Every scene offers its own intriguing possibilities. Many also present what appear to be impossibilities. It's a good idea to take stock of a new scene or image from both points of view. What do you want to be sure to translate? What looks tricky? Articulating the answers to these questions can provide you with a plan for what kind of preliminary work needs to be done before you invest a lot of time and materials in an uninformed attempt at a painting.
The first step is to decide which variables are involved. Is your hope or your concern a question of value, edge quality, composition or color? One of these, or a combination, is bound to be the major player. Each variable suggests a different set of technical and awareness issues, so the study that will provide answers to your particular questions must be designed accordingly.
Here are some examples of how a few questions can suggest what form your studies should take:
This landscape photo displays some depth, even though it has no sky or horizon. As a painting, though, it may flatten out, with the three shapes appearing to be all in the same plane. This could be a problem, but it could also be fun to play with. What if you wanted to give some emphasis to the simplicity of the composition - deliberately flattening it - but still keep enough of an illusion of space to ensure that your painting did not become completely abstract?
My first thought is that manipulating the edges of the shapes would be a good way to fine tune the degree of realism. How might I quickly discover which edges should be hard and which soft?
Working from the premise that the best way to find out if something belongs in a painting is to leave it out, I could either omit all the soft edges or all the hard ones. The resulting study would provide a basis for deciding where I wanted to add whichever kind of edge was missing.
There are a couple of compositional issues in this image as it stands. The no parking sign in the bottom right corner is confusing. Cute as it is, I'd delete it. This is easy enough to imagine that simply proposing it provides the answer. No study needed!
The figure is another problem. He seems to be in exactly the wrong place. If I had taken the photo two seconds earlier or later he would have provided counterpoint and focus instead of blending into the doorway. How can I quickly find out where best to place a figure? Against the blue doorway? How about the stone wall on the left? The far right? Or, maybe on the near side of the street.
Can you think of a way to answer this composition question without making several sketches? Time is a significant factor. If the preliminary work takes too long, say, more than twenty minutes, I'm not likely to do it. The urge to get started on a proper painting is too powerful. The irony is that when I skip the study, I usually end up using more time, overall, since it takes longer to make a bad painting than a quick sketch.
A good way to try out different positions for a shape is to paint it on a scrap of paper, dry it, and cut it out. Then you can move it around right on the photo. Sometimes all it takes is closing one eye and holding something like a paintbrush up in front of the image. Try that with this photo. Were you able to make a decision?
Coming upon this place after a week of intensive plein air painting was like physically entering the world of pure form. This is about as abstract as reality can get. But the light is certainly real enough, and I want to be sure the paintings that this image inspires have the glow and brilliance that is so potent.
Does it come from value relationships, or is it all about warm and cool colors? Or, maybe it comes from having both hard and soft transitions. What if it's all three? That's a lot to keep in mind. I'd like to sort this out, so I could practice one thing at a time. I wish I could just press a button and see the scene in black and white. What? I can?
Ah, the 21st century. There are still plenty of good reasons to actually make a monochrome value study by hand, but this instant version does provide legitimate answers. Relative values are definitely responsible for the potency of the light, but the glow resides in the colors. I could use this desaturated image as a value guide and make a study with just two colors, one warm and one cool, to see how adjusting the mixtures affects the feeling of reflected light.
I usually invite people to use one of the images that illustrate the blog post, but this exercise is all about discerning which variables are involved in your questions, and designing a study that will provide the answers, so it would be better for you to find one on your own.
Write your questions down. And don't try to answer too many at once. If you focus your attention on a single issue, you will definitely make real progress. Guaranteed!