Monday, February 29, 2016

Painting a Portrait of a Group of Singers

On Saturday I was up in the mountains painting a portrait of a group of singers. They met in an old wooden church hall in the town of Phoenicia for an all-day singing event.

They came from six states with one thing in common, a love of Sacred Harp, an old-fashioned musical tradition which traces back to the American colonies and even earlier.

Men, women, and children sat facing each other in a square, singing at top volume in four-part harmony. The singers took turns suggesting tunes and leading. There was no preaching, no audience, and no instruments. But there was coffee and plenty of home-cooked food.

While my wife sang and helped set out the lunch, I sat off to the side and painted. (Link to YouTube). The singers hardly noticed me working.

However, it was a daunting challenge. Not only were they were moving a lot, but they were also changing seats every few songs. I didn't expect this, so I had to adjust my approach. 

Here are the strategies that helped me deal with the challenge:
1. Limiting the color to a warm grisaille. That simplified the variables and suited the starkness of the music.
2. Going immediately to finish on the central head (thanks, Gideon!) and painting outward from him.
3. Using an opaque medium like casein so that I could paint over and restart a section.
4. Drawing with the brush. The figure on the right and all the books were completely drawn with a round brush late in the session, which lasted about four hours.

Info about the music:
The song is #361"Loving Jesus" from The Sacred Harp book.
YouTube trailer for Awake My Soul documentary, available as a DVD
Catskill Sacred Harp Community website.
FaSoLa, the national Sacred Harp organization
Listing of upcoming All-Day Singings on the Eastern U.S.

Info about the art supplies:
Paints: Jack Richeson / Shiva casein colors 
Richeson's informative FAQ about casein.
Pentalic watercolor journal
Subscribe to the James Gurney YouTube channel to see videos before anyone else


HNK said...

Thank you for this wonderful post, James, and for these tips. Did you paint a head of a man on the center transparetly first?

Tobias Gembalski said...

Wonderful! I guess I would have been too scared (of failing) to try a motive like this. Well done!

Braelyn Snow said...

This sounds like a fun day!

James Gurney said...

HNK/Nicolas, yes, I think he was painted mainly with transparent colors.

Tobias, I had my doubts about my painting—it felt like a fail most of the way through, but I just stayed with it. The singers were incredibly welcoming.

Braelyn, yes, and the food was out of this world.

Tom Hart said...

James, your comment to Tobias is really helpful for all of us to hear, regardless of our level of experience. Thanks for that. You aren't afraid to share your stories of "fails", but it never hurts to be reminded of that. It's easy to lose sight of real life struggles when watching any sort of expert perform. That's one of the hidden "dangers" of instructional videos. Anyway, thanks again for the reminder that art is frequently a matter of keeping at it and not getting too precious about any one piece.

Unknown said...

Awsome work! i have question which sounds maybe a bit strange :) . a lot of master artists always say one Thing : "tell a Story with your artwork"! Thinking about this it often helped me in the past to do some surreal sketches where i used some photo refrences and Imagination.
when you are doing your Little Gouache sketches (or Casein) do you have this in mind? Or is it more "just" the technical Thing that you practise making super good Pictures with abstract shapes ( i think thats what we are all looking for)?
I hope you got the Point of my question , since my english is not the best :).
Gouche in the wild is probably my favourite Video at the Moment. but i caint wait for new Videos in the near future.

Gerald said...

Bravo! I would love to see a demo on how you handle the portrait in WC and gouache. Your thought process in terms of the transparent layers you're applying. Thanks for another awesome video James.

I found the best Leviton Switches

David Teter said...

Another great painting James. Reminds me a lot of the one you did in Monterey with figures lined up in a similar fashion. The challenge keeping it interesting and finding the differences in each to avoid dull repetition.

James Gurney said...

David, I hadn't thought of the Monterey painting--just was trying to go monochromatic, but you're right. Usually one of my first questions when I start a picture like this is "what can I delete or simplify?" and the multi colors and the busy background were the first things to go.

Gerald, I was using casein here, and mostly opaquely. I was really trying to push the lights lighter and the darks darker, but ended up with a fair amount of middle tones.

Patrick, your question was interesting. I wasn't thinking of story exactly, because that is inherent in the subject: people holding books and singing together. However I was thinking about getting a variety of characters and poses. And as I listened to the words of the songs, I was thinking about the shortness of life and the mystery of what lies beyond death. I don't know if any of that transfers to the painting, but I was thinking about it.

Tom, I'm glad you said that. I always need a reminder to include the moments of doubt and confusion as I talk about the process. It's tempting to gloss over that and pretend I know what I'm doing, which most of the time I don't.

Pilgrim said...

This is great. I had heard Frederica Mathewes-Green interview one of these singers a few years ago. So glad people are keeping this acapella tradition alive. Wonder about the hand motions they make.... said...

Thank you, James, for sharing your vision, your talent with us!

Rich said...

Also like the way you arranged those songbooks/textbooks: To me they look like wings; "It don't mean a Thing, if it ain't got that Swing"...:o)