Below you'll find artist and blogger
Jennifer King's discussion of when a plein air painting can be too real. I
don't think she's being harsh at all, but you'll have to decide for yourself.
I think it's time for some straight
talk. I've participated in many, many plein air painting
critiques over the
years, and I can't begin to tell you how often I've been faced with landscape
paintings that are a little off. Perhaps it's an ugly red stop sign that
distracts from the pastoral mood or a stand of trees all the same height that
deadens the rhythm, or a color palette that's just too dull to hold my
interest. And time after time, when I or someone else says, "Um, hey, gee,
that part there isn't really working for me," the artist invariably
answers with dismay, "But that's how it looked in real life."
|Salisbury Cathedral from Bishop's Ground
by John Constable, oil painting, 1823.
||The Hay Wain by John Constable,
oil painting, 1821.
Painting real life can be tricky.
As much as we may want to be faithful to the initial inspiration and to the
outdoor painting subject in front of us, my friends, we never have to paint
exactly what's there. I think we plein-air artists are particularly guilty of
this. In our rush to get something down on canvas, we don't always take the
time to analyze the subject and "edit" real life. Believe me, I speak
from my own experience!
So perhaps we can break this bad
habit by looking back to landscape master John Constable (1776 - 1837), the
creator of some of the most beautiful landscapes in history. In his day,
neither paint tubes nor the camera had been invented, so Constable's method was
to sketch (drawing and painting) on location, and then use that information for
composing and creating his paintings back in the studio. He took his time in
crafting his designs before he committed to one for a final work.
|Brighton Beach with Colliers by John Constable, oil painting, 1824.
Now look at what he painted and how.
Trees gracefully frame a distant cathedral, wagons and people stop at the
perfect spot to balance buildings, and clouds appear at just the right moment
to create compositional rhythm. Just in case you're thinking that England
really looked this perfect back then, think again. Constable took what was
"there in real life" and modified it to perfection.
|Mill at Gillingham, Dorset by John Constable,
oil painting, 1826.
||A Cottage in a Cornfield by John Constable,
oil painting, c. 1816-17.
Like Constable, we always have the
opportunity to change certain aspects of our subjects to improve upon the
composition, especially when we're in the studio and even when we're working
quickly en plein air. If there's a distracting element in your subject, leave
it out. If there's a really boring section of your subject, find something
nearby that would add interest there and put it in. Make the contours of your
shapes more varied, adjust the values to add more drama, and push the colors in
a direction that supports the mood or idea behind your painting. Be creative in
finding ways to make your subject better.
In my opinion, art should not
duplicate real life as it is. In the hands of a master like Constable--or even
mere mortals like us--art can and should reveal the artist's vision of life as
it could be.
Seasoned plein air painters deal with
"real life" differently depending on their own focuses and interests as
artists. If you want to see how varied these reactions can be, you can do what
I did and get expert inspiration and instruction straight from the source, from
Plein Air Painting--one of our most
comprehensive magazines devoted entirely to the subject of how plein air
painters do what they do--to Mastering Painting
to Plein Air in Oil with Frank
Serrano. It's a way to jumpstart the spring season and will let you make the
most of your reality when painting
P.S. What do you have to say about art duplicating real life? Leave a comment and let us know!