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Art Retro #1: Enamel Drip Portraits

Updated: Jul 3, 2019

This will be the first in a series of posts in which I will attempt to deconstruct my creative process telling the story behind some of my artwork.

It has always fascinated me to understand what goes into creating something. Typically we are only exposed to the end product. We don’t necessarily want to see ‘how the sausage is made’ but I believe with the creative arts it’s different. Investigating how an artist or designer researches, experiments, develops, fails, succeeds is quite possibly the most interesting element but it is rarely captured or explored in depth. We are always focused on the end product. Is it beautiful? Does it 'move' me? Is this art 'good'? I believe any creation is the product of an uncommon idea, inspiration, and execution, all of which are important in producing something truly genuine, compelling, and moving. How do our personal stories, our geography, and our experiences come together to influence the process and product? It’s a very fascinating and unique formula.

In this first installment, I’ll be focusing on the large-scale portrait I did of my father, which ended up being an almost spontaneous exercise, caught up in the moment.

So how did it begin? I had in my mind the desire to do a large scale portrait. This was instinct number one. I also wanted to attempt to do so in just black and white. So I asked myself, what would make this different and interesting? It’s always challenging to start with just an idea while staring at a big, blank canvas. In my case, I had just recently purchased a rather monstrous roll sized something close to 70” x 150”.

This was a useful starting point, but now I needed to define some constraints. What was the maximum size I could roll out onto the floor that still allowed for enough room to work?

Side note: I have my ‘messy’ studio set up in our garage, which is just a bunch of cardboard on the floor in one of the car spaces. It works quite well I might say.

Garage Workspace

So rolling this beast out, I made the cut around the 7’ mark, so I had a wrinkly 70” x 84” monster in front of me. Cool.

Now for the inspiration. Art is a reflection of what surrounds us, our histories forming those small influences in our subconscious. I also believe there's some level of luck involved, being able to catch the right idea at the right time. There is also an element of thievery. Shamelessly copying a technique, also known as stealing like an artist, and adapting it to become your own.

I had stumbled on these incredible black and white portraits by the artist Agnes Cecile. She used a drip technique with black enamel paint to create these large-scale, expressive, anatomical paintings. I loved it. So I pulled this reference out of the mind vault as the guiding tool and approach for this piece.

The next part was finding the subject. It’s a strange feeling to work on a portrait. Apart from the usual difficulty to replicate the likeness of a person, portraits build a very deep connection between the artist and the subject. So I figured why not start with family? Who would get a real kick out of this? Dad.

With that settled, I searched the photo archive for something decent to work from.

The photo I decided to use was a straight-on profile shot, taken at a local brewery. What I like to do then is flip the photo to black and white and crank up the contrast and shadows to more easily block out the shadows and highlights.

Now it was time to get to work.

When starting this piece, and after settling on the subject, thematically I wanted it to be expressive, simple, and bold. I wanted to give it an organic and random feel using the enamel drip technique as well. To again set some constraints, I decided to use just charcoal and black enamel paint as primary mediums. Here’s the play-by-play:

1. Setting up the workspace. For such a large piece, you obviously need the ability to work quite literally in the painting and also be able to observe and review the proportions while developing the piece. My preference was to have it on the ground to avoid having the enamel run. The disadvantage here is trying to get the proportions right, so you need to spend a bit of time roughing in the figure.

2. Pencil sketching. Nothing groundbreaking here, just roughing in the layout and defining the proportions. For some good tips on the basics of portrait sketches and anatomy, I've found this series of videos particularly helpful by Proko on Youtube.

3. Charcoal rough-in. Shade in the deepest shadows and begin to roughly define the features.

4. Start layering in black paint by blocking in and defining the darkest shadows on top of the charcoal.

Close Up: Blocked Shadows

5. Pause, step away and adjust. Review the figure and proportions and let that dry a few minutes.

6. Now for the fun part! I started by experimenting with the enamel and various drip techniques on cardboard. Practice the drip technique with either a paintbrush handle, palette knife, or similar object to get the flow right, and find the right distance above the canvas for your desired effect. For the actual paint, I used good old Rust-Oleum gloss black enamel (water based) that you can pick up from your home store. It’s fun, cheap, and has a great look in my opinion. (See below for supply links)

7. Once you feel comfortable, just let it rip.

8. I began by outlining the face with the enamel, using long lines to create a loose definition of the features. For the beard, I found quicker figure eight type movements worked quite well to produce a rougher texture. I used a palette knife for most of this part.

9. Back to charcoal. For the mid-tones, I broke off a large piece of loose charcoal and used my thumb to blend. This added some depth now to the portrait and helped add life to the eyes and forehead.

10. Touch up with more drips on top of the freshly laid charcoal. Using a drip bottle or something similar. I found you can achieve a lot more control up close with the squeeze bottle. This worked well to add wrinkle lines, work the eyes, nose, and add more detail with the same expression.

11. I finished up with some white charcoal and white acrylic marker to add highlights in the beard and sketch in the collar. I was pretty happy with it at this point and decided to call it a day!

12. The last step was to apply fixative after the enamel had fully dried. It helps to preserve the pencil and charcoal and prevent any smearing.

For scale. Done!

This was a fun piece. I was able to complete this in about a 4-hour session. The technique lets you do something quite large and fun in a relatively short period of time. If you’re looking to go more abstract, this definitely lends itself to a more Jackson Pollock style, so go nuts!

Resource list:

Deco Art Empty Squeeze Bottles

Black Latex Enamel Paint

Large Canvas Roll

Windsor & Newton Fixative




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