© 2018 by Conan Zhao


How It's Made [Classic City Swing VIII]

The dance space at the New Dance Theatre of UGA is very impressionable because the light that envelopes the band changes its color periodically, so that every few minutes you’re not only dancing to a different song, with a different dance partner, but to the mood of a different color scheme as well. When I painted the trumpeter Gordon Au from the same venue last year, he was cocooned by a bright, warm, and vibrant orange, such that the shine of his trumpet makes it seem like blinding fire sparks are dancing all around him. This year, with the introduction of a phthalo green into my palette, I chose to adopt a greener color scheme to celebrate, and to take a break from the always warm and dusky atmosphere in my past paintings.

Before I started on any sketches, I vetted through the photos to polish up on the concept. I usually already make up my mind about what moment made for a good motif as I was already snapping away on my phone camera. This time I had a really good angle of the band as well as a video of Katelyn and Sam dancing together, so I decided to compose a scene with them together.

Eventually I landed on these two photos, and started a pencil sketch to see how well the two fit into one space.

I’m planning to use a surface that is 30 inches by 15 inches for the painting, so I had on a large piece of canvas a handful of frames by that ratio.

Sketching for Classic City Swing VIII

Let me break down what is happening here.

In this pencil sketch, I’m only interested in whether the shapes and dimensions of the band and the dancers work well together. Fortunately they do. I’ll point out that at this point, I initially wanted the dancers in the foreground to be the focus of the painting, thus giving them more rendering than the band in the background.

An unnamed artist once said that “you can only paint as well as you can draw”. The difference between a drawing and a painting is not merely that a painting has colors, and that a drawing is done by lines. Underneath, they are both defined by how well the composition defines the values, and how well the values aid the success of the composition. (***A good example of someone who demonstrates this well is Van Gogh. Comparing his ink sketches and his paintings, you can easily recognize from his strokes that he approaches the two forms of painting using the same principles.***)

This is a step-up from the pencil sketch to study values. Rather than fleshing out any line definitions, I’m reducing the entire subject matters into mere blocks of shades of grey (all 50 of them)

In agreement to that, I’ll extend a corollary by saying that a good composition must still be good in black and white. By eliminating the distraction of color and temperature, you’re left with just the basis of them all: their values. (A value of something, simply put, is how dark or how light that thing is) Does the choice of values in this painting or drawing give clarity to what the focus is? To the visual movement? Are they coherent enough to illuminate the subject matter? The answer to all these questions can be found by looking at a picture in black and white. (***Another example to demonstrate this are the works of Honoré Daumier. His watercolor and gouache based paintings blur the line of a pencil drawing and a painting. Each of his works, kept strictly to neutral colors, demonstrate a mastery use of values to give a sense of luminosity not unlike that of Rembrandt.***)

Which brings us to what this study of values is about, and why I consider it to be the most important study of them all. If values aren’t controlled well, the entire painting will fall apart. It would be reduced to a mere painting of representation (blindly painting photos without any real artistic input).

It’s also at this stage when I changed my mind and shifted the focus of the picture from the foreground to the background (sorry Katelyn and Sam). In an accidental pause while working in progress, I noticed that the band members around Laura the vocalist have a luminous quality that I quite enjoyed, and decided to focus on that by totally changing what I had originally wanted.

Here I’m not so concerned about shapes or values as much, but simply wished to observe whether the color scheme I had mind would work harmoniously together.

Time to bring everything together. I want to use this pass to see all that theoretical talking points would hold when pieced together, and to see what challenges I’m expected to encounter.

While I’ve mentally noted many adjustments to be made as a result of this, the most notable is that the dancers and the band feel like they belong to separate spaces. There is too clearly a diagonal divide that cuts the painting into two scenes. To solve this, I would make the foreground colder, and bring the background a little warmer.

I wanted to do just one more dry-run just because I still wasn’t too confident that I had flushed out enough logistical obstacles. During this last dry-run, I attempted to render the painting process as closely to how the real execution would be as possible. I adjusted the temperature on the two diagonal planes to better integrate the dancers and the band together; I spent some time on the effect of lighting to make it look more convincing that all the participants exist in the same space.

However, the final obstacle that I was looking for did indeed manifest itself because of this study. As is true for any painting, the more details rendered, the more susceptible that the artist can be engrossed in that endeavor and lose track of the big picture. In this case, I lost the luminosity that I so loved in the black-and-white value study. The effect of light was undermined by the representative rendering.

The solution to this problem, after all, is simple but nuanced. What caused the diminishment of the luminous effect in the first place is being distracted by details. The solution is therefore simple, that is to not get bogged down by details, and, in some instances, consciously sacrifice them all together. The nuance, however, comes from the need to depict the subject matters that make this painting uniquely Classic City Swing VIII. Little details like the saxophone stand, a music stand, even a water bottle are all clues to those participants to a unique time of their performance. This painting is as much about the atmosphere as it is about an experience. Without these clues, this performance becomes just like any other. It is therefore a very fine balance that I have to negotiate for to have this unique configuration of objects to coexist in harmony within the atmosphere that I wanted to achieve.

Fun art historical footnote: “sacrifice” can arguably be what defines the Romanticism movement in art, literature, even in chess! Eugene Delacroix is a leading figure in the Romanticism movement, you’ll notice that he has a lot of influence on my art philosophy.

In the end, I decided to not get carried away with the details on the band members, barely rendering the stands while heightening up the luminosity around Laura the vocalist. This strategy worked surprisingly well because even though I did some polishing of the musical instruments, the eyes are never too distracted by them because of how bright the left of the stage is. I was also able to create some interesting geometric shapes.

Using both the orientation perspective of the band, as well as playing around with how the light hits the vocalist and the floor, I was able to create a perspective vanishing point.

Finally, I'm especially pleased that the black and white value study looks coherent. There is no point in this painting that distracts from the focal point, despite my worries that a detailed rendering of the band members might do exactly that.

That's all folks!

Thanks so much for your interest in how this painting was put together! If you have any thoughts or would like to know more about how I paint, drop a comment below!

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