Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Paint What You See.....

On my painting journey, I've been exposed to so many wonderful pieces of advice that it would take weeks to list them all....even if it were possible to do so. Every topic imaginable has popped up somewhere in my “studies”: in a book, in a magazine, from a workshop instructor, from a fellow artist struggling along beside me, and in many more sources to numerous to list. Of course, not all of the advice has been right for me (it's important to be selective), nor has it all been good or worthwhile. (One well known artist even recommended a particular brand of paper towel in his book. Of all the challenges facing the emerging artist, the dilemma of what brand of paper towel to use never struck me as something to spend a lot of time agonizing over.) But on the whole, I paint the way I do today because of the advice I received along the way. I continue to seek it out wherever I can, and I hope that continues for the rest of my painting life.

But there are two pieces of advice that stand out. It isn't that they are more important than the others, but simply that they meant something to me when I came across them and they still do. I don't think I do a painting today where one or both thoughts don't cross my mind:

Paint what you see


Paint the light

"Paint what you see." I come across this advice fairly often in books and sometimes in workshops. I recall once reading Harley Brown, the pastel artist of renown, comment to the effect that it was not necessary for an artist to make exhaustive studies of anatomy, but rather to simply paint what he or she sees. I think his comment was that he didn't need to know about the physical makeup of a horse to paint one....he simply painted what he saw. That makes sense to me.

Painting what you see seems so obvious, and yet it is so complicated and challenging. All of us have learned how to draw something, particularly if we had an early interest in art. From our early years, we learned that a tree could be represented by drawing a green lollipop on a brown stick. Add a couple of red dots, and you had an apple tree! Later we learned how to draw an eye (probably incorrectly) and lips. And to this day I watch emerging artists in workshops look carefully at the model and then look down and draw Cupid’s bow lips, or on plein air trips gaze long and intensely at the landscape then look down and paint a green lollipop. It is so obvious - to everyone but the artist - that they are painting what they think they should see - not what they see. Naturally, the examples are not usually quite that extreme, but the reality is not all that different: they are painting a sort of memorized shorthand instead of what's there in front of them. And so, every time I paint, I remind myself to try, with all my concentration, to paint EXACTLY what I see. Of course, I rarely succeed completely, but I get close sometimes.

And this is where the second piece of advice comes in: "Paint the Light." Maybe this is the more important of the two recommendations because if you really do this, you also are more likely to paint what you see. When I first read this advice (I think it was David Leffel, but I'm not sure.  My apologies! ) it struck me as a little zen-like. I mean, come on!  I'm struggling with what color to use and I'm supposed to "paint the light?" Oh, please! But over time, I've started to understand. If you learn to see something not as a flower pot or as a nose, but as a shape revealed by light and shadow, and if you paint that light and shadow rather that paint your shorthand for a flower pot or nose, you will be astonished to discover that you have painted exactly what you see in front of you. Painting the light is a wonderful discovery. Forms no longer challenge you to replicate them, you don't have to. You just paint how the light rakes across them, how it casts shadows that are sometimes hard edged, sometimes soft edged, you paint areas where light turns to shadow, where darkness turns darker, where bright light is reflected into the absence of light. And when you paint this accurately, you paint just what your eye sees.....LIGHT! Believe it or not, I have actually had the experience of painting something without knowing it, only to discover it in my painting later. This has happened more than once when, painting from a photograph, I carefully painted the light in a particular area, and then only later actually realized I had painted a ‘thing’ into the picture without even knowing it. That’s absolutely true.  I actually painted something and didn't know I was painting it.  To me it is the proof of the “Paint the Light” advice. You don’t even need to know what it is you are painting, if you just paint the light that ‘creates’ it.  Think about that in relation to painting portraits, and you've found one of the keys to finding a likeness.

This detail from Angel of Bodie was done very much with the idea of "paint the light".  I thought there were several challenges in painting this monument: make the angel look like a statue and not just a white figure: make the lettering readable without simply painting it on: and overall, make the lettering and the 'rocks' that form the base to appear to have been chipped from stone.  To do that, I tried very conciously not to paint forms - not to paint letters or rocks - but to paint the effect of the light raking across the monument.  I paid close attention to hard edges versus soft, to difused light versus cast shadow, but really not thinking about those as components, but rather just as conditions of light at that particular point.  I think it worked within the limits of my own abilities.

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