Kim and I want to thank Eric Bowman for joining us as the first Ask the Expert to share his wonderful insights. Eric is an award winning artist and his work can be found in collections around the world. He is a signature member of the American Impressionist Society, Laguna Plein Air Painters Association as well as an out-of-state member of the California Art Club and is represented by some of the country’s most prestigious galleries.
How do experienced artists plan a painting with multiple figures?
“First of all, multi-figure paintings need a hierarchy of position and importance, so there is a lot of forethought that goes toward that purpose (mostly in your mind’s eye) then scribbled out as thumbnails until an acceptable composition is reached. Then it is a matter of finding or hiring suitable models for reference; ideally working from live poses is best, but photos can suffice if you understand anatomy enough to avoid the pitfalls of camera distortion.
In a multi-figure composition, working from several reference photos and/or sketches, can be a tricky endeavor assembling all that information in a balanced format. The best and most forgiving way is to get all of your reference to the same scale, and then use transparent tracing paper to outline each figure/form. Once you have a simple contour line of each figure on transparent paper, you can then easily overlap them in various arrangements until you find a combination that suits you.
At this point you can now refer back to your original sketches or photographs and refine or simplify them according to how they relate to one another in the composition. For example, a prominent figure in the composition may require some close-up study of further detail before undertaking the finished painting as opposed to a secondary figure. Often, less important background figures are covered by parts of foreground figures (or other elements in the composition) and require much less information; distant figures may be entirely in shadow or silhouette, or no more than duo-toned and may be merely suggested in the simplest way. If an artist has good anatomical understanding, these figures may be completely made up from imagination without needing to shoot or draw from models. Old photographs can also assist in these smaller background poses (as long as there is no copyright infringement being made).
On the topic of photographic reference, it is wise to use your own photographs (those you composed and shot yourself) first to be free of plagiarism and second to be true to your original idea. Old photographs from another source can sometimes suffice for background fillers, but be careful to change them enough to keep them original. Also, whenever you draw or paint a study from a live model, shoot a couple of back up photos while you’re at it; you may find you need the extra details that were not captured in the live session…
Some artists like to take nothing to chance before they begin painting and will go through many stages of rough sketches, colour comprehensive studies, etc. to eliminate as many unknowns as possible. Other painters will dive in with a clear idea but less preliminary work so as to leave plenty of room for unscripted spontaneity. The latter approach may yield more problem solving during the painting process, but will often produce a more lively product in the end.
Once you have your composition thoroughly worked out in pencil, it’s time to transfer it to the canvas. There are several ways of achieving this; use an opaque projector to enlarge and trace the image; grid off both the sketch and canvas and draw it freehand using the grid lines as scale guides; or have the drawing photographically enlarged and pounce the back of it with graphite or charcoal and then pressure trace it onto the canvas. A light dusting of spray fixative is suggested to secure the line work at this point.
Now is the time to decide how you want to begin the painting process; again, there are many approaches and each painter has his or her own method. Some will begin with an overall stain and then a monochrome block-in of the prominent forms. If you skipped the color-comp sketch stage, this is very helpful in deciding how you’re going to orchestrate both your contrast and your color palette. Again, keep a hierarchy to your figures in the composition and approach them accordingly to level of finish detail, lighting, focal perspective, etc. A multi-figure composition requires a storytelling directorial approach, and each player must be well thought-out and positioned according to their importance — this will help the viewer along and keep the integrity of your multi-figure painting. If your reference varies from loose sketch to tight sketch (or photo-to-photo with different lighting conditions) it helps to work over ALL of the canvas simultaneously to retain color harmony and consistency; finishing your painting one section at a time from inconsistent references can result in a disconnected composition, separated by the individual references rather than retaining the continuity and flow of your original idea…
One to two dominant figures interacting works best for a multi-figure composition — any number of secondary and distant background figures may fill out the scene depending upon how complex or suggestive you want to be. Personally, I hate painting a cast of thousands, and would rather put the time into ‘conveying’ a multi-figure scene with as few actual figures as possible. This takes plenty of logistical forethought and placement, but can actually have a greater impact than a literal rendering of dozens of forms. In the two-dimensional world of painting, action speaks louder than words, so emphasis of movement goes far in drawing attention to the lead character(s) in the scene; whomever is playing the lead role should have the most (or the least) action compared to the rest of the cast.
Last thought; You can never have too much reference to work from (as long as it is not conflicting) so spend as much time compiling sketches and photos, props, etc. as possible to equip yourself with all the information you’ll need; less time spent hunting down last-minute information (or worse yet, making it up) results in more time spent in confident painting. Approach your canvas fully prepared and you’re much more likely to produce a successful multi-figure painting.”
To see more of Eric’s work, please visit his website.