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Creating the San Diego Zoo Murals – Part Nine

This part is fun. I love the physicality of it. Because of the size of the painting and its lack of detail, I stand the entire time I’m painting at this stage. Despite my eating Christmas cookies, I lost four pounds during this part of the mural process.

Using my little scale color studies as a guide, I start laying in the local color of the picture. “Local color” is the average color of an object. I am obviously not going for detail here; I am just trying to establish the color scheme of each mural on top of its value (dark and light system) painting.

This part of the process is not as mechanical or as non-thinking as it may appear. As I paint, I look for opportunities to distribute the colors I use throughout the painting. For example, if I use a bit of intense reddish pink in one part of the painting (like on the flamingo), I don’t want that to be the only spot of that color in the entire work. It would call attention to itself and keep the viewer from looking elsewhere. So, I look to distribute that color, even if only in small amounts, throughout the rest of the painting. Those spots of that color then become a way to guide the viewer’s eyes over the rest of the painting.

Here are some details so you can see just how loosely this is painted.

Like I said: pretty rough. It is not my goal yet to render here. I am just laying down my color scheme.

Here’s the middle section:

The pose of the sabertooth on the right had been bothering me (it seemed clunky and unnatural), so I changed it. While I paint I am constantly looking for ways to improve the picture. I try to find ways to make it read more clearly, I get rid of any tangents I run across, I take bits of color that are still on my brush from painting one side and add them to the other side — I do lots of these little things that have nothing to do with detail but nevertheless add to the quality of the picture.

Note the shift in temperature in both the pond water and the sky (especially in the full mural shot). Doing this creates a greater sense of scale and gives the sky a more natural dome-like presence. If I had painted the sky (or the pond) the same color from left to right and top to bottom, the sky and pond would both appear flat and lifeless and, almost as importantly, the large animals would appear to be much smaller.

Why does this work? Changing the temperature or value of a sky over the length of a canvas gives the viewer’s eyes a sense of traveling — a feeling of scale and distance. Painting them with just one flat color would indicate to our eyes that we haven’t traveled much in distance — if at all.

You can see the temperature change in the sky even in this last third of the painting, as it goes from a cool lavender on the left to a warm blue on the right. The pond color goes from a warm lavender to a cool blue.

Here’s part of that same section, slightly larger, so that you can see more “detail”:

The color has been laid in; the fun part is over. Now comes the work (although, in truth, I enjoy rendering, too). The next step with this picture is to begin rendering each and every element in the picture.

When I work like this I an reminded of one of the oft repeated bits of advice from my best art teacher, Harold Kramer. Hal was the head of the illustration department at the Chouinard Art Institute (CalArts). After graduating, I studied privately with Hal for over twenty years.

Hal would often repeat this simple (yet profound) phrase: “Draw, paint; draw, paint.”

Here’s, in essence, what that means: Hal would tell us to always work with a brush that was twice the size of the one we thought we needed. He wanted us to always see the “big picture”, to have a broad overview of our painting. He didn’t want us to get caught up in the details too soon in the painting of our pictures. He insisted we use a big, fat brush to lay in our paintings. Once the basic design was established, then we could use a slightly smaller brush to tighten things up a bit. At that stage, we’d have our picture’s color and design well established. Hal knew that no amount of detail can save a bad design.

OK; that’s the “paint” part. At this stage the painting needs some drawing. With a smaller brush we would put our drawing skills to work, correcting and fine tuning proportions that needed it, perhaps adding color sparks here and there to enliven the color scheme and basically adding elements of drawing that the painting needs.

After drawing for awhile, I usually sense when it’s time to stop — typically, it’s at the point when your painting has now ended up with too much drawing. So, back to “paint”. Using a larger brush, some of the unnecessary drawing details are painted out, as are many of the hard edges. As my friend and painter Dan Goozee says, “Shapes. Values. Edges.” If there is something wrong with your picture, it is almost always one of those three elements. You want to choose your hard edges very carefully, as that is one of the places the viewer’s eyes go first (typically, the very first place a viewer’s eyes go to is where your darkest dark meets your lightest light).

So, “Draw, paint; draw, paint”, back and forth until the drawing and the painting in your picture have equal strength.

Next: The Color Lay-in of the Modern Scene

3 thoughts on “Creating the San Diego Zoo Murals – Part Nine

  1. Bill,

    This is so much fun to watch it have life breathed into it through the different stages.

    Thanks for all the notes on process, as they will help many of us better understand what really goes into a work like this. And also, thanks for the weight-loss tip. Guess that’s been my problem…I work too small.


  2. A shot of you at the easel would be cool as well.


  3. Hi Rick,
    I’ll see if I can arrange the me-at-work photo op.

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