We are finally at the part of the year where the poses shift from short studies to longer, more realized paintings. Preston posed for us for about three weeks. He’s a trained dancer and you can see this in the finished painting because of how he was able to support his carriage through posture throughout a 45-hour pose. The gesture he expressed and was able to recreate every day helped all of us to capture naturalism and grace in our figure paintings. Preston stood in a classical contrapposto, an asymmetrical pose where one leg receives the weight and the other is relaxed (very common to classical art; Michaelangelo’s David stands this way). From my easel, I viewed him in a three-quarter profile and the arm away from me was resting on a staging block. This pose reminded me of some of the grand-style landscapes, allegories and portraits I’ve been looking at lately.
Certainly I’ve spent too much time looking at casts and perhaps that’s the reason I love the aesthetic of life among the ruins and flowers sitting among sculpture. It’s also possible that taking seven years of Latin has made me completely flummoxed in the presence of classical Greek and Roman architecture. The contrast in subject of old and new, history and modernity, the eternal and temporal is as exciting as the visual contrast of warms and cools of humans or flowers with stone. You can also see how Sargent used the pillars to give the subject a bit of extra importance.
I started the first day of the pose with a small (8 x 10″) poster study to figure out the palette and to study the gesture. Then I drew for a couple of days, measuring and remeasuring proportions to make sure that when it came to painting, all I had to do was paint. After transferring the drawing to a stretched canvas I began experimenting with how to place columns and hints of ancient architecture around Preston. I covered the drawing with raw umber (brown) oil paint and wiped back the lights, separating them from the shadows. This helps to give me a head start organizing the values (shadows, midtones, lights).
Then it was time to paint. After I got a first pass on the figure, I painted the columns in a warm/cool grisaille palette using ultramarine blue and burnt sienna (blue and orange, which neutralize as opposites on the color wheel) to help them recede into the background. This was my first attempt at placing an environment into the background of a studio painting. It was scary because it gave me this whole other opportunity to mess up the painting and figures are hard enough. Nonetheless it was exhilarating giving the painting a sense of place and taking some risks in terms of process. Here is the final painting below, Preston at the Ruins, 26 x 15 inches: