This practice is for you if you have done all the exercises suggested in the first three modules, but still don’t feel ready to begin the final study: there might be a complex focal area, or some aspect of technique you don’t feel confident about — something you want to practice more before you face the blank canvas of your final study.
In the example I use to illustrate this practice, I’ve chosen the old man’s head and upper body for my “detail study” of Rembrandt’s “The return of the prodigal son”, and there are three reasons for that. The first and the most obvious one is that this face is the focal, and the most challenging, area of the painting; its heart as it were. Secondly, this area gives me opportunity to try my hand at Rembrandt’s virtuoso handling of different textures — his white hair, the variety of fabrics of his clothes (I haven’t even started this part of my study yet…). And finally, it also includes Rembrandt’s darkest darks — something I anticipate I might try to handle in a different way, not quite using his own technique; so, I want to see how this actually works.
In your choice of area for detail study, these reasons might be different; choose an area that feels most challenging to you, where most of your doubts and fears about the final study are concentrated — or where you feel unsure about the technique of paint application. Choose the same type of support (canvas, board, paper) you intend to use for your final study, but a smaller size: it should be enough to paint your focal area only in approximately the same size it will later appear in the context of your final study (in my example, it’s a 24”x18” stretched linen).
And now, just start painting your chosen challenging area on your canvas.
To begin with, consider this practice an opportunity to try out different “starting strategies” I described last week: what will work best for you, and for the masterpiece you have chosen to study? As you will see from my example, these strategies can sometimes be “mixed and matched” on the same canvas.
In my detail study, I have started with “Cézanne’s approach”: “brush drawing” with a diluted and greyed down French Ultramarine. I am fairly sure that’s not what Rembrandt did himself, but, as I mentioned, I don’t intend to follow his technique in all its details. I want to try more colour modulations, using more blues instead of pure darkness of darkest areas. It might not work out — but that’s what detail studies are for, after all — to try things that might not work out…
As I described last week, the essence of Cézanne’s approach is to build colour bit by bit, starting with darker areas. That’s why I started with the shadowed side of the face, while the rest of the canvas remained white. One difficulty leaving the white of the canvas so visible — without a coloured ground, without colour block-in — is that this white may confuse the eye, and prevent you from judging colours and values “correctly”. I felt this problem almost right away — especially because Rembrandt’s background is so dark. So I switched the approaches somewhere at this point, and covered the background with a more or less consistent dark (and, later on, the red colour area).
That done, I returned to the face — the most challenging and the most important area of my study. The most important aspect of the process here — something you will need to remind yourself of often — is not to try and paint “the thing” depicted, but just the colour areas you see. In my case, this mistake would be to attempt painting a face — “recruiting”, in a sense, my own knowledge about how old men’s faces “generally” look like, their overall structure, and how these should be represented in a painting (I did slip into this mistake a couple of times in the process, especially when my attention began to dwindle by the end). What one needs to do here is just try and follow the master: paint the colour areas you see, just as you see them, as much as possible without recognising the “objects” (like “nose”, or “eye”, or “eyelid”). There is a special joy in seeing how the illusion of reality “emerges”, as though on its own, even though you were just putting in brushstrokes of colour.
One final note: It might seem that this way of studying in missing the point, because it doesn’t allow for a conscious understanding of how it is done, and so to gain the knowledge to use later in one’s own work. But that’s not the case. For one thing, this conscious understanding happens at some point, but in a different way — through the knowledge of the body, through the movements of the hand. In doing, the body (or, to put it in other terms, the unconscious) learns how such a painting happens — and then, later on, it will emerge in conscious awareness too, but in a deeper way. And most importantly, painting what you see — the colour shapes, not the “things” — is the “secret” of great paintings; you can only see properly when you let go of the need to recognise familiar objects.