C.W. Mundy: A New Way to Paint From Photographs

14 May 2007

Although it’s no substitute for painting from life, painting from photographs has its advantages, especially when you use the photos upside-down.

by Jennifer King

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Indiana artist C.W. Mundy began a recent workshop in his study by discussing his methods and then offering a demonstration.

He’s a colorful character and an avid tonalist, he has the heart of a poet and the mind of a businessman, and he’s dead serious about art and teaching—but C.W. Mundy’s workshops are also a seriously good time. If you don’t believe it, you’ll have to witness him paraphrasing Cyndi Lauper: “Oh, C.W. just wants to have fun!”

Mundy’s dynamic personality attracts students in droves to his workshops, demonstrations, and mentoring programs, most of which regularly sell out. Among these is a two-day workshop he offers on painting from photographs, which raises a few eyebrows among the purists. As Mundy explains, “If you want to cut the mustard, you have to paint from life. However, there are times when you can’t work from life, so you need to work from photos. Animals in the wild, kids on the beach—they’re not going to hold still for you. Just remember, the photo should be only your starting point. Do with it what you want to do.”

Although Mundy’s demonstration showed the benefits of working from a photograph held upside-down, he turned the canvas right-side-up when he added final details.

To make the most of the painting-from-photos experience, Mundy recommends painting upside down. Before you dismiss this as a crazy gimmick, consider his reasoning: When we look at a photograph, our left-side, analytical brains view the subject very factually, and we have a hard time getting past the details of the subject matter. By turning that process on its head, literally, we allow our right-side, creative brains to see the image as patterns of light and dark. It’s just the nonobjective starting point we need to free our minds to be poetic and expressive. As if that isn’t benefit enough, Mundy adds that the process also trains us to focus on the important things found in painting from life, making his method sound even more appealing.

Good results start with good photos, so Mundy recommends shooting hundreds—not just a snapshot or two—when you’re out in the field collecting images. Digital cameras make this particularly easy. Then, looking at them upside down, choose only those photographs that have the best qualities needed for a good painting: an obvious rhythmic pattern of light and dark values, interesting shape relationships, strong transitions and connections, great colors, and a variety of edges.

What do you do when you find a photo you like but it has a few weaknesses? As Mundy reminds us, the photo is only the starting point, so you can override what’s there and enhance or ignore certain areas as you go along. If it’s hard for you to imagine what should be there, you might consider painting a few reminders for yourself right on your photo.

Mundy pointed out areas on a canvas where the students could make improvements.

In Mundy’s afternoon demo (which followed a morning slide presentation), for example, he felt the lower portion of his photo of Big Troy (a New Orleans chef), was a bit too dark and monotonous, which threw the whole image out of balance. So he decided to lighten a few of the lower shapes to create a pattern of lights that would lead the eye up from the bottom of the painting to the focal point. To show the class what he envisioned, Mundy put down a few strokes of lighter tones right on his reference photo. Things got a little messy, but it was very effective.

The next step in the process is gridding off the photo and making a corresponding grid on the canvas, which in his case was a linen panel. Mundy has no special guidelines for doing this, other than to say that the more complex the subject and the more accurate the drawing, the more squares you should use. Mundy wanted to be accurate in the painting of the head so, although he used a fairly large grid overall, he subdivided the grid squares at the head and face into smaller squares so he could be more precise in this small area.

With a figurative image like this, the face is automatically the focus—what Mundy calls “the face factor”—so an accurate drawing of the face and head was essential. This explains why he elected to paint this area first and do it right side up. Using the grid to help him position the head correctly, he went to work developing the forms and planes there and put in some of the detail. He used a smaller sable brush for precision, matching his values and colors directly to those found in his reference photo.

With the head complete, he turned the whole panel upside down and returned to work. For the most part, Mundy put in the darks first to create an infrastructure, then he proceeded to fill in with the light shapes as he worked section by section. He offered numerous valuable pointers along the way:

Have a plan of attack. If the photo isn’t exactly what you want, make sure you know how you’re going to resolve the problems. Do the values need to be adjusted? Should some colors be warmer or cooler, brighter or less intense? Without a clear plan for what you want to accomplish and how, you’ll just be spinning your wheels.

Focus on the values. Dark-value shapes should link up to create a rhythmic movement through the painting, and the same goes for the lights and midtones. This is what gives a painting impact and presence. With the painting and photo turned upside down, you can really see these patterns, so put them in and enhance the connections wherever needed.

Forget about the subject. By focusing on making interesting shapes in the right values, you’ll come away with a painting that is your own interpretation, not just a copy of a photo. And it doesn’t really matter if these shapes are unidentifiable or vague when the painting is finished. Fechin and Zorn were masters of using unclear, nonobjective, unexplainable shapes to create balance and interest in a painting.

Use a variety of paint applications. If you paint everything with the same amount of detail, you’ll put people to sleep. Be poetic by pushing them to figure some things out. If you don’t give it all away, you’ll make them look at your painting longer. It’s also OK if the drawing gets a little bit off—this will contribute to an expressionistic, spontaneous feeling: the spirit of painting.

Student Work
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Lindau, Germany
by Becky Fehsenfeld, 2006, alkyd, 24 x 36.
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Spring Tree in New Harmony
by Jerry Botzum, 2006, oil, 20 x 16.
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by Victoria Gillieron, 2006, alkyd, 16 x 20.

In addition to demonstrating the upside-down painting approach, Mundy used this opportunity to explain his “marbleizing” technique, which he said works best with alkyds. It’s a fascinating technique that results in accurate values and exciting color.

For this method, Mundy prepared three huge “pots” of color in the center of his palette. One was pure white, the second was a warm gray halftone neutral, and the third was a near-black combination of Van *** brown, viridian, alizarin crimson, and French ultramarine. The rest of his tube colors were arranged around the edge of his palette. By premixing these base colors, he can spend less time on technical work and more time “in the zone.”

Before each stroke, he loaded his brush with the appropriately valued neutral (white/light, halftone, or dark), then dipped the same brush into one or two tube colors, then back into the neutral before laying the stroke down on the painting panel. This way of applying the paint means that every stroke contains flashes of pure chroma. Said Mundy, “Why have a stroke of a single color when you can have three or four colors in one? It’s much livelier and more interesting.”

Once the entire panel was covered in paint, Mundy was ready for the next step, which was the part that made every demo-watcher gasp. It’s also the step that scares artists the first time they do it. With the paint-covered panel still upside-down, Mundy “dusted” clean white facial tissues over huge portions of the painting, especially in the areas he wanted to appear looser and less finished. “The first pass is usually a little blocky,” he said, “so mess it up. And do it upside down so you don’t become overly protective of what you’ve put down.” “It’s like a quilt, and you’re stitching the pieces together,” one of the students observed. Mundy whirled around. “Yes! That’s what the patterns of light and dark are all about! Values are the structure, and this step pulls it all together.”

Most people were shocked that he was willing to smudge and smear so much of what he had built up, but it was part of a process Mundy adopted from James McNeill Whistler, encapsulated in this mantra: “I build the form and I destroy it, and I build the form and I destroy it.” In other words, Mundy feels confident that he can restore any forms, edges, and whatever else is necessary to define parts of the image while keeping less-important areas loose and expressionistic. Furthermore, he’s willing to repeat the process several times until he’s got the entire image just where he wants it.

Mundy's Work
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Crooked Creek, Near Georgetown, Indiana
2001, oil on linen, 36 x 48.
Approaching Monument Circle at Dusk, Indianapolis
2006, oil on linen, 36 x 36.
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Emily at the Beach
2006, oil on linen, 36 x 24.
Portrait of Anne
2006, oil on linen, 36 x 24.

Before moving on, Mundy stopped to check his progress in a hand mirror, a practice he strongly recommends doing throughout the final stages of any painting. “Look for things that jump out at you. It’ll be very obvious where the problems are,” he said. “Looking at the painting from a fresh perspective is just like seeing it for the first time, so ask yourself how it’s coming across. Be objective!” After making a few corrections to the pattern of light values, he was ready for the big unveiling.

“Sometimes—rarely—you turn it right-side-up and don’t have to do a thing,” he said as he flipped the painting back to its upright position. But such was not the case this time. Right away, Mundy spotted some adjustments he wanted to make: adding some detail and highlights to the face, lightening a few lighter-valued shapes to enhance the connections in the light-value pattern, placing a few harder edges and bulkier paint strokes around the focal point, creating more variety in the whites with strokes of warm yellow, and softening a few less-important areas.

When he decided to make several long strokes (strokes he calls “speed lines” that, in this case, dragged some of the lightest values through a large area of dark), a student asked why he did so. “The area looked too segregated and patchy, so these long strokes will add some movement and vitality while connecting these areas.” After a group discussion and several moments of prolonged study in a full-length mirror, Mundy decided to modify these strokes, which finished the painting.

The second day of the workshop was devoted to two practice sessions for students, which were exciting for some and frustrating for others. With such an unusual new method to try, it definitely pushed people far outside their comfort zones. But most adopted a “let’s-give-it-a-shot” attitude.

“This is interesting because you can’t critique yourself until the end,” said Ron Mack, a noted landscape artist. “I found that I was more playful with color, and I didn’t get tied down in trying to protect any details.” “I’m finding that I can be a lot more expressionistic,” commented portraitist Diane Lyon, “because I’m not thinking about subject. I’m just thinking about shapes, values, and color, and not worrying about making it look like an object.”

Mundy’s method may be unorthodox, but it’s certainly effective. Whether the resulting painting turns out well almost doesn’t matter. The technique teaches students to override their left-brain obsession with facts so they can learn to be more interpretive, expressive, and poetic—to embrace the spirit of painting. And what’s more, it’s fun.

Landscape artist and freelance writer Jennifer King lives and works in Cincinnati.

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