I have had several questions about how I come up with ideas for paintings and, in particular, how I go about translating an idea into a final composition. Well, it just so happens that I am currently starting work on a new painting, and this seemed like as good a time as any to document the process.

Ever since I painted Heroes in which a father shares the experience of watching a rocket launch with his son, I have been thinking of doing a similar piece featuring a mother and daughter. Lately that idea has been back on my mind, and has taken the shape of a mother showing her daughter the wonders of the night sky through a telescope. In part, the whole telescope thing was inspired by how much fun I had painting milky way starscapes into the backgrounds of both Navigator and Study for Nike… and my looking for a good reason to do more of the same on a larger scale.

I started off with a few rough sketches playing with poses. I wanted the painting to be large and wide to accommodate a lot of night sky, so I focused on seated poses to allow the figures to fill more horizontal space. This was my favorite sketch, and it sat around the studio for several months while I worked on other projects.

Rough sketching - Starting a Painting

As I was finishing up those other projects and thinking seriously about starting this one, I decided I needed the daughter to be a bit older… a 6-8 year old as opposed to the 3-4 year old in the drawing (I have a four year old daughter, so that age just automatically works its way into a lot of sketches). I also found a friend who had a large-ish telescope I could borrow as a prop. So while I was looking for models, I did another few very rough sketches to accommodate the different form factor of the telescope and the change in age of the girl. By this time I had a canvas in mind as well… a lovely 60 × 30 inch linen canvas I have been moving around from studio to studio for several years. Knowing the aspect ratio of the composition, I was able to start thinking of background details and how the figures were going to fit into the overall composition.

Rough sketching Later on - Starting a Painting

Anyone who has ever seen the night sky in southern Utah will know exactly why I associate that landscape with an awesome view of the stars. It’s also some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen. It seemed like a logical choice for a setting and one that has some significant personal meaning for me.

I eventually found models and shot the reference photos. I played around with the pose quite a bit but, as you can see, it ended up pretty much in line with the rough sketch. That’s not always the case. Now I was ready to start work on a final, to-scale drawing of the composition. I started, of course, with the figures… first establishing the most basic shape relationships and proportions…

Rough sketching Figures - Starting a Painting

… and gradually refining the drawing to the point where it contained enough information for me to paint the figures accurately, but not so much as to be confusing. For me, that usually means good clean outlines, major drapery details, a rough indication of the major shadow shapes, and just enough hatching to start to give the drawing a little depth. (I apologize for the poor quality of the photos, but I was working pretty light at this point and found that I had to darken the images a bit in order for the detail to show up at all on the screen.)

Rough sketching Figures More- Starting a Painting

Next, I started working on the final design of the house and the background landscape. At first, I thought I would just make up the bulk of the mountains and rocks using reference photos mainly for colors and inspiration. I messed around with them a  lot. Let’s just say it’s a good thing I was working on really heavy, high quality drawing paper… and I had a big eraser.

Rough sketching Figures Closer- Starting a Painting

Finally, I realized that given how much of the painting was going to be landscape and how integral a part of the composition it was going to be, I was going to need some specific reference material. Fortunately for me, I have taken many hundreds of photos of southern Utah landscapes, and after several hours of sorting through them I came up with four that, in combination, would work. One for the mountains in the background on the right half of the painting, one for the transition between the right side of the painting and the figures, one for the cliffs behind the house, and one for the foreground rocks. I also found a few photos of desert plants for the foreground and the landscaping by the house.

Speaking of the house:  its design changed too. It looked way to much like a cross, and that’s the sort of completely unintended symbolism I really don’t need to be including in paintings.

Anyway, I carefully drew in the landscape and the revised house, added a little piece of wall in the foreground to balance the shapes and add a little depth, refined and sharpened all my lines, and carefully cleaned up the drawing as much as possible. (I also did a much better job photographing it at this point.)

Rough sketching Figures Final- Starting a Painting

This drawing is 32 × 16 inches, which means it needs to be blown up to about 187% in order to be transferred to the canvas. And that’s where I’ll pick things up in the next post.  Please write in with any comments or questions.