Painting Shaman

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The process of painting, for me, is one of discovery and intuition. I start out with a basic concept, find photo or shoot photo reference if needed, choose a canvas and set out my palette and brushes. I usually set up my full palette each time – one of the joys of oil painting is that, if you cover the palette when not using it, the blobs of paint stay wet. Sometimes a skin will form over the top, but that can be removed, and the paint underneath used. At any rate, I thought I’d show my latest painting from initial reference photo (courtesy of Donna Nayduch of W.O.L.F.) to the finished painting.

The story of this painting begins last year, when I met Donna through my job at Fine Print. She needed art copy for a painting that an artist did for the upcoming W.O.L.F. benefit, “Waltzing with Wolves.” Because I believe in what W.O.L.F. is doing, I told her I’d be interested in donating a painting the next year. Early this Spring, Donna gave me reference photos of Shaman, a full Artic Wolf who had lived at the sanctuary for many years, and was one of the best ambassadors they have ever had.


(reference photo courtesy:  Donna Nayduch)

After some consideration, I decided on the photo that shows Shaman howling. One of the reasons is that a howling wolf is an iconic image, one which stirs emotion. I wanted the viewer to connect with the wild side of Shaman, the part that is intrinsically tied to nature. The other reason is I had done a small study of this image as one of my daily paintings, and I wanted to see if I could capture the essence of that smaller painting in a large one.


Study: Shaman, 4x4"

And so I started the painting by sketching in paint directly onto the 20x20”canvas. I don’t often do preliminary drawings – although sometimes I’ll do a couple of quick thumbnail sketches to figure out my lights and darks. In this case, I had both the photo and the study for reference. 

I felt connected to Shaman from the get go. He is a very powerful presence, and had strong feelings about how he wanted to be painted. I suppose I should explain that a bit. There are some paintings that seem to want to paint themselves. I am just along for the ride, so to speak. This was one of them. I did get hung up on his nose and mouth, and had to wipe out that entire area. I redrew and quit for the night. 

When I returned to paint the next night, I was able to connect again almost immediately. I felt the colors were a bit more grayed out than I was comfortable with – as you know, I love bright, clear colors. But I decided to stay with the more grayed out palette for awhile – mostly because Shaman was pretty insistent and the toned down color did let me concentrate on values.


Sometimes when painting I let my mind wander – its not the same as not paying attention to what I’m doing, rather it is like reverse doodling. I just let my mind go where it wants to, this time imagining conversations with Shaman. It’s the reason many artists (including me) listen to music when painting. By engaging the analytical part of your brain in listening (or in thinking about something else) the intuitive part of the brain takes over, and makes choices based on what it knows, rather than what the analytical side thinks it knows. 

The next night, painting was a struggle. I couldn’t seem to get into the groove, very left brain heavy! This is a dangerous time to paint – because if I’m not careful, I can completely ruin a painting by over-thinking and overworking. Half the battle on this is recognizing what is happening – paying attention to my posture, my breathing and my self talk. Once I consciously relax, breath, turn off my critical chatter, then I can paint.

One of the hardest parts of painting is knowing when you are finished. Accepting that the painting is not perfect, but nonetheless, done. I am at that stage now: I feel the painting is working as a whole and so I will set it aside to dry a bit, then look at it again with fresh eyes in a few days. Maybe make a few minor adjustments then, maybe just sign it.

Click here to learn more about Shaman.

This piece will be auctioned on Saturday, June 19, 2010, during the annual Waltz for Wolves dinner/dance/auction. Click here for more info.

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