The man with two faces – working imaginatively

I was half-sleeping, watching the colours moving behind my eyes, eyes completely covered, when an idea formed from one of the shapes. It looked like a head but there was a face on either side, in profile (see last post).

Now I will tell you how I painted it in ink and watercolour, along with some of the visual decision making I made as I went along.

First, I choose my paper. I use almost exclusively Arches 300 lb rough, cotton  rag (acid free) paper, but when I’m doing these smaller paintings, I often use Arches 140 blocks in various sizes because I can just go to work. I don’t need to stretch the paper onto a board.

Since I had already started a few others on the 7 x 10 inch blocks, I continued on with this size. If one does a series of paintings, which I seem bent on doing, it’s helpful in many ways to make the images the same format.  When framing, they can usually be adapted to a standard size frame by matting them accordingly; and if you need the frames for a different exhibition of work, then you can unmount them and put new work in. This is economical and they hang together and present well in a group setting.

I lightly dampen the paper with a damp sponge and then put a light coloured-wash over the entire paper. Quite often, for these whimsical images, I clean my palette of stray bits of paint. For instance, if there is only a little bit of Gamboge (a yellow pigment) or Ochre, I’ll pick these up on the brush, blend them together and use them up in a thin wash over the whole paper. This serves to remove the surface glue from the paper which is necessary if one wants to obtain an even wash.

This is one of the chief reasons I choose Arches paper. It handles well, doesn’t buckle unevenly, and gives gloriously even washes. There are other papers that do this, but beware the student quality papers – they are notorious for not handling well, having uneven glue distribution which results in areas where the pigment absorbs more than in others, creating unwanted blotches; or, buckling unevenly which results in pooling in some places and not in others. After much experimentation, I can trust Arches and so I stick with it.

The first wash is important. I’ve chosen a light grey tone, the blend of several trace colours left on my watercolour pan palette.  This first wash must be very light so that other colours can be place over it without risk of making those colours muddy. For instance, if I put down a blue colour, I couldn’t put yellow on it afterwards. It would just look green; and if I put down an orange colour, I could never get a crisp clean looking blue if it was washed on top of the orange. A grey does nicely.

Drying the first wash is critical. If you paint into a wet wash with either clear water or a new colour, the paint will “bloom” into the first, still-too-damp wash. This is alright in some instances, but if you want to control your work and have the colour where you want it, then you don’t want this to happen.

When the paper is just slightly damp (and knowing how damp is something you need to experiment with) and no water is left on the surface, I draw my image freehand onto the paper.  In this instance, I use a permanent ink pen, preferably a .5 extra fine but a .7 fine will do. My favorite is the Pilot Hi-liner, but I’ve used a Staedler one as well and it’s just as good – just harder to find in most stationery stores.

I don’t worry about if the drawing is complete. I get the essentials in, in this case, the face with the two profiles. But….

I’d only thought about the face. I found that it was sitting like a circle right in the middle of the page and needed something to give the image a better composition. I let the image sit and then drew a neck and a shoulder.  I was still not feeling like the composition was complete, so I thought about a hand and drew it in. The composition was still lacking and somehow the idea of a flower in his hand came about and I drew that in too. Now the composition was alright but lacked a bit of horizontal quality.

I thought about what a two faced person did (which was not part of my original vision) and included words on both sides. There are charming icons on both sides coming out of the mouth as if in a breath.

The first thing I painted in was the parts that were skin. I chose a wash of mixed colour – a Cadmium red light with some Opera pink and let it dry thoroughly. Then I painted the background in a wash of Cerulean blue and let it dry. I wanted to keep the colours generally harmonious with the other paintings I had done in the series, so I chose a Sap Green for the shirt.

The star on the face was meant to be an ear for each of the profiles of the head, though it doesn’t look like one. If it were not there, the two eyes appear to look forward and then the face reads as if there were three faces – two sides and face-on.  I tried the light Sap Green wash in this area, but it wasn’t strong enough and I went back into it while the paper was still wet, putting more pigment in each of the tips of the star and gently encouraging them to run to the centre. It gives a bit of texture and form to the star – it’s not completely flat. Next I washed a halo of the red mixture around the head and one shoulder. In the end, I didn’t like this and I may go back and do the image again to get the effect that I want to get, not just the one that happened.

I realized that the little icons needed to be more prominent and filled them with bright colours. I realized that the collar without the studs on it was boring. The picture needed some enlivening; so I added the studs to it. It wasn’t enough. I painted them red and I was much happier about it.

I put the watch on, because it helps make the wrist look round. There’s nothing like a watch to bring form to an otherwise flat shape of an arm.

I was happy with the image when I finished. I’ve a few things I would change if I could, but I can’t on this drawing.

If I want to try for perfection, I could just start over again and maybe I will. I realized that there is a dark spot over the right hand eye. It didn’t bother me at first but it does now. It was particularly evident when I scanned the painting for my records.  In doing it a second time, I may lose some of the spontanaity in the drawing, but I will have clearer, fresher coours.

Another thing I might do is start to overlay the area with pattern, but again, my painting will lose its freshness since another layer will have to be darker than what is there now. Once it’s down, it’s down. Watercolours are relatively unforgiving in this manner.

Doesn’t all that talk make you curious?
Here’s the image that resulted:

If I hadn’t shown you my version of a two-faced man, then how might you have drawn one? And even if you did, how do you see it now?

The curious thing, I think, is that the image is not a bit like the image I conceived in my demi-dream state. I can’t even remember, at this point, what it looked like. I can remember it being dark and molten; and that it had a face on either side of the blob.  Nevertheless, it triggered an idea which I was able to shape into a different image with the same meaning.

As I was adding detail, I was adding meaning. The two faced man, by himself, is interesting but not extraordinary. The symbolism of the peace lily, though, speaks of the insincerity of a two-face person. He brings a sign of peace but is actually undermining it.  The icons near the mouth symbolize the surface charm of a two-faced person.

This painting, then, is a mixture of techniques – ink line drawing and then watercolour; and contains symbolism that was built onto the original image, the original idea.

Sometime when you want to break away from realism, from painting the things or the models you see in front of you, take a bit of time to go fishing in your own creative soup.

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