Art In History Art Blog
If you paint on site, how much should you do with the painting after you get back to the studio? It all depends what you are trying to achieve.
It is a time-honored process to develop works in the studio from sketches done on site. Often these are single-purpose sketches, to study composition, record color, trigger your visual memory. Many artists will begin on a fresh canvas once back in the studio, but many others continue to develop their original image.
I do almost no revision once I return from the field. Most of what I do is add specific elements from mental notes, elements that require the paint to be dry, like fine branches against the sky, or grasses against a dark background. "Spreading Oak" is an example of a work where a few planned touches were done the next day to branches and grasses. I will also refresh a pure color, such as the sky, which has gotten too intermixed. Lastly, I will ocasionally see a glaring problem in an otherwise successful work and fix it.
Almost any painting you do can be "improved" in hindsight, as you study it in different lights. So why don't I retouch more of my plein-air works? The answer is that the improvements come at a cost I can't accept: the loss of truth and directness, of the immediacy of the moment in light and color.
The painting "Winter Fog" is an example of the choice available to an artist. I did it a week ago, and it is just as I left it at the end of an hour on site. I knew at the time that the composition was a reach, with the stone wall as a strong dark in the lower left, balanced by nothingness in the upper right. I could probably make the composition work better, and am taking it under advisement, but the fact is that the painting is an excellent reflection of the light and color that was there, and I hate to mess with it.
So, if truth and immediacy are important to you, beware of alterations. If it is more important to resolve the image, go for it.