I wasn’t feeling in the holiday spirit this year, and as usual it took a painting—a gift for visitors of my new website—to get me into the mood of the season.
“Yupo paper” is an interesting surface. Don Maitz first recommended it to me, and I was pleased with how the sheet he lent me handled acrylics. When I found a 12″ x 12″ piece of the Yupo paper I’d ordered, I decided to try it for this year’s holiday image.
I put on seasonal music and got to work mixing raw umber acrylic and clear gesso (to give the underpainting some tooth). I splashed around paint and came up with a composition that I confess was partly influenced by a photo I once saw of a fashion model with striking wild hair.
While I was painting, the thought occurred to have the hair frizz out and gradually turn into ice crystals on the edges. As the composition developed, however, I moved away from the idea. The ends of her hair might make her look too Medusa-esque and evil.
I was looking to express feelings of contemplation, oneness with Nature; the phases of the moon, the weather, and the seasons.
Later I brought it into the house to show and get feedback—to see if anyone thought it was worth developing further. My mother-in-law suggested incorporating bells as earrings. I liked the idea. We also talked about birds, and during the conversation I sketched in the owl and cardinals.
Back in my studio, I quickly blocked in the cardinals to get their colors into the picture so other elements would harmonize with them as much as possible. I decided to paint in a deer and then took a piece of mat board with a little paint on it and roughed in more textural notes under the figure’s arms. I also worked at refining the shapes on the owl.
At this point I was ready to start getting into the color. First I painted in a tone over the sky with my airbrush. Unsure where to go next, I brushed in hasty color notes at random places in the picture to get a feel for where I wanted to go with it.
When I had enough to guide me, I launched into the real painting, layering semi-transparent washes over semi-opaque defining strokes, going back and forth as I refined shapes and edges. I softened the edges on the hair on the left so it wouldn’t be so distracting and adjusted colors and shapes.
There were missteps, of course: I overdid the sweeping cirrus-like cloud shapes and kept changing my mind about the edges and shapes of her hair, but gradually I found my way.
At this point I thought it was finished, but when I applied a layer of medium over the image there was an unappealing chalkiness to the sky colors. Other flaws in the painting showed up as well—not apparent to me until the painting had an even sheen to it.
This often happens with acrylics; some pigments are more matte than others and their values can change appreciably when the surface gets an even gloss over the entire image. It can be very frustrating! Resigned to the task of correcting the problems, I went back into the painting and glazed color on the areas that went flat, and corrected little errors I found along the way.
This is how it came out at the end. I like the fact that some of the underpainting still shows through the finished piece. I wish I’d left the sky on the left a little looser as well so the brushstrokes on the under layer showed through more. But overall I’m pleased with the result. I hope you are too.
About the author
Michael Whelan (Michael Whelan)
Since 1980, Michael Whelan has been one of the world’s premier fantasy and science fiction artists. He is currently working full time on his fine art paintings, but in the past three decades he has created more than 350 book and album covers for authors and artists like Isaac Asimov, Anne McCaffrey, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Stephen King, the Jacksons, Sepultura, and MeatLoaf. Read more on Michael's Biography page.