Monday, November 29, 2010

Hold it! Knowing when to stop

Part two

            Sometimes the sheer pleasure of making brushstrokes can lead to an overloaded painting. I often see students repeating a stroke over and over, as if they are biding time while they wait for inspiration. Part of what’s going on is that we want to keep adding more. We came to paint, after all, and it just plain feels good to swing the brush (until we notice that we’ve overdone it again).
            There are stages in the progress of a painting when it’s fine to indulge in the sensual pleasure of moving the brush over the paper, but there comes a moment when it’s wise to detach, and perhaps slow down.
            Watercolors usually develop from light to dark, which is suggested by the transparency of the medium. But an even more important progression is the movement from general to specific. The first layer of a painting is often composed of the big shapes, blocked in with pale washes. Successive layers of middle values and darks will eventually cover much of the paint you apply at this stage, which may allow for casual brushwork. As the middle values begin to go on, however (and certainly when you get to the individual, very specific dark strokes), a different quality of attention is called for.
            The more specific the marks you are making, the more you benefit from a kind of “detached engagement”. I think of it aswatching the painting develop stroke by stroke, as if someone else were painting it. If you were actually looking over another artist’s shoulder it would be easy to know when to say “Hold it! That’s fine just as it is”. Being deep into your own agenda, though, can blind you to what is right before your eyes.
            The idea is to be separated from your own intentions enough to be able to see whether what you’ve just done works, regardless of whether it conforms to your original vision. It is always possible that what is happening in the moment might be just fine, even if it's not what you thought you wanted.
            If you still decide it’s not right, before you rush to correct it ask yourself what the minimum is you could do to take it further. For example, if a hill in the distance stands out too much, it is less invasive to change its color with a simple glaze than it would be to try to scrub it out entirely. In general, if something bugs you, at least consider learning to love it. Doing nothing, after all, is the absolute minimum. Being suspicious of my immediate agenda, and knowing that I usually lose more than I gain by going back over a spot to “fix” it, I’m inclined to wait and see how it looks tomorrow.
             In short, be flexible, and avoid “painting yourself into a corner”. The transparency of watercolor demands that we hold off on getting very specific prematurely. That’s the logic behind a light-to-dark and general-to-specific progression. By not committing to brushwork that is difficult to change cleanly, we keep our range of choices as open as possible. Washes are more general than strokes. Soft edges are less specific than hard ones. Light is easier to cover than dark. You can always add another stroke a week later, if you decide it’s called for, but you can’t always take one away.

            One way to keep from getting specific too quickly is to stay abstract as long as possible. For me, this is mainly a matter of how I think about the subject. During the inner dialog that accompanies the painting process, I can describe the image by naming everything in terms of the content, or I can stick to the language of form. For example, here is a narrative, content-based description of the photo below:


            A street scene in Mexico, late in the day: One side of the street is in sunlight, the other in shadow. A woman carrying shopping bags is crossing the street, while another is standing on the sidewalk. Several cars, some parked, some driving, are in the middle distance. A big tree shows above the sunlit buildings. A mountain in the distance stands out against the clear blue sky.

Here is the same scene described in the language of pure form:

            The right quarter and the bottom third of the page are strips of cool, dark, neutral. A “V” comprised of warm, very light, rectilinear forms begins at the center of the page and widens toward the left.  A pattern of verticals is distributed across the “V” shape. Above it a semi-circle of intense medium dark green is silhouetted against a medium value blue, which fills the entire top left quadrant. Where the “V” and the dark strips converge, a mid-value purple-grey form widens upward, one third of the way into the blue.

            How I choose to think about the picture can have a profound effect on the way I begin to paint it. In the early stages of a painting I usually want to establish the general structure of the image, without getting caught up in specificity. The painting has to work first of all as an arrangement of big shapes, and at this level it is more important for the pattern of darks and lights to be strong than for any specific information about content to be present.
            Until I have taken care of the fundamental needs of the painting, I don’t have sufficient basis for deciding how much information to include. It is easy to get involved in the proportions of the woman crossing the street, for example, and lose track of the fact that she is primarily part of a big shadow. I want figures in the painting, and if I am thinking in terms of content I’m likely to think I have to duplicate the photo. But if I am thinking in terms of big, abstract shapes, there are no people, no sidewalk, no shopping bags; just a few somewhat darker and lighter strokes within the big shadow.

Here is a painting of the scene done from this point of view:

                                             Tom Hoffmann            Tinoco Y Palacios

            The figures in the foreground have a presence appropriate to the role they play in the big picture. Thinking abstractly allows me to stop as soon as I see that they have done their job. A content-based approach would have invited all the associations that attend the names of every part of the scene. Like many realist artists, I am susceptible to an imperative to do justice to each subject. I could easily get wrapped up in accurately rendering posture, hairstyles, ankles, and on and on, until the figures took on too much importance in the scene.

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