9 Steps of Painting

A lot of people ask me about my artwork. It’s going to be a part of this blog and the cookbook. Here’s a behind the scenes look in my studio. For now, I’ll deviate from my usual posts of recipes and travel stories and we can explore some art!

The Lotus and the Artichoke - Finished Painting  The Lotus and the Artichoke - Finished Painting

My 9 Steps of Painting

(Some personal background and a How-To)

First, here are the 9 Steps I use to create a painting:

  1. Idea
  2. Research
  3. Sketch
  4. Scan
  5. Underpainting
  6. Overpainting
  7. Block
  8. Details
  9. Document

I’ll explain them in more detail in a bit. Scroll down if you’re just here for the images and a cool step-by-step of a work from start to finish.

I didn’t take photos at every step for this last work, but the process was exactly as in the steps above. Further below you can see photos of an earlier work in the making. The process is the same whether I’m working really large or really small. It’s a process I’ve been working with and have refined over the years.

Are you ready for me to get nostalgic and tell a personal story?

It’s hard to say when I really started painting. I was already painting in middle school on Kwajalein (although at the time I was more obsessed with drawing, screenprinting and skateboarding– usually combining all of the above) and by high school I was doing standard still lifes, cartoony stuff, and mostly fiddling with watercolors and acrylics. That is, when I wasn’t trying to get into the darkroom to develop my own black and white photos, or abusing photocopy machines at the copy shop to make subculture fanzines and vegetarian cooking ‘zines to pass out at hardcore punk shows, used record shops, and to send to people in the mail. But I digress.

In college, I did a lot of painting and the two most important classes I took during my BFA Fine Arts program were Color Theory 101 and Painting 101. But what about all those advanced painting courses and independent studies? Yes, I did all that, too. The advanced work was really just more practice of the groundwork established at the start. Printmaking and photography, and arguable the many graphic design courses also impacted my painting irrevocably. But it was Professor Bruce Rigby‘s attention, approach, and instruction in those two classes that quickly brought me from fumbling art student to – a few years later – Your son is a painter!

How? Rigby had us do countless exercises and explorations of color. I was blown away. We started with an expensive box of hundreds of sheets of colored papers. I never knew it was so complex and scientific. (This logical, rational side of the arts has always appealed to me.) In Painting 101 we did many exercises which weren’t always exciting, but the science and method behind it was illuminating. Rigby did these paintings of cars, mostly photorealism. I was more into expressionism but I loved his technique and skills. Light and dark. Shadows. Layers. Simplified palettes and monochromatic works.

Once he even rolled a TV into the class and showed us a Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons documentary and asked us what we thought. I was a freshman and I never knew you could make money and get famous putting formaldehyde sharks or suspended basketballs in aquariums and calling it art. Rigby also told great stories, like how he visited his parents when he was in college and they wouldn’t let him in the house until he shaved his beard off! He was a great mix of funny, friendly, helpful and real. I enjoyed and grew a lot from his classes.

Learning to mix colors properly, learning to underpaint, learning about complements, dimension, perspective. Some people are born with this stuff and have it very intuitively. Gradually, I’ve started accepting the role genetics and talent must play in my artistic ability (my maternal grandmother was a phenomenal modernist painter in the 30s and 40s.) But most of this stuff I had to learn. Like a language. It takes practice. Practice. Practice! Like my yoga teacher‘s teacher‘s teacher says: Practice and all is coming!

Enough story, man! I don’t care about your painting teacher’s hippie beard, or Damien Hirst, or any of that yoga dogma. Get back to the process!

Fine. Here’s a work from start to finish. After that, we’ll go back to my 9 Steps.

Idea: Where everything starts. It could come from anywhere. A song. A dream. An experience. Or it could be more intentional. Usually the inspiration is inexplicable. Unless I’m reworking something or re-exploring, of course.

Research: I have dozens of art books and this thing called the internet that I use constantly for reference. Since a lot of work deals with travel, culture, and food, I actually use a lot of books and sites from these areas, too. Often I go to museums to see things up close and see how others have approached their work.

Sketch: Paper and pencil. In my sketchbook, or on loose sheets. Often using tracings or grids. I’m not afraid to print source material and practice the curves and lines. Especially for lettering. Which I do a lot of. The sketch usually takes 2-3 hours and I try not to worry much. I erase and re-draw. I start light and get darker. I often do a fair amount of shading, much of which will help me later with the paint.

Scan: I always scan or photograph sketches before I start to paint. This serves documentation and allows me to see the work on the screen. Sometimes I’ll work in Photoshop to experiment with colors to plan and get ideas.

Underpainting: Most of my painting process you’ll never actually see. That’s because it’s the painting done under the painting you do see. This lays down contours which I’ll leave behind and coats areas with an intentional color to complement or combine with the overpainting. In fact, I usually use a complementary color, like green if it’s going to end up red, or blue for orange. Sometimes it’s just a darker color to provide more body for the color of the overpainting, like when I use red under flesh tones.

Overpainting: Next I paint over almost everything I’ve done until now. This stage involves the majority of the work with color and shading. Often in the process I get new ideas or am tempted to leave areas as an the underpainted color. I have to question the urge and remember to see the piece in my head a step or two ahead, or even finished, not how it is currently. This is crucial. The main part of painting is a battle between Is-it-done? and This-isn’t-done! It’s an artists’ sense of urgency and impatience and the dreaded Masterpiece Syndrome fighting each other.

Block: Particularly my works on paper involve empty space and white. Already in the sketching and painting stages I’m thinking which parts I’m going to paint over with white. Why would I paint or draw something when I know it’s going to be painted over? Same reason as with the underpainting. I am planning the final results, and I like the layers and transparency. I only completely mask or block with white if I want to remove something entirely.

Details: I go back in and adjust contours, darken shadows, add complementary lines, dots, patterns, create highlights. At this stage I’m constantly stepping back and viewing the work from all angles and distances. I might take photos and look at enlargements — or the picture tiny. I’m looking to see that the contrast and colors are right. At some point, I’ve killed that little demon in my head that says “It’s not done yet, keep going!” Art is not just about making stuff. It’s about releasing stuff. And letting go. Every story comes to an end, every painting has a limited number of strokes.

Document: Do I sound like an obsessive nut, especially after just talking about letting go? Whatever. I take photos of the finished work. I give away a lot of works and I almost never travel with actual works, so it’s great to have an archive of what I’ve done on the computer and in my pocket.

Sometimes when I’m asking myself what I’ve made and done so far in this life… I look at my photos. Of my travel adventures, of my cooking experiments, of my artwork. It floods me with memories and inspires me to explore more, create more, and share more.

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