Occasionally then I do story paintings. In this case the eyewitness account by my ancestors of Quantrill's Raid on Lawrence, KS on August 21, 1863 during the American Civil War that became known as Bleeding Kansas.
Conceptualizing a scene you've never witnessed is a challenge. Finding that single iconic image that will incorporate the event. I start very similarly to a writer in that I start putting together a visual outline of my story. I list or sketch out the characters, location, date, etc. that I know about the event. It is from these sketches that I determine perspective (view), size of canvas, and importance of elements in the painting.
background - Quantrill's Raid on Lawrence, KS on August 21, 1863. This event became part of "Bleeding Kansas" which triggered the American Civil War. This painting is the rendering of my ancestors eye-witness account of the raid. Although to young to fight the boy is drafted by the local freight wagon driver to leave his boyhood behind and take over the duties of delivering the freight so the driver can help and fight his neighbors in this guerrilla war. The deep ideological differences that erupted in violence on this day and split the nation still exist in the people today.
In this sketch you can see the wagon and people, Lawrence, KS in the background, etc. This sketch will mean little to anyone but the artist, but it really is critical in keeping your focused on your vision.
References like this map of Lawrence, KS in 1869 are very helpful. This is close to the view of Lawrence I used. I want to be historically accurate as possible for this paint. This event took place at dawn, at specific location. Landmarks in existence today will be different then in 1863. What did the clothing, vehicles, landscape look like. What technology wasn't invented yet, like barbed-wire, metal buckets, guns, etc. There is little photographic records of this event and period. Paintings and drawings are interpretations, and are not necessarily accurate. The more research you do the more richer both the painting and your artistic experience.
Starting with a blank canvas I just place and size my sketches in accordance with the image in my head. Perspective is my focus. Get everything to fit on the canvas with some plan to compensate for required disproportionality (sometime you intend to make things bigger than life). As I develop individual elements I have to pose them in relation to the viewer's perspective, but at this time I'm just fine with stick-figures and area outlines. It's critical that you transfer your planned perspective.
Now that I have the basics of my story (raid, kid, fright driver),I start developing elements. Artwise the sky is the most important single element in my painting because it will establish my color palette and establish my light source. The sky is the interactive artistic element that unites the story elements in the painting. It will unite the scene; the background clouds, the middle ground smoke, and the foreground tree are all in the same sky. The sky is revisited later in the creation process as it creates the mood and drama of the painting. But at this time my colors are anything that is close in the box. I work on the unity first and then colors. In this painting sky is also an important story element as the raid happened at dawn.
Telling the Story
After I've placed my horizon and my basic characters, then I start adding outlines of elements that I need to tell my story. Why are the characters there and what are they doing? I don't worry about colors, detail, pose, or anything else but composition placement. At this point most paintings (including this one) start taking on their own personalities; how you imagined it would look is different than it does. It's this painting personality that ends up determining my other mechanics: color, pose, etc.
At this point than most of my story elements are incorporated and I start thinking about light. Light is essential in my painting (or any painting)to establish mood and drama. I want an epic feel to this painting. Color mixing is an art in itself. Color and light are normally developed in overlays of glazes and paint. Color, light and mood foundations are started here but will be continually developed as the painting progresses.
We have establish the story elements but now we have to pose them. How are the characters in my painting able to convey action and reaction? This is a detail of my original compilation sketch; how the element would look to the paintings viewer. In this sketch then the figures are climbing into the wagon. By the time I was working on canvas (see pose 2) I had already changed the positions of the figures. Eventually then the pose of the figures also changes in order to focus the story. I want to portray more defense than aggression, so I lowered the driver's arm and changed his pose. The boy is barefoot and doing chores (youth and naivety). As I research costume then figures will change; I have the antique shotgun that research shows is more likely the driver carried to use as a model, rather then a sword. Pose is determined both by the viewers perspective but also the required communication with the action of the story (get your faces looking where they should).
I've added elements to enhance the story. A dropped bucket of chicken feed tells why the boy was there and portrays the change in life (chores are abandoned for adult work). Likewise the driver is laying down his whip and taking up arms. As you fill in elements in historical work then you need to research each element you add. Barbed wire fencing was not yet available, horse tack, landmarks, clothing, tools, weapons, etc. will all need to be research.
At this point then I'm about 1/3 the way through the painting process. The story line, scene, light, etc. are all established and just need to be developed. But you should now have a good idea of where I'm trying to go with this painting. It's still too early to see if I can pull off the image I'm trying for, but check back for updates.
Update1 - Shadows
Pose and shadow work to emphasize dawns streaking light and bring eye-movement and a sense of action into painting. Color and detail is developing in overlays. Light is used to highlight abandoned chores and figures.
Scenes within scenes, detail. Detail is built in layers. Here you can see I have started adding fine detail like expression, and costume detail to my figures. Have started adding a tarp to wagon and changed the sword into a shotgun (or will be, takes a few layers). Details add interest and story to painting.
Detail2 - Lawrence Burning
Continuing to work on my details; here the burning of the city of Lawrence, I intentionally use different disciplines in my sub-scenes to more closely interact like natural sight. Here an abstract of the burning city allows detail to be created by the viewer, while still appearing impressionistic in the overall painting.
The realistic foreground is countered against the abstract with impressionistic work. Disciplines are mixed to give maximum utilization of the painting to provide different views (sub-pictures), eye-movement, and natural perspective.
In the impressionistic middle-ground, then known landmarks of the period are added; the planning for the University of Kansas (scaffolded building), the windmill, Railroad bridge, Ferry, Plymouth Congregational Church, chalk quarry and other geography of the area.
Mood and Drama
An overall view of the details so far. Lot's more detail to finish but I'm now shifting my focus to mood and drama. When developing details I focus more on developing the mood, and drama of the scene and in getting the elements to look seated, then I do on tiny detail. I can't get an overall epic proportionality of the event if I rely only on impossible to see detail to tell my story. Even if the paintings viewer can't see the expression on the drivers face or bodies of people in the town from a distance, I still want them to have the overall impact first. Details fill out the painting and reward interested views, but are just intended to be the lyrics not the melody of the painting.
The Finish: This isn't my HR scan (still waiting for paint to dry) but thought I'd add title and descriptions that will be on original.
Title: Bleeding Kansas - A life and Nation Changing Event
Oil on Canvas, 28" x 34" (unframed)
Artist: Mary Ellen Anderson
Original and Prints available for sale Online Gallery
This painting is inspired from the oral history that has been passed down in my family of my ancestor's eyewitness account of Quantrill's Raid on Lawrence, Kansas during the American Civil War. I have endeavored to be as geographically and historically accurate as possible, while still taking the necessary artistic license to tell the story.
At dawn on August 21, 1863, 12 year old David Anderson's life and world changed forever when war came to his home, just outside of Lawrence, Kansas. Although too young to fight in the guerrilla war that became known as "Bleeding Kansas", David was drafted by the local freight man to take over his delivery route, so that the driver could fight in this war of neighbor against neighbor.
Leaving his childhood behind, David climbed into the freight wagon and in an actual 'rites of passage' successfully delivered his cargo to Salt Lake City, Utah. This triumphant arrival occurred just as the local Methodists minister's daughter was crossing the street and young David was immediately smitten. Her name was Rose and David called her his "Rose of the Valley". One thing leads to another and the former Irish Catholic boy returned home a man, with a new career (freight driver), a new bride and a new religion, changing forever not only his life but the lives of all his descendants including myself.
War changes all of us forever but rarely in the way we expect. Ideological differences that you assume war will settle still exist today and are even compounded by the scars of events like this raid. But inevitably in war boyhoods are lost, and futures are changed forever.
--Mary Ellen Anderson
WIP fb gallery on this painting: http://tinyurl.com/lve3pwa.