Getting the Message Across


Footprints in the Sand: Cape Cod (watercolor, 18×24) by Thomas B. Johnson.

With an inviting view of a fenced path we’re swept into a sunny watercolor seascape by Texas artist Thomas B. Johnson. The blue sky and warm sand in Cape Cod are appealing subjects in themselves, but they’re made even more satisfying by his competent watercolor style. Johnson says he wanted to “communicate a peaceful feeling of isolation with just footprints in the sand to suggest a human presence.” This theme comes through to a degree, but he could further enhance it by making a few adjustments.

Areas to Work On
Johnson created a strong composition for Cape Cod?the rhythmic, undulating fence nicely leads the eye to the water, and then to the panorama of fluffy clouds. Johnson also uses the watercolor medium well. The clouds are done with a wet-into-wet technique to suggest rain in one area, while the white of the paper forms the luminous cloud tops. The softly waving grasses add further movement to the rhythm of the water and the undulating fence posts. This all sets the stage to engage the viewer and communicate Johnson’s vision. However, the lack of a clearly defined focal point prevents Cape Cod from being as good as it could be. Let?’s take a closer look at how Johnson could make some specific changes that will give his painting the mood he wants it to have.

Art Principles At Work
Communicating with contrast. A painting is somewhat like a television commercial in that you must communicate your message immediately if you want it to be heard. Since Johnson would like for the footprints to be a strong carrier of his message, the painting needs to be better structured to emphasize the tracks. One way to do this is by addressing the use of tonal values.

By converting the image to black and white (at right), you can more easily see the range of values. The beach, which makes up a large part of the painting, is fairly even in tonality; the greatest value contrast is in the clumps of beach grasses, so your eye naturally jumps to them. With the exception of the shadows in these grasses, the values on the beach stay in the middle range, while the footprints in the sand are almost too light to be noticed. Johnson needs to increase the value contrast in the footprints so they stand out and to decrease the contrast between the beach and the grasses so they recede. Adding middle values to the sandy slope would downplay these clumps of grass, and allow them to become better integrated into the landscape.

Darkening the foreground with a large, dark shadow would also anchor the sunlit areas of beach and floating clouds, providing a contrast to the fragmented areas of light and dark grasses, fence posts and water. In addition, a dark frontal shadow would illuminate the center areas where the footprints are located. Johnson could further structure the painting by using large shapes to define the areas of dark and light. In turn, these shapes of light and dark will help the viewer move through the painting, and add a sense of cohesiveness.

Enhancing mood with color. The mood of Cape Cod could be further developed with a more dramatic use of color. The overall uniformity of tone and hue prevents any one area of the painting from setting off another. The upper portion is basically a cool blue while the lower two-thirds is a warm yellow. Adding more warm tones in the sky and clouds while increasing the richness of the blue and burnt sienna tone in the beach will make all these areas more enjoyable. For instance, increasing the cool shadow on the lower left in size and color tonality would break up the predominately yellow beach, make the yellows and reds seem warmer, and establish a relationship between earth and sky. In addition, more intermingling of warm and cool tones in the upper and lower portion of the painting will add unity and harmony to the scene.

Depending on the mood you want, you can work with purer color or choose a lower intensity palette. Using bright color as Johnson did was an excellent choice to give the feel of a sunny beach. He just needs to round out those choices with deeper, richer areas of color used in a more balanced way.

Lessons Learned
Johnson treats his subjects with beauty and finesse. Now it’s time for him to simply add the final punch by stating his theme in the focal area. Here he can exaggerate by using strong value contrast or vibrant color to communicate it. All other surrounding objects should then be subdued to serve the theme. Using shadow and light to spotlight the focal point and downplay the surroundings will further his goal.

Finally, Johnson needs to use color and temperature to complete the mood of his painting by allowing the mood to determine where the color will be used and to what intensity. Painting all objects the same temperature or intensity of color will drain the focal point of its power. Given the way Johnson has handled the color in Cape Cod, however, we can imagine the result when he brings all his skills together to reveal his artistic vision.

About the Artist
Plano, Texas-based Thomas B. Johnson paints his scenes with the same sensitivity as the subjects themselves should be treated: ?The beaches exposed to the Atlantic Ocean on Cape Cod are very fragile,? he says. “So the fences are required to limit access to the protected areas, which in this painting are national parks.” In addition to working on his paintings, Johnson designs and makes easels, display stands and overhead demonstration mirrors.

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