Thursday, April 8, 2010

"No Magic Formulas"

I've never considered the purpose of this blog to be tutorial. However, students in my classes often ask how to paint "things" such as water reflections and buildings. I feel this student concern is universal and therefore it might be a good idea to address it here. My usual answer to students, other than novices, is "if you have had good instruction from a qualified teacher and learned to 'see' more than likely you already know what it takes to paint these subjects. What you may not have is the confidence to put what you know into meaningful order".

First of all, I want to make it abundantly clear that contrary to popular student opinion, there are no magic formulas for painting a subject. Just like there is no perfect brush for doing an entire painting. For any instructor to suggest otherwise would be highly misleading. Representational artists who paint still life's, landscapes, figures, and/or portraits, all rely on the very same basic principles of art and painting techniques. The very same! Therefore, my answer to the questions "how does one paint water reflections with amorphous shapes", and "how to paint buildings with angular shapes" is essentially the same.

Besides basic drawing and compositional skills, artists, who work in color, have several simple but very important tools that have stood the test of time in creating great works of art. They are well placed color notes, edge treatments, and texture. The combined effect of these three elements define the impression of any subject.

The color note consists of the local color of a subject (ie: red, yellow, blue, etc.) and it's relative value (lightness/darkness), temperature (warm or cool), and intensity (saturated color vs. greyed color). Each of these elements of the color note, listed here in the order of their importance, must be correct in the various passages of a painting. If any one element is wrong the passage will not fit with its surroundings (hence the word "relative"). I tell students to check their color note(s) when something doesn't read right in their painting. Invariably one or more of the elements, value, temperature or intensity will be wrong. Corrected, the passage will then "fit" with other nearby notes.

Traditionally, edges are one of the last tools students pay attention to on their way to becoming accomplished at their craft. By way of definition, a hard edge exists where two contrasting elements meet. Conversely, soft or hard edges apply where contrast does not exist. It is the effective use of these variable edges that create the so called "poetry" in a painting. By in large, a painting should be made up of primarily soft and/or lost edges leaving the hard edges, which catch the attention of the eye, in important places such as the focal area.

And finally, texture. We know that contrast is elemental in creating interest in a painting. This is never more true than with texture. Contrast titillates the eye and textural diversity is exciting, such as: rough vs. smooth, thick vs. thin, and opaque vs. transparent.

It is not unusual to see student works that are all hard edges, all smooth surfaces, etc. Students often get so caught up in the "thing" or the immediacy of what they are doing they forget to diversify contrasts. The next time you paint, think about color notes, edges, and texture. Even a small improvement in any one of these will add up to huge gains in the overall look of your work and help in painting that building or the water reflections correctly.

The best advice I can give is to draw on what you have learned...what you know. Think about how you can apply these tools to create your subject. Remember, if there is a magic formula, it is YOU. You in combination with a few simple tools. You may be surprised at just how much you already know. Have the confidence to try without looking for easy answers. I know you can do it!


Beth Niquette said...

This is a wonderful tool--I'd never heard of this before. I think I instinctively do this already. But to know exactly what I'm donig and why makes all the difference in the world.

It's been 30 plus years since I've been in Art class--so I really appreciate your insights.

Christine said...

Such concise and inspiring encouragement and information ~ I love this post :-)