Probably the biggest challenge in learning to paint plein air landscapes well is dealing with the confusion presented by the details of the scene. The first thing an artist usually notices about a subject, details can turn into a stumbling block when they become the focus of a painting.
I have seen more paintings come to ruin over the inclusion of too many details than for just about any other reason. Usually the problem arises from putting the details in before the underlying structure is in place. Remember this, no matter how well the details of a scene are painted, they will always fall short if the preliminary work with regard to form, value and color is not in place and painted correctly. There is nothing wrong with detail in and of itself; it’s when an artist becomes blinded to the actual underlying structure of the motif that details become a problem.
I sometimes find it amusing when someone, usually not an artist, tries to explain a painting they saw somewhere, praising its attention to detail that was so precise they could see every hair on the back of a field mouse — as though that were the ultimate mark of greatness in art! I usually smile and just say “hmmmm.” At the end of the day, we all appreciate art for different reasons, but for most people I think it is the concept of feeling in a work of art, its ability to speak to them on an emotional level that makes art a worthwhile experience. This isn’t found in the details. I have seen a few paintings that were very focused on detail that were actually good, but not so much for their detail, but for the skill possessed by the artist in holding the whole composition together in spite of all the visual information.
Each artist has to decide how much or how little detail to bring to a canvas. Interestingly enough, what is left out of a painting is in many ways more expressive than what is put in. Painting is a constant juggling act trying to decide how much is too much, and how little is too little. Editing is what we artists must be constantly aware of. It makes all the difference between a painting with a strong visual design and one that contains a shopping list of unrelated details.
Seeing design possibilities can start with the simple act of squinting at the subject to be painted, thereby limiting the amount of unnecessary detail at the beginning of the painting process. Seeing the subject in broad masses like this helps to push aside the sometimes overwhelming amount of visual information, helping the artist to get to the heart of the design and produce something with a lot more visual impact.
One of the most difficult things artists face in learning their craft is the art of reserve, learning to say a lot with less. It reminds me of a statement that B.B. King has made from time to time, about the value of a beautiful, soulful note being played on the guitar as opposed to a bunch of lightning speed runs that awe the audience but say very little from the heart. That’s what I’m getting at here! A well placed brushstroke that is the right color, value, and texture with an interesting edge quality can say volumes and be more inspiring than a million hairs on the back of a field mouse.
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.