Oil Painting: Painting the Figure in the Landscape: The Basics

25 Jan 2007

0612parktease3_453x600_1In the winter 2006 issue of Workshop, John A. Parks tackled what is arguably the most difficult subject matter: how to organize color to paint the nature of light. We present an excerpt from the article with Park's advice about the basic principles behind painting figures in landscapes.

Parks narrowed down his advice to 11 items for this article:

  1. Consider the figure in its context. How are the landscape and the figure tied together? What can the surroundings and the figure say about each other? What shapes, colors, textures, or movements do they share?
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    “Note how the horizontal movements through the figure are mirrored by the horizontals in the landscape behind,” says Parks. “Figure and landscape seem to share the same rhythms and life.”

  3. Make a composition that you feel will bring out the elements you have chosen to elicit from the scene. Consider carefully the scale of the figure against the landscape and the viewpoint. Use a wash sketch that you can easily change to try a variety of placements and formations. Don’t overdo the drawing at this stage—stick to simple shapes and masses.

  4. Mix a full palette. You don’t have to premix paint for the entire painting but it’s a good idea to create a lot of possibilities with the color by using the palette as a place of exploration. Many color passages are very subtle and it is extremely difficult to nail the color the first time. By creating a variety of colors you are more likely to be accurate. It’s also a good idea to practice mixing in “runs” or “steps,” moving the color and tone incrementally to mimic its change across a form or surface.
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    “Notice how the greens in the landscape are all much warmer than the green stripes in the umbrella,” says Parks. “This sets up an interesting tension between the natural landscape and the man-made object.”

  6. As you begin painting, consider the largest masses and the most saturated colors. Make sure that you have at least established the range for each color fairly early on in the painting. By this I mean that you have established, for instance, where the brightest red is or the most violet blue. This makes it easier to back into the more subtle colors.
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    “The shadows are achieved here by layering active warms and cools,” Parks points out. “Note how the highlights are kept cooler than the slightly darker lights.”

  8. As you work into the picture look for temperature alternations within areas—color tends to shift from warm to cool and back again as light tracks across a form or a surface. By following those changes and even exaggerating them it is possible to create a powerful impression of light.

  9. Don’t be afraid to work wet-in-wet. Don’t be afraid to move things, to wipe things out, to simplify, to bring in elements from another part of the landscape. Don’t be afraid to push ahead even at the risk of ruining a part of the painting that you like. Learning goes faster when you push.
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    “This painting has clearly gone through a lot of changes and a lot of wet paint is sitting on the surface,” says Parks. “The student has warms and cools in the right places on the figure and, although all the values are not yet right, there is a great sense of excitement coming from the struggle to see and paint. Everything is in flux and the painting conveys an enormous amount of life.”

  11. When the palette gets dirty, stop and remix. There is no other way.

  12. As you work, continually measure similar colors against one another. For instance, make sure that your most orange red in the painting is the most orange red in the subject, and so on. If the colors line up in the same order in the painting as in the subject then you will create light.
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    With the whole picture established, Parks encouraged the student to change the reds on the two sheds in the background. “Right now they are reading too red and jumping forward in the picture,” says the instructor.

  14. Get all of the painting up and running as quickly as you can before you even consider getting bogged down in some difficult passage. Different parts of the painting will “talk” to each other; they often work so well together that they demand less work than you think.

  15. Keep the brushwork fresh. Work standing up and hold the brush at the back. This is one of the simplest ways to make paintings look and feel better—and it requires no extra talent at all! Make sure that the brush is well loaded and that the paint comes off the end of it fairly easily. If you are working hard to get the paint off the brush—scrubbing at the canvas or struggling to eke out the paint—then it’s time to mix more pigment and load up again. Paintings look and feel better when they are generous with paint.

  16. Never express annoyance at the shifting sun, at the wind that springs up and knocks over your easel, at the insects that land in your paint, at the lack of time, or any of the other tribulations of outdoor painting. They all serve to make you physically and spiritually present at the scene.

To read the feature article on this artist, check out the winter 2006 issue of Workshop today!


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