When I’m alone, facing my easel, I imagine I’m an illusionist. Not the kind who saws fine ladies in half or who makes elephants vanish in thin air. My trick is to create a convincing optical illusion with paint on a flat surface. I want to engage and entertain. If for a fleeting moment, viewers feel they are in the presence of the model, or could touch the objects in a still life, or smell the air in a landscape, then I feel like I’ve truly accomplished something.
I begin with an idea that I hope will convey mystery or wonder and then I plan how I’m going to create the illusion. A key element is a strong tonal contrast between light and dark so that I can model my forms in a dramatic, three-dimensional way. Inside my studio, I accomplish this with a single source of lighting, often natural. I study how the light falls on my forms—whether they be faces and figures, or fruit and vegetables in a still life. Composition is critical. The light and shadow areas need to balance one another. The elements need to be positioned to keep the viewer’s eye from wandering outside of the picture. I think ahead about how I’ll use different thicknesses of paint, soft and hard edges, the direction of brush strokes, and of course colour to guide the viewer through a journey in the painting.
I work from life whenever possible and use reference photos for detail, but never for values or colour. I often start with a drawing on paper that I transfer to my panel. I’ll produce a first “draft” of the painting in monochromatic shades of grey and when I’m satisfied with the values, I’ll proceed to the finish with thin glazes of colour.
I depart from this traditional approach for my landscapes. Whenever I find a view I like, I paint a small study outdoors, if practical. Later, back in my studio, I improve the composition on a larger panel by re-arranging and resizing the elements like trees, rocks and water. I’ll adjust the lights and darks or the intensity of the colours to help create the illusion of depth. I want to capture the mood I felt when I was standing on the same spot. I want my viewers to experience that moment too—without the bugs, of course.