A Yellow Rose – Oil on Panel, 8 x 10 inches (approximate size)
This painting is at auction until 10PM UK time, Saturday 31st August.
A Yellow Rose
What matters most to me in a painting is feeling.
What do I mean when I use the word “feeling”?
Perhaps we don’t have the vocabulary in the English language to talk clearly about feelings.
They are elusive, mysterious, insubstantial.
Reason and logic are solid, defined and clear. It’s much easier to talk about them than it is about feelings.
If someone is clear headed and acting rationally, we see that as a good thing. If someone is ruled by their feelings, we see that as a bad thing. (I’m talking about society in general here.)
But although I take a very logical, methodical approach to painting compared to some, a painting must make me feel something to succeed.
Are thinking and feeling so different?
We have a long-lived dichotomy in western thought between feeling and reason. But that’s changing.
Current psychological thought is exploring the links between these two, and finding that in fact they are different aspects of the same thing.
Rationality is based on metaphorical concepts that grow from how our bodies feel when we come into contact with the world.
Thought and feeling are indivisible.
These ideas are too involved and too different from our usual ways of thinking for me to do justice to them here. If you don’t mind some heavy reading, I’d recommend The Meaning of The Body – the Aesthetics of Human Understanding by Mark Johnson as good introduction to these ideas. It’s not a light book, but it is fascinating. Descartes’ Error – Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain by Antonio Damasio is another).
So, paint what you feel?
The problem is that the often-heard advice to switch off your “left brain” and paint your feelings, not to over-think it and to go with your intuition will often just produce bad painting.
I believe (think, feel) that painting needs both thinking and feeling.
A large part of the making of this painting was concerned with the value balance. I didn’t paint the values as I saw them.
I wanted an effect of the light, I wanted that main yellow rose to stand out. But I also wanted to keep the painting light overall. I wanted tit to feel light.
So I was thinking about the values quite clearly and logically as I painted: this is a middle value, so it needs to come up the scale a little if I want to keep the overall lightness. I need to establish this very dark note at the bottom of the scale to make everything else appear lighter.
The comparisons between each value and the rest of the values in the painting is consciously thought about.
But the reason I was being so careful with the values is that what I wanted from the painting was the feeling of the light.
Softness. Gentleness. These are metaphorical associations that describe how I felt about what I was painting.
I want the form to dissolve a little into the shadow and the light. This is less easy for me to explain.
We are all connected to each other, and to everything else that exists. the atoms that make up our bodies have been other things, and will be other things again. (I know this sounds like spirituality, but it’s also science.)
We’re continually blending and dissolving into our surroundings. We pull in air from around us and some of that becomes a part of us. We exhale a part of us and that becomes a part of the world around us.
Perhaps if we all felt that connectedness a little more deeply, we might not destroy our own environment at such a shocking rate. We might care more about the things around us that support our own life.
Perhaps we might feel more empathy with people who are different than us, because actually, we are part of the same larger “something” that we move through together.
Can a painting of flowers clearly communicate these ideas? perhaps not.
But these thoughts and feelings informed the conception of the painting that I had in my head before I started it. They exist within it as metaphor and associations.
Painting from life
If I paint from life, I feel more connected to what I’m painting.
I paint nature, mostly, and that feeling of connectedness to it is a lot of the reason why.
But I used photography in the making of this painting, too.
Before I started, I took a photo of the set up on my old iPhone – this one:
And I took one on my DSLR too. I kept them both within my field of vision when I was starting the painting, but very, very small – on the phone and the camera LCD screen.
Lately I’ve been trying to focus much more on the “big picture”, on the overall value balance, and on the effect of the painting as a whole, especially in the beginning stages.
Being able to see the whole set up really, really small simplifies things and makes that much easier. It’s really not very different that using a black mirror to simplify the values.
I also took one of the pictures into photoshop, played with the levels and blurred it to simplify it. This image had a direct effect on the outcome of the painting:
But I didn’t paint from any of these images – I painted it almost entirely from life. I dod look at them for a good while before I started, and now and again during. But they weren’t the source. They just helped get a clearer conception of what I wanted to paint.
Painting what you see
Paradoxically, although I’ve used photography in the making of this painting – my iPhone, my DSLR and processing photoshop – I’ve actually moved further away from either what I see and from the photographic image than I often do when I’m working exclusively from life.
These things are just are tools. In my view, you can use them well or you can use them badly.
You can allow them to take over the production of the painting for you or you can use them to help you get closer to what you have in your imagination.
If you end up painting as close a version of what the photograph shows you as you can, I find it hard to see what gets added. And there is certainly a danger that the photograph will take your painting in an undesirable direction that you might not have gone in otherwise.
If you rely on tools too much, especially at the beginning stages of your learning journey, you may not develop skills you’re going to need – drawing accuracy, judging of relationships of light and dark, hue and chroma.
And your experience of your subjects will be mediated, not direct.
For me, being in direct contact with my subject is a big part of the process. I paint nature. I don’t want my experience of it mediated. If I’m not having an emotional reaction to my subject, I don’t really have anything to paint.
Tools and helpers are not inherently bad in themselves. As long as they don’t truncate your expression and instead help you toward a better realisation of it, then using them is fine.
Perhaps this is one of the truly valuable things about making art: that it exists in a place where thinking and feeling meet, where they become so intertwined that they’re indivisible.
Perhaps that’s a part of what art is.
We all have to make our own decisions about what tools we use and how we use them. I do think we should be clear and open about what we’re using and why, which is why I’ve written this post.
For me, as long as it gets me closer to the feeling I want and helps me make a better picture, then it makes sense to use any tool that’s available.
I streamed some of the making of this painting on facebook, here’s the video. I touched on some of these subjects as I was painting, although I think I’ve been able to describe them more clearly here.
I’d love to hear what you think – both of how I used the photography and photoshop in the making of this painting and how you use them yourself – or why you don’t.
Let me know in the comments.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
The Keys to Colour - Free 6 step email course
Learn how to:
- mix any colour accurately
- see the value of colours
- lighten or darken a colour without messing it up
- paint with subtle, natural colour