Painting at Smith Cove. A plein air painting viewed from the back of my RV in Gloucester, Mass. in May, 2004.
On the cover of the Dec. 2007 edition of American Artist magazine.
1991 American Artist magazine cover, Desert Light, Gallup...
To paint on location means to paint a moment. After the first thirty minutes or so due primarily to the movement of the sun, I'm seeing misleading visual information. The moment is gone and I'm proceeding largely in conformity to the original statements. I had to learn as a plein air painter to anticipate that which would change most radically and make those statements early on.
For "Painting at Smith Cove" above, I first painted in my mind making such decisions as, focus, (blue boat), composition (arrangement of masses and horizon line), general value scheme, edges, relative sizes, and where I would reduce or heighten the intensity of color. Notice how the blue boat stands out as a result of the color choices. I then began to paint, first drawing with a brush (sometimes a pencil) and a neutral dark in a general way. Then, using vigorous brushwork, washes and at times fairly heavy paint, much of surface was covered. The darkest dark's and the lightest lights were established in order to make comparisons within the extremes.
The idea at this and every stage is to be carefully careless. It is far better to make a 'mistake' and trim than to push the paint around and have it lose its vitality. Another choice for misstatements is to scrape and restate. When trimming, I take the trouble to mix and match so as always to work with a loaded brush keeping in mind the ensemble and not only the particular. Now and then a palette knife was used especially to indicate the jumble of objects on the wharf or for sharp edges. I softened the edges in the background tree line as a foil for the clarity of the various elements in the middle and near distance. The dock pilings and foreground rock arrangement are readily descriptive and I painted them keeping in mind the principle of unequal measures. Variety of color for the rocks and elsewhere was achieved by not over-mixing the paint on the palette. The thinking for the painting of the rocks and elsewhere is; top planes light, front planes medium and under planes dark. The danger is to paint piecemeal and extend the value range beyond the original mass decisions.
If the whites in a painting are surrounded with warms they become cool and with cools, warm, so I add a touch of yellow to white in sunlight. For this, and much more, I would refer you to M. E. Chevreul's book, The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Color. His were the scientific discoveries that influenced the French Impressionists.
Then it was a matter of rendering small forms eventually employing the use of a maul stick to steady my hand and a small pointed brush. Small descriptive shapes were picked out such as boat rigging, the schooner to the left of the Blue boat and roof lines and windows. I placed my laptop computer on a shelf near my easel and added the figure from a photograph I had taken of an outdoor art class. The edge to the left of the figure and her painting was softened to place the figure in relief. This, and the background tree line, is in imitation of indistinct peripheral vision. This is an unconventional composition with most of the interest on the left balanced by a larger relatively empty space on the right. The idea was to suggest the largeness of the water and to gain the added dimension of the distant land mass. Additionally, if the blue fishing boat were to move it would have ample water to move into.
I have an antipathy for signatures, viewing them as foreign intruders, so I keep them as unobtrusive as possible.
Oak Creek Village Oil 22"x 30"
Photograph of the scene.
The psychology of why I find mountains intriguing and beautiful may have to do with a condition of childhood. Defenseless children look to their parents, comparative giants, for comfort and protection. Compared to human scale these huge Rock formations are certainly giants. Whatever the psychology, on a more relevant level, I could visualize a painting and believed the problems to be surmountable.
This was a difficult painting for two main reasons. The scattered clouds caused the light and shade to change each time I looked out of the window of my RV and also the foreground had to be invented. In front of me were a gravel drive, a trash container, a large pinion tree and a traffic sign. Just beyond all this I could glimpse some brush-covered terrain and that was enough to invent a plausible foreground. Before beginning to paint I determined the focus (rock formation on the center left), edges, the disposition of the sunlit and shaded areas, the horizon line and the color choices, both hue and intensity. Reduced intensity of color for ariel perspective is minimal in the clear, dry, high altitude, Southwestern atmosphere. For this painting, with the prominent rock features fairly close, color changes have to do mostly with the loss of yellow as the painting recedes (green more blue, cooler red). The values lighten slightly, especially the darks. After a rough drawing for shape and position, I laid in the masses and roughly indicated the composition. Then most of the surface was covered with paint so I could make relative comparisons.
Next I finished the focus, mostly with a palette knife, and the sky, keeping it closer in value than it appeared so it wouldn't come forward and compete with the focus. The sky is mostly invented using reality as a mere suggestion. I had noticed some Poplar trees near the buildings and arranged them in dark values as a foil for the sunlit village. This contrast was to attract the viewer to the secondary interest, the village, and to coax the eye past what would become the foreground. The buildings were indicated with a palette knife. Cover the village and you can see how bland the painting becomes. At about this time it had become so hot, Arizona in August, that I decided to come back the next day and finish the painting during the more cooperative morning temperatures.
The first thing tackled the next day was finishing on both sides of the focus. The outside shape against the sky was painted in conformity to the principle of unequal measures. The idea for the painting of the rest of the mountains was to gain an understanding of the character of the formations and paint that understanding rather than each and every striation. Since what I was seeing was now in complete sunlight, I was additionally painting my memory of the shapes in half-light. I kept the subordinate areas as simple as possible without making their simplicity too obvious. The mountain behind the focus was painted as if in sunlight, in light, close values, to separate it from the focus.
Then turning my attention to the foreground, I fashioned a half-light condition to reduce contrast and thus limit its attraction power. The idea of the drawing of this area was to diminish the ground shapes and vegetation in size as they move into the painting.
The third day, away from the subject, I had made many small adjustments and signed the painting when something in the foreground suggested a dry riverbed. I invented this for added variety and as a devise to lead the viewer forward. Total time, the equivalent of one full day. Please take notice of how much of the linear geometry leads the eye toward the primary focus. The lines of the mountains against the sky, the movement of the riverbed and the Poplar trees pointing up. These and other devices may easily be employed and still remain within the confines of realism. If that which is exaggerated, eliminated, altered, invented, and subdued while painting, still results in convincing realism, the act of painting becomes much more of a creative experience. This is called artistic license, meaning deviation from fact for an effect gained. I hasten to add however, that the above is not intended as a formula for painting, but merely a description of an approach that fit the particular rather difficult circumstances.
Making decisions before painting and sticking to them, determining edges, masses and patterns by squinting, establishing the value extremes, finishing the focus after the lay in and that which surrounds it (painting the focus first allows for the rest of the painting to be accomplished with comparatively less attraction power) and then moving to completion of that which remains can be said to be my basic procedure for any painting.