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How It's Made [Bull City Swingout Part One]

Updated: Sep 14, 2019

This series called "How It's Made" gives a behind the scenes look at how I paint. Today's "episode" features my new painting, "Bull City Swingout I."


The most underrated step of being an artist, and I would argue with any genre, is learning to always be observant. Like Eugene Delacroix would say,

“Nature is a dictionary; one draws words from it”.


The world with which you interact is an endless supply of potential motifs. I admire photographers for precisely this reason. The camera is their sketchbook, which you'll often see them equip ⁠— ready to snap away, looking for an abundance of composition and color harmonies that nature freely offers. But the most underrated quality of a photographer is their ability to embrace failure. Every seasoned photographer understands that out of every thousand shots, only one will emerge as a masterpiece. The biggest favor you could do as an emerging artist is to learn these two lessons from a photographer: 1. Always pay attention and be ready. If you’re able to find a good angle, lighting, and the mental readiness to capture the moments that tell your story, you will be in a great position to set yourself up for success before you even start mixing paints. 2. Strive to make 1000 failures so you can find a masterpiece among them.

Now the great thing about being a painter is that the photograph is not the final stage of the product nor the first. It's a stepping stone. An art piece originates from the mind (if you're really craving cheese today, from the heart). From there, you use whatever means you can to help you get there: a camera, a reference picture, a model, alcoholism...etc. Anything in a photograph can be enhanced, reduced, or moved around at will. What makes an artist is not your ability to paint photographs, that’s representation; but your ability to make decisions that tell what a photograph can’t, that’s imagination.


This new painting is based on a photo I took at Bull City Swingout where the balcony at the venue afforded me an excellent vantage point with a great view of the band and the dancers below. This is what I’m starting with.

As always, I start the painting with some sketches. I do this because no matter how much you compose in your head, there are things that will only manifest themselves as you are doing it. What I ultimately seek when I’m doing sketches is the subject matter to speak out to me, as opposed to me doing all the talking to it.

This is the first rough sketch I made with just a burnt sienna as base. I didn’t bother to mix all the colors because my objective right now is to experiment with the interplay of composition and value. The key for this initial sketch is not to be bogged down by any details or prettiness. I was swift with my brushstrokes, like the coursing river, and with the force of a great typhoon.

I made several decisions here:

• I cut off the top portion of the photo to have a narrower rectangle surface area, this is to accentuate the busyness of the dance scene and not to have the eyes hit a visual wall as they look upwards.

• I’ve been wanting to exploit the whiteness of the canvas by purposefully leaving large swaths of the surface blank. This is traditionally rather taboo in academic styled art, but experimented by numerous illustration artists (see works by Bernie Fuchs) to have great advantages of subject or color accentuation; and, when used correctly, can be a fantastic choice as part of a stylized composition.

• I took an extra step and mixed a couple simple shades of red to paint the red dresses for funsies because true story: every guy is a sucker for the red dress. Here by sheer luck, Hannah in red in the lower-left [1.] is looking onto another girl in red [2.], creating a visual movement that travels from one red to another. I made a mental note that I’d like to make the red dress No.2 even the more focal point of the composition by moving her to the center point of the painting and facilitating the continuation of the diagonal visual movement. I noted to tint the region at No.3 with accents of red patches to make that general area stand out a little more.

• Now, I noticed several perspective lines have manifested in this sketch that I can play with that all converge to the No.3 region. Here, I don’t have to over-accentuate these lines by moving around characters like I’m doing with the girl in the red dress. I can use many other tools at my disposal: intentional heightening or muting of values, saturating and de-saturating certain colors, or even using similar strokes, can all achieve the same effect without my having to make major changes to the composition.

Lastly, I wanted to experiment more with how the white space is to be placed. Originally I had intended for the blank space to cover the right hand side of the painting. But having done the sketch above, in which, by an organic and purely accidental progression of the work flow, I had placed the blank space that is the floor right in the middle, while filling up the right hand side.

It actually doesn’t look half as bad, but I also wanted to do another version of what I had originally planned to compare. This time instead of having to paint another version and having to mix all the colors, I just used an erasure in Photoshop for a quick visual:

Clearly, the first version is more interesting and helps the red dress in the middle stand out more as the focal point, which had not been on my mind before I started the sketch. So I decided to leave the vast floor space in the middle of the painting white.




Stay tuned for Part 2, as I continue to make progress with this painting!

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© 2020 by Conan Zhao