Sunday, January 06, 2008

How to Reproduce a Masterpiece

As virtually any author can tell you, the path to publication is treacherous, disheartening, and very, very long. (If it wasn't, then, as Bill Cosby says about parents with only one child, then it doesn't really count.) Anyway, my point is that in the years it took me to become a published author, I nearly committed myself to several alternative and more secure careers. I became a teacher--that lasted one agonizing year. I almost became a college prof--but couldn't bring myself to get the required PhD.

My most exciting almost-career-plan was becoming a scenic artist. For those unfamiliar with theatre, that's the person who paints all the fantastical backdrops and floors and who creates giant styrofoam sculptures, crests, and other massive works of art for the stage. I took a scene painting class (from my dad, no less), reigned as scenic artist over two large productions, and then--thankfully--returned my attention to writing. But I did come away with a new understanding of painting, because painting for the theatre is unique in two ways: 1) the scale is very, very big, and 2) it has to happen very, very quickly. There is no time for dawdling, doodling, and perfecting in scenic arts. You have to get the painting done and dry so that the next part of the set can be built. Often, you have to recreate in an afternoon a masterpiece of art that took months to paint. Here's how to do it fast and foolproof.

Supplies List
  • From an office supply store:
    • 8.5"x11" foam core (you'll probably have to buy a big sheet and cut it down to size)
    • 8.5"x11" acetate (like for an overhead projector)
    • Sharpie (fine point)
    • ruler
    • string/tape measure
  • From an art or crafts store:
    • canvas (ready to paint with a layer of white paint/gesso--bigger is better and easier)
    • drawing pencil/charcoal
    • acrylic paint (at least black, white, red, blue, and yellow ... more colors in your painting's palette if you don't feel comfortable color mixing)
    • paint brushes of various (1/2" or larger) sizes
1. Select your masterpiece. There's a great selection at, searchable by artist, genre, or subject matter. Pick an artist you love or a painting that speaks to you. I'm a freak for all things Art Deco, so my pick is "Portrait of Ira" by Tamara de Lempicka.

2. Prepare the canvas. Using the string/tape measure and the pencil/charcoal, divide your canvas into squares six across and however many will fit vertically.

3. Prepare your artist's elevation. Print out a color copy of your art. Tape the art to a piece of foam core (the stuff used to make science fair displays). Over the art, tape a sheet of acetate (like a sheet for an overhead projector). Using the ruler and the Sharpie, divide your art into squares six across and however many will fit vertically. You can only paint as many square as you have on your canvas, so you might have to crop the artwork some to fit. (This is the actual elevation I used to recreate the Lempicka.)

4. Sketch your art. This is the easy part. All you have to do is look at the top left square (call it A1) on your elevation and then sketch the shape outlines into the corresponding square on your canvas. Repeat for the remaining squares. You never have to worry about too much detail because you're only sketching a small portion at a time. When you're done, be sure to step back an check that all the lines flow across squares properly.

5. Paint. The best thing about the elevation you prepares is that you can mix color right on your artwork, comparing your paint with the original color directly. Then you can wipe it off the acetate when you're ready for the next color. Always start with the background and then work your way forward. Concentrate on getting the basic shapes and the "feel" of the art more than making an exact duplicate. You can always come back and fix details later (acrylic is forgiving that way). Most important of all: work quickly. It give your brain less time to edit--like writing a $h!tty first draft.

6. Admire your masterpiece. [I wish I had in-progress photos to show, but this painting was the final exam in my scene painting class. I had to recreate this Lempicka in 4 hours! Not much time for snapping photos.]

If any of this is confusing, please let me know. And if anyone gets inspired to recreate a masterpiece of their own, I'd love to see a pic of the final result!

OH. MY. GODS. -- Dutton, May 2008
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Simone Elkeles said...

wow, you are majorly multi-talented! I've always wanted to paint, but never took a class. I did take a pottery class in college and squeaked out a B, although I almost got a C because I'm artistically challenged.

Marley Gibson said...

That is sooooooooooo cool, Tera! Awesome job! = )

TinaFerraro said...

TLC, this is an amazing How To! I can certainly see the "teacher" in you! Great blog.

stephhale said...

As a person who can't even draw a stick person, this is fascinating to me. You are amazing. I'm glad you stuck with writing though! :)

Dona Sarkar-Mishra said...

I've been trying to post all day yesterday, but failed...TLC this is amazing! I love your version even more than the really can teach a scene painting class if you run out of things to do!