When painting outdoors, the freedom of expression and immediacy of the process in a plein air study makes it a true joy. It’s a thrill to be out there responding to visual realities on an emotional level. This is the one time when your years of study truly come into play on an instinctive level. In a sense you forget everything you have learned and just respond in an intuitive way hoping the things you have learned will be manifest through your unconscious mind.
Truth is, the reliance you have on the unconscious process is no accident and the ability you have to instinctively put marks on the canvas in a meaningful way is very much guided by your years of study and experimentation, or, if you are just starting out, will be someday.
This brings up the real intent of this month’s column, “the value of study.” While the field study may be pure joy, the larger studio painting can evoke the same sort of emotional reaction, but with a twist. Since the studio affords us the luxury of time, it’s well worth the effort to spend a bit of that extra time in some meaningful study of your subject. This is where some real knowledge in the art of composition, design, color, value, edge control and brushwork can be gained. In other words, since you have all this extra time, why not use it to expand your knowledge base and create a better work of art than merely slapping paint on the canvas in hopes of producing a masterpiece! Look at any great painter and you will certainly find numerous examples of their productive study in the form of sketches and preliminary painting exercises. One of the problems with many artists in the modern world is that they don’t slow down and take the time to produce something exceptional — most likely due to the fact that our generation is used to getting things in a hurry.
This point was made clear to me on several visits to the Springville Art Museum in discussions with curator Vern Swanson. Vern hammers home this point to my students each time we visit the museum. We in the modern world have so many advantages that our predecessors didn’t have. We have the capability of driving to remote locations to work without even batting an eye. We have instant reference in the form of digital photography and means at our disposal that the older generations of artists never dreamed possible. But what do we do with it? Are we better because of it, or do we rely so much on our fast and easy methods that we forget the value of hard work in the form of real study?
When the San Diego Art Museum hosted an exhibition of works by the Spanish Master Joaquin Sorolla back in the late 80s, I remember seeing large canvases — life size — of figures that he painted on the beach. They were studies for other, larger major works. My point is this: despite the challenges of daily life, these artists forged ahead and put in the kind of real study that produces the kind of results that only the truly dedicated deserve. If anything, we need to work harder to even come close to what they were able to do, since most of us lack the rigorous training that went into a classical art education so common to those who came before us.
With this in mind, let’s look at the process of creating a large studio painting. A good place to start would be from your field studies and photo references. Couple these aids with some thumbnail sketches to zero in on the best composition for the dimensions of the canvas you have chosen and then move on to a more finished sketch or a series of sketches in charcoal. This preliminary work will go a long way in aiding your understanding of the various problems associated in depicting the scene you have chosen. Once you have worked through these challenges and feel confident that you know your subject you can start in on the finished piece, painting with gusto and bravura. In this way you can experience the joy and freedom of expression you felt in the field and the viewer will sense that as well.
The real bottom line is this, good paintings don’t fall out of trees, and they are rarely the product of an artist cranking out another potboiler to send off to the gallery with the goal of a quick sale. This kind of painting is created out of dedicated study, along with a rush of adrenalin and pure excitement. There is no formula here, except the time you take to know your subject. As the saying goes: “Knowledge is power.”
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.