Start like a Butcher and Finish Like a Surgeon

Too often we make the job of painting a picture much more difficult than it needs to be. Mainly because we lack the patience and discipline to establish a good start and jump directly into painting detail way before we ought to. Maybe this is because we think if we can nail down a detail, we can build the rest of the painting around it. There are so many things to consider we feel overwhelmed and think this bit of detail will give us a toehold. Hopes to the contrary, it won’t. We need to work our way to the details, not start with them. So how do we start?

Start like a Butcher.

Very lightly sketch onto your canvas the big shapes that will comprise your chosen composition (usually 5 to 12 of them). Notice I said shapes, not things. Look for similar values and/or colors and join them together to make large compound shapes. You are not drawing individual things but combining parts of them based on color and value.

Step back and take a serious look at what’s on your canvas. This is the most critical time for your painting believe it or not. I can’t emphasize this strongly enough. Everything you do going forward will be hung on this foundation, and if this underlying arrangement of shapes is poorly handled, nothing you do from here on out will make much difference in the painting’s success.

What are you looking for at this point?

  • Do the shapes look interesting and pleasing to the eye?
  • Do they vary in size and types of edges?
  • Do you have a dominant shape? (You should!)
  • Do the shapes look dramatic?
  • Do some of my shapes break the edges of my picture plane?

If not, get out a rag, wipe it off, and start again! Be merciless in your appraisal. Do not go any further until you are satisfied with the way you have divided the picture plane up into abstract shapes that are interesting and attractive.

Now assign one of the three major value groups (light, medium or dark) to each of the shapes you have created.  This may result in new and different shapes when composed of only these three values. Some of your original shapes may still remain or they may be combined with others.

Step back and re-evaluate your newly created shapes using the same criteria as before.

Then loosely block in the dark and middle tones with a big brush using identifiable colors. The important thing here is to be sure the three value groups are distinct. There must be a definite separation into value groups so the shapes you have created remain distinct and separate. The scene in front of you may offer suggestions, but you will need to decide what needs to be painted lighter (pushed) or painted darker (pulled) to keep your three value shapes intact.

Don’t go on autopilot here. A distant mountain may be part of your light value shape, and if it is, you need to paint it lighter than it appears to your eye.

To be most effective, mix your dark color first (85-90% value) and then your light mixture (10-15% value). The value of the middle tones then would be around a 55% value. These numbers are for illustration purposes only as you may have a lighter dark or a darker light depending on your specific subject.

Don’t be concerned about any details yet. Only concern yourself with the quality of the edges (trees, leaves, grass, rocks, buildings, etc).

All your painting until now should be very loose and free, almost sloppy if you will. Like a butcher hacking away at big chunks of meat. Sorting and arranging the major pieces. Ribs here, a leg over there.

Finish like a Surgeon.

Now is the time to paint like a surgeon. NOW you can think about detail! Now you can get to all the little things we have often tackled too soon in the process. Pay attention to delicate changes of color, edge definition and variations in softness.

Things like warm and cool juxtapositions, texture, simultaneous contrast, carving out negative shapes and sky-holes, refined edges, reflected lights, subtle color notes (like grass spots on distant hills or a light patch on a tree trunk) or the shadowing in a cloud.

You should make these strokes as deliberate and intentional as you can. If the underlying work was done well, it will take only a small number of these finishing details to complete your painting.

Just remember to keep these touches consistent within their value group (don’t over-model) and even though they are subtle, it is important these new shapes are given as much care as your big shapes were.

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Comment by ELISA ARANCIBIA on August 12, 2016 at 4:36pm

Thanks for this article. For me it is hard some times not to get straight to the details. I start a painting following the process you have described  above; but at some point I just jump into the details, as soon as I realize that I went back to the process.


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