As artists, we tend to notice things around us constantly. I have hundreds (and hundreds) of photo references I’ve taken over the years of places that I love when the light caught the side of the building or the pathway in such a way to cause me to stop and take it in. This is what I want to convey when I begin to paint. When you are facing a blank canvas, where do you begin to uncover the pieces that will work together to reflect the scene you are facing?
No Standard Formula
It would be so easy if each time I picked up a brush there was a magic formula that would ensure a great result. Many artists follow certain rules of composition, color and approach that they have developed over years of practice. My trajectory has not been quite so orderly. If it were simple, it would simply be a craft. Because painting is a complex process, it is also art. It takes emotion and energy and thoughtfulness and courage. Here are some decisions I find that I need to make regularly when painting – and each time I may decide differently:
Composition and Value
This seems easy enough, but it has taken years to really understand and hone my skills. Good composition is the difference between a ‘nice little painting’ and a truly wonderful painting. One lesson I learned in Anne Blair Brown’s workshop this summer is that I really need to take the time to sketch a bit – to try several approaches to whatever I am seeing. These are small blocks on a sketchpad. The first will be what I think I am after. I learned to move on – narrow the point of view – expand it – look at it vertically – make it horizontal – move it to one side or another. You really need to think about what it is that truly caught your eye – what is the most important element. Then make sure that the composition and sketch you choose reflects that element. Now you’re ready to go.
Next – value. How often do we hear about values? I think back to my earliest teachers and then on through artists I’ve studied with in groups and in workshops. Each emphasized the value scale. And yet – when i look at my earlier paintings they are a bit bland. When I painted them, I thought they were wonderful. Honesty….. I’ve had to learn to really punch the darks first and not hold back. Also, I now do a thumbnail notan sketch and look at the value patterns. These steps have strengthened my work immensely. I also now premix my colors on my palette along the value scale. Helpful in insuring that the painting holds together.
Color and Personal Style
Color is the fun part. I tend to be a ‘high key’ painter – I like lots of intensity and primaries. After you do a body of work over time, notice any consistency in your work. Are there similarities in your color choices, regardless of the subject? Do your colors hold together. Are you muddy? If so, maybe premixing will help. There are a number of color schemes you can draw from. Pick one and stick with it. Choose one color to be dominant. Play. Don’t go for pretty.
Step back. Did you accomplish what you had hoped for? Leave it and come back. Give it a day to rest and visit again. Compare this painting to some of your best. Are you happy? Does it reflect your personal style? Be happy. What an accomplishment! I sincerely love the challenge each time I paint, the decisions required – the many puzzle pieces I need to fit together. Some are winners. Others not so much. The learning and the joy continues.