Creating artwork requires some planning. Careful structuring of the approach to a painting can save valuable time and cut the amount of work needed to complete a piece. I have a simple approach that works great for me. Here are the steps:
Step 1) K.I.S.S.
— In the military, we tried to work by the ‘Keep It Simple Stupid’ principle. I remember this principle when I design a picture (especially when designing a shirt). For example, people usually only have a few seconds to understand what you’re trying to say with your custom shirt. So, if you have a picture of the gates of heaven, two guardian angels, the gates of hell, many demons, the four horsemen, giant stinging locusts, and a seven-headed dragon, they will not even bother to look at it. Choose one subject and focus on it. If there are other design elements in the picture, keep them muted so that they don’t overpower the main subject. Of course when you become a master artist like Benozzo Gozzoli, you can design your pictures as complex as you want.
Step 2) Get the shapes correct.
The brain is hard-wired for edge detection. So, if you can make the basic forms of your design correct, other brains will understand what you’re trying to portray. Yet, if the shapes and outlines are wrong (and even if the colors and shades are correct) you will confuse your audience. Not everyone, however, can sketch freehand with absolute accuracy. If this is your issue, use another method to transfer the design. For instance, an Opaque Projector works well. So does the grid method (but this takes a long time). While you are temporarily using a projector or tracing paper or the grid method, work on improving your freehand sketching ability.
Actually, freehand sketching isn’t as difficult as it may seem. Some of the old masters used to teach their students how to sketch using il metodo grata (the graph or grid method). This was the same grid technique used when an artist wanted absolute accuracy. With this technique, the instructor posed a model behind a frame. The frame had vertical and horizontal strings (as in the illustrations). The instructor would also draw the same grid system on the students’ drawing surface. This broke up the large complex form into easily solved smaller parts. Because the goal was to teach the students how to draw freehand, the master would walk by every so often and cut one of the strings. After several months using this technique, the student discovered he could solve and reproduce the complex shapes using fewer reference lines. You can use this same technique today. For instance, you can Photoshop horizontal and vertical grid lines on a picture and print it out. Then, you would print out just the layer with the grid lines. Using this graph paper, you would draw the picture. Then try to draw the same picture with fewer reference lines or larger-sized grids. The trick is to work from the inside-out. That way, any tiny errors will be less noticeable. This technique might seem boring, but with persistence, you’ll become a great freehand sketch artist.
Step 3) Black & White, Then Color
Up to this point, the steps have not required much artistic ability. This step, however, requires you to paint the tonal values accurately. Of course anyone over the age of six can tell the difference between Black, White, and Grey. Yet, it takes greater visual acuity to discern and identify the different values of grey. In fact, the old masters were so concerned about tonal values that they would often execute the entire painting in values of a single color. Then they would superimpose local colors afterward. The Italians called this sotto dipinto or under-painting. The masters understood that it was easier to paint accurate values when you don’t have to worry about color. Some masters used browns for the under-painting and some used gray-green tones. Later, the French masters developed a technique called grisaille which used values of neutral gray. This is the technique I use. I airbrush designs using just opaque black and white to make a high-contrast chiaroscuro (which means light dark). Between my blackest black and my whitest white, I try to paint at least 10 shades of gray (for photorealistic paintings). The airbrush is a great asset when using this technique. For instance, when I’m painting a shadow that goes from Tone 0 (Black) to Tone 5 (50% Gray), the airbrush actually produces a limitless number of gray shades in between. When I’m finished, I superimpose transparent color over the chiaroscuro. This is the easy part. The transparent colors act as filters. They tint the under-painting to the proper object color. After this step, I have the shapes properly defined and I’ve represented the scene’s diffuse lighting. As a last mini-step, I’ll add some white specular highlights where it’s needed. Then, I’m finished.
This process might sound oversimplified–and it is. Yet, this represents my ‘big view’ strategy for painting a picture. The main point is that you need a strategy. Otherwise, you’ll flail along hoping a happy accident will help you produce something amazing. Happy accidents do happen, but not when you want them to. You are better off working according to a well-planned course of action.