here’s another project i put aside, thinking i’d never finish it. this seems to be a year of tying up loose ends, so i’m going to try to complete all the unfinished watercolors i have laying around the studio. wish me luck.
this one isn’t quite ten years old, as was marie’s fountain. the set-up shots for this one were developed in 2004, so that’s only six years. fine.
it’s a watercolor of one of the famous local diners in my part of atlanta. i’ve done the insides of various establishments over the years, starting out with a series of “the pubs of dublin” and marching forth from there. altho a diner is a pale kind of pub indeed, it’s a place where people have fond memories. the thumbs up is actually a famous diner, mainly for its chief waiter, kavinique, who is a simply wonderful person. people come from miles away just to tip her after their meals.
so about six years ago, when i was living around the corner at studioplex, i ate at the thumbs up whenever i had spare money (hah). and it was a cool place, and i always wanted to paint it. so i took a roll of film of the place one morning, got everybody right where i wanted them (because they happened to be there at the time), and started my painting.
and it was going great, for awhile. i’d been painting in oils for several years at this point, and had a nice loose style that i was able to transfer into watercolor. so i started the correct way, lights to darks. this worked so well in marie’s painting, but it’s so rare that i do things the correct way, so i immediately started putting in the darkest darks.
and here’s the problem you run into with watercolors. if your preliminary drawing isn’t right, you’re going to have a badly realized final painting. and in this case i whipped out the drawing and got right to work laying in local color and dark black lines.
at first i had a ball. starting on the kitchen side, everything i put in was good, and i remember sitting back admiring my work a bunch of times while painting this. the work proceeded smoothly, and i started gathering my confidence and courage for the final splash and dash. but first, i had to fill in the customers and the rest of the shop.
that’s when it started dragging. i kept having trouble with the customers. their proportions weren’t right. something was wrong.
at this point i started getting frightened. i ceased using darks, and tried to sneak up on things again. because there’s two ways to paint. you can get inspired and dash it all on there in a few masterful strokes. or you can pussyfoot around and build subtlety upon obscurity until you have the ghost of the shadow of the final result you want. at this point, as i said, i started building shadows. thus the non-face of the blond waiter in the middle. and the black customer’s head and face on the left. and kavanique counting change at the register.
it’s when i finished sneaking up on kavanique’s face that i walked away from the painting. i looked at it when i’d finished laying it in and thought, wow it’s her. and i was afraid to do any more. that’s all i did for years. never touched another watercolor (except for a bunch of estuary paintings, a quickie baby portrait while the tyke slept in her basket, a couple of still lives, a landscape or two).
and why did i walk away from such a promising painting, one which someone would most certainly buy? it was because while sneaking up on the details of the unfinished painting, i realized what the fatal flaw of my painting was, the thing i couldn’t correct by shadowing or scrubbing, the reason the customer part bogged down so thoroughly.
it’s because my perspective sucks.
you don’t have to look at it very carefully to decide that the plane of the kitchen side (the right side, where all the counter lines converge into a point above the horizon, off in the distance), is way different from the vanishing point of the dining room side, which actually points downward. once you notice this, the painting becomes impossible. you’d need stairs to make that kind of perspective happen. so i walked away.
these are the things you’re supposed to check and recheck and check again in the mirror to be sure you have exactly right before you put even the first pastel hue onto the paper. a good drawing is essential. and my mistake was that i mistook enthusiasm for mastery. because it felt wonderful to dash out the drawing of something so complex and have all the ends meet up. so i didn’t look at it for several days to see what it needed. nor did i turn it upside down and sideways and look at it reversed like i should have. not even that. i was in a hurry to paint.
i don’t usually like rules, but this is one i like to follow. do a good drawing. a good drawing is the basis of a good painting. sounds simplistic. most truth does. also most bullshit. so never mind.
once the decision was made (i can’t finish it like this), it was an easy thing to use the pole in the middle of the room as the dividing line. i took out a metal ruler and bent the paper over it at that line, creased it back and forth a few times, burnished it with the metal ruler, and then tore the paper carefully into two pieces discarding the left side. take that, gordian knot.
while i was at it, i squared up the painting, which took some doing, as when i start a painting i don’t give a damn if it’s square or not, and it never is. i trimmed all the white edges left by the masking tape when i painted on it the first time, and started in on the places i’d avoided painting in originally, only because i couldn’t tell what they were. i had the same problem with marie’s painting. anything i didn’t understand in the photo reference got left for later. and later is now.
so kavanique’s head isn’t big enough, so i pencilled that in. i realize at a glance now that what i thought was a bowed-out ceiling treatment is instead a bowed-in barrel ceiling, which changes the meaning of the shadows. the perspective lines of the shelves on the lower right, in the kitchen; well, they’re almost painfully off, but there’s nothing i can do about that except to scrub and start over, and i’m not going to do a lot of scrubbing on this painting simply because it’s already gone too far for that.
it’s going to take a lot of work to unify this painting. much of it is going to get a lot darker. most of the work is going to be painstaking and subtle from this point on, simply because most of the work has already been done. i’ve got a few little places to scrub, a couple of places to redraw, lots of glazes and tiny details.
i understand the reference photos a lot better after six years away from them, that much is clear. details i had no clue about, and drew in wrong because of it, i can instantly recognize and instantly see how the painting is going to have to be fudged to make it look correct. maybe nobody will notice, but it’s important to me at this moment.
i don’t know if i’m going to be able to replicate the style i was using at the time. it’s a good thing i did marie’s fountain first, because i could ramp up to the wild abandon place where i finished the painting in a few strokes. in this painting, since i’ve done everything else, there’s only the wild abandon place, the flinging of brushes full of paint. so there’s no ramping up. i have to jump into it.