The process of creating a painting requires sincere focus from an artist. It’s like a dance of adding and subtracting, where the artist determines what a painting needs, and what should be taken out. Of course a work of art can be ruined by making poor decisions, or from overworking the image, but this needn’t hinder the artist. They just need to be willing to fail. If the artist can remain attentive, then the process can continue until the painting develops into the artwork it was meant to become.
Not long ago I decided to make a painting of a massive glacier meeting the sea. I don’t recall what initially compelled me to take on this subject, but as I had never painted anything like this before, it presented an interesting challenge. It was certainly a departure from the urban subject matter normally found in my work.
My initial idea was to have this glacier span the width of the painting, with icebergs breaking free and falling into the ocean. As the glacier melted, various large things like tractor trailer trucks, cargo ships, and jumbo jets would materialize out of the ice. These manmade objects would symbolize modern society and its ongoing reliance on fossil fuels, which has resulted in changing the earth’s climate. In other words, the devices responsible for warming the planet would be emerging from the ice, like actors onto a stage.
I created some initial studies to develop my composition. Although this was helpful, I quickly realized the immense size of a glacier would make even the largest container ship appear like a minuscule blip. I was apprehensive these elements would become lost in my painting, unless the canvas was over 15 or 20 feet across. This scale intimidated me, however. I didn’t know if I could successfully pull off such a large painting. As it happened, I had an adequately proportioned canvas, that was 6 feet wide, ready in my studio. It had been made for a different project, but was never used. This felt like a more manageable size. I thought by using this canvas, I could later scale up my image to a larger-sized painting.
After making a few small color studies to evaluate color options for the ice, water, and sky, I began working on the prepared canvas. I made the upper edge of my glacier curve in a swooping arc. I wanted the shape to convey a sense of looming over the viewer, and wrapping around them slightly, as if it were giving a hug. I thought this could be interesting as it would make the glacier appear inviting, yet slightly menacing.
At first this was to be a dark and moody image. I imagined a strange light falling across the glacier, as if it were lit from within, revealing the shadowy forms of ships, planes, and other objects frozen within the translucent ice. However the gold color I had used for my underpainting had me rethink this direction. I liked how the warm yellow paired so well with the teal blue of my glacier. It dawned on me that, if I made the sky feel warm and tropical, I could allude to the issue of climate change without needing to incorporate all of the vehicles in the ice.
After some further work I saw that I needed to make some changes. Although the salmon pink I had introduced to the sky looked nice, it just didn’t feel right. The colors were too reserved, so I changed the sky to an intense vermillion sunset. The profile of the glacier was also problematic. Its symmetry and uniform shape undermined the drama I wanted, so I gave the glacier a more ragged edge.
By this point I really loved how vibrant the painting had become. It felt almost electric. I knew I was getting close to completion, but something was missing. I couldn’t tell what was needed, so I stopped working on the piece for a while. After a hiatus of a few months, I revisited the painting and determined the glacier was lit too evenly. It needed more variety in tonal values, so I added some additional highlights and shadows to pump up the drama. I also finessed the ice to appear more translucent.
Here is the final painting. I call it Introductions. I like how this alludes to both the icebergs falling into the sea, and the uncharacteristic sky above the glacier, both of which hint at the issue of climate change. As with many of my paintings, this one evolved significantly over the course of its creation. I had abandoned using the manmade vehicles in the ice for the more subtle narrative device of a tropical sunset. I also altered the colors and composition to amplify the drama.
I’ve found that being receptive to changing a painting can often lead to interesting results. By not staying attached to an initial concept, there is room to discover new ideas as a painting develops. Often these ideas prove effective at producing a stronger piece of art. If the artist can be a flexible in this creative dance, then their art will always surprise and delight them.