4th December 2005
It’s been over a week since I’ve had a new painting post, it feels good to be putting this one up today.
I’m especially happy because I think this represents a small step forward.
Over the last few days I’ve been doing a lot more drawing. Initial experiments with ‘right brain’ perception seem to be showing results – either that or the practice is, probably a bit of both.
With the drawings, I’ve been working at trying see the subject, whatever it is, as flat shapes. I remember from my foundation course covering stuff like this to some extent. But it was immediately apparent when I sat down to paint these two pomegranates yesterday that my ‘right brain’ flat pattern mode of seeing had developed since I last painted. It seemed easier to slide into spatial perception somehow, to see the patterns of lights and darks.
Using the colour checker helps to see the subject as flat areas of colour, I think I achieve the best results when I’m looking at the subject in this way. But always I’m finding there’s a stage in a drawing or a painting where I seem to slide back into normal perception and the painting (or drawing) seems to runaway from me – I lose the reality of it. Coming out of spatial mode into normal perception mode (if that is what’s happening) is usually accompanied by an increasing sense of frustration and ‘rushing’ to get the job done. Also by a sharp decline in standard of work.
Exactly this happened to me today. The painting started out well yesterday, with the pomegranates all but done at the end of a three hour session and the background cloth and main shadow roughed in. I worked very slowly yesterday, patiently working with the colour checker, matching up patches of colour. Things were going fine. I think one feature of R-mode perception is a kind of unhurried patience – I think I work more slowly in this mode, but the standard of what I produce is higher, the colours are more closely matched.
Here I’ve started by roughing out the main tone patterns. This came from my right brain drawing experiments really. Although I’d stopped doing this on recent paintings I decided to try it again. This time I used alkyd (fast drying oil), raw umber and ultramarine, to rough out the composition.
I’m still not using a toned ground though. I’ve got white cloth to paint so for the highlights I’m just leaving the acrylic primer untouched. Although I was trying as far as possible to see only shapes, I can see here that I’m already drawing the folds in the cloth as folds. Big mistake, which I’ll get back to later. It’s hard to describe what I mean by that, because those folds are also tonal shapes, and they are that shape. But there’s something different about the way I’ve roughed them in, something that tells me that I was seeing them as folds. What I should have been doing is painting the spaces between them and ignoring the folds completely, then they would have drawn themselves.
The end of the first day. I’d hoped to finish in one sitting, but the slower I work, the easier it is for me to see the flat shapes and patches of colour and not think of the objects. I’ve decided that it’s more important for me to hold that mode of seeing than to finish in one day, so a new part of the method is not to rush. Take as long as it takes. If necessary, simplify the subjects.
At this point I’m pretty happy. I’ve been keeping up my spatial seeing mode, and I think the pomegranates are starting to come out of the canvas at me. As the light fades and I look at the painting, I notice that the colours on the painting still match the fading colours on the pomegranates themselves. I’m thinking I must have the colour pretty close for the pigment to be reacting to changes in light the same way as the subject. Putting the light on I notice the same thing. Unfortunately the colour in the photographs of the painting, reproduced here, gives the pomegranates too red a hue. You’ll just have to take my word for it until I get better with the camera.
After an excited, self-congratulatory evening I get up today to continue and it all goes horribly wrong. I start in on the shadow first, bringing down the tone and trying to put in these slightly greenish highlights I think I can see. Not too bad. Out onto the cloth, and immediately I’m in there painting the shadows of the folds in long lines, and the painting starts to run away from me. Disaster.I paint the cloth twice, over about two hours, and wipe it off again both times.
Just gone two O’ clock. I have at best an hour of daylight left, so I stop and have a cuppa. Coming back to the painting, I make one last ditch attempt to get into spatial seeing mode, and start in again on the cloth.
This time I’m just laying blocks of highlight with pure white. I’m absolutely aware, because the colour checker told me and it does not lie, that my white is nowhere near as white as the highlights on the real cloth. There’s no way I can match it. Thinking about relationships, I decide the best thing to do is just to put it in as light as I can and move on. As long as the rest of the tones relate to it about the same it should work alright.
After that there was a shift in the quality of the light and I noticed a lot of bluish hues reflecting off the cloth. I put some of these in as blocks between the highlights, just dragging the brush across the surface of the canvas so the paint broke up, still not painting the shadows on the folds. After a bit of that, the folds started to describe themselves. Much of the shadows of the folds that show in the finished painting are the under painting in umber and ultramarine alkyd showing through. It works fine I think. Then just a bit of reflected alizarin light under the foremost pomegranate and it was done. Sometimes you have to know when to stop.
I’m happy with the cloth now. It doesn’t really live as cloth, but the tones work and it being as loose as it is helps to keep the focus on the pomegranates. I think, given time and more daylight, I could have worked into it a little more, bringing out the forms a bit better, because the tones look about right to me.
The main thing though, is that the ground plane of the picture, the main plane which the pomegranates are sitting on, is well defined by the cloth. This appears to be a side effect of seeing the subject as two dimensional shapes during painting, and is the main paradox of this approach to seeing: by copying the subject faithfully, visual illusions like depth of field and solidity of forms appear to create themselves – the painting appears to create itself.
Painting by numbers? I don’t think so. Neither do I think a camera could do the same job. Although I make a big play of seeing what’s really there and painting what I see, no painting is ever that. I’m doing this is in order to sharpen my painting skills. What you see of me in this painting is the way I use a brush, mix paint, the way I view the subject, what caught my eye about it. Two painters working from the same subject will never produce identical paintings. As Betty Edwards says in her book, our painting (or drawing) style is as personal to us as our signature and our handwriting. From a painter’s style, we can gain an insight into them.
I’m very deliberately not trying to evolve a ‘style’. That will happen of its own accord, and will be more truthful to who I am if I just concentrate on painting what I see. Another paradox – that in trying to get closer to a depiction of the real world, I’ll actually be getting closer to depicting myself.
Getting back into right-mode, R-mode, spatial, or whatever you want to call it mode is what the made the difference here, I’m sure. It’s a way of seeing which is consistent with drawing as I was taught it on my foundation course, and it works, whether the right brain processing concept holds water or not. Due to recent experiences I’m inclined to think that it does, and that I’m seeing the benefit of it in what I’m producing.
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