Step by Step... But Which Step First?
Many artists will tell you that they work from background to foreground. I've said so myself many times. A few will tell you that they paint from foreground to background. But few will admit that it can be much more complicated than that.
In truth there are two issues involved. One is the order in which to paint to minimize the chance of accidentally painting over an area you have already completed. The other involves context: some areas of a painting can be painted without relying on what is around it, while other areas can be much easier if you first know the surrounding colors and lighting.
Luckily these two usually coincide. For example, once you know the color scheme for a painting, the figures do not affect the sky or a building in the background. The opposite IS true, however. The color of the sky will be reflected in the materials on a person, and it can be much easier to judge how dark to make a person once you know the environment. Also, the figures usually have a complicated outline and a lot of detail, while the background often has little detail, smooth gradients and "outlines" only as defined by objects closer to the viewer. It is easier to paint a sky or mountain in broad, sweeping strokes which are likely to overlap a figure where as the detailed brushstrokes used in painting that figure have little chance of accidentally straying into the sky.
In such a situation, it is obvious that the sky should be painted first and the figure later. As you can see, this naturally leads to the usual background-to-foreground paradigm.
This isn't always the case.
Take, for example, the access way at the top of the ramp in the midground of the bazaar. Creatures are going in and out as they come and go from the area. The first thing I wanted to do was lay down the basic colors. Above is a photo of that first step. The main areas of the access way- the transparent plastic, the metal parts, and the metal parts only seen through the transparent plastic- have been filled in in a flat layer.
If I were to paint the details of the metal now, it would be difficult to paint the highlight across the transparent plastic. Similarly, if I paint the highlight first, it will be almost impossible to paint the creatures inside the tube without making it look as if they are in front of the tube. Using this train of thought, I decided to first paint the creatures inside the tube. This is a reversal of usual procedure- I'm painting the most detail portion of this area first.
Above you can see some initial layers put onto the figures. What followed was a lot of detail work, going from lights to darks and back, several times, as I worked out the values and details of the aliens. Eventually I had these figures painted in. I executed them all in a low range of blues, as if the plastic of the tube walls was filtering out their colors.
The next step was to paint the highlights onto the plastic. I did this with a series of dry brush layers, progressively lighter as I narrowed them to the thin highlight. Once this was finished, I had a "highlight streak" passing across the plastic... as well as the vertical metal ribs. Unfortunately I regret to admit that I did not take a picture of this stage. Please use your imaginations.
Next I repainted the flat color of the metal, followed by the details of the lights and darks. Since this area of the painting is still midground, I did not add as many textural details as will be done to the foreground, preferring to keep the area as a bold blue space. I did go back in to paint details behind the transparent plastic. This time those details were to the metal seen through the plastic. As an accent, I made the light above the entry a bright orange, as if it is perhaps some sort of scanning device. See the figure below:
In a fit of undocumented painting, I wrestled with the color of the wall below the tube. In contrast to the sleek material of the tube, I made the wall a dirty cement wall. After three or four attempts, I settled on the "right color", shaded it, and added in a lot of weathering details such as stains and cracks. The bazaar now looks as it appears below.
Click on the image for a slightly larger version.
I am currently working on the dirt. The pathway felt like a more natural next step because it runs down from the cement side walls and tube, but if I paint the dirt at the bottom first, I can paint the walkway in one fail swoop.
The scene is slowly coming together. There's still a lot of work to go, though. Join me again next time for more!