By Ben Bauer

Painting advice for artists

Ben Bauer, “Spring Moonrise in South Dakota,” oil on linen, 24 x 29 in.

Paintings usually start from an idea that is sparked by just about anything. Once I have a solid mindset of the idea, I source my reference material — notes, photos, on-location studies, research. I find that working an idea from photo and study references is where it mends into its own creation, pushing creativity levels more each time.

I usually work with a personal standard set of surface sizes and materials. I prefer 16×18,19×21, 22×24, 24×26, 30×34, 30×36 — it seems a bit unorthodox, but the proportions are more geared to my compositional intuition. For me, it has become the appreciated, unexplainable sense of how to orchestrate the idea. I usually work on hand-mounted oil-primed linens.

Once I am committed and the painting idea is ready, I start with a toned surface, usually using a sienna ochre or raw umber. For me, mark making for compositional elements is the most difficult and fun part of the painting — ultimately the most crucial; it sets the parameters of the original concept.

I usually handle the paint pretty straightforwardly, with a thinner drying medium, at first nailing down values and overall color temperature; and I start things with thicker paint and establish the overall scene.

Painting advice for artists

Ben Bauer, “Montana Early Spring,” oil on linen, 24 x 26 in., private collection

Once this is done, I use a painting knife/spatula to scrape all excess paint off, thus leaving the paint “stain” and a base for the next session.

When this is tacky (usually the next day), I go over the first base with a fresher eye and direction. This is where relationships start, and the painting starts to embark on its own journey — to me the most intriguing part. This is where the painting starts talking to me, where and when things happen, the next level begins. This is ultimately where a painting can take off and work itself to the “almost finished” stage. To me this is a point where it (as I call it) “marinates” for a while unseen.

As I have progressed in my career, I find things working out on their own and moving forward to a meaningful end. But not always. As all other artists know, it’s part of the process. I never get discouraged by this; it’s where I grow the most.

Letting oil paint and its unpredictable nature or temperament guide me is a newer found element of painting I am interested in. Questions that I ask myself when working are: Thin or how thick? Do I let the canvas show? Do I leave edges broken? Do I add or subtract from the original idea? How do I create a sense of place with style, technique, and overall mood or tone? Once I have exceeded my original expectations and the painting works on a formal element level and is visually appealing, I end it, and the curiosities and challenges are solved.

Painting advice for artists

Ben Bauer, “Soft in Wilernie,” oil on linen, 19 x 21 in.

Most of all, these images are part of me; they are who I am. I am longingly trying to define my mantra, but it’s hard to define, and strangely enough I like it undefined. I feel that if I define my artistic directions or what ultimately drives me, I fear I defeat its purpose. I have an incurable curiosity of ideas and instinct to paint, thus letting the paint and ideas work themselves out. I honestly believe this part of my life lets me be aware of a more beautiful world.

What questions do you ask yourself when starting a painting? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.