I have been having trouble getting the results I want lately, and I decided this might be due to the fact that I haven’t been doing studies of my subjects before trying to paint them. So, I picked a photo on my phone that I thought would make a good painting, and set to do some studies of it.
I decided on this picture for a few reasons. First, there is some really great lighting here, it’s very bold and easy to see directionality. Second, it’s a simple composition. There aren’t a whole lot of little bits to get stuck on while I try to study the image. It’s essentially seven shapes, the window, the window sill, the window trim, the curtain, the wall, the bed spread, and the cat. As long as I don’t lose sight of that, I should be able to study each element and discover how best to paint each one. Third: there are clearly defined values here. Everything is distinct, which will mean fewer problems for me to solve. Fourth: the details that I can see myself getting lost in are not integral to the painting. This makes it easy to simplify. The design on the bed spread for example, I can remove that altogether because it’s not the focal point. Fifth: the focal point is clear, and easy to define. Sixth: there isn’t a ton of depth in the image, but it’s still enough for me to easily define a sense of space. Seventh: It tells a story that I find compelling — a cat, sitting lazily on a bed, who just spotted a chipmunk or squirrel, out of the window. There is an absent presence that I hope to convey. If I do it correctly, the viewer should be able to tell that the cat has just at that moment been alerted to something interesting to her, without having to paint the thing itself. She might be interested in a bird, or a squirrel, or a leaf, who knows… the thing that the cat is interested in is absent from the composition, but it is still present in the posture of the cat. If I do it incorrectly, it will just look like the cat is looking out of the window. That story is an easy test for how well I have represented the cat’s gesture.
To start, I sketched the image with pencil. My goal here was to introduce myself to the proportions and values in the image. Sketching goes quickly, and is a fast way to learn about the shapes in the image, and the value structure. Doing this, I learned that the cat’s gesture is a very graceful S curve. If I start by emphasizing that curve, I hope to be able to convert the meaning behind her gesture. I also learned that the quilt details really are not needed. They are confusing to paint, and don’t contribute much to the composition overall. Lastly, I learned that the darkest darks should be on the cat’s back. The window should host the lightest lights. Knowing this helps me because I can’t ever stop saying, “The lightest dark should be darker than the darkest light.” in my head when I’m painting.
In my first value study, I exaggerated the cat’s shoulder — hoping that would make it look like she is ready to pounce. It ended up being too exaggerated, and it just looks inaccurate instead. I painted the whole thing with ivory black, because I hate it, and want to use it up. The color is occupying a well in my palette, and I never use it because it granulates so heavily. Because I’m primarily worried about values, I only need to use one color, so I figured this was a good opportunity to start using it up.
The shadow is a good value, as is the bed spread. I felt like the cat needed to be darker in the shaded side to better communicate the lighting. Also, the whisker’s feel juvenile. In reality, those should be thin and white. Not grey. I’ll need to use masking fluid for those. I tried to get a decent mix of hard and soft edges, but ended up with very pronounced lines in the window sill which aren’t needed. I probably still need hard edges there, but the value contrast doesn’t need to be as pronounced. I also tried to hint at the pattern in the bedspread without painting every detail. That looks ok maybe? I don’t think it’s needed.
In the second one the shadow is much too dark. The perspective of the bed is far too angular. The contrast in the curtain is very bossy. And the lost edges in the cat tail don’t work for me. I tried to soften the lines in the window, but the lines need to be darker at the edges of the paper, not in the corner of the window.
Here I tried to soften edges at the top of the curtain. And sharpen the edges in the cat, especially the tail. I also suggested something in the window very subtlely, which seems to have worked. I like how the cat’s tail came out. The shadow on the bedspread in the lower left corner is far too dark. I also messed with the shadowed side of the cat too much, and it’s just a blotchy mess.
The lines in the window sill worked much better here. The lines in the bedspread don’t work at all. I tried to accentuate the darkness of the wall in the upper right corner, that doesn’t work. The stripes on the cats fur work, almost. They need to be toned down a good bit.
I then moved on to some color studies. At first I was tempted to skip this, and go straight from value studies to a final painting, but I’m glad I did the color studies, I learned a lot about the image by doing these.
At first, I used blue and purples to paint the cat. This worked, but the result is very dull and boring. I’ll need some color variations in the case in order for it to work well.
I tried to use cerulean Blue on the wall, which granulated far too much.
I tried to paint just a suggestion of a scene in window, which worked quite well.
The cats shadow is overworked.
The color of the bedspread doesn’t work.
This one just wasn’t working so I gave up on it. This is a benefit of studies, you can abandon them with no real mental anguish. I decided to try to soften the edges of the curtain to push it back, but I don’t think I like it. I may play with this some more in future studies. I overworked the shadows on the bed spread, and it got muddy.
Though this was a failure, I did like the change in color on the cat that suggests lighting, so I kept that moving forward. The drawing of the cat is poorly done, and it’s out of proportion, which was the biggest reason this was abandoned.
Here I tried to add in the pattern on the bed spread. I like the way it looks, but I worry that it is too busy. This is a painting about the cat, not the bed spread. I decided to try again but to wash out the pattern a bit.
I like the curtain, t the white highlights are a nice effect to enhance the lighting.
The shadow is a disaster.
The scene in the window is too busy and too dark.
Here you can see the notes that I write on these, I usually take a picture before I write the notes, but I forgot this time. (You can also see some of my goofy short hand that I made up in college to help me take notes more quickly. The symbol Φ “phi” means good. The tilde ~ means bad. The weird S thing is “st”, and S with a line through it means “sh”.)
The pattern on the bed spread is muddied. I worry that I’m losing my focal point, so I decided to ditch that until I have the rest dialed in.
The cat looks like freaking Garfield. That’s a bad thing. I think it’s because of the ears, which is good to see. I need to keep some negative space between them to keep it from looking like Garfield.
The curtain is a disaster.
The shadow on the bedspread is far too dark.
The gesture here is better, it’s easier to read the cat as having interest in the window scene. The muted shadows on the bed spread are better. The wet in wet in the curtain works well, but the color of the curtain is too close to the color of the cat. The window sill is too plain, and to warm.
This one I abandoned. I like the tone of the shadowon the bedspread. The lit side of the cats face is too red. It needs to be more yellow. The curtain is a hot mess. I didn’t even get to the window sill. The wash on the wall is good though.
This is my favorite of the small studies. The shadow is really nice, I like the gesture in it, it adds a lot of life to that part of the composition. I like the way the stripes look on the cat. The curtain feels too tightly rendered, and the scene in the window is too busy.
Here I decided to try to reposition the cat’s head so it looks more like it’s getting ready to pounce. I’m not sure which gesture I like more, with the head ducking down, or the head lifting and craning to the right. I think the craning gesture is more interesting, more subtle, but also much harder to capture. I like the wash on the wall, but it did start to granulated a bit, which I attribute to the Payne’s grey that I mixed in to neutralize the blue. I like the window sill, and the wet in wet in the curtain.
I then moved on to larger studies. This is on the back of the black and white studies, and it’s a quarter sheet. I love the wet in wet on there curtain. I do not like the stripes. I wish I hadn’t added the second ripple in the bed spread. The scene in the window is good, and the window sill is ok. I don’t think I need the vertical lines. I like the tail. The bed spread feels boring, I may have to bring the pattern back in, but subtlely. I think I’ll do at least two more studies at quarter sheet size before trying to capture this one for real.