10 Things... I Remember About Planning Paintings


-Gregory Manchess

Since it's all about me...You may notice that I changed the title to 'Things I Remember", realizing that these things come from my own notes about my painting career. I'd rather avoid the preaching when possible. So the rest of these post topics will focus on my selfish perspective, and hopefully you'll be able to take something away from it to use.

1. Start small
One word: thumbnails. I remember the day I realized that tiny little drawings, if designed well, will blow up into the same exact proportions. In other words, what works small, works large. Not the other way around. One problem: I hated my thumbnails. So, I spent years going through the agony of learning to draw shapes fast, and as accurately as possible. This saved tremendous grief down the line. Measure twice, and all that. I got more excited about...well, everything really, when the thumbnails were solid.

2. Find a better point of view
I found that by drawing small, I could cover more ground, keep from getting lost in one composition, and find angles I hadn’t thought of. I explore all those angles. I want to show the viewer how much I love what I paint. I want to take them with me. And I’ve found over the years that they’re willing to go. Besides, I don’t want my portfolio full of boring pov’s, unless I can bring something special to it.

3. Lighting
I ask myself right away: how is this baby gonna be lit? What’s the light in the world of the painting? Time of day? Year? Setting? Weather? Indoors, outdoors? Is the lighting the focus, or the subject in light? What kind of light do I want to try, play with, understand. Then I search for ways to express it in a way I alone want to see. This helps make it unique. I don’t want my list of work to reflect the same damn light angle, from the same damn source, painted under the same damn conditions, every time. Shoot. Me. In. The. Head. Boring.

Which leads to...

4. Value
Lighting determines much of this. But I have to pay attention to whether it’s about a bright picture, or dark, haunting, moody, or uplifting. I study the differences all the time as to what makes pictures inspire certain feelings. What kind of light makes me feel certain things. There must also be a range of value to convey this. Once decided, the light values must stay consistent to be convincing. The more convincing the painting, the better the illusion.

5. Design the entire space
Every piece of space in the painting is important to me. I want to fall in love with every angle, every twist, turn, value, shape, and line. Every figure. Every face. I design out the space so that it works side-to-side, top-to-bottom. It is a fine designed window into the scene, and every piece is critical. Every piece. If it isn’t, it’s out.

6. Use line to direct the eye
I don’t trip over silly philosophies about how this line mimics that rhythm, or that gesture connects to this line. Or how movements repeat. A through-line, just like a story plot, leads the eye through the painting. If it’s a scene, I want to lead the viewer through it, looking from the most important element first, through to all the supporting pieces. Nothing complicated. Edited and simplified.

7. Foreground. Middle ground. Background.
As with 2D space, I also design in 3D: front to back. I find the focal point of the piece, and load the picture from there, working to allow the foreground to take my eye past it, into the picture, all the way through to the far background. The background will support and hold firm what I show in the middle ground. Everything is supported by the other elements. If it doesn’t, it’s adjusted or it’s gone. I don’t have the time in my composition to waste on elements that don’t support the whole.

8. Overlap
When I notice that I’m spending too much time on an element, it means I’m too much in love with that particular detail and I need to incorporate it into the balance of the whole picture. There’s not much sadder to me than to see a painter miss an opportunity to thrill by pushing and pulling pictorial elements apart or together. Elements must vary. Overlapping adds depth and interest at the same time, and keeps my compositions from becoming staid.

9. Think it, feel it, research it
I think a lot about what I’m to portray. Then I try to feel the elements. Is it leather? Steel? Hair? Skin? This gives me the feeling I need to go after, and the best way for me to get it is to research it to exhaustion. I get every sort of reference needed about it: photos, video, the thing itself. I try to get it in the position I need, but I’m not always successful. So, I surround myself in reference. I rely on my memory for the idea, not the final.

10. Photos are guides
They are only there to remind me of the actual thing. Otherwise, I’d have the thing in front of me. Certainly I work from photos, from sketches to finish. I remember that the photo is not the painting, so in the end, the very last thing to do is reject the reference in favor of the painting. And make it work.

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