Do your paintings look flat and lifeless? Do you struggle to visualise your painting from a photograph? Do you need to see another artist's work to get ideas for your paintings? If you cannot confidently transform your painting ideas into something beautiful on canvas you are not alone.
This article will help you escape from being stuck to creating paintings with life, light and that are unique to you. Read on.
The Problem: How to Visualise a Painting?
I recently received this question from an artist:
I struggle to see in my head how a painting might look from a scene unless I can see a similar scene already in a painting. It is very frustrating as when I do a painting from a photograph it always looks flat because I end up trying to get the colours right rather than getting the light right. Is there an exercise I can do to get me out of the habit or to see a painting in my head from a not so great scene in a photograph? (Richard)
I have repeated Richard’s question almost word for word since it covers many issues commonly found with beginners.
To simplify this problem further let’s break it down into the following:
Not Feeling it Anymore
Has this happened to you? You have taken photos on holiday and you get back home with the intention of painting a few of those scenes. You flip through your photos and try to recall the day and time you took the photo. You know it was a nice moment, but the experience is already fading. You are not feeling it anymore.
Still you persist, because it must be a good subject to paint. After all why did you take the photograph unless it is a great scene. It must surely work in paint too right? Wrong! A photo provides an instant in time, but seldom engages the imagination like being there in person. The camera also makes adjustments to color and dark shapes that slightly alter our perceptions. Shadows are darker. Skies are bluer and subtle colors often washed out.
Then the scale and composition are vastly altered. Those majestic hills, crashing waves or mountain peaks do not come across well in a photo. This stumps you and you begin to doubt yourself.
How to See Like an Artist
The time to see a painting is not when you press the shutter button. Or when you look at the photo later. The time is to see the painting is before any of these moments. The photo is about information gathering not the gateway to a great painting.
To see the painting you need to know what makes a painting good. It starts with understanding things like
When you can see the reality in front of you and start to analyse it like an artist you will see arrangements of light and dark shapes. Colors in their range of hues and intensity. What to stress and what to leave out. You will also have an understanding of the language of painting.
For example: Composition
A poorly composed scene is always going to make a poor painting. No matter what colors are used or how accomplished the brushwork is. Sure these may help if they are good, but poor composition means a distracting or boring scene that leaves you unmoved.
Photos are often poorly composed. Most people see a beautiful scene and take a snapshot then move on. How often do artists look at a photo and try to paint everything in that photo. Almost all the time. Even though the odds of a snapshot being well composed is remote artists will try to replicate the photo.
This is problem number one and is usually fatal to the painting.
The Solution is to look at the scene with your eyes. Study it and decide what attracts you to it. Try and find a focal point. The one thing you want the viewer to focus on first. Most often this means getting closer. Not having a focal object lost in the middle of nowhere. Crop in to the main object.
Study composition. Know why a scene looks good or bad. This is academic and instinctive too. Learn the academics and hone your instincts through practice.
If you have photos try cropping them to get a tighter composition. Look for big shapes and see how they interact. Lines, overlapping shapes and so on all add up.
The Language of Painting
This can also be learned, but must be practiced often. In this case we are talking about values, shapes and colors. There are more things as you drill down, but these are the fundamentals. Values is the degree of light and dark. Color encompasses hue and intensity (saturation). Shapes are the masses of light, dark and middle value areas. Like puzzle pieces. Not the details. (In this interview I discuss the language of painting more)
I cannot go into the topics in much detail here, but knowing them is critical. Once you get these concepts in line you can create light filled paintings. The spark of life is no longer a mystery, because it is simply a case of technical issues. A good starting point is my free course on starting a painting.
Recap the Critical Points
Never defer to the photo as the be all and end all. The photo is simply a tool to record information. Rely on your artist’s eye to see the painting within the photo. The only way to see what others cannot is to think composition, shapes, values and color. That is it.
It follows that you must be outdoors to see all of nature’s grandeur. The photo is a poor facsimile of reality no matter how many Lightroom presets you use.
Your Own Style Emerges
Matisse says that what you have within you will come out eventually. This means you will develop your own style and method. Your unique accent. Your special signature. Do not lose sleep about being the next best thing. If you have studied your favorite master painters you will know what makes your heart sing.
Trust in your feelings. How deep is that yellow in the fields? Mix that color how you want it. Apply the color simply and boldly. Then move onto the next shape of color. If it is wrong your instinct will say so. So what? Scrape the offending brushmark off and try again. But do not be precious about it either. This is wimpish. Get your paint down and move on with your painting.
It is wrong to expect every painting to be a masterpiece. I have piles of failed works in the garage. When I said buckets of paint and miles of canvas it was only slightly exaggerated. Perhaps not even. Point is you have to do many paintings with the correct foundations of knowledge. Then you become the confident artist you want to be.
You accumulate your ten thousand hours. The mastery you seek happens. But the journey never stops.
Embrace the Process
When you have embraced the process of learning your confidence can be taken for granted. You will see immediately how to mix the color for that tree and mountain. How to use the brush just so to soften edges or describe the curve of a wave. How to apply paint boldly and not be tempted to blend brush marks flat. All of it will be within your grasp.
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