One major purpose of our extended stay in Europe was to advance our knowledge of and skills in painting. To do so we visited museums, watched many DVD’s about famous artists, toured their studios, walked and sometimes painted in the places they painted, and looked at the scenery with an artist’s eye. I came away with some new perspectives (call them lessons if you will) on the art of capturing an image. Here are some of the lessons I learned along the way and am trying to incorporate into my painting and my photography.
1. Draw lines, but not necessarily sharp edges. This is a paraphrase of Edgar Degas, but similar comments were made by my favorite artists. Line gives form to what we are portraying. Without lines the viewer could not distinguish a circle from a square or a person from a tree. The best artists we saw were superb draftsmen with lines. That was not always obvious because their style of laying down the paint sometimes distracts the casual viewer from seeing the lines. For instance Vincent Van Gogh‘s paintings are sometimes described as chaotic slashes without much planning or purpose, but I see very strong lines in his work. Jack Yeats said, “I believe that the painter always begins by expressing himself with line that is by the most obvious means. Then he becomes aware that line once necessary is in fact hemming him in. And as soon as he feels strong enough, he breaks out of its confines.”
Strong lines do not mean sharp edges. Degas’ images of people have clear lines, but the edges of those lines are key to making the painting come alive. Indistinct or fuzzy lines make our eyes see depth. The painting takes on more life. Sharp edges make objects stand out from the rest of the painting. Use sharp edges where you want to draw the viewer’s eyes first. (In photography this is achieved by controlling the depth of field.) Take a look at Renoir, Monet, Manet, Turner, Van Gogh, Cezanne, and others and you will see distinct lines with mostly indistinct edges. You will see that the edges become sharper at the point the artist wants you to focus first. Here’s a watercolor where I tried to put this into practice. The sharpest edges are in the rocks and fence post and, hopefully, draw your eye there first. The lines of the field, rock fence in the distance, and mountains are less distinct and create a feeling of depth.
2. Create large (I could almost say extreme) contrasts between dark and light. This relation of light and dark is referred to as value in the art world. The paintings with the most sizzle that have people in museums and galleries standing in front of them have very dark darks and very bright/light lights. Often these extremes are placed near to each other to increase the contrast. They also often are near the major point of interest in the scene. This point was most brought home to me in our visit to the Musee de Arte Moderne in Ceret, France. This small town sits in the eastern edge of the Pyrenees. It was home to a lively art community in the 20th century. Andre Messon, Jean Marchand, Pierre Brune, Marolo, Arbit Biatas, Maurice Lautreuil, Leopold Sarvage, Chaim Soutine, and Pablo Picasso all lived here for a time and have works in the museum. Cezanne, Monet, and others visited to share with fellow artists. The most striking observation was to see the same scene painted by several different artists and determine what made one more interesting than others. Invariably the more eye-catching paintings had great contrasts in value. Most artists and photographers (myself included) are afraid of getting too dark or too bright. We tend to paint light and medium shades and call that contrast.
I will be trying to put greater value contrast in my future paintings and seeking it in my photography. You can see a bit of this in the previous painting. Here’s a study I did experimenting with value contrast. I painted the rocks nearest the white breakers much darker to create more value contrast in that area. Now I think those rocks could be even darker.
3. Use colors to heighten interest in your painting. Colors can compliment, contrast, or conflict with each other, create a buzz in the viewer’s eyes, sooth the viewer’s eyes, highlight a feature, or deaden a feature. It is most important to know and recognize the role each color plays that you choose to put on the canvas.
Challenge what your brain tells you about color. Our brain averages the eyes’ input by the use of memory from previous experience. We look at a leaf and think “green.” We don’t really see the leaf, just a remembered image of what we think a leaf should be. I am looking across the room at a philodendron. the leaves appear green on one side and reddish on the reverse. But if I take the time to really see the leaves there are yellow spots, yellow reflections from light across the room, blue tinge from the sky outside the window, and all of these combine to create the color of the leaf. Painting that leaf with shades of green on one side and red on the other would create a flat image that would not generate interest. Adding the colors that are reflected makes the painting come alive.
Challenge your notion of what color things “need” to be. Van Gogh used color to highlight items. If a person’s cheek was shaded he might put a slash of green rather than the usual bluish tint in the skin. The green compliments the rosy hues of the skin and generates a spot of interest in the painting. Perhaps he saw green in the skin tones, but I think he dared to challenge and use color to create a point of interest. Cezanne’s landscapes have spots of surprising colors among the foliage and rocks.
In Smerwick Harbor (above) I used several colors in the near rocks to generate detail and increase the focus on the breakers. In these paintings I highlighted the complimentary colors, red and green in the first and orange and blue in the second. Both of these paintings are from photographs taken at the Jardin du Plantes in Paris.
4. Finally, plan your paintings carefully and test your composition, colors, and brushwork on studies. Several museums demonstrated the planning and preparation that went into a masterpiece. Turner painted dozens of studies before completing his famous works. In the Musee Toulouse Lautrec in Albi, France there are two rooms that each have one finished painting and all of the works leading to it. Sketches, studies of certain figures, preliminary paintings in watercolors, a draft in oil, and then the finished work. We saw evidence of this with all the great artists. Sketching a scene dozens of times to get just the right composition is painstaking work, but it clearly pays off in the final product. Using watercolor, charcoal, or other mediums to test color, lines, edges, etc. provides a solid foundation for designing the final painting. I would add multiple photographs to that list. If it had been commonly available I believe all the great artists would have used reference photos. The Renoir exhibit we saw in London at the end of our stay in Europe showed him experimenting with photography to capture human and animal gestures. I can only think that this enhanced his rendering of people that we so adore today.
The next several paintings are my attempts to plan more carefully. I loved the arrays of umbrellas on the beaches and streets. I first captured them with the camera, then painted a watercolor study. When we arrived home I did Mediterranean Beach Forest.
In this series you see the photograph, a charcoal value study, and a completed watercolor. Perhaps I will now interpret this scene in oil or acrylic. This is the dome on Les Invalides in Paris as seen from an island in the Seine.
I am most drawn to paintings created after 1800. This is not a revelation, but we did try to expand our base by looking at older works. The Dutch Masters are wonderful in their command of the medium and tools of their time. They used value contrasts (light and dark) to dramatic effect. Early Italian painters were using bright colors and complimentary colors long before others in Europe. We saw a fine example of this in an exhibit of Fra Angelico panels. Although I learn from their techniques these earlier works do not appeal to my personal tastes. Therefore, generally the earliest painters I am drawn to are J. M. W. Turner, Constable, the Barbizon painters, Delacroix, Corbet, Corot, and others from the early 19th century. These artists were superb draftsmen with strong lines, but also began to understand the importance of edges. They learned that fuzzy edges create depth and interest. The Impressionists, post-Impressionists, Abstract Impressionists, and some early Abstracts grab me most. The Impressionists seem to have combined all these lessons to create their art. Those who followed into the 20th century experimented further with these concepts.
The challenge now is to absorb all that I have seen, heard, and experienced and put it into my own interpretations.