Working Methods

“To evoke in oneself a sensation
which one has experienced before
and having evoked it in oneself,
to communicate this sensation in such a way
that others may experience the same  sensation…
in this does the activity of art consist.

Leo Tolstoy

A Painting Grammar

As we have learned, a grammar exists for painting. Rules, and the principles upon which they are based, must be learned and followed. Every passage must bear relation to the preceding one; the whole must express a clear idea, unforced, spontaneous — even hiding the rules that governed its creation. The making of a painting is more than just the manipulation of color and value, it is the beauty of how these attributes construct form in an specific light. It is, therefore, a matter of design and rhythm.

Why Large Masses First?

As I have said, the act of painting can be thought of as a process of getting each area of color and value to faithfully portray the scene in the light in which it exists. Sounds easy! But consider how difficult it would be to choose first the final color that depicted the smallest divisions. It is almost impossible. It is nearly always true that we can not tell if a color is correct until we see it next to other colors. Therefore, it is necessary to have the ability to modify each area of color.

Naturally, it is easier to change a few large areas than numerous smaller ones. Comparing six to ten areas, one to the other, is much easier than attempting to adjust a hundred spots of color. Usually, even the most complex scenes can be visualized in terms of a manageable number of large areas.

Avoid Detail in Beginning

By working with large masses first the painter avoids showing detail. As we have seen, too many painters are preoccupied with pictorial details or, in extreme, oversimplified forms in flat color areas. The balance of these extremes is a matter for the painter’s judgment; complicated forms should be edited out or grouped to meet compositional requirements and then modeled to convey a sense of solidity. Be guided by what conveys the spirit of the message. Often the overall essence of a work changes when the slightest detail is changed.

As the painter moves from major variations to minor variations details can be introduced to show specific form. But even at the last stage of a painting beware of being too descriptive. Details often call upon themselves undue attention. To quote Inness, “The true artist reproduces nature not as the brute sees it, but as an idea partaking more or less of the creative source from which it flows.”

Reconsider Each Color Mass

Once each large area, or mass, is defined by a separate color, the real painting starts. The first choice of color is important as it sets up the quality and kind of light striking the scene. However, as it is a first choice, it is often crude (inspired for those with refine vision), rudimentary in that it must be modified so it ma more accurately depict the light falling on that space. Once defined initially, the reconsideration of each mass begins so as to refine it in its relationship to the others.

This stage of reconsidering each mass is often done several times before breaking down the masses into smaller areas.

Major Variations

Once you have a sense that each large mass faithfully reveals the light, then you divide each into major variations. For example, the large mass representing the shade side of a cluster of foliage might break down into three sections. The section nearest the adjoining mass o full light, as it gleans some of this strong light, might resemble a half-tone. The opposite edge will be a different color and value as it picks up parts of the sky and reflections from surrounding objects. Buffeted by these other variations, the third part of the original mass may be a slightly different color from the other two and may embody more of the color of the larger mass. Not that this is only an example — not a rule – – of how an initial mass might be divided into three major variations

Minor Variations

Once the large masses establish the caliber of the falling light and are further broken down to record the light more specifically, then each major variation is further divided into smaller sections. For example, the half-tone described above may now have a throng of different colors describing how the light melds the larger masses of light and shade.

Building from Within

Painting in this manner is building from within. It is the optimal way to record the light falling upon a scene. Moving from large masses to major variations to minor variations is the most practical and efficient way to show step by step the scene in a specific effect of light.

This procedure may appear to be a deliberate process, and it is, but it is also rewarding in that for each stage a goal is set: first, recording the overall effect of light; second, breaking each larger area down to more specific components; and third, achieving the final accuracy of each individual form in that light.

In the beginning, then, large color masses describe the simplified structural integrity of a given scene. The accuracy and beauty in which each mass relates to another is measured by the painter’s experience and sensitivity.

Work in Each Area Equally

One device that painters sometimes use that injures a painting is to arbitrarily fill in a background, and then over this artificial backdrop add other elements. For example, one should not paint the sky across the top of landscape and then add mountains and trees. This puts false emphasis on things — mountains and trees –rather than on the overall relationship between the sky, mountains and trees. Elements become like applied postage stamps and overwhelm the image. The solution is to refine each area separately, going to all the others before coming back to any single mass. Once the painter has worked on each large area several times, then he or she breaks these down into major variations before seeking smaller sections.

Radiance in a work comes from an intentional regard for the fidelity of each large area’s color and value. To do this the painter must equally reference the accuracy of each mass to all the others. For example, equal consideration of each large mass allows the painter to get closer to the truth of what he or she sees before these masses are broken down to more specific shapes.

Handling Paint

Whether the painter paints by brush or painting knife the choice is both personal and esthetic. While a brush allows speed, it often constrains, as it is not easy to change color while working with one. The brush, however, is less clumsy than the knife, permitting a fluid redefinition of form.

While not as facile, the painting knife does allow for a more controlled mixing. Further, the knife does not require a medium, which tends to break down the intensity of color. As it is easy to keep the knife clean the painter can introduce a pigment Into a mixture, thereby refining an existing color mixture of different pigments into a single new color.

Next: Advice to Painters

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