I mentioned recently that I’ve changed the way I think about painting and drawing.I’ve been wanting to get something up on the site about it, and the blow-by-blow descriptionof today’s little still life drawing of abowl of walnuts is it. Iwon’t repeat the whole thing here, but I will give a quick run down of what’s changed and why,and what I intend to do about it. And then I’ll probably ramble on aimlessly for a bit,like usual.
When I started painting again, almost a year ago now, I was chiefly concerned withcopying what I see, to the best of my abilities. When I was painting, I used to sitfor hours with my little colour checker (a piece of card painted flat grey with someholes punched in it to look through and isolate colours,) trying to judge the colours I couldsee, and to translate them as faithfully as possible to my canvas or panel. I don’t regretall the time I spent doing that, it taught me a lot about mixing paints, and stretched my eyes.It also showed me how wrong I could be when looking at a colour. Somewhere between my eyesand my brain, the messages got all mixed up. How could a white plate really be a dark greenish grey?But it was, and it read right in thepicture too.
But since I’ve been concentrating more on tone, I’ve had to accept that the tonal rangeavailable to me with either drawing or paint is simply not as wide as the tonal range Isee in nature, even when I carefully control the light, as I usually do.
So lately I’ve been trying to find the best solution to this problem. Of course, theremay very well be more than one solution, and I could see a time when I use differentsolutions depending on the situation, but right now, at this early stage of my learning, I’vefound one which I believe works pretty well for me. When I approach one of my smallstill life drawings,I start by putting in my darkest dark and my lightest light. I then try, as much as possible,to relate the tones I put down to these two extremes, with particular concentration onthe lights. I try to make sure that I don’t push any mid-light tones so high that theymake the lightest light appear darker. In short, I no longer draw what I see.
I called this site ‘Learning to See’ because I thought that that was the skill I primarilyneeded to work on in order to improve my work – my powers of observation. Often, I’m convinced,our brains mix up what we see with what we think we know, and what comes out on the canvas issomething which, although it has some relationship to what we see, doesn’t live. It doesn’t giveyou that impression of being able to feel the light in the painting, the feel the air between youand the object it depicts, in short, the painting will have no life, no truthfulness.
I still believe that observation is the single most important skill. But now, I think of theprocess of translating what I see to the paper or canvas very differently. I’m coming round to thepoint of view that the picture is a thing in and of itself, with it’s own language and it’s ownlogic, and that, in order to create a stronger feeling of reality in the work, it’s necessary todepart somewhat from a straight copy of we see. It might be balancing the tones differently, it mightbe changing the colours slightly, or accentuating the sharpness and softness of the edges of anobject. It might be ignoring some things completely, or barely suggesting them, so that themain focus stands out the clearer.
I’ve accepted that, and that’s fine, but it’s also opened up a bewildering range of possibilitiesfor where I go from here. If I’m going to start allowing the picture to dictate it’s own language,how far do I take that? If I’m not going to paint exactly what I see, how far am I going to deviatefrom what I see? As always, I think the answer will lie in a lot of practice, and will comeabout naturally through continuing work. But wherever I go from here,my primary aim remains the same – to see what I’m looking at as clearly as possible, and to translate itto the picture as well as I can. I’m getting quite excited about the possibilities that this isopening up, my head is buzzing with things to try out, direction to explore. I don’t just want tocopy reality, I want to make pictures that live. Who knows, at some point I may even have somethingI want to say with a picture.
But for now, I’m still learning as I go, and my concerns remain fairly mundane. How to translatelight? how to approach colour? How to make something live in a picture? Now I know that all thiswill seem self evident to someone who’s been at this game for some time, but to me, this is anepiphany. When I was younger and used to paint, I never had a direction. I was seduced by any fashionor fad I came across, painting like an impressionist, or a cubist, or a symbolist. I did some reallyawful abstract work.
Now, I’m letting the direction come from the work, instead of forcing myself into any particularstyle. This time, I’m letting it all happen slowly and naturally, following my own nose. The moreI work, the more interesting and exciting this journey becomes. I feel like I’m waking up after yearsof office induced somnambulism. Damn, it feels good to be a painter. Well, it does today.
Largely due to initial frustration, I did quite a lot of whining and whinging when I startedthis site. These days I try to stay a little more upbeat. But make no mistake, this stuff is hard, andeach small gain comes at the price of many hours of frustrating work, going over and over thesame things, picking yourself up and giving it yet another go. There are always far more failures thanthere are successes. Oh, and my life, as it has been until very recently, appears to be falling apart.But right now, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Posted 7th October 2006
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