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That Certain Something: Finding a Suitable Subject and Deciding How to Paint It

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Scene selection can be a huge advantage or a stumbling block to the advancement of your work. Often, the problem with a painting is not that an artist can’t paint well enough, but that the choice of subject matter lacks that certain something that will lend itself to a good painting.

Here is a list of questions that will aid you in your selection of a good subject, as well as assist in your execution. The list is by no means complete; you may come up with some of your own. Notice that the questions are directly related with the five areas of painting: Drawing, Value, Color, Edges and Brushwork.

DRAWING

  1. What will be the dominant linear movement in the scene? What lines will be subordinate?
  2. Are there interesting spatial divisions within the chosen scene?
  3. Are there parallel lines that will have to be modified in order to create a better design?
  4. Are the spaces in between objects too even, and if so how can they be modified?
  5. Does the subject drop off to one side or the other? How will I handle that?
  6. Where will my horizon or main division line be located on the canvas? Hopefully, not right in the middle, but if it is, how will I offset the amount of information in each division so as not to split the painting’s interest in half?
  7. Are there counterpoints, directional elements that stop or slow the movements of other directional elements, in the scene that will help create balance in the painting? (One example might be the edge of a mountain slope that is countered by a well-placed tree. Edgar Payne was famous for this device in his High Sierra scenes).
  8. What is the proportion of large masses to linear elements in the scene?
  9. How much detail will be necessary in order to convey the painting’s concept?
  10. How much detail will take away from the subject?
  11. Where will I concentrate the most detail work? Why, what is my purpose?
  12. What details should I subordinate to make the painting work more effectively? (Remember, sometimes less is more).
  13. Comparing angles, sizes and shapes in the drawing, is there enough variety?

VALUE

  1. Are the values in the scene varied enough to create contrast? If not, how can I tweak the scene to add that extra sparkle that is needed for a successful painting? A corollary question would be… Do I really want to paint this scene; maybe it just doesn’t have enough value contrast to make it interesting?
  2. Do the values create a pattern that will hold together, or are they all fractured and chaotic?
  3. If the values of a mass are fractured, lacking value cohesion or a visible pattern of lights, darks and mid-tones, how will I pull them together into a pleasing pattern? (Many times the artist has to sense these connections and create patterns out of chaos — that is your job as an artist; you don’t always have to paint what is there in front of you).
  4. What are the proportions of lights, mid-tones and darks in the scene?
  5. How will I distribute the three main value proportions so that there will be an uneven division? (Variety is more visually compelling than even divisions. In other words, don’t make your painting 1/3 lights, 1/3 mid-tones and 1/3 darks. Shake things up a bit.)
  6. Once you have decided on the value proportion, which value family (lights, mid-tones, darks) will dominate, which will come in second and which third in size?
  7. What is the big underlying abstract pattern in the scene?
  8. How is the light affecting the values in the scene, as fully explained in Chapter 3 of Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting?
  9. Are you comparing one value to all other values in the scene, making sure that if your trees are darker than your sky then your sky isn’t darker than your trees?

COLOR

  1. What colors will dominate in the painting? What color temperatures will dominate?
  2. What is the proportion of muted colors, grays, for example, to more saturated ones?
  3. How saturated, how pure, are the colors I am seeing?
  4. What is the most efficient way, using the least amount of color combinations, to mix my colors to capture the scene?
  5. Where will the more saturated accents be placed to get the best effect?
  6. How will I distribute my colors throughout the painting to create unity?
  7. How can I use color gradation, a gradual shift in temperature or hue, to give the painting more interest?
  8. How will I juxtapose warm and cool colors? Will I start with warmer tones and add cools or just the opposite?
  9. How is the prevailing light affecting the colors in the scene, how is it making some colors warmer others cooler?
  10. Comparing colors and color temperatures in the scene, which temperatures will dominate the mass?

EDGES

  1. Which edges will be dominant and which edges subordinate?
  2. What type of approach will I use to vary edges? Blend, scumble, dry brush, knife, walk down halo, swipe?
  3. Have I compared one edge to all others in the painting?

BRUSHWORK

  1. How will I apply the paint and how will I manipulate it after it is applied?
  2. What areas of the painting will be subdued and what areas will be more dominant texturally?
  3. Comparing the textures in one area of the scene to the textures in all other areas of the scene, which ones need what type of brushwork for a better effect?

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.

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