Keeping it Together

This morning, a fellow miniaturist asked me a great question:

“…I’ve been avoiding the final aging of furniture I’ve made, walls, well, everything until I have most of it completed. My mindset is if I do it together, there will be a more cohesive feel…what are your thoughts? I have a tendency to procrastinate, because I’m a perfectionist. Am I being logical…or should I just go for it?”

She was, of course, speaking of her current project: a Victorian style dollhouse, which is one of the more complex projects one can tackle. I’m really glad she brought up this issue, especially now, as it’s one I’ve been tackling in my own work–and I have some thoughts! Before I get into mini-related specifics, though, I’d like to discuss the steps, or phases, used in portraiture. Each step is discrete, in that each is tied to unlocking a certain specific achievement; you know you’re done, or indeed not, when that achievement is–for lack of a better term–unlocked.

Being a perfectionist, myself, I like a process that’s logical and that provides me with benchmarks not tied to emotion. I reach a point in every project where I’m absolutely certain that redemption will only come from pitching it out the window. Instead of shouting “this sucks,” I can remind myself that, no, I’m only on the dead layer. So…what’s a dead layer?

Let’s learn some terms.

Verdaccio is a process of underpainting used by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel. Integral to fresco work, it’s also been used in various forms in oil painting for centuries. Verdaccio, as a term, doesn’t mean underpainting generally but refers instead to the palette used in the painting’s earliest steps: a mixture of black, white, and yellow (usually ochre) pigments. Grisaille, a related style of underpainting, uses simply black and white instead. The purpose of ALL underpainting, though, is to establish values. In essence, you’re creating your piece’s “skeleton.”

The first step, in portraiture, is the initial sketch (or imprimatur).

The equivalent, in terms of miniatures, would be assembling your kit–either fully, or into sub-structures. Whether sketching, sanding, or whatever, the goal of this step is simple: getting ready to paint. You know you’re ready to move on when you can clearly visualize what colors you’re going to use, and where.

Next, we’re ready for the base (or piambura). This is where we begin to establish basic tonal–or texture–values. You can see an example of what I’m talking about, here. Cuong Nguyen also offers some fantastic tutorials (downloadable for a small fee). Miniatures-wise, this is when we break out our gesso! Or, in the case of wood that’s meant to look like wood, whatever we’re using as a base stain.

Instead of establishing a light source, I’m establishing textures: gesso over those areas, which are intended to be brick and a texture medium over those areas, which are intended to be stone. This was also when I applied a staining medium to the shutters (the tutorial on how to create aged oak is here).

Completing a project, even a small one like this one, can feel a lot like juggling–and there are just only so many balls I can keep in the air. None of these pieces are glued into place, yet, of course; I prefer working on sub-assemblies, as being able to move them around freely gives me far more control. I know I’m done with this second step and ready for the third when I’m happy with the textures I’ve created. Which, in these early days, mainly means “I can no longer see, or feel, the end grain on that balsa.”

I don’t move on to step three, until EVERY SINGLE PIECE is ready for step three. I’ve put the shutters aside for the time being, as 95% of this project is “brick” and “stone.” I can come back to those later, as they’re their own self-contained thing. Personally, I find that I have the most success when I tackle the biggest projects first. What those are will depend, of course, on your individual project!

In portraiture, the next step is the so-called “dead layer,” or the point where we punch up our highlights and bring down our lowlights. In terms of our work, the equivalent is laying down our base coats:

I discuss the specifics of what colors I use in the “Venetian Canal Build Along” series, but basically the idea here is to further establish values. There’s no “wrong” color, or color palette, to use for anything but you’ll want to keep in mind that nature too has undertones. Brick, for example, tends to be quite orange–and oak, as we know, is secretly quite green.

The major advantage to tackling everything in this way is that I can ensure, as I work, that my pieces remain cohesive–especially in terms of tone. The base coat wash on the “stone,” for example, is done with Abteilung 502 oil paint in “dead flesh,” which has just the faintest hint of green. This is a) correct for both marble and granite and b) going to tie the stone in with the shutters (and the water!) in a very subtle, non-obvious way.

Step four is…color! Finally, finally color! I don’t mix on the palette; I mix on the canvas. In verdaccio, grisaille, etc, this is when we start using washes to build the colors we want, ultimately, from their components. So, for example, caucasian flesh is usually created from thin, and I mean THIN layers of red, blue, and yellow, each over the last, until a pleasantly peachy color is achieved. Layers mean luminous!

After painting the steps with successive washes, I’ve moved on in the above picture to the grout lines. Now, from this point on in the project, I’ll be tackling each piece semi independently in that I’ll be bringing them all, one at a time, up to the same point and that point is “old and disgusting, but still vegetation free.” Then, once everything looks equally grimy and terrible, I’ll–for the millionth time–dry fit everything together and do a final check before moving on.

My goal, here, is to make sure everything’s cohesive BEFORE I start bringing in nature.

An alternate method could be painting all the brick, then painting all the stone, but the point of art is actually having fun doing it so “right” is whatever you actually WANT to do. When I feel the most connected to my process, rather than product, that’s when I create my best work.

Another issue, for me at least, and going back to the juggling analogy here is keeping track of what I’m doing. A tremendously beneficial aspect of this “do things in steps” process is I only need certain materials out at certain times. Once I’m done with the “stone” phase, for example, and the “brick” phase, I can put those paints away. I don’t have to worry about where they are, or whether the cat has once again stolen my “grout” from my workbench. I also write my recipes down–for your benefit, as well as mine! I experiment a lot, with different materials, looking for the best way to recreate all kinds of things. Most of my ideas don’t work, because that’s the nature of ideas, but when they do you’d better believe I take volumes of notes.

How else am I going to remember, three days or maybe even three weeks later, what I used on those shutters? My recipes, which I’m slowly but surely sharing here, are absolutely vital to my creative process. It’s not that there’s, like, one right way to make oak but that I need a quick means of refreshing my memory as to which type of oak I’m actually recreating right now and which supplies, specifically, I need for that process.

The current step, for me, is a) finishing up with this, so far nature free sub-assembly and then bringing all the other sub-assemblies, again, up to this same point. I’m guessing I have about an hour’s more worth of work, here, mainly on reestablishing some of those grout lines. I really want them to pop.

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