Finding Meaning in the Details of My Painting

Inspiration for Watwood's oil painting came from images of the industrial areas in NYC.
Some of the inspiration for the landscape in my painting, Leaves of Grass,
came from found images of industrial areas along the New York waterfront.

Sometimes in making a small study for a larger oil painting, an artist will sketch in certain areas very loosely. It's almost as if she says to herself, "and there's some other stuff that fills in this area of the composition, but I'll think about that later." With the set of small paintings I was doing recently, I wanted to push myself to answer those questions earlier, and allow myself more time to critically consider the elements I include, before committing to the time and scale of a large work.

The still life and landscape details in an allegorical painting are the passages that tell most of the details in the narrative story. In what time period is the piece set? Where? What kind of person is this figure? I am interested in creating images that tell viewers they are looking at a world we share and live in. It is important to me that we have images of the human body that show a contemporary experience of the figure in art, as opposed to a sensibility that refers to a time past.

I mentioned in a recent post that Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," was the inspiration for my painting of the same name. So, I wanted this painting to feel like the figure has flopped down on a grassy bank, but not in Whitman's time–in the modern world. I chose the still life objects around her–paperback books, an aluminum water bottle, and an iPod–to show that she is contemporary to our time.

Watwood took photos of landscape elements for her oil painting, Leaves of Grass.
I often take simple snapshots of landscape elements
for my paintings. I don't paint directly from the
photo. I use the details to support my imagination.
Watwood often creates plein air studies for landscape elements in her oil paintings.
Creating plein air studies is also a rewarding way to get a
basic knowledge of natural forms that you can draw on
for later studio paintings.

The bright colors of these objects also anchor them in modern life. All our stuff is so colorful! What a feast for a painter! To compose the still life painting elements for this work, I gathered objects mostly from my home life, though I'll sometimes shop or borrow for something specific. For example, I knew that I wanted the fabric my figure is laying on to be blue, because it would complement her skin tone, work with the overall design, and to create a relaxed setting. So, I headed to the fabric store to find something that suited the picture.

The landscape is where I departed into the world of imagination. I designed the landscape based on the composition needed for the image. The dark of the trees behind her creates a good contrast for the paleness of the model's skin, and also makes the space feel more private and secluded for a bit of nude sunbathing. The open meadow slopes down to the waterfront of Brooklyn, and shows both nature and industry peaceably cohabitating. Whitman is big on embracing the Holy in the World as it is, not prettified or cleansed of human messes. The waterfront I ended up depicting is not a specific viewpoint, but an amalgamation of elements from the New York waterfront and park landscapes. I combined observation from nature, landscape paintings by other artists, and a few photos from the internet, for my references. I usually print out a set of reference photos and then invent the landscape from my head based on all this material.

For more detail on the landscape, I'll often do outdoor studies, search for found images on the internet, and simply take my own photos for precise details of say, an oak tree branch or a container crane. In general, I paint from life as much as possible, but I am happy to be able to draw on photo reference for background details such as this. I have done many plein air studies, and so have a basic knowledge of natural forms and atmospheric effects to invent from as well. Combined, they express my vision.


For more painting instruction from Patricia, check out her latest DVD, Figure Painting: Realistic Skin Tone.

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Oil Painting Blog
Patricia Watwood

About Patricia Watwood

Patricia Watwood has studied painting with Jacob Collins at the Water Street Atelier, and also with Ted Seth Jacobs at Ecole Albert Defois. She earned her MFA with honors from New York Academy of Art.

Watwood paints nudes, figures, portraits and still lifes in the classical tradition. Her paintings draw on allegorical, mythological, and narrative themes. She continues the classical pursuits of representational painting, with an eye on the contemporary world. The recurring theme in her paintings is the spiritual human presence. Watwood states, “Formal training is the indispensable underpinning of my practice. I seek to follow and build upon the artistic intelligence and traditions of the past, and bring them anew to my own generation.”

Watwood has exhibited in group and solo shows in New York, Paris, Houston, San Francisco and Long Island.  Her work is represented by John Pence Gallery in San Francisco. Her figurative paintings have been included in several museum shows, including “Enchantment” at the Hartford Art School, “Slow Painting,” at the Oglethorpe Museum; “The Great American Nude,” at the Bruce Museum of Arts and Sciences; and in “Representing Representation VI,” at the Arnot Museum. Her work has been featured in numerous art publications including International Artist, and a recent cover article in American Artist magazine.
Watwood also does portrait commissions, and is represented by Portraits, Inc.  Her recent projects include a portraits for Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government, and the former Mayor of St. Louis, for St. Louis City Hall.  Watwood is currently teaching at the New York Academy of Art, and at the Teaching Studios of Art in Brooklyn. 

Watwood and her husband and two daughters live in Brooklyn, New York.

2 thoughts on “Finding Meaning in the Details of My Painting

  1. Upon reading Patricia’s words, I find myself saying, “this is so similar to how I work.” My paintings I construct almost entirely from photographs. But, like her, I have painted in the past so often en Plein Air that I can readily adapt the photo image to reality. Also, like her, I integrate multiple images, usually with ordinary people doing everyday things, to compose my narrative paintings. Peter Worsley (