Ask the Expert…Garin Baker


How should I approach a large scale, complex multi-figured painting?

“Painting From The Inside Out”

A step by step would be much more familiar to all who put paint to a brush and stokes on canvas, and yes I do that as well, but for some time the process has been an internal one. At times, I find it a bit more difficult to explain as an easy step by step.

So here goes.

The simple human narrative of everyday life, raising the ordinary to a place of reverence is something in my nature that seems to attract me most. So when I come across a scene with dramatic light, all the elements that echo and add to this human narrative, I’m all in!

Night Shifts, 46x70, oil on linen
Night Shifts, 46×70, oil on linen

Most recently with my painting “Night Shifts” was exhibited at the “American Masters” show in NYC.  This annual curated exhibition features some of the best in representational art from all across the United States. It’s a shinning example of the growth and resilience of traditional painting that is gaining ground and making inroads among collectors and museums in the much larger contemporary art scene.

Night Shift, detail
Night Shifts, detail
Night Shift, detail 2
Night Shifts, detail 2

My creative process is all about “by whatever means necessary” and although my early training was focused primarily on working from life, I’m not a snob about the camera. When it comes to catching fleeting moments and body language, almost impossible to pose, the camera is an invaluable tool.

Night Shifts, Initial Drawing
Night Shifts, Initial Drawing

I will say that training, constant practice at drawing and painting from life is what creates a better understanding of real color, solid form and atmosphere beyond a somewhat sterile photorealistic approach. For me, there is no doubt for my entire career as a professional artist, I’m committed to working from life no matter what painting I’m working on. It’s an underlying and substantive cornerstone of my process upon which I rest every brush stroke.


Many artists today who use the camera as their primary source of reference material and execution are truly amazing and adapt copiers. Not to belabor this point, but there is also a tendency when working primarily from photos to push that all-important, “signature style”.  Many artists are trying to find that “look” which sets them apart in the market place. This for me is antithetical to what creating art is all about and I firmly believe it compromises the creative soul over time. Since once it’s found and commercial success ensues, it’s quite difficult to change. Those with the courage and personal integrity to experiment with new approaches and discard familiar techniques will ultimately gain more personal expression in their work and deeper growth as artists. I believe style should come from within, and should not be settled upon or purposefully repeated for its own sake.

Crosswalk Times Square, rough sketch
Crosswalk Times Square, rough sketch

My large-scale studio works are a combination of countless on the spot, charcoal compositional drawings, figure studies, color notation and literally hundreds of photos.

Crosswalk TImes Square
Crosswalk Times Square

It’s through early charcoal drawings that I make multiple determinations as to the compelling nature of the work. Discard, alter my point of view or abandon and start over completely, is my methodology. It’s at this stage, I plan a strategy on which elements are needed and only by seeing the forest from the trees can I plan which are dominant and which are subordinate. All the pieces of the puzzle are evaluated as my process of subtraction occurs. The larger composition is what ultimately matters and in fewer than most cases many of my charcoal studies never spawn a larger work. I make as many trips as necessary back to the location noting the same time of day or night as well as the activity of the figures and their roles in the composition. In several cases, I’ve been interrogated as to what I’m doing there and in most cases I ask permission ahead of any negative confrontations. I’ve also used my iPad movie app to record figures in motion allowing me, back at my studio, to find just the right pose or body language that I could have never hoped to capture, if posed.

3rd Avenue Rain
3rd Avenue Rain

The details are chewing gum for the eyes as one approaches and looks closer at the painting. It’s equally important that all these elements be done well and in their rightful place for the work to be satisfying on multiple levels.

Salting the Herring, detail
Salting the Herring, detail

There is a delicate balance between details and overall atmosphere since the eye must travel harmoniously throughout without breaks or notes of music out-of-place. If elements are poorly drawn, out of proportion, value, color and level of importance unrealized, everything will be affected and distract from the initial vision and compelling nature of the work.

The painting is begun in most cases on primed linen that I tone with neutral grays, but not with one color or another. I lay down with washes using paint thinner from top to bottom allowing gravity, wet into wet to blend the colors together. Cool against warm using the primary colors of reds, greens and blues from my palate until the entire surface reflects a neutral undertone of the overall composition I’m painting. Also trying to anticipate opposites and complimentary undertones in any particular area that will best suit what will inevitably be on top. When dry to the touch, I begin transferring by sight size my overall composition with large brushes in slightly darker tones by blocking in the largest shapes and overall darks and pulling out the lights by wiping away tones previously applied. Here I’m looking for strong abstractions that read from a distance and are relatable and capture that initial impact of the scene. I try not to render any details in the beginning stages and use just the right strokes to make the statement. Less is more! If I find myself too tight or rendering to soon, I step back and squint. Things need to be in their rightful place, value and tonal relationship is the most important thing for me. If not, I scrape down mercilessly, repainting the area, or if need be the entire work.

Modern Life, cropped
Modern Life, cropped

Individual figures and groupings are painted in an alla prima method and are usually blocked in within one day. Then only to be refined or wiped out if not working as part of the whole upon a fresh examining eye the next morning.

From a distance, works of mine appear quite tight but it’s only an illusion since the accuracy of value, color and placement is what I’m after. My large studio paintings are quite loosely painted when seen by the naked eye. I hope and trust the viewer to fill in the blanks and as a result enjoy the compelling nature, truth and realism I’m after.

Salting the Herring, detail
Salting the Herring, detail
Salting the Herring
Salting the Herring

This process of building a painting from the inside out for me is the best way I know and have over the years reinvented it countless times. Each new work requires its own set of problem solving skills based on the circumstances of the site and subject matter that presents itself. Hopefully each new work is a unique conversation all its own. As I get older, my patience to repeat the same dialog again and again for commercial purposes is at times a blessing and a curse. One thing for sure is life always throws you that unexpected curve and for me the only way to be prepared is to embrace it all and hopefully learn something along the way.

GB on LiftTo see more of Garin’s work, please visit his website.

Garin uses his renovated art studios in the Hudson Valley of NY to create art  educational opportunities in advanced and continuing studies. Please take a few minutes to watch his Hatchfund Project campaign, “A Space To Create” 



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