We’re all interested in learning how an artist creates a painting. In the case of John Buxton it is quite involved. The work shown here not only reveals the physical steps involved but also something of John Buxton himself. First off, he is extremely thorough, he has to be because he is a painter of historical subjects. One thing for sure, an expert in American history can recognize a fake historical painter from a mile away.
To do what John Buxton does requires, first off, a great love a history, matched with a personality that is very concerned with accuracy, clarity, and truth. There are no short cuts. These traits perfectly describe John Buxton. His many awards and long career are proof that he has succeeded in satisfying the critical eyes of historical experts. Not many of us can do what John does so well. (Click images to enlarge)
Your work is incredibly detailed; do you work with live models, “authentic” costumes, and actually stage each scene, much like Norman Rockwell did? My work is realistic, as it was as an illustrator. In most cases I cannot set up a complete historical scene unless it involves a small number of models. I frequent various re-enactments to meet possible models and to gather a lot of photographic reference. I prefer un-staged photos. Not all models can relax when they know the camera is on them. If I need a specific action or setup, I take many photos from multiple positions. Matter of fact, I discovered as an illustrator that by switching the light source (important) and having models do the same thing, but in the opposite direction, it often provides better action or shapes.
However, one learns quickly that most re-enactors do not fit the mold. Most are too old or overweight to represent real 18th century soldiers, settlers or Natives. Clothes may not fit properly or their choice may not be the best. It doesn’t matter to much because the artist must correct all of these things. Photos are the starting point; they help establish the light source, shadows etc. To build the design and pleasing shapes one must know how to draw. You cannot fake it. It will come back to bite you sure as heck. Historians can easily recognize a fake historical painter.
It would be SO GREAT to be able to set up every scene. The only close one for me was my Founding Fathers piece. For that one I was able to visit the actual room in Philadelphia where Franklin and Jefferson and others prepared the Declaration of Independence. The two re-enactors with me were used for all five figures. Even then, I felt constrained because the museum official would not let us touch anything, he had to move furniture, lamps, or whatever, with white gloves…but it was great to be there.
Please explain your painting process. My painting process varies with each painting. Sometimes I work directly on a white surface, but generally, I will apply an overall midtone wash to the substrate; it may be a complimentary color of the planned final color scheme, or it may be a warm earth tone; the intent is to create a middle value base upon which darker and lighter values can be placed. Some of this base wash may be visible in the final painting. The wash also tends to influence all colors applied to it, this helps in creating color harmony.
My color palette is pretty straight forward. By that I mean, unlike commercial art that is meant to grab attention, my historical scenes are meant to be believable. I use understandable natural colors, as most people see them. My process is influenced by my use of alkyd oil paints. They dry in a few hours rather than a few days, as does normal linseed based oil paint. Alkyds allow me to paint more as I was trained in art school using gouache, which also dries fast, and allows for overpainting. Alkyds dry matte and require no use of retouch varnish. They are resin based, as are most house paints today. Have you ever tried to make a correction to an oil painting that has dried and been varnished? NOT FUN ! It’s a messy job to dissolve the varnish, rub it off, and not also remove paint beneath it. You cannot add oil paint atop the varnish because it shows badly (even when looking straight on or at an angle). No such problem with alkyd; the key is that the Winsor & Newton varnish I use is alkyd based. I can paint atop the dry varnish and the fresh alkyd oil adheres, becoming one with the alkyd varnish. Look at the painting from any angle and you can see no difference. Let the alkyd dry and varnish right over your correction .
Typically, the following colors will be on my palette: Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Yellow Medium or Light, Van Dyke Brown or Raw Umber, Paynes Gray, and Titanium White. (Buxton wants to emphasize that he only lays out the colors he needs for a particular painting, not necessarily all those listed here. He may also draw on other colors not listed here, if they’re needed. Long story short, he does not have a standard, go to palette).
When painting a historical event, I will first read everything I can about the event. Sometimes I even hire a historian, or several, for their particular genre…British, French, Native Americans, etc. I ask them to create a “pile” of information that is pertinent to the subject. I may attend a re-enactment that might provide something I can use as source material. If needed, models are hired. All possible source material is gathered that will help me develop an image or images in my head. Once I’ve mentally settled on an image that I think works best, I will assemble those photos that best fit my mental image. At this point, I may use a projector to establish the most important shapes and aid in composition. Once all the important shapes and relationships are established, that’s when the drawing begins.
Do you use projection techniques, as we did in illustration, to transfer your photos to canvas? The use of projectors, the grid system, camera Lucida, or tracing paper are methods of reducing the time it takes to produce a sketch. None of these “short cuts” replace the need for understanding how to DRAW. It may sound weird, but you cannot trace a photo (with any redeeming quality) without knowing how to draw; you are simply replicating whatever awkward shapes, bad perspective etc. produced by the camera lens. What you see, you must be able to INTERPRET. You must be able to understand why that cloth folds as it does, what is under it that causes the fold? How can you alter and improve what you see? All that requires an ability to draw. Photo source is only a beginning. It can provide a light source for shadows, and offer basic shapes as a starting point to fulfill the intention I have for the piece. Composition is established using shapes only, the real work is done using brush and paint. Once the shapes are established, I jump right into color…no monochromatic or value study needed.
I use the projector as a tool to enlarge or reduce multiple shapes as I design the composition, no different than other artists using their computers to assemble photo source and crop it. I view the projected figure only as a shape that usually needs lots of corrective drawing. Once a basic shape is established, I will make the changes necessary to communicate my original intention.
How do you determine the story, and what part of the story, you choose to depict on canvas? Deciding the optimal narrative of an historical event, or rather the optimal moment of that narrative depends on the situation. We learned in art school that the seconds before or directly after an event were the most compelling. This may work with historical scenes, but not always. I have tried to stay away from painting gory and bloody scenes, but if it happened a certain way, I show it that way.
As my career has progressed I have painted less and less actual events. I have chosen to paint the everyday life of the Eastern Woodland Frontier. I’m able to control the composition better if I don’t have to stick to definite happenings.
I’m thinking your question is like what I’m asked all the time, so I will answer it as I have so many times. ‘How do you decide what to paint?’
In summary, I decide what historical event to depict by reading old 18th century journals, books about the time period, and even discussing old events with friends and historians. I get mental images from the information .
Many generic historical paintings start when I see something that looks interesting. I may be walking in the woods and see how a beam of light is striking the landscape. It may have a great natural composition. All it needs are 18th century figures placed in an equally pleasing design. Other paintings may begin with an interesting photo taken years earlier at a re-enactment. A couple of figures together begin to suggest a narrative that I can build on. I will also add additional figures and an appropriate landscape if needed to complete the story.
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