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  • Writer's picturesarahdolby4

When I Was A Polar Bear

Updated: Sep 20, 2019

This little painting is one of five smaller works that I exhibited together this year. The exhibition was called 'When I Was' - a reflection of childhood memories. I thought this would be an ideal painting to document as I go. Below is a step by step account of progress.

Step 1. I didn't do a preliminary sketch for this painting as I had a strong idea of what I wanted and who I wanted as my model. So I moved straight to the photoshoot and spent a fun hour with my model Gemma trying on different out fits and hats.

Step 2. Choosing the right photo and making minor adjustments in photoshop to even out the light and tinker with skin tone.

Step 3. Printing out a grayscale version, rubbing the back with charcoal and then further rubbing or a paper towel over the charcoal to reduce artefacts.

Step 4. Placing the charcoal side down on a prepped canvas and using a ballpoint I drew over the main features and shapes to transfer the outline. You can see this in image 1.

Step 5. Thinning Raw Umber and Burnt umber oil paint [ I use Mussini by Schmincke but and good quality oils will do ] with odourless turps, I blocked out the main areas. See image 2. below. This helps me get a feel for the form and provides another layer for the oils to grip onto.

Step 6. I am always having to hold myself back at this stage as I really want to get immediate results by diving into the eye area and loading a whole lot of paint and detail onto it. I instead I have taught myself to hold back here and treat this next layer as further 'architecture'. You can see below in image 3. that I have just applied a thin coat of paint over the entire canvas building on the previous layer with a simple colour palette of umbers, Ivory black, Titanium White and a mix of red and blue for the dress. Again it is about establishing the darks and lights, refining the features and composition. This is when you want to make mistakes...not when you are nearly finished and realise that the eye is wandering off to the left or the chin is all wrong [ trust me I know!!] In these early stages you can see quite clearly what isn't working and make the necessary adjustments. Because where I live the winters get quite cool I do have to allow for decent drying time. I want to avoid new applications messing with exisiting layers that haven't quite dried properly so I give each layer about 3 days. This is why it is good to have a few paintings on the go so you can alternate between them.

Step 7. Here it gets fun. I can now start to apply layers of paint that are more descriptive. In the above image 4. I have concentrated on the left side of her face mostly as by the end of my 5 hour session I was a bit weary and not so great with detail so I didn't feel like applying the same laser like focus on the other side. Instead , for continuity of colours I worked fairly quickly bringing her eye and right cheek up to about %70 of the quality of the left side. In my next session I will start with the right side. For this layer I kept my palette quite simple - but constantly refer to my reference images for the right tones and hue. I find that I sink into a weird space while doing this where I start to see the smallest changes that shape the face, the cool and warm tones, the colours beneath the eye, the translucency of the features and the way the ambient light affects them. Again I have to be disciplined and not rush ahead with detail that will just be painting over in future sessions.

Step 8. As I mentioned above I started this session on the right side of her face and then moved left. Equal attention has now been given to each area of the face and I think I can now move forward and begin to add more colour and detail to the features. I do need to also look at the surrounding areas - the hat, dress and background.

Step 9. See below. This pass was fun - I was able to introduce more colours to build on the form. On my palette for this step was Raw Umber, Burnt Umber, Ivory Black, Cad Orange, Cad Yellow, Cad Red, Crimson, Cobalt Blue, Cerulean Blue, Yellow Ochre, Titanium White and finally Transparent White. I also introduce transparent white at this later stage in the painting. When mixed with the blues and pinks it almost glows and is great when adding highlights to eyes and pulling out the cooler skin tones can see how I have used it mixed with blue and crimson around her nose and under her eyes. I have also added another pass to her hair using Burnt Umber and more detail to her head dress. Using colour I have continued to define the features and form. I am always checking at this stage, because of the addition of transparent white that I am not flattening out the face...this is easy to do. So stepping back every now and then and looking at the painting from a distance helps.

Step 10. See below. Almost finished. I just have to tidy up the lower left side- sleeve, arm and hair. This pass was mostly refining and adding detail to what was already there, deepening shadows and pulling out highlights. The head dress took a while as I had to think about where I wanted the detail. I didn't want to paint every fibre - 1. because it would take forever and 2. I didn't need to - its nicer to have some soft lighter areas to balance the clarity of her eyes and face.

All finished and ready for it's beautiful ornate frame.


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