Beth Kantor?s Off the Beaten Track is a good example of photorealism. Kantor, an accomplished painter with an impressive number of awards and credits to her name, has provided a very detailed report of a gloomy, wintry day in the country. The overall composition is quite pleasing. The viewer?s eye is nicely entertained along the road, while being guided along to the center of interest—the muted red building—which provides a welcome warm accent to the cold feeling dominating this scene.
Kantor painted this piece from a photo reference, editing the scene by removing a few other houses to keep the focus on the solitary farmhouse. This was a solid instinct: Nature is an inspiring teacher, but it often needs some rearranging to make it work in a painting. After all, with a representational painting style, you?re trying to depict a convincing three-dimensional scene on a two-dimensional surface. To do that, an artist may need to pull out a few stops to go beyond what the photo shows.
Art Principles At Work
Off the Beaten Track is headed in the right direction, but Kantor could have gone even further to improve the scene. For instance, I?m delighted to see the hazy distant tree forms beyond the bend of the road—but I long to see more evidence of this atmospheric feeling. Sometimes, when the photograph is followed too closely, the same values may appear in the foreground as well as in the background. This is because the average photograph simply can?t replicate the fine nuances of color and values in the real world. Here are a few other ideas for pulling out the stops when painting:
Creating a basic value pattern. Before starting, make a small, postcard-sized value study. Keep it to just three values (five, at the most). For example, Kantor might have introduced a darker sky to increase the starkness of the snow. What would happen if the sun suddenly peeked through the clouds and placed an illuminating spotlight on that house? Imagine how those tree shadows could then undulate over the snow. Play around with different approaches until you find your favorite.
Drawing to your advantage. In the drawing stage, don?t feel compelled to stick with what the photo tells you. And when you do take out elements and add in others, make sure the new elements are doing exactly what?s needed to enhance the composition. In this painting, increasing the width of a foreground tree trunk would force even more depth when compared with the trees sitting farther back. Moving the tree altogether might be even better, or tilting another tree to avoid paralleling the edge of the paper. (See the sketches below.)
Exploring atmospheric distance. It?s difficult to paint air, but it helps to understand the effect it has on what you observe. Enough layers of air create ?curtains? of atmosphere, which have the effect of lightening values, cooling and neutralizing colors, reducing surface details and softening edges. Here, that foreground tree trunk could retain the same value but be painted in warmer colors, while those receding into the distance could become gradually cooler and lighter in value (see the sketches at left). Although it?s an extreme example, I often remind students to ?think fog.? It slows the temptation to noodle unnecessary details in the background.
Making the grade. It?s commonly known that the sky is darkest at the top and gets lighter as it nears the horizon. This kind of gradation happens on the ground as well. Take a look at sketch C (at left) to see how it automatically forces you to look into the picture. Could gradation have been used to even more advantage in the road surface? What about ever-so-subtly on the snow? Gradation is not to be confused with cast shadows which, on a sunny day, can be placed on top of a gradated wash.
Playing with brushstrokes. You can also enhance the sense of depth by using different sized brushstrokes in the foreground and distance. In this watercolor, the grass on the right-hand side is nicely handled, but then the same approach is found in the bush in front of the house. It?s better to think detail up front and more simple silhouette shapes in the distance.
Brightening whites. I remember John Pike?s favorite method of painting snow: He would wet those areas of the paper, then drop the slightest hint of primary colors into them. He?d slowly brush those colors into each other to get very subtle variations of white with hints of blue, yellow or red. Once the paper dried, he?d paint in the details and shadows. It?s a great way to avoid too much of the plain, dead white of the paper.
Kantor says she?s recently begun painting outdoors and has enjoyed it immensely. That?s wonderful&#$151;if landscape painting is your love, you need to observe nature whenever possible. You don?t necessarily have to be painting. Just become aware, and remember what you see. This time of observation, combined with actual on-location painting experience, can help an artist to become more comfortable with photographic references in the studio. You?ll know when to follow the photos and when to improve on them. You?ll never become a slave to them.
About the Artist
mentary school but hopes to become a full-time painter. She?s been showing her work in galleries for five years. ?There?s always something new to discover with painting, either a technique, different subject matters, expressions, etc.,? she says. ?It?s exciting, because an artist is always growing and improving.?
Allison Rost is editorial intern for The Artist?s Magazine.