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.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Creating Dred Scott - part 2

Putting it all together.

After approval was given to forge ahead with the paintings, I had an important decision to make.  Who would pose as Dred and Harriet Scott? If I had needed to create recurring African – American characters for a picture book, I would have selected appropriate African - American models, as I did in the past with Gwenyth Swain's Riding to Washington. The situation this time was different. I would be replacing my model’s faces with the faces of Dred and Harriet.  

Therefore, I opted to go the “easy” route, and could get away with using a pair of Anglo-Saxons – my wife and myself.  We are simply the cheapest and most accessible models I have ever used.

As Harriet Scott, my dear wife dressed in an 1830’s pattern dress she had hand-stitched a few years ago. Without this valuable piece of costuming, I would have had to modify the photos of Pat wearing a dress from a different time period, which is pretty common for me.  I rarely have all the costumes and props exactly as I need them, and end up becoming a type of tailor armed with pencil and eraser, with a stack of costume books and internet images underfoot.

 Pat as Harriet - she's chopping vegetables on a box of miniature soldiers.

I showed Pat my preliminary sketch and then we posed her standing in my cluttered studio, with light coming from two directions to simulate both window and firelight.  Thank goodness for cheap clamp-on lights from our local hardware store. Pat even sliced some small, red 19th century appropriate potatoes for me while she stood there, which we later ate prepared with green beans and her home-made pesto. Yum.

Normally I would set up the camera on a tripod with a 10 second delay on the timer, and pose for myself, but this I wanted to do it right.  I made a phone call to our dear friend and neighbor, Rebecca (artist/photographer/thrower of awesome Halloween parties), and she shot photos of me posing in the raking, morning sunlight. The folks driving past my home in South Minneapolis are becoming used to the sight of me, Pat and a host of neighbors and friends in costume, play-acting for the camera in the yard or on the sidewalk. We have never been visited by the police after one of these affairs – even when posing with guns – so I count myself lucky. 

Me as a well-fed and freshly laundered Dred Scott.

For my role as Dred Scott, I was able to get away with wearing my early 19th century clothing and  doing a few pencilled alterations. I also found it necessary to erase a few pounds from around my belly and jawline; Dred Scott would not have had access to the array of snacks that are my great weakness.

Photoshop is my friend.

The axe head and chopping block came from a photo taken at the fort.

In Photoshop I combined the pose photos with the background photos or sketches and printed out both pieces at full size on my printer. These prints will become my comprehensive sketch and also my tracing sketch.

Finally, using the only images I have found of the Scotts, I broke out my pencils, sharpies, and white paint and began to carefully draw right on top of the printed references, Dred’s face on top of mine and Harriet’s face on Pat's.  This involved shifting the position of eye sockets, noses, etc., and worked surprisingly well.  At this point I also drew some of the details of the Scott’s environments, but left much to the painting phase.

Much better!

It's quick and not very pretty, but sketches like this make my life a LOT easier.

In a few days I will post Part 3, where I talk about transferring the sketches and painting the final pieces.  Cheers!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Creating Dred Scott - part 1

"You need it WHEN?"

I was recently asked by the Minnesota Historical Society to paint pictures of Dred and Harriet Scott, slaves who met, married and lived at Fort Snelling in the 1830’s while their owners were posted there. The Society is creating a series of short documentaries relating to Civil War topics and the Dred Scott Decision of 1857 is one of the powder keg issues leading up to that war.  They were editing together a 6 minute piece on this subject, and needed a pair of images to add "life" to the main characters. 

Period engraving of Dred and Harriet Scott.

The producer wanted to show both Dred and Harriet at work within or close to the walls of the fort, a place near and dear to my heart. My dear wife and I met, married and worked there for more than a decade.  As far as I know, Dred or Harriet Scott have never been painted, and the chance to be “the first” was more than I could pass up.

As usual, there was very little time to pull this off – there never is. I immediately accepted the challenge, despite the fact that I was still finishing a series of picture book illustrations.

I visited my good friends, the historians at Historic Fort Snelling, and we talked for a while about just what the Scotts would have done there on a daily basis, as well as how they may have dressed and what their quarters may have looked like. My camera came in handy, but I realized I would have to modify the recreated quarters to accurately reflect their likely 1830’s appearance. 

 Interior of the recreated quarters at Fort Snelling.

My dear friend Tom "poses" for me in front of the Scott's quarters. The other pop is mine. Really.

 The correct shape for an early to mid 19th century axe head.  This is important.

The following day, I shot photos of myself as both Dred and Harriet, and then drew two compositional sketches based on these.  Time was slipping away and I simply needed warm bodies to quickly establish the most basic information upon which to build a scene.  Details would follow later.

Me, as Dred Scott, holding my nice axe.
You can see the picture book I was trying to finish, taking over my main easel.

Me as Harriet Scott. I didn't even need a dress for this one.  Just some puffy sleeves and a warm body.

Dred Scott sketch.  See how it all comes together, minus Tom and the bench?

Harriet Scott sketch.  In the end, we changed the walls and hearth and lost the printed pattern on the dress - thank goodness, because those patterns add TIME to a painting..

I didn't hear anything back for a crucial week, and was prepared to take on my next project when I received word that the project was a go.  Thankfully these sketches were approved, and the REAL work could begin.

In Part 2, I will continue this process, so check back soon.