And now for the long awaited finale to Concept to Composition: Odd Nerdrum's actual painting process.
This is by far the most complicated to explain. Especially because Odd's techniques aren't precisely a "process", more a massive collection of principles. There is no formula. There is no magic medium. There is no "trick". The first and most important thing you have to understand in order to comprehend his approach, is that he is constantly experimenting, shifting approaches, completely obliterating and changing the compositions even when any other sane person would consider that they are "done". The trick is not sanding. The trick is not scraping. The trick is not glazing or velaturas, or the palette, or the herringbone linen. It is not his use of mirrors, nor the dark lens he looks through. The trick is simple: he uses all of these instruments, and more, as if he were both the composer and the conductor of a great orchestra. All the while rewriting a note here and there, in the middle of the performance, repeating a phrase, going back and rephrasing a melody, alternating the emphasis on the brass or the strings, smoothly accelerating the tempo.... all as if each and every musician and each instrument were telepathically communing with him and could adjust their performance immediately according to his wishes.
I know how frustrating this sounds to the young painter searching for the secrets to great painting. But the truth is that there is no process or formula for great painting, in general, no matter how your working. There are only principles, knowledge, experience, and above all: inspiration and passion. The key does not and cannot lie in materials and methods, but within yourself and how you utilize them, how you orchestrate every element into a coherent visual language. If that's not intimidating enough, then read on, intrepid friend.
Contrary to the methods that most learn in academies and ateliers, and contrary to the way I learned, Odd's process is audacious, fearless, even reckless. Nothing is set in stone, nothing is safe, and anything can change at any stage of the painting. I've seen him completely finish a large painting and then decide that an entire, nearly life-size figure should be two centimeters lower, and so he simply scraped it down and re-painted the entire figure. I've seen him flip a painting entirely upside-down or side-ways and decide that it looks better that way.... then proceed to change half of the painting to work with the new composition. I've seen him decide to change the lighting at the last minute, invent shadows that aren't there, and make them look completely convincing.
And this is what I love the most about the way he works. There are so many people risking their lives everyday to keep us safe, so that we have the liberty to do what we do. The least we can do is paint like we have a pair!
It's all about principles, and understanding and applying principles is all about knowledge and practice. For a simple crash course, see my other articles on the subject: Oil painting techniques: grisailles. Oil painting techniques: glazing.
On larger pieces Odd typically begins by transferring a loose compositional sketch onto the canvas with a very simple grid. And when I say loose, I mean loose. It's simply about getting the basic compositional proportions right. Next, he will put a wash of perhaps brown ochre, mixed with linseed oil and turpentine onto the area that he'll be working for the day. Typically, he starts by loosely massing in the abstract shapes of the light and shadow areas using a simple palette of yellow brown, a red earth like venetian red or flesh ochre, mars black, and titanium white (See part 2 for more details on the palette.) while refining the drawing, proportions, color, and value at the same time. He's not so concerned with exact likeness or anatomy at this point, but more with the gesture, value, and color. He also applies the paint thickly and liberally with very little or no medium - in accordance with the rule "fat over lean". That is "fat" paint has more oil and body and "lean" paint is straight out of the tube. Your first layers should be in lean paint, and for Odd, that means perhaps the first two or three layers. Only then does he commence to add significant amounts of medium in principle. Though, as I said before, he does often break rules such as this, because he knows how.
He uses models, but not always the same one. Often times a student will model for him for a few months and then another will model for the same figure. He also works a great deal from his imagination and great stores of anatomical and aesthetic knowledge, so nearly every figure becomes a conceptual form, an ideal, which is perfect for his work as they are vessels embodying the content of the work: the spirit and dignity of humanity as a whole. His overarching message concerns the universal and timeless qualities of human experience, though specific pieces may be diverse variations on the theme.
"In the beginning you find the likeness. Many painters can find the likeness, but this is not enough. You must destroy the likeness to find the essence, which few are able to find. But, when you have found the essence, you must destroy it also, in order to find that which is beyond words. Only then can I be satisfied. Even then, it is not enough. I will work the painting again and again until I am even more satisfied, and this may continue for years. I think the painting is never finished, but some day I must move on so that I do not become crazy."
"The important thing is this: To be able at any moment to give up who you are for who you can become"