Sunday, January 10, 2010

Freeing it Up: How I’m learning to paint differently

I have been provoked into trying some radical departures from my usual style of painting, which as you, my friends, know, is generally deliberate, tight, and detailed. This is all very well, but I do often yearn to achieve a lighter touch. So when Bill and Gerry set up the ‘Flickr’ group ‘Fast and Fabulous’ and invited me to join, I was hooked. If I had to force myself to complete a painting in half an hour there would be no question of employing habitual techniques.

So today I broke out of the mould and did it. Perhaps once or twice in my life I have painted something in less than three hours, (the odd Christmas card, for instance) but this effort, ‘The Niagara River at Brown’s Point’, was painted in 28 minutes. Wow, you sure have to keep the brush moving fast!

I learned a lot from this new approach, the first thing being that you really should choose a simple subject. It helped that I had decided on a snowy landscape. Snow allows you to omit a vast number of brushstrokes. The next thing is, that it is good to internalize your vision to the point where you know exactly what you want to put on the paper; there’s little time now for reference to other sources for inspiration or detail. Better that it is already fixed in the mind. A couple of weeks ago I was driving down the Niagara Parkway, a very familiar route, and as I passed Brown’s Point the striking view through the trees imprinted itself on my mind: a broken sky of pure cerulean, seen through a tracery of sepia branches; the river cobalt green, glimpsed through tall hardwood trunks, mostly maple; a scattering of underbrush amidst the clean, fresh snow. It’s not convenient to stop at that point on the Parkway, and being the driver I could allow myself only a brief glimpse. A week later though, I came this way again, prepared to clarify and reinforce my impression of the scene. With only another two or three seconds to take in the scene, I am trying to train my powers of observation; this is fun in itself, seeing how much you can remember from only a brief instant of study; like Kim’s game.

From this mental picture I was able to plan my ‘order of work’. I had thought of first reserving out some treetrunk highlights, perhaps with vertical slashes with a candle-end, but dismissed this as unnecessarily fussy. So first I must lay in the sky and some violet shadows in the snow, wet-in-wet After the paper dried I would paint in the far bank of the river in a colour close to W&N ‘Neutral Tint’. Then I must broad-brush the treetrunks in sepia and add branches and twigs, next adding the bright flashes of the river, then finally some underbrush in Burnt Sienna. Figuring this out did take some thought.

The matter of colour selection took additional planning that I don’t usually pay much attention to ahead of starting on the picture. Again, simplicity had to be the keynote – little time can be devoted to mixing subtle shades of colour. I decided I needed only five shades - Cerulean Blue, Windsor Violet, Neutral Tint (with slight admixture of Ivory Black), Cobalt Green and Burnt Sienna.

Again departing from my usual technique, I made no preliminary pencil sketch; I just made two tick marks at the side of the page to register where I wanted the horizon and the river to be. As I entered upon the painting I got my next lesson: mix the paint strongly enough to achieve the required tone in one stroke. No time to build up the picture with careful layers. Ouch. I’ll do better next time; promise. The next obvious matter to be addressed is brush technique. Normally, I build my shapes up carefully with fairly small brushes. No time for that now. Broad-brush is essential, at least in many areas. Which brings one quickly to the realization that wielding a broad brush properly has to be learned: achieving the desired shape of brushmark with correctly delineated edges has to be accomplished in one swipe. Oh dear; I have to work on that seriously. Then there’s a question of detail; at the very least, it must be suggested, else the scene appear bland and empty of interest. I learned in this little trial to get some small delicacy in the underbrush by first putting on a little patch of colour with a No.6 round. then quickly feathering out the top of the shape by dragging a dry fan brush through it. I’ve hardly ever used this brush before.

I feel great satisfaction as I contemplate this process. The actual result matters little compared to the pleasure of learning so much in such a short time. Discovering too, that I can in fact produce a worthwhile sketch in very limited time opens vistas of possibility. No longer daunted by thinking I must set aside half a day if I am to paint at all, I begin instead to enjoy the happy thought that maybe I can find thirty minutes each day, like ‘Linfrye’, and might look forward to improving my skills with more frequent practice.

All of which brings me to some final thoughts, which are of gratitude for the inspiration and encouragement I get from my artist friends on ‘Flickr’. Were I on this journey by myself it would be lonely and often disheartening. Having in addition outsiders, (and not only friends), approve of work about which I myself entertain serious doubts gives a balanced perspective. Seeing, if only dimly, through others eyes is interesting.

So much, to come out of so little. Wunderbar!

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