It begins, as it always does, with the horse.
The subject is Feliki, mystery writer Tami Hoag’s retired Grand Prix “grand dame”. She’s a big, powerful Dutch mare with an even bigger, more powerful personality. I met Feliki in Wellington, Florida, where we did a photo session specifically for portrait reference. In order to allow Feliki’s character to come through in the photo reference, we turned her out, rather than posing her. The minute the halter came off, the mare got even bigger: she strutted, she snorted, she levitated. She rolled her eyes and gave me what Tami calls her, “Outta my way!” look. It’s a real treat to photograph a horse with a larger-than-life personality, and I knew it would be just as much fun to paint her.
To match Feliki’s personality and to fit the soaring space that the painting would hang in, we chose a large format: 4 feet by 6 feet, and for maximum impact, we chose this to be a head study. For this large scale painting, we selected images that would make it feel as if Feliki was leaping off the wall and right into the room – not difficult, because I’d felt like Feliki was leaping right into my lens while I photographed her!
When I started painting portraits 30 years ago, I created preliminary sketches by hand. Now I work out all my design and composition elements on my computer. Because I spend endless hours in Photoshop in the photography aspects of my work, I feel very free to design in it. I can try out a dozen different layouts and color harmonies in the time it used to take me to complete one color study on paper. I’m more able to take artistic risks at this stage of the project because I can allow my mind to take flights of fancy through this amazing tool. As I experimented on screen with different background colors and patterns, I got the strong feeling that Feliki was a woman who looked good in dark jewel tones.
Normally, once I arrive at the composition, I would go straight into the studio and start right up. But there were logistical issues to solve! How does one get a 4’x6’ canvas home? Normally I have most my supplies delivered, but the only way I could purchase that size canvas from my supplier was to order three at a time – and where would I store two other massive canvases? On a whim I called my local art store and they just happened to have one canvas, in the right size, of the texture and canvas weight that I prefer. So I carefully measured the back of the Highlander, drove to the art store, slid the front seats all the way forward and barely squeaked it in.
But then there was the easel dilemma. Not all easels can hold this size canvas. The ones that I had certainly wouldn’t. After a lot of research I found the Sorg Easel, designed by fellow artist David Sorg. This easel is a wonder of simplicity: instead of cranks and gears, the easel has a counterweight mechanism that balances the canvas. Raising or lowering the canvas is as easy as pressing up or down with my fingers. And it just accommodates a 6 foot tall canvas.
Just one problem remained: no matter how lovely the easel, it won’t make me any taller. So it was off to Lowes to buy a 24” high painter’s scaffold.
At last, ready to paint!
The first step is to draw the outlines with a grey colored pencil, and then wash in the basic form with thin Burnt Sienna. The colored pencil gets absorbed into the under painting, unlike graphite or charcoal. Funny thing is, even with all the pre-planning I do on the computer, once I got this first layer on the big canvas, I realized that I’d made a small but critical compositional mistake. A full day of work had to be scrubbed off. If you look carefully at the detail photo of the wash layer, you’ll see the original position of the head and ears.
Once the under painting dried, I had to block out 3 full 10 hour days in a row to paint in the second layer. With my crazy travel and photography schedule, that was no easy feat! The reason for needing this much unbroken time is this: for a painting this large, I mix up my colors in large batches so that the colors in the first part painted match those in the last part painted. Once the paint is mixed, it needs to be applied before it dries – and that’s 3 days, max.
Something I remembered at this point was the “trampoline syndrome.” On any canvas, you’ll feel a little “give” in the surface as you apply the paint. On a smaller piece it’s one of the differences between painting on stretched canvas and painting on a panel, and it changes the brush stroke just a little. When working on a canvas this large, the surface acts like a drum and vibrates with each brush stroke! Even though I used all my tricks to tighten the surface, the boing-boing-ing still changed my work rhythm and my work pattern. I had to wait between brush strokes for the reverberation to fade, or put my left hand on the canvas to dampen the movement. Doing the latter meant that there always had to be a dry spot to put my left hand! Instead of working freely on the entire canvas, I therefore chose to work from section to section, from one side to the other.
This pattern also fit into standing on the scaffold, because I could only physically reach one piece of the painting at a time. When you’re only an arm’s length away from something this big, the area you are working on looks like a collection of abstract shapes. There were many moments that I had to stop myself, trying to remember what color went where in that abstract pattern. In order to orient myself, I needed to step back to see the whole painting.
When I’m standing on solid ground to paint, I step back from my easel every couple of minutes or so, and I found myself tensing up just to avoid not stepping backwards off the scaffold and into thin air. I got into the rhythm of applying paint and stepping down and back, perhaps every 10 minutes. Now, 24 inches doesn’t sound that high, and every 10 minutes doesn’t sound that often, but at the end of the first day on the scaffold, it occurred to me that perhaps my fitness regime was somewhat lacking.
Once all of the Feliki’s form was laid in, it was time to create the background. I was pleased to see that the dark jewel tones I had envisioned complemented her color and her attitude. I love to paint in rich, pure colors, so it was a pleasure to create a pattern in sapphire, amethyst and emerald.
Then the fine tuning began. I used glazes to smooth out some muscles and sharpen others. I softened edges or brought them into more clear focus. I controlled the patterns of darks and lights so that the viewer’s eye moves effortlessly around the painting. Each layer of glaze takes another day or two to set up.
Spending so much time in the company of a horse’s images, I feel like I get to know them better. It’s especially during this phase of a portrait that I feel this most deeply. I knew I was close to completion when one day I turned away from the canvas to get some more paint and I had the feeling that Feliki herself was standing behind me, ready to nibble my shoulder.
Feliki’s painting, like all oil paintings, had to “cure” for six months before varnish could be applied. Varnish keeps environmental elements like dust and other atmospheric particulate from embedding itself in the paint surface. When they dry, some pigments can lose a little of the luster they have when they are wet: varnish makes the colors pop again so they never lose their freshness.
But varnishing a huge painting like this one involves a whole new set of logistical problems: for one thing, varnish fumes are toxic, so ventilation is a must, and a larger painting means more varnish, open for a longer time…. But you don’t want all the windows open during the dusty Santa Ana winds because that airborne gunk will land in the varnish. The temperature must be within the parameters of the product that you are using, so it can’t be too hot – and it was a very hot autumn here! Even the humidity level can be a problem, as I discovered, because if it’s too dry, the varnish sets up too quickly, and then it is hard to apply an even coat. Because of the time required to brush a single even stroke of varnish onto the canvas, there is little margin for error, and no time for dallying, when working on a painting this size. It took several attempts and multiple emails to Winsor Newton’s tech department to get the right formula.
Finished at last!
The painting was heading to Tami’s house in Los Angeles, so I was able to hand-deliver it. Very often my paintings are headed clear across the country, so I rely on the packaging gurus at AirStar Packing and Crating to custom build crates for each delivery. Delivering the huge painting in person meant that it would actually be easier to transport it without a crate.
I decided that renting a delivery van was a far better course of action than trying to squish the completed painting back into the Highlander, where because it was such a tight fit I couldn’t even put any padding around it. So Axel and I headed up I-5 in a rented GMC panel truck. I now have a new respect for the folks who drive these things for a living: by the time I got to LA, my butt and back hurt from the suspension and my hands were sore from manhandling the wheel. The painting arrived in far better condition, having ridding in the lap of luxury on fluffy padding.
It’s always exciting and nerve-wracking to present a painting, even more so when the painting is this big and represents so many hours of work. I was thrilled that Tami loved it, and thrilled to see it in its new home!