Methods and Materials: Using Studies to Build a Painting
by Christopher Willard

The complex paintings of Martin Beck of Jersey City, New Jersey, are the result of numerous studies. Beck often uses them throughout his entire painting process, which can take up to three years. "I have a seamless method of going from the study to the painting and back again—probably because I perceive painting to be very much like drawing," he explains. "The goal of the study is to be quick in a way that allows for a fluidity of ideas. For example, I will often sketch on the large painting, making studies that will eventually be covered up as the painting develops. At the same time, I'll draw in a sketchbook where the smaller studies allow me to take an idea in a certain direction that I do not have to commit to the canvas. Studies allow me to quickly create permutations of an idea that can bring a liveliness to the painting." Beck supplements his drawn studies with photographs he often finds in old books and magazines. "Many of these become elements for collage studies in the sketchbook," he says. "I glue photographs into the sketchbook and onto my graphite drawings, but I never collage them onto the canvas. I'll often continue the process by working on the photographs with a variety of materials, including Conté crayons and china markers. If I'm inventing figures in difficult positions, I use a mirror or ask a friend to pose as I draw new studies. Then I refer to all this material as I work."

Many of his studies are executed with the help of a computer. "If I don't have a reference photo, I'll go on the Internet and search for an image," he says. "However, finding the perfect image on the Internet can be difficult, and it's more a matter of searching and hoping. Lately, I've been looking for Tarzan images for possible use in a painting, and while I've yet to find the perfect one, I've retrieved many other images related to Tarzan that lead me away from my original idea toward others I may use. Once I find an image I want, I download it into an image processing program, with which I then manipulate it by changing colors, cutting and pasting, making part of the image more legible, or, more often than not, changing it to black and white. Removing the color from the study allows me to create my own color information on the canvas in a way that gives the image more impact."

The artist finds that using a digital camera allows him to capture images for quick studies more cheaply than with a regular camera, as it eliminates film and processing costs. "I can take quick photographs of studies or paintings in the studio and immediately have a computer image that I can change and print," he says. "The quality is not great, but as a reference tool, it's perfect."

Beck does a significant amount of research before starting to create his images and likes mingling his observations about contemporary society with a historical perspective, often inserting figures from history and popular culture. He stresses the opportunities contemporary artists have to use new media for making studies and notes the parallels between the close of our own century and that of the previous one. "Degas, for example, embraced the new technology by allowing printing and photography into his process of making studies," he points out. "Our own struggle with new technology in relation to studies and traditional painting can lead to some very exciting things."

Lazy, 1997

Tarzan's Hollywood Party, 1996