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

Click here to see Part One of my original painting Bull City Swingout I.

Original Oil Painting in Progress: Bull City Swingout

This is the progress after about the 3rd session. I first made rough spatial indications of the characters’ outlines, and starting from the top left corner, I methodically worked my way to the rest of the painting.

I’m very happy with how the stage turned out: while the band is an integral part of this painting, it is not the “lead actor” of this story, nor even of the composition. The only thing that I required of the band here is their presence, so I purposefully muted the colors and shapes for everything that’s on stage. The details are suppressed so that nothing is screaming out for attention; yet sufficient enough to easily make out what is what, even the musical instruments being played.

In Part One I had talked about wanting the dancer in the red dress more center staged. To accomplish this, I switched the positions of the dancing couple, which moved her slightly to the right. This ideal combination of color and position gives me the great advantage of dictating where I’d like the viewers’ attention to naturally begin. Had I unquestioningly copied the reference photograph without making this adjustment, this advantage would’ve gone unexploited and an opportunity wasted.

It is the use of artistic license like this that I enjoy the most about painting. Creating a composition to enhance the story-telling experience is incredibly complex and dynamic. Each picture comes with its own challenges, but also its own potentials. I keep telling myself to look past representation, but for ways to infuse the artist into the painting.

At this point I do wonder, however, whether the value for the darkness of the podiums is a bit too much. I could suppress the stage even more to enhance the vibrance of the dance floor. Given most of the painting isn’t blocked in yet, I decide to standby on that thought until after I have put everything in and reevaluate once I have the full picture.


Fast forward a few more sessions, this is what the full picture looks like.

Original Oil Painting in Progress: Bull City Swingout I

So far I have put down where I wanted the characters to be. For the figures I didn’t want to give a lot of attention, I used rather quick strokes and kept the rendering loose, while spending more time on several visual anchor points in the foreground. This wouldn’t be a bad place to stop, and I could easily call it finished had I just wanted to copy a photograph. Had my objective for this painting been representation, that is to show the viewers “this is a person doing this, and that is a person doing that," what I have here would get that job done quite sufficiently. (***Actually, I wouldn’t have started this painting in the first place because a camera can do that in a second.***)

However, the success my career hinges on artistic growth, and I can't grow without being willing to take some risks and accept the consequences. I've spent the past few years not only developing a personal style that I have today, but also exploring the depth and wonders of the relationship between color, value, texture, and emotion within a composition. To make this picture the most personal that it can be, I took the risk and kept going.

But first, an evaluation: there are still two major obstacles to achieving what I had initially envisioned in Part One:

  1. Composition and atmosphere. While the rendering of each character isn’t bad, the linearly diagonal relationship is very hard to make out, in part due to the busyness of the scene. So many things are happening, that when first looking at this painting, the eyes behave like a pinball being pounced to all corners of the surface, without a coherent visual path, and without a final resting place. "Sure I kinda know where I should start to look at, but where should I stop?"

  2. Because this is painted from left to right in multiple sessions, the color scheme, the technique, and even the temperament, have changed slightly over time and become a little disjointed, affecting the overall effect of the picture.

To be honest I didn’t know right away exactly what to do to remedy these, but I had a couple of ideas on where to start. I’ll index the above picture with labels, as well as the finished painting next to it for easy comparison.

Indexed: Bull City Swingout

Complete: Bull City Swingout
  1. First, I had hoped for an easy visual movement that travels from R1 --> R3 --> R4 (where I had planned to cover with red tint, but I hadn’t gotten to it yet). This isn’t quite happening because there are too many distractions. For one, as soon as the eye reaches R3, it gets immediately pulled to R5. So I got rid of R5 by covering it with white gesso. With this distraction gone, I can accentuate L1.

  2. Another reason it’s hard for the eye to follow R1 --> R3 --> R4 is because it’s not quite a straight line. This wasn’t foreseen in the sketch due to difference in proportions and positioning. To adjust for that, and noticing Erin at R2a was conveniently wearing red shoes, I COULD actually make this red stand out a little more to bridge the visual gap from R1 to R3. However this is still not ideal because it’s not a straight shot to R4.

After some thought, I decided it was better to make the shoes at R2b a bright red instead. Doing this actually has a couple of advantages. First, R2b sits squarely at the end of L1, meaning the viewer’s brain has to do a lot less work to make that connection. Secondly, it provides a very natural extension to Hannah’s red dress at R1. If one’s eyes happen to wander onto Hannah at R1, the direction of the staircase and the railing that she’s holding onto will naturally redirect them to R2b, then to R3 and to R4.

For good measure, I dabbed some subtle hints of the dress blue onto the stairs, just in case it’s not abundantly clear that I wanted a connection between R1 and R2b.

By getting rid of R5, and giving R2b a visual relay station, I took away the ambiguity of where the eyes should go, but instead gave them a defined path to follow and an explicit destination to arrive to.


I should have mentioned at this point that I had long put away the original reference photo as it had nothing more to contribute. It was good for providing me with an intriguing subject matter for an oil painting, but not so much in giving me guidance on an interesting composition and color harmony. To have those, I’d have to use my imagination. It just so happens that I’m not a very good imaginator, but a pretty good cheater, so I turned my attention to a Turner for reference:

The Slave Ship -- J.M.W. Turner, 1840

William Turner is one of a few artists who have a major influence on the kind of fine art philosophy that I pursue. I often do copies of his paintings to study how he handles color harmony and atmospheric effects. This painting in particular has just the compositional guidance that I needed. Look closely, can you fit the same diagonal lines onto this landscape oil painting? Can you see the same visual path from the staircase --> red shoes --> red dress --> the wall in the black strokes of the waves? Can you see the jazz band in the waves of blue where the ship is? Can you find similarities even in the color scheme and mood?

Using this as a reference, I was able to flesh out lines L2 and L3 (i.e. see what I did with Deena’s shoes at R6)

Finally, I decided that the incoherence in temperament across the canvas, as well as the inconsistency in technique, rendering, and color scheme, need to be unified. Too many supporting roles are screaming out for attention. They needed to be muted. In an impressive stroke of bravery, I emptied a bottle of metaphorical gin, so I was fresh out of fucks, and glazed over large swaths of the canvas with an opaque burnt sienna, Naples yellow, and even white. Glazing helps me make adjustments on value and temperature, and can heighten the effect of light. Not many details and vibrancy survived this, but I was able to accomplish from this a unification of stylization and color harmony.


Did this painting pique your interest? Are there other aspects of my painting process that you’d like to see? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section!

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