I've never been much of an animal painter. But about a week ago I saw this scene of some ducks on a pond near some trees on the bank. I loved all the crooked twists and turns of the branches. But I realized that the painting needed a more animated subject matter. Some ducks floated by, and I had my composition.
I realize that most people buy paintings because of subjects that they like or that they've seen on vacation. But that's not why I choose subjects to paint. I respond to a location--the sights, sounds, values, textures and most of all, the light. I like paintings not because of the subject matter, but because of the light, the colors and placement of the elements in the work. As you can tell from my paintings the past two months, this summer my colors of choice are blue and greens, and my fascination with water--the movement, the reflections, and the colors--are the real focus of my subject choices, rather than the things being reflected..
This painting should not be considered an illustration of ducks by any means. I'm more intent on things that comprise a painting than on a literal interpretation of the scene.
In short, know your purpose and your intention. Do you want to say something about light and shadows? Interesting textures? Brilliant colors? Subject matter is often a secondary consideration.
There were times long ago when I was very irritated with people who came by to watch me paint. I was self conscious enough painting on location without the fear that people were judging the early stages of my painting. Little kids could be especially distracting. They seem to like to point at things in the painting, often touching the wet paper. Here are some of my favorite stories of tourist comments.
Once I was painting the local self-proclaimed Hot Dog King Brud Pierce. I was nearly finished with the painting, including the sign on his motorized stand that said "Brud's Hot Dogs." A woman came along and asked me what I was painting. "Brud! See the sign? See Brud's big ears?" She paused a second, looked across the street and said, "Harbor Realty?" Sigh....
More than once I have been asked "What are you painting?"
"Are you an artist?" is another favorite. My answer is usually "That's for you to say."
Then there's the Sneak. They don't want to disturb the artist, so they silently approach my easel. Suddenly, usually when I'm making a crucial line, they'll exclaim their admiration. Or sometimes I'll be backing up to judge the pattern in the painting and bump into them or trip over their dog. Painting can be dangerous!
But yesterday's comment may just take the prize. I was putting the finishing touches on this painting out at Ocean Point in East Boothbay of rocks and surf when a woman came by and talked and talked and talked, mostly about herself. Finally, she asked, "I'm looking for a place called East Side Point that has a lot of rocks and you can see the ocean. Do you know were it is?" I literally rolled my eyes and said, "You're looking at it!"
All that said, most onlookers are kind in their comments and ask if they can watch. Sometimes I like them so much that I hand them my brush so they can pose in front of the painting while their relative takes their photo. This week I was even invited to have dinner with a nice couple from Houston.
This very popular painting location features a lobster pound building. I've painted it many times, too, sometimes with more successful results than others. This time it wasn't the building that was my focal point, but the birch trees in the foreground. The building was subordinated to a supporting element.
Because I wanted to emphasize the birch trees as my major subject, I eliminated as much texture in the background trees as possible. But I needed the building to help locate the site, as well as give some interest to an otherwise uninteresting background shape. Three problems presented themselves when incorporating the building while also subordinating it to a supporting element that didn't detract from the birch trees which were my focal point.
The first problem is that the building is painted green. Trying to accurately portray the structure has always been a problem because the actual color matches the greens in the trees, making it hard to stand out. So I decided to change the color to white!
Second, I reduced the size of the building so it wasn't as prominent as it is usually portrayed.
Third, I eliminated doors, windows and other architectural features that would attract attention to the background and elevate the importance of the building. The inclusion of the building therefore was reduced to the purpose of interrupting the line of background trees.
So re-think the tendency to portray the scene accurately and "truthfully". Keep the focal point in mind when selecting other elements to include.
Of all the colors in your repertoire, green is the one most likely to trip you up.
The worst mistake you can make is to use the same tube color of green everywhere in your painting. So let's consider ways to vary the greens.
There are cool greens and warm greens. Blue and yellow make green. Add more blue and you get a cooler green. Add more yellow and you get a warm green.
Next consider altering the choice of blues and yellows. Mixing an ultramarine or a thalo blue with yellow produces totally different greens. Starting with a thalo yellow green and combining it with some umbers will gray it down a bit.
Also think about charging in some burnt sienna or a violet.
And finally, remember that warm colors advance and cool colors recede. Sometimes a blue in the distance will suggest green trees.
(This painting also benefits from the use of the complementary color of red or pink. But that's another post!)
Three things make this composition work: direction, color and value.
Other workshop teachers have often described their compositional devices in terms of letters. In this painting, the letter A is present. Both the large land mass in the foreground and the elements within it---the rocks, the log, and the textures-- point toward the island.
The contrast of color is also a factor in taking your eye to the island. The single orange rock attracts immediate attention, largely due to its contrast to the complementary color blue surrounding it, but also because of its more or less pure quality.
Finally, the dark value of the island trees set up an obvious eye attractor. Look closer at the dark value, and you will see a few specks of light that I left to break up the solid mass.
The distant land masses and the undersides of the clouds provide the horizontal eye stoppers that I spoke about in a previous post.
If you have questions or suggestions about upcoming posts, please leave them in the comments section.
More and more when searching a location for subject matter, I looker closer rather than farther away. Yesterday afternoon I went out to Ocean Point where there is a lighthouse, old Victorian houses, a charming stone chapel, and lobster boats that sail close to shore, all of which I've painted before. But on this afternoon, I once again looked down in front of me. The gleaming white rock and the rugged foliage appealed to me, and I've learned not to ignore my first strong reactions.
The obliques attracted my attention when it became time to design the composition. The breaking surf provides the stopper horizontal.
Maine is known for its lighthouses, schooners, lobsters, and......moose.
Usually you can find moose early in the morning near shallow ponds. I've been up to Greenville where the moose are plentiful in certain areas. You can even take moose safaris.
This painting combines my love of rocks, water tumbling over rocks, reflections and trees. The moose provides the focal point, but I threw in my favorite elements. Also, look at the dispersion of dark shapes. Papa, Mama, Baby dark shapes help frame the moose.
Studying the masters is very useful in making progress in your chosen medium. Here in Maine, the presence of Winslow Homer is especially unavoidable when painting sailboats. During the past few rainy days, I studied the paintings he did of sailboats and surf. I was really struck by his use of dark values to help define the beauty of the white hulls and sails of the sailboats he depicted. The challenge for me was getting the sea water dark enough to cause the hull to stand out.
First, I painted the sky and clouds. Putting down the clouds and hints of blue sky on totally white paper always feels like the values are too dark. But then when you paint the water, you must make it much darker than the sky which, placed against the hull, punches up the feeling of light. Since the sky is the source of all light, it naturally becomes much lighter looking than when I put the first washes down.
I've said it many times. Painting dark values is one of the hardest things to judge in watercolor. Students tend to be too timid and end up having to go back in again and again, resulting in muddy washes. Be brave in the darks! And study the master painter that speaks most strongly to you.