When I start a new class, my first act is a small lecture on the art of seeing. Before choosing a medium, purchasing supplies, and before picking up a brush and mixing colors, an artist needs to have the ability to see the world around him or her.
Plein Aire artists often say you should not paint from photographs because they do not display all the nuances of painting directly from your subject. I won’t argue the point, but I will say they are right about one thing … you do have to look carefully at whatever you are hoping to paint.
To begin: All artwork that uses realism as a base starts with the Horizon Line. The Horizon Line is eye level from the perspective of your painting. You must first determine where “eye level” is in your painting, because all of your subjects are created by using this. We will learn more about this in a lesson on perspective, probably one of the most important lessons to have.
I recommend that, before starting to create a painting, that you take several walks or drives, looking at the world around you. Find the horizon. Look at the color of the sky at different times of the day and in different weather. Find the color in everything you see. How many colors can you find in a rose? How about a mown lawn? A tree? A baby’s hair? A wooden fence? A Vase? Oranges? How about snow? How many colors can you see in snow … is it warm, or cool in color? Look, and see.
When I travel long distance by car, I look at the world around me to find things to apply to my painting. When I look at the sky, I see how light hits the clouds. I see the colors that can be seen in the clouds. If the sun is going down, or coming up, I look to see how the glow affects surrounding areas. All of this becomes useful in landscape painting. When I go into a wooded area, I look at the different kinds of trees. Do the branches point up or down on the pines? What color are they … and not just “green.”
Speaking of trees, one student came to class all excited one day after being sent outside to observe some trees. She said she had made a big discovery. You can see the sky between the branches of the trees! Now, that may sound silly to some, but she had been painting for some time and her trees were always a heavy mass of color. Children paint that way. It had been difficult to explain to this artist that she needed “air” in her trees, so I sent her outside to look around. It was an important improvement for her.
Another thing to look for is “Air Space” around your items. In landscapes, this means that the division between objects needs a little distance painted in. We will discuss that another time. The same holds true when you are painting still life. The Vase, or Flowers, or fruit do not butt up against one another. They touch, but there is a sense of a little distance. If not, you have grapes merging into the wine bottle you are painting.
There is so much to see! Shadows, lights and darks, colors, the effects of sunlight and rain, the shimmer of water … the artist must truly look and see. Did you realize that water usually reflects the sky? “Not so,”said one student. “The river is green. Not blue!” So we took a short drive to the river. Yes, there is was, a green river. But the sky was still reflected in the small waves and still areas of the water. What was even more interesting is that that “green” river had MANY colors in it.
While you are looking at your water, in terms of painting, note the reflections. Look at puddles alongside the road as you travel. Are you aware that reflections go straight down no matter where you move to? (Meaning, of course, with their own unique bends or shapes.) All too often I have had students who painted reflections as angled toward the beholder. If this is confusing, take a look at reflections and you will see what I mean.
There is so much to a lesson in “Seeing” that isn’t included here. A big step in improving your artwork or learning to paint is in making an effort to see perspective, colors, light, effects, and more. Take a sketch book and make picture notes. You will benefit from it … without exception!