Pastel Pointers | Tools for Seeing the Big Picture

the big picture

Here is a painting half covered in glassine, a piece of red plastic, a compositional viewfinder, and a travel mirror--all part of my toolkit for seeing the “Big Picture”.

Getting past the visual prejudices we all have internalized over a lifetime can be hard. These prejudices are often at the core of why so many painters struggle when it comes to seeing accurately. Since childhood, the human mind has recorded experiences into its memory bank. These memories are then associated to symbolic information taken in by the eyes, providing a means of identification. This eye-mind-memory interaction allows us to function successfully throughout our daily routines. When we look at something, this memory associated identification kicks in. A sky is blue, trees are green, eyes have eyelashes, etc… These associations can be the nemesis of many a painter. Legend has it that one day while an apprentice painter was watching Claude Monet paint in the field, he asked Monet to expound on what he was thinking about while he was painting. Without pausing, Monet responded, “I am not thinking, dear boy, I am seeing!” This ability to be present with our subject matter unencumbered by the prejudices of what we believe things should be is the lifelong goal of every representational painter.
As we hone our abilities to see with more sensitivity, there are a few tools that can prove helpful. In previous blog posts, I have discussed some of the most common:
    • A simple viewfinder to better isolate composition and determine a paintings format. This can be most helpful for the painter that suffers from visual attention deficit syndrome.
    •  A red plastic viewfinder to neutralize the cool color temperatures that tend to dominate most landscapes. This helps the painter to see relative reflected light values more accurately without the allure of color.
    • A mirror that can be positioned over one shoulder with our backs turned to the painting and/or scene, to see them in reverse. This provides a means of angle and shape comparison and polices compositional side bias. Most of us have a dominant side and prefer things positioned there or leaning a certain direction. A mirror can also be positioned at our foreheads and angled so that when we look up into it we can see what is in front of us upside down. This is extremely helpful in challenging what the mind believes it sees. All of a sudden nothing is recognizable. This makes major shape, value, and color relationships easier to see.
    • Another tool that has not been discussed previously but one can prove very helpful in ascertaining if a painting is made up of good visual information whether you are painting on location or in the field is: the viewing of a painting through the translucent glassine or tracing paper often used to protect it in transport. These protective papers have a low surface tack and are semi transparent. When the paper is placed over a painting, either in process or near completion, a diffusion of edge detail, value contrast, and color saturation will be visible. This allows a painter to see the “Big Picture” of the painting without the distraction of definition. If the painting reads well when viewed in this fashion, you can be confident that you have a solid visual design.

Eventually, your ability to see with the innocence of a child, unencumbered by the prejudices of experience, will happen. Until then, these visual aids can prove quite helpful.

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3 thoughts on “Pastel Pointers | Tools for Seeing the Big Picture

  1. robertsloan2

    Another way to avoid attention/composition problems in the field was suggested in a class I took last December. When painting outdoors, instead of looking at everything in the scene before painting, choose a specific feature to be the focal area of the painting.

    Then only look at the focal area while painting the rest of the painting. That helps me avoid over detailing background elements and stay loose near the edges and in the quadrants other than the focal area. It takes a little mental discipline but it’s better than looking all over the landscape to do everything in close-focus detail.

  2. robertsloan2

    This post rocks. I hadn’t ever heard of the tracing paper solution, but it makes complete sense.

    I know when I’m drawing at home, one thing I do is scan it and look at the scan thumbnail. That reduces it to a tiny size where it’s easy to see if my composition is powerful. Now that I have an iPhone, I can do the same thing to plein air paintings in the field by snapping a photo in my phone, then looking at the thumbnail in the gallery. It reduces the painting so small that it’s as if I got up and walked away.

    Since I have mobility limits, being able to “walk away” without moving is a big assist.

    Another tool I bought last year and came to use a lot is a Reducing Glass. Like a magnifying glass in reverse, holding it in front of the art pushes it farther away. That makes it easier to see if I’ve got unified value masses, if I’ve got my subjects placed well, if the design as a whole holds up.

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