Finding a Reference
Although this blog post is titled “How to Paint an Octopus” the process can be applied to any subject. With any representational painting the first thing I do is find a good reference to look at. The best references to use are from my own sources like sketches, life drawings or photos that I took. If I don’t have any of my own references then I will compose a drawing from a variety of photos. For example, when I use images from the internet I make sure that I am using more than one photo. Also I want to be sure to draw from photos and not someone else’s illustration. I want my paintings to be as original to me as they can be. After I find a couple of images I open them in Photoshop and flip them around so they are facing the opposite direction, this helps to deviate from the original photo and gives me a good direction to create my own picture. The images I used to create this painting are shown on the right.
Drawing From a Reference
Now that I have some good references I can start to work on my drawing. In my opinion this is one of the most crucial parts of a representational painting. If the drawing is bad it is very unlikely that the paint will save it, so I spend time on the drawing and get it exactly where I want it.
If you have a hard time drawing then try using the grid method to copy it onto your surface. This helps break the picture down into smaller increments and makes it easier to copy. To make a grid draw 1″x 1″ squares across the entire image of your reference like the photo on the right. Once you have a grid drawn on your image you will make a grid on your surface (blank paper or canvas) with an equal number of squares that you put on your image. If you are making your painting larger than the image you have, you can increase the size by making the squares on your surface larger. For example, if your reference photo has 1″x 1″ squares you can make the ones on your surface 2″x 2″ just make sure you have the same number of squares on both your reference photo and your surface.
Since I used two photos for my painting the grid method didn’t work so well. Instead what I did was take elements that I liked from each photo and mixed them together to create my own unique cephalopod. Some of the tentacles came from the first photo and the others came from the second. I drew my picture directly onto a birch panel very lightly and made changes as I went. I studied both images carefully adding some of my own details while editing others.
Beginning to Paint an Octopus
Once I was done with the drawing I began to paint an octopus by adding Light Blue Permanent to the underside. I used water and gloss medium to thin my paint, and kept my panel flat on the table so I didn’t get any unwanted drips. I also like to keep the paint thin so I can begin to build layers which gives the form a more luminous quality. I think that this Light Blue Permanent is an excellent color for reflective light and works very well on the edges of the form that are away from the light source.
Next I began to paint in my shadows with Ultramarine Blue and also painted in the eye black. I used a round brush and also thinned the paint with water and gloss medium. Gloss medium is great because it makes opaque colors transparent and gives the painting a glossy finish. Since octopi have very shiny skin gloss medium works very well to imitate the surface of their bodies. It also pushes the form forward and helps create contrast enhancing the paintings illusion of space.
I feel that a good painting has a variety of contrast to it. Usually when people think of contrast they think in terms of light and dark. However, you can also contrast warm and cool colors, thick and thin paint, gloss and matte finish, small and large objects, and things like rough and smooth textures. Think of other ways you can create contrast in your art.
After adding in the shadows I used Cadmium Yellow Medium to add in the light to the parts of the form that were facing the light source. With this particular image I always mix gloss medium and water with each layer of color to create a transparent glazing effect. I also applied the paint with a pointillist effect in order to begin to create texture on the skin. While painting these lights I made sure to cover up part of the shadows in order to begin to blend the colors and create a green.
After I had painted the majority of the form I began to add more layers while building up the texture. Next I used Macaw Green, Pearlescent Acrylic Ink mixed with gloss medium and applied it very thinly. I used a round brush and dabbed all around the form with a pontillist technique. This enhanced the texture while giving the form an iridescent shine. Although each layer of paint is subtle the gloss medium allows light to pass through each color giving it a richer appearance.
Next I mixed Titanium White with Light Magenta and gloss medium and painted in the suction cups of the octopus. I also used a natural sea sponge and sponged in the same color to other parts of the body that face the light source.
One of the last things I did with the form was repeat each layer of color starting with Ultramarine Blue and adding texture with a sea sponge and a stencil material that I found at Target. This makes the form more luminous and helps punch up the vibrancy of the color.
After painting the form I painted in the background a solid opaque Light Blue Permanent. I chose this color because cool colors usually recede into the picture plane while warm ones push forward. Also since the form is built of transparent layers it would stand out more against an opaque single colored background.
The last thing I did to paint an octopus was outline the drawing with one shot enamel. I chose the color Proper Purple and used a very fine liner. This outlining takes some practice and so does using this enamel. It is best to add a little bit of mineral spirits to the paint because it tends to dry pretty fast on the palette. This outlining technique is used frequently in comics and animation and is a good technique to enhance the separation between ground and form.