On where to start
December 6, 2013
Michelangelo started his Last Judgment in the upper left hand corner and, over a period of four years, worked his way down through about 250 nudes. Every figure was started with a "comp"--a paper drawing pounced (with a pounce wheel) and redrawn into place. In many cases the faces were painted first and lesser elements were passed on to assistants.
Surprisingly, many painters today labour from the top down--even landscapes--as if drawing a blind down the canvas. By contrast, Cezanne, more typical of the Impressionists and others, painted "all at once," a system readily observed in Cezanne's unfinished works. Other commendable artists, including many modern day ones like the American painter Richard Schmid, tend to start with a center of interest and work outwards, stroke by stroke, wiping off baddies as they go.
There's no right way. But it's possible to identify definitive methodologies. Here are a few:
Start with the most difficult area. Your freshness and early patience will help you to get it to your satisfaction and build the confidence to continue. As you move away from the difficult area, which is often the center of interest, natural defocus enhances the focal reality and the freshness of the whole. There's nothing wrong with finishing up loose.
Start with the foreground. Compositions fail when the foreground is treated as an afterthought. The foreground is the master of eye control. Elements as they proceed toward the back of the painting can be more arbitrary. Furthermore, the subject is often framed by the foreground. When on location, it's always a good idea to look around at the various foregrounds available. Your chosen foreground is the prompt which invites proceeding with the job.
Start with the end in mind. This may sound rigid but it means getting the whole pattern up early and then getting lost in a perceptibly timeless encounter. This is what Cezanne was perhaps after, and definitely got--the materialization of a unique item that stands on its own as something other than a "scene." With materialization in play you have magic in your fingers and you become the wizard.
PS: "Nothing, of course, begins at the time you think it did." (Lillian Hellman)
Esoterica: Pope Paul III brought an associate up the scaffold to pass an opinion on Michelangelo's half-finished Last Judgment. Biagio da Cesena said there were "too many nudes for such an honored place--more suitable in a bathhouse or wine shop." Mike continued with the work as he saw fit--he had a written papal guarantee he could do what he wanted. For two hundred years artists were engaged to put breeches on some of the figures.
(This letter is adapted from one previously published on October 24, 2000)