Our aim for simplicity and clarity must logically start with the subject itself, in choosing our subject we should first consider how effective it would be in a small sketch, say no larger than 5 by 7 inches. Could the material be set down in a sketch of that size? Could it be done without using a very tine brush or would some of the important details be too small? If it is impossible to make a small sketch without infinite labor, then we can be pretty sure we are starting off on the wrong foot. It is safe to say that any subject that will look effective in an exhibition gallery or on the wall of an average-sized living room is also definable in a 5-by-7-inch sketch at a distance of 6 feet or more.
Even though in a small sketch we would normally only suggest the outlines and forms of a subject, the patterns should be simple enough to make the design carry ten feet or more. If the small sketch will do that we may be sure the larger canvas will be effective under any circumstances. This is a very good reason for making a small statement of any subject before we invest effort in a larger one.
Assuming that you usually do most of your oil painting indoors, you will need sketches of outdoor scenes for reference. Make a small sketch for color alone. This, coupled with pencil sketches for detail, or photographs of the spot, will provide much better source material for the final work than will an attempt to make a larger and detailed preliminary painting in the limited lime at your disposal outdoors. If your sketch box is large, try using large brushes. Concentrate on color, tone, and pattern. Leave the detail for pencil and camera.
The writer has learned by experience that the artist has not much more than one hour to set down his subject before the light begins to change. If you try to paint too long and then have to go back over your sketch to "warm it up," because it looks too cold in the later light, the original color relationships will be thrown out of balance and the sketch will become progressively worse and inaccurate.
Since we are going to have to simplify most subjects anyway in the finished work, it is better to start eliminating in the sketch. If you take photographs for reference you can always put back a detail here or there in the final composition, should it seem to require it.
Sometimes a subject improves in the warmer light of late afternoon. In this case don't try to work over your original colors; start again or take some color shots. The point is not to mix two separate color versions in your final painting. Choose one or the other and stick to it. The one-o'clock lighting and color will never fit a five-o'clock version. If you are seeking late-afternoon effects, we can sometimes extend your time limit for the sketch by starting out a little earlier and purposely making your colors a little warmer than they appear. However, this takes considerable experience and skill, especially as allowance should also be made for lengthening shadows. Just as colors change, so do shadows, as the afternoon wears on.
We can save ourselves a good deal of trouble by selecting simple subjects lor our paintings. Scenes involving too many trees, rocks, mountains, people, animals, buildings, clouds, or whatever, can become complicated unless many are eliminated or minimized. Even if a very full scene appeals to you, it is a good idea to see if it is possible to group some of the units into simple patterns. For instance, thousands of trees on a mountainside might be so grouped that they could be suggested in two or three patterns and painted with comparatively few strokes of a dry brush. There are many such possibilities.
The more complicated and intricate the patterns, the larger the area of canvas you should use to accommodate your subject comfortably. Busy patterns can be contrasted with simple patterns with good effect, but a picture that is busy all ovci will always suffer in comparison to a picture of simple and dramatic design.
As mentioned before, the artist should choose either to simplify what he sees or to select a simpler subject. Or he might choose to paint part of what he sees rather than the whole subject. For example, he may select a barn rather than the whole farm, or even a part of the barn with an animal or two in front of it. Most amateur painters try to include too much, while the experienced painter knowingly focuses his attention on the most interesting part of the scene before him.
Painting is very much like writing. There can be so many detailed passages in a book that the reader who wants the story to move along becomes irritated. A conversationalist can get lost in detail and trivia too, and so can the artist.
It is in massing and grouping (in creating design which did not exist before) that the artist can outdo the best results of color photography. If realistic or objective art is to continue, it will be largely because of this sort of crcativcncss. The camera has already supplanted the kind of painting which is a slavish copy of nature, and it is I left to the artist to paint the essence of what he sees, rather than the frozen exterior image. He must take his subject apart. He must find out what gives it life, why it is of interest to him, why he wants to paint it. If the design or natural pattern of a subject interests him most, let him stress that, or if it is chiefly the color that thrills him, let that continue to be his main inspiration. Sometimes a subject presents a fascinating design, a happy combination of architecture, or a rhythmic grouping of figures, perhaps, yet the colors arc drab. Here the artist can utilize the shapes he wants and add brilliance through broken or stepped-up color. He thus tries to put good color with good design.
Taking a subject apart is rather like taking apart a machine whose performance is sluggish or otherwise less than satisfactory. If some parts do not function well we replace them with new parts; we clean out the dirt and put everything back together so the machine operates more effectively. It would be hard to find a subject in nature where nothing detracts, and nothing needs to be eliminated. In breaking down his subject the artist must dccidc upon essentials, the things that really make the subject effective, and he must weed out or minimize the rest.
The creative process is brought into play when the artist looks at a subject and decides how to make a good picture out of it. He does this in much the same way that he would if he were looking at a painting by another artist, asking himself how it could be improved if it were to be repainted. He translates what he sees into his own creative terms. Approaching nature in this manner, he may say to himself, here is a chance for rich contrasts, or here is a subject that calls for a very high, delicate key. And he will usually think of the subject in terms of his own particular technique—one subject suggesting, possibly, a strongly built underpainting, another a subtle juxtaposition of colors or forms. Who knows precisely what the artist's thoughts are? But we do know that a sense of exhilaration comes over all of us in anticipation of creating a work of art.
More often than not, the final painting fails
Danger by Thomas Benton, associated American artists, new york err*. In breaking down his subject the artist must decide upon essentials, the things that really make the sub)ect effective, and he must weed or minimize the rest
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