Subtle Surroundings

In A Place of Her Own, artist Leana Wagner presents a very inviting image. The room evokes a medieval atmosphere, and as the cat lifts its face to the sun, we can almost feel the warmth of the moment. “When I see my cats curled up and staring into space, I can’t help but wonder what they’re thinking,” says Wagner. “Here I wanted to capture Cinnamon’s dreamy, spaced-out expression.” She’s done an admirable job conveying mood, atmosphere and light. And with further exploration of advanced concepts and techniques, she’ll soon create works that reveal an even deeper understanding of her craft.

“I thought that by setting the cat in the light of a small window with stone walls, it would enhance the mood,” Wagner says. “But in laying out the lines, I ran into a problem. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get the right perspective and angles around the window. I measured several times throughout the painting process, but I know it’s still not right.”

Actually, less attention to these secondary elements would have helped the painting overall (though proper perspective, of course, can’t be ignored). You can intensify the focus and design of a painting by subordinating or eliminating particular elements. In this piece, the hard edges in the areas surrounding the cat and the detail in the stones and table contribute to a cluttered effect that lacks a clear focus.

Art Principles At Work
Thinking about perspective. It sounds as if Wagner invented the castle scene in her imagination—difficult to capture the correct linear perspective. But rather than worrying over the proper lines and dimensions, she instead might have avoided the issue altogether by focusing on aerial perspective (how something looks when viewed through atmospheric elements).

A subject will naturally come forward if the artist reserves the darkest darks, lightest lights, sharpest edges and purest colors for the subject and foreground, while maintaining a background that’s neutralized in hue and middle-toned in value. This is easier said than done, so I encourage her to study the works of her favorite artists to see if she can identify aerial perspective at work.

Limiting detail. When our eyes focus on one thing, the areas around it remain blurry. Wagner could simplify the peripheral areas by painting in a more expressive way, using bold strokes of broken color that imply the forms, their values and their edges. Saving obvious edges and the greatest finish for focal points (such as the cat’s face) would make the subject appear powerful and convincing against a more “unfinished” background and surroundings.

A good way to achieve this effect is to work from life, rather than relying principally on photographs, and to establish time limits as you paint certain areas. If the idea of painting an animal strictly from life seems too daunting, Wagner could practice creating rapid drawings of her feline models. Then, by blocking in the painting from a combination of previous drawings, the live model before her and her own imagination (referring to photos to resolve very select areas only), she’ll have a better opportunity to make a painterly, aesthetic statement.

Working quickly and urgently often results in the spontaneous and visible brushwork associated with paintings done alla prima. Varied brushwork—thin and scratchy in some places, bold and impasto in others—will create an exciting and sensual surface.

Softening transitions. The hard edges of the cat’s head, whiskers and chest have an almost cutout look against the dark background. These light edges would seem much brighter if they “glowed” into the immediate atmosphere. The idea is to have a smoother transition between the two values, without actually blending away the edge altogether. One way to do this is to take a soft brush and just catch the edge of the lighter area, then flick paint gently into the darker surroundings. It’s tricky to do this without it looking affected, but it’s a good technique with practice. You can also break the edge with the back of a painting knife.

This treatment would help ease the linear element of the table edge against the dark space between it and the window ledge as well. Take care, though, that edges remain colorful and don’t become muddy.

Another option to consider: The light streaming through the window could saturate the atmosphere, obscuring and hazing the mullions and ledges, serving to bridge and unify all the other light shapes.

By the same token, the darks need to be simplified and unified. Too many values, broken strokes and details in the shadows tend to distract the eye. Losing the shadowed edges into the dark background will help create the effect of a single dark shape, further simplifying the overall design.

Planning a color strategy. The painting’s color world could be a bit more dynamic. An orange-green concept may work well here. By using spots of color straight from the tube in the most chromatic areas and painting the background in a complementary hue, the cat could really come forward. Also, the painting would remain vibrant but unified if some of the background color were mixed into the halftones and shadows.

It would also be an improvement if the lights were more colorful; they’re a bit washed out and too white, which is a common problem when using photo references. Resolving the lightest aspects of the window will provide an opportunity to experiment with vibrant tints. Mixing cerulean blue with permanent magenta, alizarin crimson or even orange is one example of a mixture that remains intensely colorful even when lightened with lots of white.

Lessons Learned
Through simplification and editing of values and shapes, developing brushwork, exploring color and more practice working from life, Wagner will soon have more dynamic, compelling paintings falling off her brush. This isn’t to say her work is less than accomplished—she obviously displays an admirable level of ability, and this painting would have immense appeal to most viewers.

Greater proficiency at capturing perspective will enhance her drawing skills. The basic design and composition of A Place of Her Own is sound and the painter’s message is clear. She has an artistic voice and has expressed her commitment to paint her best. The recommendations and techniques referred to in this critique will be fully realized as she continues to work from life and study the masters, past and present. From the look of her work so far, she is sure to savor the remaining journey.

About the Artist
“I’ve been painting for only 22 years, and I’m just getting started,” says Leana Wagner of Fresno, California. She studied fine art at Fresno City College and admires the Impressionists for their use of light and color. One of her paintings received an honorable mention at a juried show by The Society of Western Artists, and she’s exhibited with smaller local shows as well. “I can’t stand the idea of not making art,” Wagner asserts.

Tom Zeit is a senior editor for Artist’s Sketchbook and The Artist’s Magazine.

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