One Small Painting on a Compositional Journey
While teaching a four-week workshop focusing on composition for the Woodstock School of Art, I began this 12″x12″ painting.
Here is the reference.
I almost always eliminate some detail from my reference photos, and change the location, size, shape and color of elements so much that I am recreating the image. Much as I am taken with the view that I choose and the moment in time it captures, everything I do pictorially is in service of the overall painting.
Here is my first version.
When I took the above shot I had already moved the white stripe twice, ending in a spot in between the other two tries. As you can see, I eliminated the cars to the right and the center line, which veers so sharply left that is squeezes against the car with the headlights (which is the focus of my painting) and divides the picture plane oddly.
I included the phone pole to the right and a very faint indication of the yield sign on the left.
I had several critiques, at this point, as I got away from the piece for a bit and came back. One was that the upper edge of the mountain too closely follows the top edge of the treeline, creating a shape that is less interesting than it could be and also encourages the eye to roll down and off the side of the picture plane to the right.
A successful composition keeps the eye circulating, starting with a focal point and then allowing it to move around the painting. This is something that is not so much a road map from the outset, but explored each time through a combination of conscious decision-making—where am I putting these headlights?—and intuitive painting. Then, when something doesn’t look quite right, getting it to where it does is a process of trial and error.
In terms of color, the blues of the mountain and the off-white of the sky seemed too bright for the time of day that would throw the road into such deep shadow. It is hard to see this in the photograph, but this brightness drew attention away from the headlights.
The below is my next version. I am starting to get an edge at the top of the mountain that is more interesting—not so bumpity-bump. I tried painting in a faint back mountain above and then painted it back out again. I gave a little more height and brightness to the yield sign.
The interaction between the tree line and the top of the mountain still didn’t feel right, and the shape of the shadowy trees going off to the right left me dissatisfied. I had been thinking about lifting the phone poll a bit higher, and decided to do that, as well create a higher shape on the right that alludes more strongly to trees or bushes on the right side of the road.
In what turned out to be my final version, I changed the direction that the highest tree is leaning so that it points toward a flat spot on the ridge line (rather than being an upward bump that presses toward another upward bump) and raised the phone pole—much better!
The yield sign went in and out a few more times and then stayed out—-I felt that, much as I liked the shape of it, it fought with the headlights for attention.
The final color is deeper and softer, with the addition of some reds around the headlights that are very subtly echoed in the off-white of the sky.
And last, I changed the curve of the bottom of the bushes as they meet the verge on the right, from a down curve that follows the white line to an up curve as the shape goes off the picture plane. That small adjustment, really kind of an after-thought, was my favorite tweak of all. It created a satisfying shape with the shoulder that funnels the eye back into the painting and toward the headlights.
Because of all of the—to me, absolutely essential— changes, this small piece took more time to complete than the 30″x40″ that I did as a demo for the workshop, but which needed very little adjustment once I started painting. It is impossible to know at the beginning of the journey how long or complicated it will be!
The result of this particular journey is a simple painting, quietly moody.
Shape and Mood: 2 Paintings so Alike and so Different
In representational art, the formal aspects of a painting can contribute to a narrative or mood just as readily as the descriptive. This is a theme that I discuss often in workshops, talks, and here on my blog. I recently finished two paintings of the same locale and time of year—same day, in fact—using a very similar palette that illustrate this point well.
In fact, the difference between them really boils down to the mood that the shapes create.
In “Lingering”, below, the overall feel of the piece is warm and welcoming, despite the weather depicted being overcast. Putting ourselves in the scene, the misty/drizzly day creates a sheen and depth to colors in the marshes and a sense of intimacy—privacy, almost— within the landscape. On these sorts of days there are fewer people about; the air is thick and embracing; vistas tend to be limited. There is a boundary of trees at the horizon, enclosing the space.
On the formal side, the eye is led into the piece by the wide open shape of the tidal pool at the bottom left, and then is invited to move around by the directionality of soft edges and dispersed accumulations of detail. Variations of color within the areas of orange marsh grasses encourage the eye to linger. Sky and water are a mauve, relating to the coolest of the reds in the marsh.
I would describe “Lingering” as warm; friendly; intimate. And descriptive, for sure.
In the second piece, the color is the same but the feel is much bolder. Now we have a highly structured piece with assertive directionality. The eye is swept into the image by the strong zig-zag created by the edges of the marsh and moves back to a open area with minimal detail along the horizon. The detail that does exist is necessary to balance the composition, keeping the eye moving within the painting rather than being swept off to the right by the strong edges of the tidal creek.
The description of “Edge of Discovery” could include abstract; expansive; dynamic. Movement within structure.
As I was working on these pieces–about a month apart—I decided independently with each that the image needed some interest in the marsh as it went back in space. To create this, I added the back tidal pools in both cases, and then the evolving paintings clicked into place.
Even here, with a similar solution to a common problem, the feel of these pools is quite different. In “Lingering” there is quite a bit of detail to the two glimpses of white, while in “Edge of Discovery” the bit of water is minimal, austere (and right in the middle!), jibing with the overall reductive composition.
So, when we talk about mood in a landscape painting, we are discussing two things. One is the mood of the moment captured—how would it feel like to be there? The other is the feeling that the lines, shapes, and surface of the painting create for the viewer.
Color relates to both. It reflects the seasons; light; locale; and time of day of the views that we see around us. It also is inherently linked to mood and personal preference.
Kandinsky in his 1910 “Concerning the Spiritual in Art” posits that abstract elements have emotive power in their own right. In comparing these two paintings, it becomes clear how the shapes with their edges and directionality and the overall composition that they create impact the mood projected.
Unlike with color, many people are not consciously aware that these particular formal aspects are actively contributing to their experience of a representational painting. It is up to the artist to be adept at exploring the endless possibilities of these pictoral tools as the painting is being shaped, narrowing the gap between a good painting and an excellent one and finding variation in feel from piece to piece.