Techniques and Tips

Compelling Figure Compositions in Three Stages

Compelling Figure Compositions in Three Stages

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Three Waiters (above; oil, 24×35)

Like single frames from a movie reel, full of suggested movement, shadow and light, Steven J. Levin’s figurative paintings freeze moments in time. His brush halts a rushing businessman in mid-stride, stills a bartender’s hand as he burnishes a glass and renders immortal the weak smile of a woman kept waiting. Thoughtful tableaux of everyday human interaction—or inaction—are enhanced by the richness of the public settings of the artist’s choosing.

“The best subject is generally one for which the idea comes quickly and completely and makes a definite impact,” says Levin. “It tends to be the kind of composition that leads to a good work of art, something that both the artist and the viewer can connect with on some level, via a memory or emotion.”

The composition of each piece is paramount, Levin describes the three stages of his process for developing his figure concepts below, from thumbnail to color sketch to finished painting (see Levin’s demo, below).

A Considered Composition
By Steven J. Levin

I’ve developed a general process over the years for working up my figure painting concepts. Often I’ll start out with the merest of scribbles (on paper) and gradually work through many alterations and refinements. Putting the idea down on paper, however rough, helps me begin to get a sense of its impact and mood. Sometimes an idea goes through numerous changes, each one affecting the interaction of the figures and feeling of the painting. I’ve developed a habit of filling sheets of paper with one compositional idea after another, many of which I’ll never paint, but I like the process as it keeps my mind sharp.

1. As part of that searching out process, I do several thumbnails (see two images below). These small compositional drawings are only about one to four inches wide. In this case, I was thinking first of doing three figures at a bar and working out how they might relate to each other, always keeping in mind that one of the three would be the center of interest and the other two would take supporting roles. I decided to make them all waiters with different gestures and expressions.

2. Satisfied with this basic idea, I started working out the lighting, choosing a dramatic stage lighting from below. For this step in the design work, I photographed myself in costume in the various poses to begin to get an idea of how things would actually look. Using myself as a model saves time so that when I bring in the actual models, I have a clearer idea of what I want them to do.

These initial photos gave me enough reference material to work up a small color sketch in oil (see below). These sketches I do on colored drawing or pastel paper that I’ve sealed first with shellac (I dissolve shellac flakes in Everclear grain alcohol) and then toned with paint.

The oil sketch helps me tremendously in visualizing the entire design in paint and in color. Often if the first oil sketch isn’t successful, I can make changes at this stage or simply do another sketch without wasting much time. Better to work out problems in this early stage than wait until I’m on the final canvas, only to discover some great flaw in the concept. Usually I block out the oil sketch in brown paint and let that dry a bit; then I apply the color over the top. The whole oil sketch usually takes an hour or two.

As you can see, I deviated only slightly from my oil study in the final painting, Three Waiters(above; oil, 24×35), though this isn’t always the case. Sometimes, even after all the preliminary steps—including the oil sketch—seeing the work full-size in progress on the canvas can make me aware of problems in the design that weren’t apparent before. When this happens, the best thing is to be an honest critic and try to fix whatever the problem is.

This selection was excerpted from a feature article on Steven J. Levin in the June 2010 issue of Magazine.

To see the June 2010 issue’s table of contents, click here.
To learn about the June 2010 digital download, click here.

Rosemary Barrett Seidner is a director of Miller Gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio, and a freelance writer.

Steven J. Levin has won numerous awards and prizes in nationwide competitions, including those of the American Society of Portrait Painters, the Allied Artists of America, the Portrait Institute and the Oil Painters of America. He produces work for a one-man show each year. Living and working in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Levin is represented by the John Pence Gallery of San Francisco and Tree’s Place in Orleans, Massachusetts. Learn more on his website:


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Watch the video: COMPOSITION - Most Important thing in PHOTOGRAPHY! (August 2022).