Not all artists see the same. The difference between the way a novice sees a scene and how a seasoned artist views it can be great, and can be the key between a good painting experience and a frustrating one. The serious student artist needs to see in a new way. This new way of seeing is the key to success, and the development of this skill will do more to further your advancement as a painter than anything else.
Okay, if there is a new way of seeing, there must also be an old way of seeing, right? The way I see it—no pun intended—the old way of seeing goes something like this: The student arrives on a location, with paints in hand, and exclaims: “Wow, look at that! I like it, I want to paint it!” The only problem is, the “it” they want to paint is often a feeling about the subject that could be due to a nostalgic reaction or possibly their excitement about certain colors or even a heightened love of nature, but one that overwhelms their vision of how to proceed. The scene itself may even lack the real design possibilities necessary for a painting.
Scene selection is a huge factor in the success of any landscape painter, and can’t be stressed enough. Some scenes are attractive, by the postcard definition, but lack the essential elements that would make a good painting. Learning to see artistically will help us select the right subjects and then paint differently as well.
The old way is to look at the scene and start to identify all of the component parts in laundry-list fashion. Perhaps your scene has some prominent trees, a lake, a mountain, a few rocks, a beaver, a deer, and a woman feeding geese! You can see how identifying all these objects and putting them in your painting might create some problems associated with a unified theme. So, the first object of the artist is to decide what that theme is, and eliminate all of the things that distract from it. Just because something is there in front of you, doesn’t mean you have to paint it!
Let’s say you have gotten to this point, and you have decided to paint the trees, mountain, rocks, and the lake. Discarded, are the woman feeding the geese, the deer and beaver. Now you have at least simplified the scene to only what is important to you. Important as these objects are, we have to ask ourselves, will they make a good painting? Yes, now is the time to start seeing differently. Instead of seeing the scene as a collection of “things,” i.e., the mountain, rocks, lake and trees, what if you were to view them as shapes and values instead? First of all you would begin to group the visual information differently: think two dimensionally here. Instead of singling out the trees separately, you might see them as a grouping, and the shadows they cast as one shape instead of many. You might even be able to see this shape connected to the dark value of the lake; therefore making your first marks on the canvas reflect your vision of this big abstract shape instead of, again, the laundry list.
For this to work effectively, think of the value patterns in terms of threes — your darks, mid-tones and lights. Normally, we work with nine values on a value scale, but you shouldn’t start with all of them, save those refinements for later. Thinking in terms of just three values is a way of simplifying the information in front of you, and then putting it on the canvas in a broadly painted way.
Thinking this way might be aided by the use of a monochromatic block-in. You could do this by using one color such as raw umber or burnt sienna only. Your mid-tone could be rubbed on the whole canvas surface with a cloth right away, leaving only the darks and light shapes to work out next. After laying in the darks with a second layer of your color, move on to the light shining on the rocks, grouping them as one continuous shape, or a trail of separate, but related shapes, rather than unrelated objects. Placing the lights can be accomplished by wiping them out with a rag, which is either dry, or slightly moistened with mineral spirits. You can also do this with a solvent soaked brush or combination of the two. Again, you might even be able to extend these shapes to include other lights in the scene of similar value.
Now that you have laid down these values, it’s a rather easy task of deciding how those basic value-shapes fit together as a compelling, or not so compelling design! Look for movement, for connectedness of patterns, which are the underpinnings of a pleasing abstract motif. Abstract movements in art, such as Abstract Expressionism, have actually helped realists to become better artists in this regard. In truth, I’m sure that abstraction just naturally grew out of this way of seeing, which artists had been using for centuries; it’s just that the abstractionists decided to feature this idea by itself, and then take it to levels or directions far removed from the original concept. At any rate, we have come full circle, and instead of being a jumping-off point for new ideas, this way of “seeing,” is actually reinforced by its offshoots in the art world. Be thankful for the abstractionists, use what they have passed on, and leave behind what you don’t want.
At this point in the painting process, I suggest you take a break, in order to rest your eyes and mind. Come back after a few minutes or even a few hours, to see the design with a fresh perspective. It’s very easy to become accustomed — and so blinded — to mistakes that will surely come back to haunt you later. It is better to pick up on these design errors in the early planning stage, rather than to notice them for the first time at a showing of your work. One word of advice is this: never be too hasty.
After returning, you can make adjustments to the composition until you have created a pleasing abstract design of lights and darks. Then we move on to the actual painting. The beauty of this approach is that you now have a plan to follow and you can concentrate on color, value, edges and brushwork, without the distraction of composition. Remember that without a good composition, no matter what you do with the other elements (color, value, edges, and brushwork), you won’t have a good painting.
This is the portion of the program where you can really start to concentrate on that other area so important to the work—execution. This is also the area that seems to give beginners the most trouble, because they want to paint “things” rather than a painterly representation of those things.
The process is pretty straightforward. We’re working with our full palette here, but we’re still working according to values. Place your main darks first in order to establish a value key; this will give you something accurate to relate all the other values to. The placement of your mid-tones and lights can follow. It’s important to mentally approach your subject as a series of lights, darks and mid-tones, which are viewed as interlocking abstractions rather than details of the scene. In other words, don’t think tree or rock, think shape, size, color, color temperature, color saturation, and quality of edge. These marks will eventually become the tree or rock if you follow this new way of seeing, but it takes discipline to keep from falling into the “things” trap. Just put paint down, and fight the urge for as long as possible; then you can slowly switch your thought process to what the scene is really about, as you get closer to the end of the painting.
This all sounds logical and easy to follow, sort of like painting by the numbers, but most never get it, because of preconceived notions about what the painting process is. This is where a novice will try for technique, stippling a painting to death in a failed attempt to create leaves on a tree, rather than the color and value so important to the look of the tree. A few details, such as leaves are easy to put on later, but these should never form the basis of your depiction; details will never save a poorly thought-out design.
Now, some final thoughts on scene selection. This was saved for last, but realistically will be the first thing you do as a landscape painter. I saved it for last because so many of the abstract pattern considerations that were covered in the painting process are the same things you need to look for in selecting a scene. As you develop your painting practice by laying down basic shapes and values in your initial painting process — rather than diving right in to the intricate details of a tree branch — your eye will start looking for these elements as they scan possible scenes.
It’s important in selecting a scene to remember that there are few, if any, scenes that are perfectly arranged, ready-to-paint motifs that the artist can just copy. Nature doesn’t usually accommodate us in that fashion. So instead of trying to find the perfect scene, it is up to us to look for a subject with a number of artistic possibilities that would lend themselves to a creative design. The scene itself will form the nucleus of an idea that will almost always need to be rearranged by the artist, so that it works on a two-dimensional surface, in square or rectangular arrangement. It’s up to the artist to take the raw material and turn it into something useful.
Finding a great scene is not always possible if the artist is primarily concerned with comfort. Serious artists will always take the time to walk around and find scenes that have real merit, rather than setting up in a comfortable location, under a convenient palm tree, complete with mint julips for sipping. Although tempting at times, personal comfort should take a back seat to finding compelling designs. Creative designs don’t just fall out of the sky, and adjustments to the main idea must be supplied by the imagination. Designs are defined as shapes and movements that flow, along with value contrasts and colors that work in a cohesive way, which keeps the eye of the beholder craving more.
Remember that too much unity will create stagnation and result in boredom, and too much contrast leads to visual chaos. There has to be a balance of measures here, in order to excite the mind as well as provide a sense of well-being through some subtle repetition in the scene. The more you paint, the easier it will be to create these designs. Just remember to start seeing in a new way.
An award-winning artist and teacher who has been painting the landscape both in and out of the studio since 1983, John Hughes maintains a studio in Taylorsville and teaches students in private workshops and in a course at Salt Lake Community College.