Preparation work for Painting "Living Water" - (portrait of Christ)

Recently I completed this religious painting, a portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Every three years, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sponsors an International art competition, and I've always wanted to paint something that I could enter.  They get thousands of entries, so I have no idea how mine will fare, but I'm happy with it.  Creative, figurative, illustration-like art is something I have always toyed with (I did actually earn a BFA degree in Illustration), but this sort of work requires a lot of effort and planning before the brush ever touches the canvas.  I think many people who aren't artists think we can just make stuff up from our imagination..  and there is some of that..  but to really pull off creativity and "imagination" with convincing realism - well, you need good reference.  By reference I mean sketches, models, costumes, props, color studies.. etc. 

I've always been a bit intimidated by the whole idea of scriptural or historical-based art, although I also really have wanted to attempt that sort of work.  It's intimidating I suppose because I have grandious ideas.. I would compare myself to fantastic historical illustrators like Arnold Friberg, Tom Lovell, or Harry Anderson.  I want to do these great paintings, and whenever I've attempted to live up to that, I've failed (miserably).  So, upon graduation (20 years back now), the only thing I could figure out to do was to just to keep painting.  I happened onto painting water, rocks, rivers, but I also love portraits.  Truthfully, it's a lot less work to see a beautiful scene of nature and attempt to capture that - and it's very rewarding as well.  There's a big part of me that just wants to jump right in and start painting.  

But for this one, I decided to try to be more patient.  I wanted to take it slow, and go through a solid process of planning.  I'm still keeping it pretty simple here, because this isn't a "real" scene - with a specific time or place.  


The initial sketch - I got really excited about the lower one, with the incorporation of various symbols, and I liked the composition.  I know - I should have done about 10-20 of these thumbnail sketches (that's "correct").. but, I've never been good at that.  You can also see major differences between the original idea and where it finally landed.  He was going to be holding a candle, and bread - but as I sketched through the bread idea, I worried that it wouldn't read well.  Unleavened bread looks like hard pancakes, and I didn't want people asking why the Lord was holding pancakes.  I did some studying (very little) and found that really they didn't eat unleaved bread all the time - that was just at the Passover meal - and that it could be more traditional bread - but I still worried about how well that would read at the small size it would be.  

So the bread was out.  



Some early sketches, and then the one above was the primary reference for the face when it was painted.  The main issue here was that when I first drew it, I anticipated some light coming off the candle he was holding - when that got pulled I had a bit of work to change the lighting.  I didn't redraw it, but just went for the painting keeping in mind that the light needed to be altered somewhat. 

Then Amy Jo said "Well, they didn't have candles back then - it would have been an oil lamp.  Oh and by the way I have one!".  She's always coming to my rescue.  In fact - she's a bit of a costume fanatic..  one of the great & surprising things I didn't realize when I married her.  

She's the one arranging these robes, and was behind the camera here..

We created the robes from two large pieces of muslin that we purchased a while back as photography backdrops.  Worked out pretty nicely.  I love the volume, and the various folds.  I definitely wanted to steer clear of the "bathrobe" look that you see in so many scripture paintings.   

I then photo-copied the intitial portrait sketch down to 3.5 inches, and completed the rest of the drawing with the robes and the Oil lamp.. and sketched in the rocks and vines.  At this point the vines began to be a bit of trouble.  I really didn't know what exactly to do in that space, only that I wanted vines.  But, I didn't really feel grape vines, or olive vines would work well here - with the water and rocks it began to take on a more northwest forest-scene, which I know well (living in Washington).   I definitely liked the water and rocks - as that's sort of my thing, and both water and rocks are wonderful symbols for Christ.  Back to the vines.. should they be realistic?  How do you get vines up where evergreen trees should probably be?  

I have this circle element, but I hadn't really intended on going full-bore Mucha / art-nouveau  (although that is a really great style). I decided to keep this Pacific-northwest feel, instead of a middle-eastern Israel setting, because Christ is universal.  I live in Washington, and He speaks to me here.  He speaks to all of us, where we are.

Also at some point I realized that when the portrait was sized-down, it really lent itself well to a turned figure - although that wasn't what I had initially planned.  But as we worked with the robes in the photography shoot, that seemed like the right choice to add some good interest in the drapery.  You don't often see a side-view like that. 




Some various vine references I gathered..  ultimately I ended up using some plastic fake vines that my wife happened to have in a little display in our bathroom (thanks sweetie!).  I also tried to keep the feeling of forest vines.

At about this time we saw the new painting at Deseret Book by Simon Dewey of Christ holding the oil lamp.  Ugh!!!  That was an interesting day.  Amy Jo and I debated what to do for a good while.  Should I even continue this?  Was it worth it?  My idea - even with an oil lamp, was pretty different from his straighforward portrait.  I almost decided to scrap the whole thing at this point.  I had already transfered the drawing to the panel and was ready to begin painting!!  

But I decided that rather than scrap it, maybe we could have the Lord holding something else.  But what to hold?  We thought of a shepherd's staff (seen that half-a-million times).. and scriptures.  Modern-day scriptures?  No, that would feel strange.  So that's where we went to scrolls.  



Once again Amy Jo comes to the rescue.. rolling pins make great placeholders for scrolls.  And I liked the ornate midieval knobby handles here.. 


Next I scanned in the drawing, and also pieced-in the hands / scrolls into Photoshop to do some quick color-studies.  Here I can mess around with colors digitally and fairly fast - to get a good handle on how colors will work together.  This also allows me to see the composition a little more clearly, and think about those vines a bit more.  Tried small leaves, chaotic & messy leaves, no-leaves...  working with layers in Photoshop also allowed me to try dark vines on a light background, light vines on a dark background.. lots of variations!


Kinda takes some of the magic out of it, doesn't it?  Well, but I supposed that's exactly my point.  It's not magic.  In order to create an image like this, I needed to break it down into a clear process.  Working out the steps like this allowed me to feel with a high degree of certainty, that the painting was going to be successful before I even started painting.  As they tried to teach me in school, and as I learned recently from people like David Gray and David Kassan, and many others - process is everything.  I didn't have the patience to do this in school, but I have it now.  To be fair - school was also a bit difficult because the 2-3 paintings would be due every 2-3 weeks..  yeah, that was a challenge.  

Finally, on to painting!  As you can see, I still didn't know yet what to do about the vines.. but at this point I was forging ahead anyway.  Much of the rocks and water were simplifield because I felt I didn't want to compete with the main figure as the focus.  Actually, the idea of standing on the water was a late idea..  initially I had him standing on a sort of rock platform.  But then as I was working on it I thought..  why not have him stand right on the surface?  That whole area of the painting was fairly un-planned and completely made up based on the last 10 years of painting rocks & water.  I didn't really have any photo reference for the water or rocks here, I felt like I understood it well enough to pull it off.