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  • Writer's pictureAdam Cook

behind the scenes: Painting

Let’s look at the process I went through while working through a recently-completed painting.

Recall – outside of grade 9 art class I have had absolutely zero formal training in painting – for this reason I really believe that anyone can become a painter provided that they put in the hours. Taking an even broader view, I believe that anyone can become anything, provided that they put in the hours. That old 10,000-hour rule – if you spend 10,000 hours of your life focusing on a single subject then you will become an expert at it – is probably the most honest rule there is in this life. Just remember -10,000 hours is the equivalent of about 417 days of continuous training.

And 417 consecutive days of training is a hell of a lot of time. Fortunately, the painting we’ll talk today took only a small, small fraction of that.

A little bit of set-up at the start. Most of my painting is done with cheap acrylic paints on cheap canvas – the cheaper the better. Some of my favourite stories to mention to people as I paint with my Dollarama-brand paint on Walmart-purchased canvas involve Bonnard creating some of his best work on the backs of pizza boxes and Leonardo da Vinci travelling horseback through rainstorms carrying the very same Mona Lisa that hangs today in the Louvre today in an unsealed tube upon his back at the turn of the 15th century. My point: all you need to make great work is some colours and something to put them onto. And of course, those 10,000 hours of experience.


I think that lesson #1 for painting is that everything is flexible. The ultimate goal of any art is to transcribe the image and feelings you feel inside of your head onto a medium so that they can be experienced by an observer. The ultimate reality, however, is that its wildly hard to transcribe a mental image into a physical one and it is even harder to do as such with feelings. So, there’s this flexibility inherently associated with any plan – for artists at any level I always suggest placing more emphasis on the feeling rather than the image.

This means that we’ll start from a hand-drawn plan, but for the rest of it we’ll pretty much just work out of feeling. For this painting I knew from the outset that I’d have a darkened foreground and a big colourful sky. So I started with the dark foreground, scribbling around with some greens and some dark blues and purples. Looking beyond the foreground, I streaked some lighter purples, blues and reds to lay out what will become the sky. At this point it pays to take a lesson from Schopenhauer: nothing really matters. As we start a painting, it pays just to get something on the canvas - jjust let your paintbrush flow under the realization that any screw-ups you make can easily just be painted over. It's easier to paint over a mistake than it is over a blank canvas, and a lot of inspiration can be drawn just from just seeing with your own eyes the shapes that your hand can put on the canvas.

As we really start to build the sky we realize that the awesomeness of acrylic painting really lies in the colours. And to put it bluntly, my approach is basically just to layer a bunch of different shades of different colours strategically until the painting starts to look nice. That’s really all there is – layers upon layers of colours. I think that light colours always look good as “highlights” to the dark colours so I will try to layer them together in some sort of pattern. It’s important to realize that you need not know what the pattern will be before you start to paint it, you just need to paint it with conviction. Maybe it’s just me but I find it a million times easier to paint over a mistake than it is to paint over a blank space. More layers are better, too – especially for acrylic painting. More layers = more realistic, most often. Think of the feelings you want to convey through your art and try to translate them into patterns made out of layered colours.

Once the sky is in place and the majority of the canvas is covered, then we have to realize that we’re no longer looking at a blank canvas – we’re looking at a covered canvas that is primed specifically for the image that you had in your head at the outset of the project. Personally, I find that this is the time that I find myself most steering away from whatever plan I had coming into the project (for better or for worse).

Consequently, I made the decision in-situ to turn those red/green pillar type things at the left and right sides of the painting into pillars of fire. Again, it really all comes down to layers. First, I’ll slop down a red layer, putting little red brushstrokes roughly in the shape of a fire. Fire rises, so I started at the bottom and worked my way up. Anyways, after the first layer of red I’ll slap down a second layer of red, and maybe even a third – the key is to get that bright red tone that brightens the painting the way that a candle brightens the room. Naturally, once you get enough layers of red down, add a couple of layers of yellow brushstrokes on top of the red.

Once the flames are formed, move on to the sky, imagining the embers of the fire bleeding over the whole painting. This is how I like to tie together the painting as a whole. If you’re a chemist, consider that adding yellow in one part of a painting is like adding an electronegative group at one part of a molecule – under the principles of molecular orbital theory, the effects of the electronegative group can be felt all across the molecule just like the effects of yellow can be felt all across the painting. In this painting, you can see the yellow from the fire bleed all the way through the painting.

Notice how just a few streaks of yellow, white, etc. when added to the sky can really make things pop. Probably by now you can tell that I think that that’s what acrylic painting is all about – layer upon layer of coloured patterns until the painting comes to life. A key stylistic thing I like to do is make the horizon line super bright. I think this contrast is awesome, and I love the effect that it has in guiding the viewers eye towards that area.

And as for the rest of the painting, its just a matter of adding the details. Baby Jesus in the manger, the Bethlehem star and the wisemen. Generally, I go easy on the details when painting with acrylics… partly because I like to let the colours speak and partly because I am garbage when it comes to the nitty gritty. Finally, check out how I add the last bit of coloured layers to the upper left quadrant of the painting - it's these colours that tie the painting together. That's what I think, at least.

And, I mean, that's about all that I have to say on this topic today.


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