On Painting Crowd Scenes:
"Saturday at Avignon," oil on canvas. 24 x 48 inches.
Viewing crowd scene paintings is fun! You may view them over and over again - and each time see something new.
Artists have been painting scenes of mobs, crowds, and battles for centuries. As one of them, I enjoy composing paintings documenting events and locations with large numbers of people.
Such paintings become full of inter-personal stories. Stories put together to hold you, the viewer's, attention.
Early classical works tend to reflect mythological or religious events. They are colorful, spectacular, and designed to impress the viewer - who at that time probably could not read, but could relate to the visual message.
Later, artists tended to reflect everyday life. Often they painted on location, capturing people and families as the artist observed them.
Like many of these artists, I paint the colorful imagery of life around me.
When planning a new crowd painting, I look for a theme that has a lot of action and where I already have, or may easily obtain, suitable source images.
Once settled on a general theme, the idea is mulled over in my mind – often for several weeks or even months.
Developing The Idea:
It is important that the figures and backgrounds are interesting to the viewer. The people in the images are my cast of actors in my evolving theme and story – always with a touch of humor. For crowd scenes I use multiple images of single or groups of people, often discovered from my computer files.
Since I paint from photographs, I have accumulated many thousands of digital reference images. Most are of people. Often, close-ups taken with the powerful zoom lens of my digital camera, usually from a great distance. But also included are wide-angle shots to provide source data for backgrounds. If a suitable image is not on file, I make plans to take new photographs.
Preparing The Composition:
Usually, I start by laying out in my mind a background scene, before which the players will be arranged.
Next, a format must be chosen. Is the painting going to be wide? How high? Should I use multiple canvases? How will the finished painting be hung? All my recent canvases have painted edges and do not need a frame.
Sometimes I have used multiple canvases. Such painting may be large, show considerable detailed action, but still be easy to handle.
"Mexican Plaza" 2007, Oil on Canvas, Triptych, Three panels each 18 x 36 in.
Next are the development of preliminary sketches to prepare the composition. While the composition may change many times as detail is added,by laying out the painting in my mind and on paper, the concept begins to firm up.
If something does not work, at this stage it easy to change my thinking.
Looking through my collections of people images, I start pulling more detailed thoughts together. Using the computer, images of specific actors may be flipped horizontally to obtain a desired effect, view, or a perhaps a better story. Everything is in creating the stories.
Preparing To Paint:
At about this stage I chose and prepare the canvas(es). Frequently I will cover the entire canvas with a ground color – usually a thin wash of Burnt Sienna.
Then I sketch the background scene in a darker shade using ether Burnt Sienna with a touch of Ultramarine, or Burnt Umber. If perspective is a big issue, I may construct pencil sight lines to aid the layout.
At this stage I consider the Notan (the balance of the light and dark areas) of the composition. Usually I will construct another sketch on paper using black and gray markers.
Next, I will develop and paint the background, sky, and ground areas, sketching in much of the detail. Since I paint using opaque colors, this background will later be overlaid with the actors.
Adding The People:
"Painting In My Studio." Photo Credit: Josh Hulstein.
I paint directly from my laptop computer screen, which sits beside my canvas. From my pre-selected people image collection, I create a “hot” catalog of people images that seem appropriate for the this painting. As I work, I go to this “hot” catalog to select the specific actors to show on my computer screen, and to position on the canvas.
Usually I sketch each person with thin Zinc White or occasionally colored paint. As the people details are developed, often the part of one person may be supplemented or merged with parts of another.
I may rotate one image, change a person's height, move their hands or arms, give them something to carry, or take away something they are holding. All to improve or enlarge the story. Frequently I change their dress, colors, hair, lighting, or shadows; always to better suit the story development.
Nearly always, the backgrounds and the various players have been widely separated from their original situations. Usually it would be difficult for someone to recognize themselves.
As it progresses, the details are developed or changed needed. It is easy to alter, cover, or lift out details or complete figures as needed. The paint remains soft for several days and corrections may be made as I proceed.
As I paint, the final stories evolve around my chosen images. Everything is in the stories. That is what makes the finished painting interesting to the viewer.
"County Fair" 2009, Oil on Canvas, 16 x 32 in.
As the painting nears completion, I hang it in full view on my Studio wall. As I work on the next painting, I look at the past painting. Ideas for improvements often become apparent.
My wife is my best critic. I encourage her to look over my shoulder. She has an uncanny skill of point out defects that until then have escaped me. But after she points them out - they are obvious.
Next the painting is moved to a place in my personal gallery. As I walk about my home, I glance at it - often with fresh eyes. Still more changes are frequent. Then I take it before my local critique group. Again fresh eyes provide me with feedback.
When finally I am happy, the work signed, scanned, and sealed with medium. After drying it is moved to my gallery area.
Painting is a continual learning process. I am always experimenting - trying new subjects, new methods, and new materials. IF you wish to dicuss these thoughts, please contact me.
If you are local or are planning a visit to Santa Barbara, contact me for an appointment to visit my Studio and Private Gallery. I will be glad to show you how it is done and to view examples of my finished work.
Updated September 2012