Refining Your Technique

An old rusted car provided an excellent subject for artist Liam Murphy’s Rusted Relic. The overgrown weeds and the flowers provide a nice, organic contrast to the man-made car, and add to the feeling of nostalgia, isolation and abandonment. He’s used mood and detail to express a highly realistic interpretation of his subject.

Areas to Work On
Design is a key element of successful paintings, and here Murphy carefully planned his subject. There’s a strong repetition of vertical shapes (trees, window posts and grass) contrasting with the horizontal lines (the car, branches, twigs and plants). His workmanship and planning are meticulous. This detailed planning can create a wonderful image, but it can also cause a rigidity and stylization not generally found in natural objects. The detail is necessary on the automobile, but if you follow the line of flowers and plants horizontally above the rear of the car and vertically to the right of the middle at the top of the picture, you’ll see strong edges and geometric shapes that detract from the fluidity of the scene.

Principles At Work
Balancing repetition and variety. Repeating shapes and colors helps create unity in a painting. But variety in shapes, colors and edges also helps create interest. The flowers and ferns repeat throughout Rusted Relic, making it a harmonious scene. But if you look closely, each kind of flower portrayed has the same color, same shape and same size, and they all have hard edges. By creating more variety in his shapes, sizes, colors and edges, Murphy could help convey the mood of this scene with a more natural feeling. Getting soft edges in acrylic isn’t as hard as it sounds. The reason most artists find it challenging is that acrylic has no body—not because it dries too fast. I’ve found that Golden Acrylic Retarder or Daler-Rowney’s Cryla Impasto Gel Medium are two additive mediums that help me get the soft edges I want.
Enhancing mood. Viewers connect with mood when they see a painting, not detail. And the mood in Rusted Relic is strong; it’s nostalgic and welcoming and it makes us want to enter the picture and roam around a bit. There’s a nice warmth from the sun and a strong midday light. But midday light can be boring because it doesn’t produce many shadows. What would happen if the time of day had been pushed up or back several hours when the sun’s at an angle? With the resulting deep shadows, Murphy could have further enhanced the feeling of abandonment. In addition, shadows would break up the regularity of shapes and add a few more design elements to the painting.
Refining the composition. I’ve been painting for many years and I still have trouble properly placing my center of interest. Usually, I end up putting it right in the middle of my support and I don’t notice the problem until my painting’s complete. This is where thumbnails come in. The car in Rusted Relic is the focal point and it’s pretty much centrally located, as is that big clump of grasses in front of the car. By pushing everything off-center just a bit more, some of the static feel of the design could have been avoided. In practicing with compositional thumbnails, perhaps Murphy could also play with the shape and dimensions of the painting, making it more horizontal by adding several inches to the right, or more vertical by adding several inches to the top. In addition to keeping the car out of the middle of the image, adding more space around the car could help enhance the feeling of isolation.
Keeping conservation in mind. Murphy created Rusted Relic on hardboard. With this support, you need to use the right type for your medium. Ross Merrill, chief of conservation at the National Gallery of Art, says acrylic and gouache artists should use untempered board since it’s more compatible with water-based paints. Apply two coats of Golden GAC 100 sealer to both sides before gessoing. For oils or alkyds, use tempered board, roughing up the surface with steel wool for a mechanical bond.

Lessons Learned
Landscapes very often pull us into another place. And, in the case of Rusted Relic, we’re being tugged into a different time—perhaps when the car was new and the owners were having a picnic or picking berries in the woods. As appealing as this image is, there’s more that can be done to pull us in deeper.
First, the focal point generally has the hardest edges and sharpest contrasts. The flowers claim those characteristics here. Also, nature tends to be composed of rounded, organic shapes. But the structure of horizontal and vertical lines in this composition overpowers that natural roundness. Finally, the isolated mood of Rusted Relic is strong, but it could be even more powerful with a composition that keeps the dilapidated car as its center of interest while still emphasizing its lost-in-the-wilderness feel. With these suggestions for refinement in mind, Murphy can continue to capture the poetic images he sees in landscapes everywhere.

John Salminen’s painting, DKNY-Chelsea, won the top award in the 2000 Midwest Watercolor Society Exhibition.

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