Creating an imagined scene from a life drawing

Although drawing and painting are generally treated as separate activities and distinct skillsets, I personally think they are simply variations of the same thing. You can bring in some paints and brushes to a life drawing class, if the venue has a sink, and do life drawing as usual using paint. A more important distinction is drawing/painting from life versus drawing/painting from your imagination. In this article, we wanted to look at a crossover between the two – turning a life drawing into a painting of an imagined scene.

You can go as wild as you like when creating imaginary surroundings for the figure, but the challenge is to create harmony with the life drawing you are using. At the same time, you have to consciously free the figure(s) in the drawing from ‘life drawing-ness’, a quality that many life drawings take on because they are rooted in reality and the artist tends to focus on ‘correctness’.

It’s not an easy task; I’m still working hard to master it. So this article is about the approach I’m using, but it is by no means a recipe for success. By showing you the stages of my process, we want encourage you to find out your own approach.

The original life drawing by Mayko
The original life drawing by Mayko

This was done during a 30 minute life drawing session. The pose continued, with the same model, for another 2 sessions on different days. However, the position of the head and hand changed slightly each day, so I decided to stick to this initial drawing for my painting.

I felt a calm beauty in the pose, so wanted to make a painting reflecting this feeling. I imagined, while looking the drawing, a cat sleeping beside her, which would create a balancing point with the figure in the composition. I have been doing a lot of quite wild and abstract surroundings for figures in my paintings, so for this one I decided to try something new and created something more subtle.

I had a cheap cotton canvas (50x60cm) on which I added an extra layer of acrylic primer to fill the weaved texture of the canvas, because I like to work on a smooth surface. This is not necessary if you like a textured surface.

At this point, I was working at home with only the drawing to refer to. I cut a sheet of cartridge paper to the same size and began to compose, copying the initial drawing by eye, repeating correction and elimination. You can make a thumbnail before this stage to decide on the overall composition. However, I personally find what works in thumbnail doesn’t always work in a bigger format, so I jumped straight into a drawing of the same size as the canvas. I spent a good deal of time at this stage, so that I wouldn’t have to make many corrections on the canvas. The setting (bed, background and a cat) was mostly imaginary at this stage.

Planning drawing in preparation to transfer to the canvas
Planning drawing in preparation to transfer to the canvas

When I felt the composition was ready, I traced the drawing with tracing paper using a pencil and transferred the drawing to the canvas. The transfer process was as follows:

  • First I traced the drawing carefully
  • I turned the paper over and strongly shaded over the traced lines with a 2-3B pencil on the other side of the tracing paper.
  • Then I gently smudged these pencil marks with tissue to make sure that all the traced lines were fully covered with graphite on the back side of tracing paper. The idea is to have graphite on the reverse side of the paper which will be transferred to the canvas.
  • I placed the tracing paper carefully on the canvas and fixed the upper corners with tape. I went over the lines on the tracing paper firmly. When you begin this stage, it’s best to make sure the tracing is working. If no marks appears on canvas, or they are too weak, you need more shading on the tracing paper or stronger pressure on your pencil.
  • After transferring the image, I reinforced the marks on the canvas with light blue pencil.

After transferring the image, I realised that the dress hanging in the background wasn’t working, so I eliminated it and went with a simple curtain instead. Then I went over the drawing with a wash of Japanese ink (Indian ink) and white egg tempera. You can use thin white acrylic instead.

Transfer to the canvas
Transfer to the canvas

I started painting with thin oil colours. I felt the picture needed some more vibrance, so I asked my dear old Thomas (a tuxedo cat) to model for me.

I used only a few colours – raw sienna, yellow ochre, sanguine (earth red), cobalt blue, white and black. I felt the bed needed more convincing rendering to support the figure and the cat, so I took a photo of my duvet to use as a reference.

Beginning the painting
Beginning the painting

I added more touches on the background and bed, using my photo references whenever necessary, without making drastic changes from the initial plan.

I felt the picture on the whole needed more contrast.

Adjusting the painting
Adjusting the painting

I added a thin layer of yellow lake on the curtain to add contrast to the blueness in the painting.

The final painting
The final painting

I hope you found this useful. Have you ever tried using a life drawing as the basis of an imagined scene? What was your process? Let us know in the comments below.

Mayko

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