Friday, September 5, 2008

A Couple of Weeks Study at the Flickr School of Fine Art.

It was August. It was all tomatoes, all the time. I was eating so many of them that I was dreaming about them. I woke in the night and thought about them. Pure delight, not only for the tastebuds, but for the eye too; and I don’t mean just the fruit. Sturdy vines snake upwards, branching at odd angles, helped here and there by a little support from bamboo stakes. Such beautiful shades of green in leaf and stem. Such interesting compound leaves; each little leaflet different, seeming to have a mind of its own; some large and deeply toothed, others small and rounded. Reaching up, trailing down; heading in all directions in happy chaos. What wonderful patterns of light and shade to be seen in the tangled jungly growth. Spherical glows of gold, orange and red peeking through the gaps. Unripe green globes hidden deep, awaiting their turn. I could sit and look at them for hours. In fact, I did sit and look at them for hours, since for the last many days I have been absorbed in trying to capture them in watercolours.

I wanted to keep in mind some of the lessons that ‘Gilmopix’ had tried to teach me: work with transparent colours, mix up your darks, learn to mix colours more from a limited palette. I started off doing a traditional landscape; well, gardenscape. That is, I drew the whole tomato patch with its regular ranks, in context; the context being our crowded little vegetable patch with the wheelbarrow leaning up hard by against the red-painted picket fence, the compost bin squeezed in on the left, retaining curbs and pathway in front. Behind this, (all too close) rises a huge multi-trunked maple tree. It’s a wonder we get any tomatoes at all, yet they seem to thrive here each year.

Before I had this little painting finished, I was dissatisfied. It was a nice scene, but a bit busy. The eye was pulled this way and that, along the fence all the way to one side, and back again. The sketch was full of potential interest, but perhaps unfocused, lacking a real focal point. Had I so quickly forgotten to incorporate “Gilmopix’s” excellent thoughts on how to place a centre of interest? I thought my rendering of the tomato plants a little hasty and slapdash too. I hadn’t really captured the leaves properly at all. I finished it off and thought about it. It didn’t actually look too bad, but quite soon the chief mistake struck me: I had painted what I saw, instead of my vision. Basic; elementary. But then, that’s where I am in my painting: learning some pretty basic lessons. Cursed with an analytic mind, I jotted down and counted up all the different elements in my picture. I made a total of eighteen definably different parts of the picture. I then turned my attention to my vision – what had I wanted to capture? Tomatoes – vines – leaves – stakes – fence. Five elements. All the rest was superfluous, much of it totally irrelevant. There was another thing I noticed too: the work lacked tonal punch where it mattered most – in the tomato patch. As an experiment I opened the scanned image in Photoshop and threw away the colour. In greyscale the central area of the picture now had little meaning: no proper leaves were discernable, and even the tomato fruits were irregular and hard to find.

I decided to take a little lesson from my Flickr friend, ‘Ciuccio51’. I ran off a print of the image, took a fine permanent ink pen and carefully outlined everything as far back as the fence. I added inked detail to the curbs and made a half-hearted attempt to draw some real leaves. The result was, in my mind, considerably better: the fruit now highlighted; everything in the foreground a little crisper, the background now in softer focus by comparison. I quite liked it.

But I decided I needed to start on a new tack, incorporating the lessons I had learned. I thought that this time I should begin with wet-in-wet, establish some bright fruits and lots of green wash. I wanted to take a lesson from ‘bevmorgan’, and try to achieve a good effect with negative painting upon flowing washes. I got the washes down – bright lemon, green, a little pink. I got that far and then I had to stop. I didn’t feel at all ready for the next stage. Actually, I don’t think I had been ready for the first stage. Too hasty; insufficient planning. Never mind; press on.

But now I thought perhaps I should do a tonal study first, so as to concentrate on a proper composition of the key elements, and to achieve a better representation of the leaves and fruit, without having to worry about colour at the same time. I had never done a tonal study before, but had come across the concept in some of my books on painting technique. I blocked out a very rough bare-bones sketch, outlining only a few tomato fruits, a stake, a couple of vine stems, and a suggestion of the fence. I wanted to try to draw more with the brush this time, rather than filling inside pencil lines with paint. I finally paid enough attention to the actual plants before me. I started painting leaves, and they really did look quite tomatoey. The whole thing came together fairly well, with the fun part being filling in the dark negative areas. I finished off with a thin wash of colour on the fruits only, which I thought set it off nicely. I learned more lessons on this one too: make sure you have a really really smooth curve on the outside of the tomato! Or they will end up looking more like potatoes. Oops! And don’t be careless with perspective on the fence, thinking that so little shows that it doesn’t matter. Amazing how the eye reads tiny discrepancies and says -“Wrong”.

I thought some more. I spent some productive time when I woke the next night: I put in an interesting hour or so meditating on how best to proceed with the colour version. It was too late to reserve any areas out, unless I wanted to begin again, so I had to come up with some order of work which would ensure a good composition. That did take some puzzling out. Obviously, I would first need to do a light pencil sketch over the existing washes. But what next? I came to the conclusion that the visible parts of the red fence should be put in first, because the colour here is so striking, that if I didn’t get a good balance of this right away I might lose it and be constrained later by the overabundance of vegetation. I worked out a sequence for the other parts of the picture and fell contentedly back to sleep.

Next day I was ready, eager and confident to get to work and see if the plan would work. I made a light sketch, taking special care over the alignment of fence parts and a proper angle for shadows on the exposed bits of earth. I very carefully outlined the tomatoes. Boy, is it ever hard to get a fair curve all the way around a fuzzy patch of yellow wash! Then I laid in some red on the visible bits of fence, to give a sense of where I was going. I tried with limited success to wash out the colour from where I wanted the bamboo stakes and put some colour there too. Hmm; would have been better to reserve that out in the first place. Now I was ready to paint the vegetation. It all went along pretty well after that.

I’m reasonably pleased with the result. There are lots of things about it to be dissatisfied with of course. No need to point them all out. I know that you, my teachers will recognize the deficiencies. I know too, that you will also be too kind to point them out, except upon request. That is as it should be, otherwise it could become just too discouraging. I’m still at the stage where I recognize enough flaws in each effort that I really don’t need any more pointed out at the moment. But I am thinking that that will have to change one day. If I ever get to the point where I think I’ve got it right, I’ll let you know – then you can all set me straight!

Thanks to all of you. I have mentioned only three of you in this little essay, but the rest of you know who you are. I am learning from all of you; all my teachers in the Flickr School of Fine Art.

That was a nice couple of weeks.