This is the first of ten planned observations on plein air painting.
“When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.” John Ruskin (1819 – 1900)
Why do you paint what you do, and how does that intention reach the viewer? It all starts with a spark of recognition. Something you see sparks an emotion in you that you felt compelled to capture and keep alive in a painting. That spark may have been based on a memory, something universal or your emotional state at the time you saw it. It hardly matters because once you have that response–for the artist–the analytical and technical process of translation can begin. If you paint to communicate what you feel about your subject, then this observation is for you. I realize not every artist paints this way.
The act of committing to canvas your emotional response is by far the most difficult to explain. You make a number of choices when you paint–and in fact, other than the physical properties of your materials (which are not entirely under your control), and other than limitations in skill that come with time and practice, everything you do is a choice. Communicating emotion starts with composition. What you leave in and choose to edit out means something. There are too many “rules of composition” that can equip you to tackle this to cover here, so I’ve listed some examples to give you an idea of where to start. There are also some some very good sources I can recommend for the readers among us (“Conversations in Paint“, by Charles Dunn; and “Composition of Outdoor Painting“, by Edgar Payne).
- Peace: close value structure; Ariel perspective (distance); grays with slight warm/cool variation; vast sky; soft edges; horizontal lines dominate; flat texture; cool colors; analogous color scheme; analogous/close values; compound curve or “S” composition; symmetry; soft lines (“s” and concave curves); few details; simple, broad design.
- Vitality: disparate values side-by-side; saturated color; warm colors dominate; hard edges (accept where movement is indicated); vertical, diagonal and curved lines dominate; varied texture; complementary color scheme or slit complementary; dissonances, unbalance, asymmetry, zig-zag lines
- Nobility: vertical lines, large masses, triangular or pyramid design, dark colors/values, solidity.
This observation brings up the balance between the head and the heart in painting. There are divergent forces at work here: on the one hand, you want to feel great emotion when painting (because it does translate to the canvas), on the other hand, you need to be analytical to control the materials and develop the composition. The way to start is to recognize the emotion you want to convey and dip your hand into your toolbox of technique to make it happen. I recall Ken Auster talking about this. If I recall correctly his take–one I subscribe too–is that the head starts the process with careful design, analysis, and visualizing the end result, and the heart takes over, once that thinking is there and your foundation drawing is laid to support your ideas. Consider Gaudi or Gehry, two extremely expressive architects. Their buildings breath with life and movement, yet clearly they are first and foremost earthly structures that require sound engineering to build. As artists, we’re like them in that we must obey the physics of our materials. Even the most emotionally evocative paintings are built on solid art principles and techniques.
By example, consider my painting below, “Last Light, Provence”. I did this painting on my first significant trip dedicated to art in 2003, in France. I suppose–like almost anything–the first time you do something you truly love the adrenalin permeates you and solidifies your memory (this is based on study reported on 60 Minutes). I was traveling with two teachers (Brigitte Curt and Jim Smyth) and another student. I was so happy to be there it seemed that every painting (or the next painting…there’s always the next one!) represented a breakthrough. This painting represented a breakthrough for me. My goal was to loosen up my style and communicate more emotion. After a productive morning (and equally productive nap in a Lavender field) I set up under the shade of a great oak in the middle of Lavender. I actually can’t recall what I was painting at the time…a clump of buildings in the distance, I think…when (in the golden hour, no less) I turned around and saw the last bits of light striking the hillside. It took my breath away. I knew a couple of truths at that point: 1) I’d only have about 20 minutes at most to capture it; and 2) I HAD to capture it. If you feel compelled to paint something, paint it!