Saturday, October 12, 2013

Creating Dred Scott - part 3

Time to get dirty!

The back of the Harriet Scott photo/sketch, covered in charcoal, after tracing.

The modified drawings were coated on the back with charcoal, taped down to Gessobords (not my spelling, I swear - these are commercially available, prepared masonite panels) and I traced the most important lines and features. These crude and easily smudged drawings were cleaned up, details were modified and each panel was given a protective layer of spay fixative followed by brushed-on acrylic matte medium to keep the drawing from lifting while during underpainting and add just a slight brushstroke texture.

Ah, where would we be without all this messy stuff?!

I decided to introduce even more texture into the piece using acrylic gel medium.  This would give an actual  3-dimensional quality to certain areas of the painting – in fact, I would come to regret my rather sloppy application of the gel this time around.

Within an hour, I was painting.

I began by staining each scene with warm tones, a light ochre for the outside scene and darker burnt umber for the interior scene. This is a way of setting the painting up for a specific color scheme, and quite frankly, I don't like staring at all that unpainted white background when I work.   In neither case did I allow the stain to obscure my charcoal lines.  I don't really have photographic evidence of this stage - I was too BUSY trying to meet a deadline! You will just have to take my word for it.

You can pick up a hint of the ochre stain underneath some areas here. Things are pretty loose at first.

For Harriet’s picture I restricted my palette to muted yellows, stronger reds and deep browns – there is just a touch of blue/green, weakened by mixing with red-brown. For Dred, I used the exact same palette with more blue worked into the shadows areas to create a feeling of strong outdoor daylight.

As I painted I made continued reference to the existing images of the Scots, as well as my modified photo/drawings, as a way to ensure not only the features were correct, but the folds and wrinkles in the clothing and the effect of light were accurately captured. I never follow these references exactly, but they do give me answers to some questions. Like my brush and palette knife. they are simply tools to be used as needed

This is a typical set-up. Well, it may be a bit more organized than usual, but you get the idea.

I moved the flagpole to the top of the round tower, where it likely was in the late 1830's.  Hey, it's history, you know?

The texture that I introduced at the beginning worked well in some areas, like the shoulder of Harriet’s dress, especially when compared with the softly painted broom in the background. Light bounces of those little ridges, giving a physicality to the surface and this contrast makes the shoulder stand out appropriately. 

Contrasting light and dark, soft and hard edges and a bit of texture for good measure.

However, thanks to my haste, some texture was allowed to creep into shadow areas, and even into Harriet’s face, and that, folks, is what we call a “Bad Idea”.  When unwanted texture obscures details or breaks up what should be a smooth plane, it is a distraction (especially in shadow areas) and can confuse the viewer as to your intent. While we accept and often look for texture in an original painting, in a print or book illustration it can be a problem.  I continually use Photoshop to "paint out" annoying texture when a piece has been scanned for reproduction.

It got a little too bumpy here and there.

In this case, I don’t feel that the texture is really a problem.  I just need to be a bit more careful next time around.  Bloody amateur.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part was the firelight and detailing of the table, kettle and vegetables.  No real pressure, just a chance to play with light.

I think these paintings took about two weeks to complete.  In each case, the painting is a gradual build-up over at least 3 or 4 sessions (with an occasional touch up even later), each layer modifying the previous one. My brushes tend to get smaller with each session, as I focus more on details.  At the same time, I am constantly looking for areas that may need softening and blending into the background.  I need to remind myself just what is really important, and what can be allowed to drop out of focus. This can be the trickiest part of all, after capturing the likeness.

The Harriet Scott painting on the easel.

Harriet Scott

The Dred Scott painting on the easel.

Dred Scott

And there we have it, folks. Whew.  I hope I have done justice to history and to the spirit of these two human beings who ended up playing such important roles in our nation's past. When I have decent scans and a link to the finished documentary that these were originally created for, I will make a final post.

Cheers - and thanks for letting me share this process with you.


  1. I am fortunate to see Dave's paintings through all the stages . . . and I still think he's magic!

  2. Dave...such talent. Seeing your work inspires me to get off my arse and paint something...

  3. Excellent paintings David, and a great insight into your technique! Thanks for posting this.


    1. My pleasure, Jeff - and I must say, I love your work!

  4. Wow, I'm exhausted just reading this! Two more qualities that separate an artist (you) from a dabbler: patience and skill. Sure, what you do takes talent, but what you've learned and practiced - and had the patience to practice and learn - is what translates that talent into art.

    1. Thanks, Miki - I appreciate that. Now I have to actually use it!