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Transcendence (pastel, 30×40)
When I’m in the studio, I first think of all the composition possibilities for the piece. Everything has to serve the composition, and because I can’t force a good painting, I need to allow a flow of ideas. This is certainly true when trying to create a metaphor or narrative idea for a piece without it feeling false or contrived. Even though I make a lot of changes to my work as it develops, I still believe the initial concept for a painting needs to be solid enough to allow for the building of ideas. That’s because the compositional ideas established in the beginning of a painting are going to be there at the end, even if you cover them up completely. Creating a bad concept for a painting can be like writing a lousy thesis for a paper; if the idea isn’t solid, you spend your time trying to prove something you don’t believe in.
Ron Monsma’s Process in 6 Steps:
1. Sketching Out the Basics
I began loosely mapping out my composition with vine charcoal on a sheet of cold pressed illustration board that I’d toned with a green-black watercolor wash. At this stage I avoided adding too much in the way of light tones in areas that would eventually have saturated color, so as not to affect the purity of the subsequent layers. I did, however, add a bit of light gray pastel to establish some volume in the figure.
2. Values and Hues
Working dark to light, I massed in areas of local color. I chose the richest and most saturated hues that would still maintain the integrity of value areas. This happened rather quickly. I decided early on, however, that the head needed a lighter area to back up the shadow side of the face.
This detail (inset) of the head of my model, Sumi, suggests that I wasn’t yet sure of the color or tone I wanted for the background. I hadn’t decided if I wanted the shadow of the face light against a dark background or more silhouetted against a light background. It also illustrates that I was pushing the intensity of the light areas of the face—forcing myself to keep the color rich. Areas of color and value are still loose but established.
3. Finding Depth
With the model away, I concentrated on the still life of oranges. I built each piece of fruit using saturated red, yellow and orange tones. The shadow tones were aided by the ground color for reflected lights and the addition of dark browns and a dark neutral green (inset). I also worked in the black background more fully, rubbing it down with my fingers. As can be seen in the example above, I began drawing in the leaves by breaking through the black with a kneaded eraser.
4. Changing the Background
I was still hanging on to the dark background at this point, and had introduced an arch indicating a wall behind the figure. This allowed me to keep the black behind the still life, but I was still at odds about the tone and color behind Sumi. I began to see that the figure was becoming secondary to the still life, and I considered allowing the work to go in this direction. My concern, however, was that more interest needed to be brought to the right side of my painting, and I eventually sacrificed the dark background, which reversed the value relationship of the figure and wall.
5. Tightening the Composition
At this stage, I abandoned the arch and extended the wall a bit to the left to break up the direct vertical coming from the leg of the table, and to bring the still life more into the area of the figure. The design of the table was invented to complement the arch of the fan, and more leaves were added for that same reason. The wall was created by dragging orange and green-gray pastel hues over the existing background tone, and by scraping a razor blade across the surface for texture. At this time the Korean characters were also introduced.
6. Final Touches
At this point, the vertical of the wall seemed too rigid so I reintroduced the arch, but with a less dramatic curve. I also softened the transitions in the shadow side of the face, and cleaned up and tightened other areas to maintain a painterly quality. The result is Transcendence (pastel, 30×40).
Ron Monsma is an artist, a lecturer and the Head of Drawing and Painting at Indiana University-South Bend. His work is known nationally and internationally and has received numerous awards. He’s represented by Miller Gallery (Cincinnati) and Blue Gallery (Three Oaks, Michigan). See more of his work on his website.
Learn how to master composition here.
Read the rest of “A Work in Progress” and see all of the issues of Magazine from 2006.
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