This is the first of ten planned observations on plein air painting.

“A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art. Emotion is the starting point, the beginning and the end. Craftsmanship and technique are in the middle.”Paul Cezanne.

“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!

6 thoughts on “Observation 1: To move, be moved

  1. Ed, This is a great idea. I’m looking forward to reading all your observations! You are very correct about the difference between learning and reading, you mentioned in your introductory post. Like you I’ve read, and understood many books on painting….ah, but getting all that knowledge to truly be at your command when you’re painting is another matter entirely. Sometimes it takes years to assimilate just one small aspect of painting to the point where it becomes something you’ve actually “learned” and now incoprporate into your work with ease. I’m currently reading Payne’s Composition of Outdoor Painting and it’s taking me forever because there is soooo much in there to grasp, so I’m going very slowly one bit at a time, reading a small section and then spending some time thinking and visualizing how I might use that in my own work. I have a questions, do you think it is really necessary to identify the emotion you feel before you start to paint?? Do you think that bit of analysis up front would help you make a stronger statement? Often when I’m out I see something I know I connect with and definitley want to paint, but once that happens I seem to go into scramble mode, I’m setting up as fast as I can, anxious to actually get to the painting part, I’m generally “thinking” as I lay the composition in, but after that it’s right brain, intuitive mode all the way until the very end when I switch back to consciously analyzing and tweaking. I often can’t really put a finger on the exact emotion before I begin or even once the painting’s done, I just know whether or not I captured what I felt. I’m just wondering if I went in aware that I wanted to communicate “joy” or “serenity” I could produce an even stronger portrayal of that emotion. What do you think?

  2. Jan, I don’t believe you always have to feel an emotion to paint. Most of the time, I am painting to acquire skills, not to create something to show. I think that attitude is necessary for growth. Even when I am struck by an emotion to paint, I try to analyze first, although the long term goal is to have the analysis steps become second nature. The more skills you aquire that become second nature, the better artist you become.

  3. Ed, I’m glad you mentioned not always “feeling an emotion” as a prerequisite to painting…..because that was going to be my second question, if you thought you should always have something really grab you emotionally before you start to paint. I’m in the same place as you I paint to improve skills, I’m out there a lot, (and just being outdoors gives me a good feeling) but it’s not always a really powerful experience, pleasant, but not always a real grabber. I often choose a location becasue I see compositional possibilities, and sometimes (often) I’m on borrowed time and I just set up and begin with any reasonable view. Every time I put brush to canvas it nudges my work one step further, though it is awesome when a scene, or splash of light really moves you and you capture it on canvas, definitely a high!


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