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Acrylic Painting Tutorial: How to Paint a Composite Image

You’ve seen modern artists use tools like Photoshop to composite images. The tools may have changed, and at the same time creating compositing isn’t an entirely new thing. For centuries, artists including DaVinci, Michelangelo, Escher, Norman Rockwell, and Leyendecker have taken objects and changed the setting, lighting, backgrounds and composition. In more recent years, comic book artists are known to create huge narratives every month filled with detailed objects and scenes. For books on how comic artists create their visuals, along with information on anatomy and drawing basics, I’d suggest How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way and Drawing Dynamic Comics. I refer to these for a lot of my painting designs and poses.

Mona Lisa probably wasn’t sitting out in nature the way DaVinci depicted her. In painting the Sistine Chapel, standing on a scaffold with the speed limitations of fresco painting’s drying plaster, Michelangelo wouldn’t have the time to observe angels in the heavens even if such a thing did exist. Escher’s impossible perspectives were inspired by the architecture and landscapes of Italy, although he was unable to live there during most of his life. Rockwell relied on live models and created his scenes as close as possible in real life, though like most illustrators, there was a lot of liberties taken right on the page. All of these artists relied heavily on their own sketches and studies.

Leyendecker detailed his process which is similar to many artists especially before the advent of photography: “First make a number of pencil or charcoal studies. Select the most promising and on a sketch canvas do these in full color, oil or water with plenty of detail. Keep an open mind and be alert to capture any movement or pose that may improve your original idea.” Personally, as you will see below, I may tend to skip this level of detail and just work things out on my final painting just because of my own lack of patience.

“You may now dismiss your model, but be sure you have all the material needed with separate studies of parts to choose from, for you are now on your own and must work entirely from your studies,” Leyendecker continues. “This canvas will somewhat resemble a picture puzzle, and it is up to you to assemble it and fit it into your design at the same time simplify wherever possible by eliminating all unessentials. All this is done on tracing paper and retraced on the final canvas.” Sometimes I will use the grid method or most often freehand rather than use tracing paper.

Tutorial

For the painting in this demo, I used a mirror with my own reflection, several reference photos some of which I had taken myself (of myself), and some real life objects for the still life elements. This was done on bristol paper which was coated with gesso. First I start with a very rough underpainting to lay out the elements of the composition. I wish I had photographed the initial strokes in a thin wash of purple acrylic.

Step 1:

First, I covered the entire surface with a thin wash of color. A more neutral surface is created and covering the white surface at a later time while trying to avoid your strokes can feel tedious. You can use pencil and sometimes I do, though it takes more work to cover it up later. Dilute your paint with water and you can draw with enough detail. You can also wipe off the paint with water before it’s fully dry if you need to.

Step 2:

Continuing with detail and mapping out values. This is pretty much just drawing and sketching. If you were following Leyendecker’s method, you may have already mapped this out in a study or sketch. I didn’t do this and worked out the details here. For this underpainting (or grisaille), I decided on dioxazine purple and titanium white. Purple under paintings are popular in watercolor to create depth when painted over. The color you choose for the underpainting will likely interact with your finished colors.

Step 3:

I chose this purple because it’s a color I often mix into my shadows as it’s can be very dark and near black. The idea being that it’s such a dominant color in my scheme that it makes sense to start there. Other popular options for value studies include mixing titanium white (or white gesso) with burnt umber, raw sienna, or mars black. You can also choose two complimentary colors to work with against white. Yellow and purple for instance. This seems a bit complicated for me when I’m just trying to draw.  Experiment in your sketchbook or on scrap to see how these create different effects. Browns are my other favorite method.

Step 4: 

The more finished the underpainting, the less thought you’ll have to do when it’s time for color. It’s never too late to make huge corrections or changes, however. It’s just paint and can be painted over. After I’m satisfied with the basics of the composition, I look closer at anatomy and work out some of the more important details. Fashion photos helped me pick out the shirt. Google Images and Pinterest are ideal for this stuff. If you have it in life, that’s ideal.

 

Step 5:

 

Most importantly at this point are the values of light and dark. I like to place light areas “behind” my dark areas. Dark areas are also “behind” my light areas. This can be subtle or obvious. The contrast in value between two areas is what creates the illusion of a line without literally creating an outline stroke.

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Step 6:

In starting with color, I decided on a yellow shirt since it’s the compliment of purple. Using the compliment of a color in it’s shadows makes for more interesting shadows and creates more contrast than a pure neutral. For the skin tones, I did a simple wash of greens first as skin tones are heavily loaded with reds. (Point being that green and red are compliments.) For the brown hair, I decided to use blue with highlights of orange to create a varied brown. The theme of the foreground colors is warm tones. When applying color, thin washes are often useful so you can still use your underpainting as a guide. This isn’t always possible and that’s when having a photo of your underpainting or a nearly complete sketch is helpful. Thin washes also help to hide brushstrokes and create smoother DaVinci-like “sfumato” style painting. A wash of paint along the hard edges will create soft edges.

 

Step 7:

The blue translucent plate is just a matter of painting two images on top of each other, the wood of the table and the definition of the plate. With the right balance, you’ll have what appears to be a blue plate.

Step 8: 

Since the foreground is heavily doused in warm tones, it only follows that the background is cool. Cool tones recede into the background naturally, which is an effect called atmospheric perspective. Note that I made a number of corrections as I worked and didn’t rely solely on the underpainting. Taking photos at various stages and comparing tones to the final colors also helped as I work out the colors at appropriate values and contrast. Each local color is worked with it’s compliment. Colors also reflect nearby objects so they feel like they are in the same space. Note the yellow of the table near the yellow shirt.

Finally the finished painting. Is this what you imagined it would look like based on the underpainting?

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Brian E. Young

I'm a graphic designer (portfolio), classical pianist and artist in Baltimore, MD. I host the Uncanny Creativity Podcast helping to demystify the creative process and creator of Funlooksfun.com, an online shop for apparel and games. Twitter: @sketchee

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