It seems like some artists have a top-secret process that, if known, would make their work seem more mundane and them less talented. And I’m sure some definitely do have a secret trick up their sleeve, some closely-guarded technique -- doesn’t the cost of schooling in some way represent paying for access to these secrets? But the reality is, I think most of us are doing it just like da Vinci did: experimentation and time.
I'm experimenting to find what is most satisfying to my eye. As far as I've learned, that generally consists of something at least somewhat lifelike, but with varying degrees of weirdness. I'm also experimenting to find the methods of art making that best suit my psychology: my tolerance for routine and repetition versus my desire for innovation and newness. From these experiments, I arrive at the use of certain methods, materials, and subject matter, but it's not those particular results that are any sort of key to making "good paintings." The search itself is the key.
Currently, and in the most mundane terms, I am painting figuratively, mostly women bodies, and most frequently in oil. I have always been drawn inexplicably to painting. When I say “painting,” I mean the creation of images from form and color, rather than drawing which I have always felt was heavily line-based, not a strength of mine. (The debate over what constitutes a painting versus a drawing is a topic for another post, another time.) The female body has become my habitual subject because I don't seem to get bored of it. It is infinitely shaped, and comes steeped in all sorts of nuance: personality, emotion, and politics.
I initially start a painting fairly traditionally, with an underpainting (some much looser than others) to help me organize my thoughts. The old masters didn't work the way they did just for the hell of it; they did it because it worked. I often stray from the traditional masters' palette, even right from the beginning, because I find that odd combinations of traditional and modern colors make the painting process much more exciting and often offer formal problems to solve. I enjoy the dissonance this sort of palette can generate, as opposed to the harmony sought by many artists during various art-historical periods of the past.
I paint with oils because the longer drying time allows for more options in blending and other effects and interactions of the paint which I deeply enjoy. I will, however, utilize acrylic for its fast-drying utility as the first layer on many paintings as a colored background; I am not a purist. I don't like to start on white canvas because I find it doesn't lend itself as well to developing a full range of values. This preference has recently led me to experiment with clear-gessoed linen instead.
In situations where scale and proportions are critical, I will project or transfer the initial block-in of the subject, but I prefer not to if at all possible. For some, working out the details of their compositions in advance makes for a better painting, but for me it makes the final result feel a little too rigid. I prefer to work from simple black and white computer print-outs of my reference image. (Later on, when I need to see color or value in better detail, I will sometimes look at references on my phone.) Assembling the composition freehand at full scale feels more dynamic and natural.
I work heavily from reference photographs, partly because it allows me to enjoy working with the shapes made by the body, rather than fretting about accurate/correct anatomy, but also because I am more interested in the individual quirks and uniqueness of each body, rather than the supposed perfection of the imaginary academic ideal. It’s important to me that I shoot the vast majority of my own references. In my work as a retoucher, I have found that I’m editing out the very details that I’m interested in. Occasionally I will run into an image that pushes my buttons in the right way, but overall mass media imagery does not value those elements, so I seek them out through my own photography.
It’s important to point out that the search is ongoing. How I’m painting now isn’t how I’ll be painting 5 years from now -- if it is, that means I’ve gotten too comfortable and I’m not experimenting anymore. My studio practice is filled with failed experiments and false starts; it’s perseverance that makes for good paintings.