Monarchs of the Great Plains: My Painting Process
by Christine Camilleri, Chilliwack, BC
I had a lot of fun with this painting and wanted to share my process.
The first thing I did when planning this painting was to really think about the subject of bison. How big they are, how solid, their bulk and their herd instinct. I thought of the great plains and how hot and dry it could be. All of these elements I wanted to convey in my painting.
I had my framer mount an 18 X 24 Uart pastel paper onto acid-free foamcore backing. This is a sanded paper and is very forgiving as you make errors. Just brush off the excess pastel, pick up the rest with water using a soft brush, blot up with paper towel, let dry and you're ready to go again. I also like this surface because rather than claiming it holds a lot of layers like others do and then not really holding any more beyond 3 Uart makes the claim and delivers! I like layers of pastel.
I sketched my bison in with pencil and then fixed the drawing with clear water using a soft brush. I then thought about my underpainting. You can choose to do different things with an underpainting: use monochrome values only, use complements only or a combination. For me the purpose of the underpainting is to get rid of that stark blank paper staring back at me. A toned paper is much easier to work with. My underpainting gets me planning and thinking about the painting. It's going to provide my roadmap. I want the pastels to respond to the underpainting so I have to decide the best way for them to do that. Sometimes the underpainting shows through in spots and sometimes it doesn't and that adds to the painting.
Since I knew the animals were going to be predominantly warm colours I chose to do an underpainting using primarily cool colours and complements. Wherever a red colour was planned, for example, I chose green. For shadows I chose a cool blue. For some areas I added Indian Yellow and Burnt Sienna. Initially I thought the grass was going to be green so I painted that area red. A blue prairie sky was going to counteract all those warm tones on the bison so I painted the sky area a warm ochre. You can see the fun I had with the watercolours and I didn't worry about bleeds or run backs. I did concentrate on keeping the colours pure. I also find you need to load the brush with more paint than water otherwise it will dry so light you'll wonder if you painted at all.
||The paper is thoroughly dry now. I begin to block in the shapes of the bison with broad strokes of pastel. You can see my initial idea of red pastel on top of green has changed to putting a Cerulean coloured blue pastel on top of the green underpainting on the lead bison and then adding red on top of that. The whole thing just needed more cooling down (with the blue on top of the green) because this was going to be a warm painting. Shadows are being defined with darker blues, purples and browns - all of the same value. For the lead bison's hump, the red on top of the green is working well.
||The bison's head on the left was just not working as initially drawn and at this stage he was finished with pastels. Taking a deep breath I brushed out his face, wet the surface, blotted it dry and started over. Now his head is looking slightly towards us giving some variety and intimacy to the scene. He also looks very different from the lead bison. I find animals are all different from each other and try to convey that in my paintings. The blocking has now given way to layering to enhance form, to show muscles and shadows. Except for the bison's head on the left I have restrained myself at this stage from getting too detailed with the fur, the face or the highlights. These all come at the end of the painting process.
The final painting. Fur and facial features have been detailed with more strokes, highlights have been added, the foreground has been resolved to something different than I initially planned and the sky is in. I added sagebrush to cool down the yellow orange I had decided on for the grass. I deliberately chose to keep the sky area rough as it complemented the bisons' rough shaggy coats and I didn't put much detail into it so it would not detract from the detail of the bison. The underpainting is showing through on the ground and in the sky.
This painting went on to being accepted at the Richeson 75 Wildlife Art Competition in Wisconsin in 2010 and was then sold at a Pastels By Invitation show in Rhode Island.