Use design to create a powerful painting. The design of each painting you create affects whether it works as much as and generally more than the subject. Most of the pupils I have developed are looking for good subjects to paint. What you should be watching for is a great design. You’re not painting the life out there. You are painting a figure that you require in the world. Without that ideal notion, you can get involved in cataloging what’s in front of you.
I like how John Carlson says it: If you approach nature without having a clue, it is ruthless in the way it piles wood in your path. Carlson’s idea is the design, the predominant structure that you impose on your painting. Without it, details, accessories, curtains, and intrusions can quickly overcome you.
Begin your painting with a pattern idea firmly in memory. So you have a roadmap, a good idea of where you are going, and, equally important, an indicator of when you have arrived. Once you get to the heart of the painting, so much happens that you could end up almost anywhere without that map and will usually be disappointed with that ending point.
Every sign is important
Let me give you a single example: Take a clean sheet of paper and bring a big arc over it from the top right to the bottom left (A). That arch leads the gaze across the lower left page and has become the dynamics of the drawing on the image plane. This dynamic is not a sensation or an aesthetic preference, nor can you do much to stop it. It is just a fact that results from the way your eye responds.
As you begin to paint, each mark you make affects the plane of the image equally, sometimes dramatically, sometimes subtly. The signs add to the dynamic dynamics. Each sign is doing something. You have to be aware of that something when you paint. Each new sign not only represents an element, such as a tree trunk or a patch of sunlight, but it also affects the entire dynamics of your painting.
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Most painters hide their heads in the subject they have chosen, and because that subject looks interesting or beautiful, they assume that the painting will also be interesting or beautiful. It doesn’t work that way. Either you are shaping the dynamics to bring your painting design to life, or the dynamics are executing the design on its own and rarely to your advantage. The moment you get lost in discussion at the expense of design, your chances of success begin to decline rapidly. So the fact is that when you paint, you need to pay at least the same attention to the drawing as you do to the subject. It’s like playing music: if you are so fascinated with taking the right notes that you miss a beat, you will lose the music. Similarly, if you get so caught up in the subject that you lose the sad drawings easy, you will lose the painting.
How do you become more design-conscious when painting? I have five suggestions:
- Make a thumbnail (see B and E). Consider it a roadmap. Think mostly in terms of different masses of bold values. Students generally hate making miniatures; They want to bring the brush to the canvas, but a good thumbnail shows you simply and graphically how strong your design is before you start painting.
- Use a viewer (cardboard or plastic frame) to isolate or cut out your design idea. Push your design before painting (see Pushing Design 1 Up and Pushing Design 2 below). Choose asymmetry and push it 50 percent further than is comfortable. There is an inevitable shift between what you have imagined and what is happening as you paint. The painting loses vigor (it happens to all of us). If your drawing is dramatic enough before you begin, your painting will still be compelling when finished, even with that inevitable slip.
- Stay behind. You have to turn your head away from what you are doing and take a step back, and to do that. You have to paint 10 to 12 feet from the canvas. I don’t mean you need long brushes. You have to go behind and see what’s working on. Otherwise, you can bury yourself for hours in all sorts of items and shadows that aren’t even visible from 10 feet away.
- Change your viewing orientation. When backing up, occasionally look at your painting in a mirror or upside-down or both. You will often notice problems that you couldn’t see before.
- Let. Take a break from work every hour for a few minutes. Then go back and look at your painting with new eyes.
- To summarize, cut and frame dramatically and find large, strong masses of value to guide your painting. When you think about design while composing, and not just subject matter, your paintings instantly become more attractive, and your success rate increases.
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