While demonstrating for a workshop in upstate New York a couple of weeks ago, I was reminded of one of the major benefits of working en plein air: permission to interpret. As I worked out a thumbnail sketch in advance of committing pastel to surface, the task of editing began. I established a center of interest within the framework of the composition and then manipulated other elements of visual composition—edge, shape, texture, value, and color—to strengthen its presence. I altered or even ignored major elements in the scene as the composition took form.
After feeling confident about the bones of the painting, the process of applying pastel to surface commenced. If I have a good idea of the big relationships and purpose behind the painting in advance of starting, it’s easier to focus on the technique of painting, which allows for a more confident application. That assured feeling often comes through, producing a more spontaneous and positive end result. As the painting developed and these manipulations became more apparent to the students paying close attention, one of them made an observation: “It looks like you do what is best for the painting, instead of being subservient to the scene.” And indeed. that’s what painting is. We do what is needed, manipulating and orchestrating the elements of the painting to best communicate our intentions about the scene.
This student’s observation got me thinking. A few days after the event, I compared the photo from the scene to the finished painting. The photo appeared cold and boring. If I hadn’t been there in person, I would never have given this photo a second glance. When in the presence of the unlimited possibilities of nature, we have two choices: to feel completely overwhelmed and cower before it, or to open the door of chance and allow all it has to offer to provide inspiration. Being surrounded by natural light that’s always in motion and the influences of the entire setting, even the areas outside of our view, all have an effect. By practicing and applying the principles of composition, light and dark relationships, and color theory, we’re able to harness the power of the paint and become more confident and free to make choices that lead to personal artistic statements. No one gets a prize for making it exactly the way it was.