It Takes Time to Compose an Image

It Takes Time to Compose an Image by Karolina Szablewska
Oil on 1″ canvas. 36″x24″. Another painting part of the new cybernetic oil painting series. ~2018


This painting was a challenge from the very sketches I started with. Since it’s been a whole year since the last oil painting of this series, this is the second painting so far in a series that is loosely working itself out to be about technology, medicine, and disability. Unlike the last where I had an exact pose instantly, I knew what I wanted to paint but no idea of how it would look. Imagine a cloud of colours — that was all I had in mind. So below, I’m going to go through the process of refining that thought into the above image.


I had spent quite a lot of time in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and many of the recent exhibitions have been about classical painting. This led me to consider classical composition, the use of light, the use of the pose as a gesture to send a non-verbal message. There was a surprisingly great exhibition about American Western Art, which I’ve learned is actually responsible for much of cinematography. The film medium came shortly after and was very informed by the dramatic compositions and lighting used by these painters. The whole genre of painting focused on theatrics and story-telling. The exhibition did a great job of demonstrating how these paintings alongside Western movies have evolved into a representation of the American Dream – being a self-made person of freedom, and the challenging conquest of facing the unknown. Interestingly too, these paintings were almost entirely fabricated scenes that, maybe aside from some of the clothing and landscapes, represented nothing of real life in that time. They were a metaphor. And quickly, maybe one of my most favourite periods of art in history as a result.


I feel like I have a very personal connection with sunsets. One of my favourite times of day to go out for a walk is sunset, and usually I’m in a calm, reflective mood, open to reconsidering everything. It’s also a point of day we associate with rest or a change of pace. In combination with the above, I think you will be seeing a lot of sunset lighting in this series. My next favourite light is moonlight. I think these paintings need to have that tone of mood.


Below are the many attempts I took at the posing of the two figures I knew I wanted to paint. I wanted to use religious and mythical imagery, as seen in many paintings from the Renaissance, Barque era. If you understand the iconography, paintings from these time periods are packed with story, but the language is largely lost. (I admit I don’t have it in me, since some of it is a little trapped in the time period and too far away from being relatable.) Nudity feels essential to call back to these periods, an epic, dramatic pose, and imagery of angels. My process for these sketches was drawing them out without judgement and with impulsiveness, and then judging them later. Many of them are too awkward, not quite picturesque, or end up with a strange sexual innuendo. It was hard finding the pose that didn’t awkwardly line up in the wrong way…



After I had the pose, I worked on the lighting, which was actually quite simple yet difficult to execute in actuality. Though this is not the exact image I saw at the museum, this is the kind of silhouetting and light I was going for. Paintings by Bill Anton and Tom Browning respectively.



I also had to decide on the background, which felt right being very industrial and focused on metal. At first, I wanted it to be all plastic waste, however that felt unrelated (not to mention heavy-handed) to the main concept; it would have been two separate paintings. It’s tempting to try do everything at once, but that only yields a muddled result.



Another thing I struggled with was finding an anatomy reference for the pose, and I had to resort to violent news images from bombings. I also used this pose below. Senshi Stock is an amazing resource for artists. After some time, I had no real lighting reference for the face that quite worked, so I had to figure it out on paper after many failed attempts on the painting itself.





In this process of refining the lighting and pose, the idea of what this painting is really about started to become more clear. It was nagging to know why I wanted to paint these two figures, what a cyborg woman holding a fainted or dead angel man seemed so important. I don’t think I quite knew until I finished the painting, and I’m still mulling it over now. As I’m not going to go into it yet, here is an opportunity to let me know what you think below.


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