has the opportunity of determining the type of artist they wish to become.
For some of us, this direction may be the response to obvious inborn tendencies. In this case the direction seems rather clear, and it becomes a matter of obtaining skills and experience, which marks the beginning of the journey. For others, the choice can take a different course; one of feeling your way along, stopping completely at times… and trying different doors, developing a gradual view of where to aim. And combinations of the two are often possible.
In either instance, for any prospective artist, the skills necessary to achieve a level of proficiency require time and sufficient interest on the part of the person to develop.
The necessary ingredient for any art enthusiast’s growth is that they must be a self-starter. And in service to this truth, it’s the development and maintenance of skills that I’m writing about today.
On occasion, perhaps a few times a year…I find myself needing to retreat from the usual routine and just concentrate on my general basic skills. And one of the most effective ways that I know is to do either a drawing or a painting from a plaster cast.
Plaster casts have been around for centuries, and acknowledged as an excellent tool for developing visual perception in an artist. This is for good reason…
Among these qualities:
Casts are stationary models.
The cast is white, which means it’s halftones and shadows are clear shades of grey, and so within the reach of charcoal (if drawing) or paint.
Casts are often styled after fragments or entire sculptures from classical sources, and so possess intrinsic refinements.
On my little journey with the cast below, I set out to do a brief (a matter of about 6 hours) but fairly thorough oil study under daylight conditions. This is enough to serve as a checkup on my “eye” for shapes, distances, values.
As seen in the photo, I set the cast up so that it was directly next to the primed panel I was to paint on. I then chose a viewing position (about seven feet back from the arrangement), where I was to spend about half my time looking and deciding from. This is important; you must be viewing from exactly the same point, at a distance, and making your decisions there, approaching the actual painting only to paint what you’ve decided to from the viewing position.
After the strokes are placed, I step back and assess. This procedure is continued for the duration of the exercise (the strategy described is referred to as the sight-size method).
As each additional bit of the painting moves forward, it’s important to compare carefully from the viewing position. Height, width, shape, and value are all improving gradually and in a unified manner, with no single aspect getting further along than another.
This procedure goes from the largest to the smallest, the outside (biggest shape) to the inside (smaller shapes), and from the general to the specific. This is itself a remarkably helpful habit to acquire for a representational artist.
Over a few hours the painting begins to resemble the cast more and more. Because I prefer daylight for illumination, the shadows move very slightly but constantly, so I must eventually select a time of day to limit the work, which I can return to a following day at the same time.
The artwork and cast are set up closely to help with easy comparison.
The entire point of all this is to tune-up my ability to see shapes (the cast, the shapes of shadows upon the cast, etc) accurately. This includes being able to read the values (degrees of lightness and darkness) of the shadows and the half-tones truthfully.
The wonderful thing about the procedure is it will teach us to work from general to specific. This is a very good habit to formulate and will serve you well in everything you do. The image above shows the first hour or so of work… essentials are laid- in very generally, yet still with relative precision at each touch of the brush.
As I worked, I gradually adjusted things more closely to the actual cast, but moving around the object to where it was farthest from “truth” (the actual appearance of the cast) rather than “finishing” bit by bit. It’s important to keep the entire painting moving forward in the general-to-specific mode, much like slowly adjusting the focus of a lens.
As I proceeded, remembering to step back to my observation point regularly, I found that I tended to make my shapes a little too wide, and so became mindful of that. As the light on the cast gradually changed, the shadows correspondingly moved and changed value, so I also had to stay on top of that as well.
Gradually the cast came together over two mornings of a couple hours work each. I chose not to push it any further though there were things that could have be better…. with me, there’s a tipping point where the painting can turn to an over-finicky attitude that interferes with the general purpose of the exercise.
Confidence…I can look at something in nature (meaning anything visible to my eye) and I’m able to trust my eye to assess the height, breadth, value and shape accurately. I could liken this quality to clear diction in a speaker, being “in tune” to a musician, the ability to assess actual flavor to a winemaker.
Fluency…this increases efficiency; I can grasp the actual shape of a mountain or a portrait sitter’s head faster and with less struggle than ever before. I can catch distortions much earlier, rather than when the work is too far along. This creates a real freedom to explore color and other expressive qualities because I trust the general foundation of what I’m painting is in place.
The cast-study at completion time. 9″x 9″ oil on oil-primed masonite panel.
So, in conclusion, I highly recommend this exercise as a skill building instrument. It’s for anyone painting anything where representation matters, not excluding landscape, seascape, genre, figure, or any other form of painting. I’ve benefitted countless times from the imbedding of the good habits that come with this sort of work…and frankly, I enjoy the work very much.