Paintings: Harbinger

14 x 11"
Acrylic on canvas
Not For Sale
~ Prints are available here ~

A part of you just knows: something is coming.

The Making of "Harbinger"

Painting is an extraordinarily personal and private thing for me. One may rarely catch me giving a demonstration, but one will never catch me actually creating anything of worth in public. I detest being interrupted, and having strangers watch while I work is akin to having them peep while I undress. Showing a painting in progress is equally difficult because the magic is in the final piece, but as a creator, I also understand the need to see how something was done. And so, here we are!

It should be noted that all in-progress photos were taken by me, and I am a horrid, horrid photographer. A great deal of cropping out my bookshelves was necessary and, occasionally, correcting a crooked angle with a cropped edge. Finished paintings are always scanned at the highest available dpi.

For this painting, I used Liquitex brand Titanium White, Payne's Gray, Aqua Blue Violet, Pthalocyanine Blue, and the barest hint of Permanent Alizarine Crimson for the pink highlights in the splashes as well as in her face and hands. I've had the same plastic palette since I started painting at age 13 (same brush cup, too) and clean it by peeling off the latest skin of acrylics every six or so paintings. I am hell on brushes, so I favor less expensive ones with synthetic bristles; the brand honestly depends on what's available and how comfortable the handles are. 11 x 14” is my favorite canvas size, as it's large enough to have a nice impact but still small enough to ship safely, is a standard frame-size, and is easy to hold. I paint sitting, with my canvas propped against my lap, my knees up, feet on the storage ottoman that holds all of my paints. I've never liked using an easel and much prefer being at ease so I can focus on my art. A break every hour or so allows me to stretch, rest my hands, and come back to the work with fresh eyes. It’s no surprise that post-break is generally when I catch most of my mistakes!

"Harbinger” first received two coats of Titanium White. My hands live a hard enough life without constructing canvases, so I buy standard sizes (Winsor & Newton or Fredrix brand) that have already been primed. Background colors help to further even out the texture. I prefer medium duck canvases (duck refers to the tightness of the weave), as they have a pleasant texture that creates a natural finish, especially on skin. I use very thin layers of paint, so a rougher canvas gets in the way while too smooth of one results in a very plastic-looking piece.

Once the white base was dry, I lightly sketched in the placement of my figures with watered down Payne’s Gray. The workhorse of my acrylics, Payne's Gray is used for shadows, dressing the edges of my canvases (I prefer them unframed), night skies--basically, any darker color is a mix of another color and Payne’s Gray. One of the most valuable lessons from my fantastic college watercolor instructor was “Never use black.” In the real world, there is no flat black; even the darkest of colors has an undertone. The model’s “black” hair is in fact Payne’s Gray mixed alternately with P. Blue and Acra Blue Violet, with white mixed in to each shade for the highlights.

With “Harbinger,” I wanted to create a sister piece to “Thoughts, Fly Away” that had a less melancholy air. The red background for “Thoughts” was a mix of brushing on thinned red paint and splattering on thicker mixtures to create the desired bloody effect. To make “Harbinger” gentler in nature, I used my acrylics like watercolors. After protecting the space for my figure and the owl with paper towels torn to shape, I wet the canvas before splattering the lightest of the blue washes, increasing the intensity of the blue—and eventually purple and pink—with each round. The canvas remained flat until dry, with the paper towels held in place by their own weight. This part took two days of splattering a little, letting it dry, wetting and splattering again, and so on. Pthalocyanine Blue is incredibly intense and requires both care and certainty since it bleeds through lighter colors. Had I not blocked out the space for my figures, I never would have been able to paint over the stray blue!

I’ll often start two, sometimes three canvases at once so that I can alternate while the background of each one dries. Once one is far enough along, I will focus solely on it until completion. In this instance, “Harbinger” won the race and became my one and only piece; not until it was done did I return to the other canvas I started. I was enamored of this painting and wanted to see if the finished piece would match what I saw in my mind's eye.

After the splatter background was complete, I started on the figure. The model in this instance is once again the beautiful Silvia Alessandrini, who I found many, many paintings ago on DeviantArt. Plainly put, I love her face and figure. She’s not “magazine beautiful” but is absolutely striking, with deep blue eyes, strong features, and a build slender enough for muscle and bone structure to show through while also having womanly curves. She has a silent movie quality about her--everything is expressed in her gestures, her posture, her eyes. I never tire of painting her and am grateful that she never tires of being painted!

The skin was a mix of Payne’s Gray and varying amounts of white; Acra Blue Violet was mixed with less white and more Payne’s Gray for the deeper shadows. The owl was painted with the same process. I always begin with a medium tone so that I can work both light and dark as the figure takes shape. Highlights and shadows both increase in intensity as the progresses, which also makes any last-minute adjustments easier. Trying to paint over the darkest of your shadows because an arm isn’t far enough over is frustrating, to put it mildly! That happily didn’t happen with this piece, though you can see in the original sketch above that I realized I needed to move her over in order to better balance the owl.

My husband likes to joke that I paint an endless array of bald people. Since hair has to go over all other aspects of a painting, it is next to last by necessity. Very last are the eyes. I’m very much of the “Eyes are the windows to the soul” school of thought and wait until the rest of the painting is complete before filling them in. As my model’s eyes were closed, her lashes were her final touch, with the owl’s eyes completed last of all.

And thus was born “Harbinger.”

I painted "Harbinger" as a sister piece to "Thoughts, Fly Away." They hang together beautifully.

"Thoughts, Fly Away"
14 x 11"
Acrylic on canvas
Not For Sale
~ Prints are available here ~

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All artwork and graphics are property of the artist and are not to be reproduced without permission.

Artwork and text © Arden Ellen Nixon