Stages of Painting: a Basic Breakdown of my Painting Process

It's a long haul from that moment of inspiration to a finished work.  I'm constantly snapping pictures for future use, but to find the time to paint the things that inspire me has grown increasingly difficult.
It doesn't help that some of the photos I take are so stunning, it's tempting to just enjoy them as pretty photographs.  I credit technology and the beautiful sights of Southern California for this phenomenon--my photography skills are limited to mommy moments and art references!

Stage 1: Committing to a subject

I've been struggling lately with committing to what I'm actually going to paint.  I have two very vocal children, and by the time I get a few minutes to sit down and start working, I'll catch myself flipping through photo after photo (on my phone or actual printed pictures), unable to decide what to paint.  My main concerns are usually time, energy, and tenacity: will I have time to finish what I started?  Will I have energy to keep working, and the tenacity to pick it back up and finish it after I put it aside for the night?

Finally, I settled on a photo:

A cloudy afternoon at the beach in Oceanside, California
I took the kids down to play at the beach a few days before Christmas, and just as the marine layer made its way back in, I stopped for a few photos.  I settled on this one because of the play of light and water.

Stage 2: Getting started

First sketch: composition 
This is the fun part!  I love the early stages of working on a painting.  Some people are intimidated by a blank canvas.  I'm not-- I usually begin sketching with gusto, and enjoy working out a composition.
Lights and darks blocked in
Once I've got the initial sketch down, I block in lights and darks.

(Please excuse the awful photos, I was painting at night and didn't have much of a light source.)

Stage 3: The awkward middle

Once the lights and darks are blocked in, I begin working on color and start adding some details.  During this stage is usually the time where all my concerns resurface: someone needs something from me (time), my eyes are getting wonky and I feel the need for sleep or a break (energy), and I've begun stumbling on a few problems, which I don't seem to be able to fix despite repeated efforts (tenacity). 

 I don't like to leave a painting at this stage, because the temptation to just put it aside and forget about it is too great.  There are a couple of steps I use to push through this point.  The first is fixing the truly obvious (shapes that are off, wrong colors, etc.) The other is  remembering a set of simple instructions from my first pastel course: smear it, fix it, let it dry.  So, I'll give the piece a last good blending by smearing the pastel.  Then I'll take it outside and spray the fixative, and leave it a few minutes to dry.  I'll set the piece aside and walk away from it (usually overnight, or until the end of the day).

Smeared and fixed, this is the middle stage of the painting.

Stage 4: Making the painting sing

Every artist has her own method; for me, the final stage of a painting is best done with a cool head and a plan.  It's not a time to experiment, or throw any new elements into the piece (if I feel the need to do this, I mentally put myself back into the middle stage of the painting).  I've usually had a little break from the piece, so I can take a fresh look at it and decide which areas need tweeking, and what my goal for the final stage of the painting is.  In this case, I wanted to focus on bringing out the lights and unifying the clouds, sand, and ocean so that they were a little more harmonious.

This last stage is definitely not a good time for me to try to work if I'm sleepy.  I end up making mistake after mistake, and have ruined many pastel works by trying to finish a piece when I wasn't in the freshest state of mind.

It's hard to know when a painting is really finished, but generally, if it "feels right" (meaning no obvious mistakes) and I enjoy looking at it, I'll sign it and set it aside to be photographed and shared.
"Water and Light"
9 x 12 pastel on paper
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This painting ended up having a little bit of a rainy effect in the clouds-- we've been getting a bit of rain this season, so I thought I'd leave it in the painting.

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