Thursday, August 19, 2010

It's a Painting, Not a Photograph

Hull of a Lineup, 30x40

This post is about thinking outside the box. Many times I talk about editing your scene by repositioning a mountain peak, trimming a tree, or redirecting a stream. Those are all things we do for good composition. After all, it's not that God put that tree in the wrong place; it's that we are standing in the wrong place for the best composition. But do you ever completely rearrange the values to make your scene say something more than is presented?

If you have ever studied John F. Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting (and I hope you have), he teaches the 4 planes/values of the landscape. Beginning with the top of your canvas/scene and moving downward, they are 1. Source of light (sky) lightest; 2. Slanting planes (mountains) next to darkest; 3) Upright Plane (trees) darkest; and 4) Flat Plan (ground) next to lightest. Please refer to his popular diagrams and read the full explanation if you have not. Mr. Carlson's book is one of my very favorites, and every time I read it I learn even more than the time before. These photographs are prime examples of how these principles can be applied.

However, these rules are meant to be learned so that as we observe when they work perfectly, we can also observe when to take liberties for, what I like to call our "visual statement." (I'll post more on making visual statements another time.) Looking at these two images, gives us some ideas on how other value plans readily present themselves in nature:

But I'm not just talking about specific times of day or weather conditions that suggest different plane/values. So let's take this a step further. What if we take our existing scene, with its ordinary value plan, and "think outside the box" to make a totally different visual statement? I have adjusted the photo of the boats above to demonstrate.

Starting at the top left you see the original image; next to it that image turned grayscale. On the next row I have adjusted the sky to make the boats more prominent; next to that I have adjusted the sky to give more weight to the lower portion of the piece. What do these options mean to you if you were going to paint this? What visual statement would each plan suggest in its final stage?

Of course, on site, I do all of this using small thumbnail sketches rather than a computer. I will make half a dozen pencil sketches sometimes cropping the scene, removing elements around or changing their size, and adjusting values, until I get just what I want to say. This is tricky, however, if you do not understand Mr. Carlson's suggestion for "seeing simply" and why these fundamentals work in the first place, or if you do not know what you want to say. Please hear this... I am not suggesting you start jumping all over the place without full comprehension of what he means. No more than I am suggesting changing the size of the elements without understanding perspective in drawing. In the end, all of this planning helps me enjoy the actual painting process more. My decisions have been made allowing me to paint without fear!

By the way, I chose one of the adjustments above for the painting at the top of this post. See if you can identify which one. Clue. I really wanted the painting to be about the boats.


Celeste Bergin said...

outrageously good information! First rate--I am going to read it again...I am always amazed at the generosity of some--you, Lori, are at the top of the crop in sharing information.

Lori Putnam said...

Thanks for reading, Celeste. It helps to know people are out there!

Ann Caudle said...

Having read Carlson's book many years ago, it helps to hear basic info again and see examples in action. Very good interpretation. As usual you hit the nail on the head.