Adding the finishing touches to a painting can be daunting especially if you are quite pleased with the result so far. You know you can take it just that little bit further but you don't want to over do it or even worse, ruin the painting altogether. In this article I discuss how to keep your nerve and move forward slowly, seizing ground until what you have before you is something you never thought you could have achieved.
So you've been working on a painting for a while, everything is in the right place, the colours are more or less what they are supposed to be, in fact everything is so almost perfect that you suddenly get blocked. Where do you go from here? Is this how it all ends? You had imagined taking it a bit further but your energy begins to wane, you don't want to ruin it or overdo it and it's not such a bad painting as it is, in time you'll probably grow to love the little imperfections and forget that you had such great dreams for it when you started. In the beginning you had been excited by a spark of inspiration, driven by the challenge of a new painting and the limitless possibilities of how it was going to turn out, everything flowed so easily and progress was made so quickly. Now you can see how it will turn out, the inspiration has faded and progress is slow as you fiddle with details. The muse has left you, or worse, is whispering in your ear to go and start a new painting.
Now I'm not saying that you should necessarily go on until you are completely sick of it, who knows, you may get so sick of painting it will put you off completely and you will be so traumatized by the experience that you won't pick up your brushes again for months. Maybe it is time to move onto something else which catches your imagination, after all the important thing is to keep painting so that you keep improving your skills. But once in a while you will want to take the painting just that little bit further, perhaps you imagined before you started that you were going to achieve something with this painting which you haven't reached yet, that this one was going to be special, a painting which would stand out among your other paintings, your own personal masterpiece. However, you doubt your abilities to move forward, you falter and are overwhelmed by the daunting task ahead of you, after all, you really don't know what bit to paint next.
I'm going to take you through the finishing touches of a self portrait I have just completed. As I have just described I was initially filled with enthusiasm, I wanted to do something spectacular, with reflections and rich colours that would be mouth watering. A feast for the eyes. I had the idea while making breakfast, all the colours in front of me were so vivid that I thought, this is it! This is what I've been looking for. As I walked though a pine forest near my home I envisioned what it would be like: to contrast with the yellows in the egg and orange juice I would paint myself wearing a bright red running top I had, like a cardinal in Rome performing a sacred rite. The viewpoint would be from above, like an observing angel, or an adult looking down on their child as they gleefully show their parent what they have just made. And so I would show the world, 'look what I've just made'.
It's good to start with delusions of grandeur, aim high, that's what I say. And so I did, but inevitably I ran out of steam and the struggle to finish prompted me to write a blog entry on the subject of the final stages of a painting. Here is my advice to those who find themselves in a similar position to me:
- Observe and relax. If you don't know where to start just sit in front of the painting and compare it with the subject. Don't worry about what to do next but just spend time looking at the differences. Reset your mind and see the painting with new eyes.
- Take it step by step, a little at a time. If you decide that one area is darker in the subject then darken it in your painting, if it is lighter, then lighten it. As you do this more things will become apparent and you can deal with them too, one at a time, each thing you work on bringing you closer to the final reward.
- Work on what is easy, or interesting, first. The whole painting might be daunting to finish but surely there is one bit which is easy, or interesting, or exciting in a challenging way. Work on this and you will find that you build momentum. Plan to paint one part and you'll end up doing three or four, just because you have paint on your brushes and you can quickly get them in before you have a break.
- Look at the painting as a whole. The final stages are when you bring everything together, make everything balance and work on the relation between each colour and the next so that it has that real quality. Sometimes one part of a painting may not look right because another part is out of balance with it. Try to see how everything relates to each other in the subject and translate this to the painting, don't just paint things how you imagine them to be. Even though you know the plate is white, you may need to paint it grey if it is grey in the context of light and shadow of the subject, otherwise you will never be able to make the real whites white.
So in my painting I got to a stage where everything was in place, the shapes and the shadows, and the colours were more or less right. I had had some trouble lightening the red in the top, if I added white it just looked washed out and if I added yellow it began to turn orange. The only thing to do was to buy a tube of cadmium red light, not a colour I usually have hanging around, finally I realised why all these deep and light variants are so useful, and it really did the trick. The top was transformed. I also worked on the trousers more. I had never forgiven myself for leaving the trousers unfinished in the Lucian Freud tribute I did upon his death, I suppose I could go back and finish them now but I've got lots of new paintings I want to work on so the trousers remain flat and formless. This time I intended not to make the same mistake so I went over the trousers trying to give them shape (too much as I later decided). This brought the painting to a nearly finished stage which started to make me want to leave it as it was.
But I could still see that the trolley on the left of the painting needed work, so I painted that and some other small details as I went. Now I was really beginning to feel it was time to lay down the brushes but my mum commented that the hands didn't look right. I was surprised as I thought the hands had a looseness which looked painterly, but now compared to the rest of the painting they did seem, in comparison, to lack detail.
I posted the painting on flickr under the title Enough For Now and had a break of a few days, I liked the painting as it was but knew that I could take it just that little bit further. After a breather I attacked the painting again. To help see the changes I made I have cropped the images and put them next to each other. The lighting was different in each photo so more of the grain of the canvas can be seen in the earlier versions, this isn't because of smoother paint in the final painting.
The first image shows a good example of working on a certain part of the painting by painting a different area. I was having trouble with the brightness of my whites, they just didn't seem light enough, this I finally decided was because other parts of the painting were lighter than they should be. The floor looked good but was slightly too light and unbalancing the rest of the painting. I darkened it and also darkened the lower drawers and cupboard while also working a bit more on the lines by defining them. The trousers also looked too shiny, they weren't really of a shiny material so they were taking away from the highlights on the top I was wearing, which was meant to be very bright. So I repainted them making the form less visible, and in this way emphasising the different fabrics and textures in rest of the painting.
The lines on the upper cupboards were also a bit wobbly and the extractor fan was a bit misshapen, and although I resisted using masking tape to get crisp lines, which I thought would look too sharp in comparison with the rest of the painting, I did my best to get the edges looking straight.
The grout between the tiles was too thick and dark and also not very straight. Although the painting was quite big I had trouble getting such thin lines with the brush I was using as paint had got down in between the bristles and was starting to make the brush a few sizes thicker than it should have been. I still haven't found a good solution to this yet, I've tried cleaning the brushes well and trimming the splaying bristles off with a razor but the best solution is always to buy a nice new brush with a fine point. I find that flat brushes are best for lines because they hold more paint than a very fine round brush and go in a straight line better. I also had a go at the marble streaks in the tiles which I was a bit uncertain of at first and had to repaint all the tiles to get them smooth enough but as I had to soften the reflections anyway, it seemed worth it.
I had tried to put a highlight in the top right hand corner of the plate but pure white paint didn't seem to show up. After a bit of staring at the source photo and back at the painting again I decided that although the plate was white, under this lighting it was grey. Darkening the plate automatically made the highlight look more pronounced (I didn't even need to repaint it). There were also other small changes I made to the rest of the food but I can't remember what they all were.
Then came the hands, I was reluctant to touch them because I had painted them in a loose flowing way and I didn't want to lose the expressive quality. However, they did look very pink compared to the face which I had worked on more and the highlights on the veins looked too bright and a bit strange. Nowadays I always use alzarin crimson with a lot of white in my skin tones, usually with burnt sienna and a yellow like yellow ochre or something brighter depending on what is called for by the subject's skin. In this painting my hands were heavily reliant on alzarin crimson and little else so I added burnt sienna mixed with white and raw sienna or yellow ochre, maybe even a little cadmium yellow, and the hands looked much better. I tried to limit the redder bits to my knuckles (which naturally are the reddest parts of my hands, I'm not sure about anyone else).
I faced similar problems with my left hand, but this really was my favourite part of the painting, so I was terrified I was going to ruin it, but I held my breath and pushed ahead. As Del Boy used to say in the 1980s British sitcom Only Fools and Horses "He who dares wins." I believe it is also the motto of the British SAS although I imagine they rarely apply it to portrait painting.
Now this hand is once again my favourite part of the painting, and much better for those final daring dashes of paint.