Creation Process: The Visual Language of Stuart Holland

“I work in very subtle layers when beginning my figures, slowly building up nuanced values to match the lighting I’m trying to achieve.” ~ Stuart Holland

There is nothing more exciting than taking a look into an artist’s world and their process. How does one get from a blank page to an incredibly moving finished work? Every unique idea, every drop of colour or fold of gold leaf, every stroke with the brush or pen is a well thought out and purposeful movement by the artist. Take a look at the journey from beginning to end of artist Stuart Holland and you will get a deeper sense into the creation process behind his works.

You can follow Stuart via his socials ~Instagram

My process to making a drawing or painting really begins with a long incubation period where I do a lot of mental conceptual mapping. I find inspiration in so many different avenues from dreams to podcasts, to music and written and spoken words, and it often takes some effort to finalize a concept or an element of visual language to best articulate my ideas. When I have finalized a concept for a figurative painting, I’ll find a model and do a photo shoot where I can recreate my desired lighting scenario and capturing various angles and compositions that I can ultimately choose from. I find having a reference incredibly helpful in fighting my urge to sometimes draw what I think I know, rather than drawing something as it really is. I’ll upload a couple of the candidates from the shoot into Photoshop and make any necessary adjustments and cropping until I settle on a final reference.

Although it would be quicker for me to project or print off my final image and trace it on my cut watercolor paper, I like to use the opportunity to keep my drawing skills sharp and hand draw my image on a separate piece of drawing paper. I will sometimes use a grid aid depending on the piece, but when I have the image made to my liking, I will trace it onto a piece of tracing paper. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a painting reach an irreparable point and start over with no back up to work from. Having a tracing will allows me the security of quickly re-transferring my image to my watercolor paper if I have to start over at any point. Often times I’m able to avoid this scenario, but having the option can be a real life saver.

For most of my recent pieces, I use Winsor Newton masking fluid to mask off the foreground in my pieces and allow me to paint continuous gradient backgrounds. The fluid forms a latex-like barrier that repels any watercolor that may get on it. There is a real learning curve to using the masking fluid without it damaging your painting and I highly recommend experimenting with it a lot before committing it to your final piece. Try to paint it on thinly and as evenly as possible, wait for it to dry completely before painting. I’ve found that flat brushes work better for applying the masking fluid than round ones.

Once you have your mask applied and given it twenty or so minutes to dry COMPLETELY (this is very important) I begin painting my background. I paint my backgrounds quickly and in one go, unlike the rest of the painting. Using larger brushes, I’ll begin painting in the desired atmosphere for the piece by blending various saturations and hues of paint to often create an ethereal and dreamy backgrounds. While the first pass over the background is still a bit wet, I take a brush with some water and splatter some droplets to create some small chaotic blooms to give a particulate laden atmosphere effect. This involves a hefty familiarity with wet on wet painting techniques and is never 100% predictable (which I really enjoy incorporating into a piece).

After painting my background, it is crucial to make sure that my paper is 100% dry before attempting to remove the masking fluid. If the paper is still wet, removing the mask will almost surely damage the paper and require starting over from the beginning. Removing the mask is best done by using a soft eraser (I use a Faber-Castell dust-free eraser) and slowly and gently peeling it to prevent tearing. My mask often will have a few spots that need some light painting to make sure the contours of the masked area are smooth, but they are easy to address. If all goes well, I end up with a pristine area to paint in my figure//foreground.

I work in very subtle layers when beginning my figures, slowly building up nuanced values to match the lighting I’m trying to achieve. This is particularly important when I paint skin and am trying to emulate the translucent complexity of our skin, blood vessels, fat deposits and how light often passes through them. When working in many layers of watercolor, it’s important to allow each layer adequate drying time to prevent the colors from getting muddied in wet areas. Overworking a wet area can also wear the pristine surface of your paper in some instances. I use a hairdryer to expedite the drying process with each layer.

Here’s a look at what the first several layers of watercolor look like as I get into more mid-tones and building up value in shadowed areas of the hand.

After building up some layers of pigment in the paper, I’ve developed a kind of reductive technique that allows me to go back into a paint laden area with a wet brush and soften or remove some pigment to lighten areas or sculpt out sharper shapes in saturated areas. It is also important to allow each layer pass ample drying time to prevent muddying in this phase. This photo shows this piece near the final stages of actual painting in this piece.

Once I deem the painting part of a piece done (I may go back and make some minor adjustments later), I will begin the gilding phase of the painting where I add gold and silver leaf accents. Adding gold leaf is a crucial conceptual and visual aspect of making my current body of work and really brings a certain sculptural element as the viewer sees the gold glimmer as they move around the work. Applying the gold leaf begins with applying an adhesive just as I would apply paint. Each piece demands a specific application to achieve the desired effect, and in this piece the gold is serving as an ornate frame to enclose the image. After letting the adhesive set for thirty minutes, I apply the gold leaf to the area with the adhesive and pull away the unstuck leaf.

After applying additional pressure to ensure the leaf is fully stuck to the adhesive, I use a soft round brush to remove the excess scraps of leaf. This leaves a clean gilded application wherever the adhesive was painted. Admittedly, this is one of the most soothing and satisfying parts of the process for me.

When gilding, metals like copper, silver, or any grade of gold below 24 karats will tarnish with prolonged exposure to oxygen. To prevent this I apply a layer of sealer to the 12k white gold on the second concentric circle around the piece so it retains its brilliance throughout the lifetime of the piece.

Finally, after any last minute adjustments are made, the piece is done and ready to go out into the world!


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