Art In History Art Blog
My painting method is certainly influenced by my predilection for plein air painting, but it in fact the same whether I am painting outdoors or indoors. It is based on organizing and realizing a work quickly, even if the circumstances do not require it. I find that I am seldom able to work for more than an hour at a stretch, and tend to lose the acuteness of vision if I try.
As I have said in an earlier post, I begin with a toned panel or canvas, which among other things allows me to establish relative tones and values much more quickly than working on white. Often I am able to choose among several toned panels the one which best matches the color character of the subject I am doing. It means that every color I put down is more or less in its right relationship to the final work, instead of being seen against a misleading field of white.
I begin with a reference drawing, which can be as little as a few strokes, and never takes as much as ten minutes. It will depend on the subject: an architectural subject reqires much more than a meadow with a backdrop of woods or hills. The drawing is done with a brush and paint, usually raw umber, sometimes mixed with blue. The lines are intended to become absorbed into the painting during the next phase of work.
The purpose of the reference drawing is simply to determin how much of the world is being accomodated within the frame, what the major compositional lines are, where and how big the main elements are, and how they interrelate. As soon as I can tell the boundaries of the main color areas, I'm basically done.
The second and longest phase is blocking in. In this phase I put color into all the major areas. In theory you should start with the largest areas first, since they are the ones which will have the most influence on how other areas are perceived. Each color will influence our perception of the colors around it, since color perception is relative. In practioe, though, if I am doing a landscape I almost always begin with the sky. Even if it is not the largest area, it is to my mind the most expressive and the one which will dominate in my work.
I will always tell students not to linger too long on any one area until blocking is complete. It is always best for harmnoy to carry the whole work forward together. Again, my own practice may vary: If there are clouds which I want to capture before they change, I will work on them to a point of near finish before goiing on to other areas. The more experience you have, the more you can visualize the whole ahead of time.
If I am working out of doors, i will probably have finished the blocking in phase within a half hour of beginning. On a large canvas, it will be an hour, and I will be ready to take a break and come back the next day, when I can see well again.
The third phase is building up, tweaking and accent. The reference lines are gone, objects may have been refined during the blocking in; they will now be giving a final shape and outline. Trees get a final silhouette against the sky. Colors are enrished with the addition of other colors. And dark and light accents are added as needed to make thing seem real and present, and to make the painting sing.
If I've had a good day and the subject is of a certain sort, I may be done. There are two kinds of changes I would do in a fourth stage. The first are mental notes to myself of things I can only do when the paint dries: bare branches against a light sky; dried grasses light agains a dark background of woods. The second are corrections done after returning to the painting and seeing it freshly. I am always eager to revisit the work the next day, to see if is as good (or bad) as I thought it was. I am always too close to it right after finishing it. During that next day viewing I may see a couple of things that are really out of place. I will correct these, but I will never undertake a major revision away from the subject. I would rather start again.