The Importance of NOT Being In Earnest – The Underpainting

Things are coming along well in my residency at The Banff Centre. With three  large paintings on the go at the moment, I’m well on the way to getting what I’d hoped for. The work you see below represents about four days of painting for me, also allowing drying time. This time period encompasses the original thumbnail sketching and all work to bring it to this point. Friends often remark that I’m very prolific, it doesn’t often seem nearly fast enough for me. There are more paintings in my head than I will ever be able to complete in my lifetime…and that does create a feeling of being in earnest. When I’m creating like this, it’s hard to sleep and maintain a regular family schedule – another source of anxiety!

Underpainting Detail - Stage One.

Underpainting Detail – Stage One. Terre verte allows for a luminous skin tone in the final layers. Setting the stage is crucial for success in this technique.

Getting an idea out of my heart and head is not always easy. Sometimes it comes together, and sometimes it doesn’t. I wanted to try a different approach to my work and underpaintings on this group, which are slated for exhibition from my Gwaii Haanas Artist In Residence experience. The colours on the underpainting are different from how I generally combine the subject and technique. I’ve taken an approach to combine the quick onsite plein-air experience with the more academic figurative approach. So far, it’s coming along, and I anticipate that it will provide the results that I’m looking for.

The underpainting can set the tone (literally) for the work, allow you to plan out in paint what you may have already done in the sketch, alter the scale, define the values and tighten the composition. I’ve never worked this large (40×60 and 40×72) with this particular underpainting approach. I’m very pleased with how it’s coming together.

Underpainting - 40x72 - Janice Tanton. Oil on linen

Stage 1 – Underpainting – 40×72 – Janice Tanton. Oil on linen

Working with terre verte, I’ve blocked in the underpainting for the figure within the landscape. Terre verte, raw umber or burnt umber are my preferred first value underpainting pigments.

Stage 1 - Underpainting - 40x72 - Janice Tanton. Oil on linen

Stage 2 – Underpainting – 40×72 – Janice Tanton. Oil on linen

In the second stage, I’m considering the seascape as quite a different situation than the figure, and have decided to work with a transparent red ochre as the underpainting colour. With regard to the temperature of the painting, I think of this as the “negative” phase in that as I work the painting, areas that are warm will ultimately be cool. That transparent red ochre will provide a beautiful visual foil to the cool greys and blues of the sea water and landscape yet to come. Conversely, the warm tones of the skin, underpainting with the ghostly terre verte always provide a rich and interesting flesh tone for me, when applied in a proven glazing technique.

"Mid Life Crisis" ©2012 Janice Tanton. Oil on linen panel.

My onsite reference painting from Gwaii Haanas – “Mid Life Crisis” ©2012 Janice Tanton. Oil on linen panel.

Have a look at the four images below. This piece is at the next stage. I am establishing the darks in the landscape. As the trees are very strong compositional elements, I want to have a good idea visually, of how they are going to affect the work. This section of the painting is based upon an plein-air piece that I did onsite in Gwaii Haanas in the area of Murcheson Lagoon.

Second Level Underpainting - Step 1

Second Level Underpainting – Step 1

(If anyone had told me 8 months ago that I’d be painting purple trees, I’d have thought them mad.) However – onsite, that’s exactly the colour that they appeared to be. Quite a magical place.

Second Level Underpainting - Step 2

Second Level Underpainting – Step 2

Here, I’ve started to block in the areas of the mossy ground. I’m looking for “what it’s doing”…how it flows and the motion that I remember seeing. Everything has life to it. Paint that life – paint what it is “doing” and your works will have a vibrance to them.

Second Level Underpainting - Step 3

Second Level Underpainting – Step 3

I want to show the earth as echoing the musculature of my model. It’s important to me in this painting, that we consider our relationship to the landscape so I’m working that feel in in on the middle ground area of the underpainting.

Second Level Underpainting - Step 4

Second Level Underpainting – Step 4

Here, I’ve gone a bit further with the detailing in the motion of the trees. There is a big tug upwards and downwards on many of these branches. When I was there, I recall a synergy of existance between the land, the sea and the earth. I’m looking to emulate that with the composition, and one of the ways to do that is with the web of branches. I’m conscious also that much of this branch work will be covered in dappled light and leaves in a later stage. Knowing what’s “under” it all is part of the planning and pouring of yourself into the work.

Underpaintings are like the bones on which to drape the muscles, organs and flesh of a painting. Considering what underpins the work, both in philosophy and physical structure is an important part of the process and ultimate feeling of the work.

…so much art to create….so little time….