Understanding the elements of a scene before attempting to paint is crucial to a successful outcome. The abstract design of shapes, angles, values and colors all play a major part in why one painting works and another fails. Often we’re attracted to the story of the scene but don’t put enough effort into understanding its essence. A winding country road with a charming grove of trees in the distance might be appealing in story content but lacking in other key elements that provide balance and harmony. As I mentioned in a blog post about thumbnails from July 20 2009, these underlying visual elements can be the make or break of a painting.
As important as thumbnail sketches can be, many painters still choose to ignore them and jump headlong into the painting without an understanding of the underlying strengths and weaknesses of the scene. This is especially true when working en plein air. Because everything is changing, painters become anxious to get started. The excitement and anticipation can be paramount to holding a thoroughbred horse in the starting gate before a race. But there’s a solution. When you feel like you don’t have time to physically do thumbnail sketches, there’s a modern tool that can quickly provide similar information: the compact digital camera. Take a series of reference exposures of the considered scene and scroll back through them using the LCD screen on the back of the camera. If color is a distraction, you can adjust the camera to take grey scale (black and white) images or convert color images after the fact. Hold the camera at arms length to mineralize the picture size. View the images in a shaded area when working in extreme sunlight. While scrolling, look for visual impact. If you still have a hard time ignoring the story content of the picture, close one eye and squint. Strong patterns of value and shape will be noticeable, making it easier to see which images have the strongest elements to work with. This provides something to hold onto throughout the painting, reminding you of the abstract relationships that hold the painting together. You understand the big picture.
While it’s always better to devote preparation time to a series of thumbnail sketches in advance of painting, for those times when you just can’t wait, a quick digital review will expedite the process, providing a quick glimpse a scene’s visual elements without the story line interfering.
Read Richard’s column about an intuitive approach to underpaintings in the October issue of The Pastel Journal available here.