Santa Fe artist Doug Higgins has many strategies for directing the viewer’s eye toward the center of interest and leading it around the painting.
by Linda S. Price
|Painting at Smith Cove
2004, oil, 20 x 24.
All artwork this article
collection the artist.
In composing this painting
the artist was sure to
leave enough water for
the blue boat to sail into.
Call it the focus, the focal point, or the center of interest. For Doug Higgins it’s a crucial part of planning his paintings, a process that begins with a morning drive around his hometown of Santa Fe looking for places to paint. Once a scene strikes him and he has a clear image of the composition in his mind, he sets up his easel. Painting in such a beautiful area of the United States, there is rarely a lack of inspiring scenery, but Higgins says he never accepts nature as she comes. “I know I can change the scene—make things up, eliminate some things, simplify others, move elements, brighten or neutralize colors—to serve the idea of the painting,” he says. “I carefully balance and design the elements. My goal is simplicity. Complexity is easy—anyone can achieve that through thoughtless copying of details. You need intelligent strategies to keep it simple.”
Because Higgins begins with an image of a painting in his mind, he has no need for thumbnail sketches. His first considerations are establishing the focal point, locating the horizon line, and placing the largest masses. “A painting is not a collection of parts, but a construction,” he says. “I establish masses early on, stick to those decisions, and retain those masses by using close values.” Although the arrangement of masses is abstract, it still must be accurate. Squinting allows the artist to see the masses, patterns, and edges of the scene more easily.
Having made these key decisions, Higgins next sketches in the main elements with a small, soft brush. The next step is applying a thin turpentine wash with a big brush using transparent colors—alizarin crimson, burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, and viridian for the shadows and warm local colors in the light areas—to establish the major shapes. With this step done, the artist wipes down his board with a paper towel, creating an interesting variety of colors. Using thicker paints, he begins with the focal point, completing that before moving on to other areas. By establishing his lightest light, darkest dark, and highest level of detail and contrast in the center of interest, he sets standards by which to judge the subordinate parts of the painting. To deal with changing weather conditions Higgins first establishes the elements that are most likely to change, then makes sure the rest of the painting follows those preliminary decisions, in particular the direction and quality of light.
2006, oil, 20 x 16.
Although he put the figures
in last—based on photos he snapped
of passersby—the artist anticipated
adding people to the scene and
had already balanced them with the
structures on the right.
Because he considers spontaneity essential to the creative process, Higgins initially works rapidly, being what he calls “carelessly careful.” He’d prefer to make mistakes at this stage—mistakes can always be trimmed or scraped out and restated—than lose the vitality of the paint. As he progresses, he starts paying closer attention to drawing, values, edges, and color variations. Only toward the end does his technique become slower and more accurate.
Although the focus of the painting is his most important consideration, Higgins stresses that it can’t be painted in a heavy-handed, obvious way. Because the eye is attracted by contrast, he uses the strongest contrast in values, colors, edges, textures, and degree of detail in his center of interest. Linear elements lead the viewer’s eye toward the focal point. To keep the viewer from being distracted by the foreground he simplifies and abstracts that area. In August Afternoon, for instance, Higgins wanted the viewer’s eye to go to the figures, so he used the most careful drawing and the brightest whites on them, suppressing all other whites in the painting. By softening the edges of the trees he not only created aerial perspective but also made the sharp edges of the figures stand out. The ruts in the road provide the linear element that further directs the eye toward the center of interest.
Sometimes Higgins makes figures the secondary focus, as in Painting at Smith Cove. To move the eye across the water and around the painting, Higgins painted the boat—the actual center of interest—a bright blue, reinforcing it by repeating the color in another ship. The original boat also contains the whitest whites in the painting, further cementing its importance as the focal point. In Oak Creek Village the line of the mountains against the sky, the movement of the river bed, and the poplar trees pointing upward all direct the viewer’s eye toward the focus of the painting: the rock formation in the center left. To attract attention to the secondary center of interest—the little village under the mountains—Higgins darkened the trees to act as a foil to the sunlit village.
|House at Arroyo Jacona
2006, oil, 18 x 24.
The artist also uses secondary focal points to balance the painting and avoid weighing down one part of the image. For example, the large house in Niles Beach is nicely balanced by the small figures on the beach; and in Evening Light the rocks in the lower left effectively balance the crashing wave on the right. Consider also the House at Arroyo Jacona; without the mountains on the right, the painting would be too heavily weighted toward the left.
Higgins’ palette is always in transition. At present, it consists of cadmium yellow light, cadmium lemon, nonyellowing white, cadmium red light, burnt sienna (alternatively, Venetian red or English red), alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, viridian, and sometimes cadmium green. With the exception of the nonyellowing white from Utrecht he tries and uses almost any brand of paint. “I’m always looking for variations,” he says. “I like to break habits, force myself to think instead of making mindless habitual choices.” Sometimes, as an experiment, Higgins uses a limited palette of only four colors—for instance, white, English red, ultramarine blue, and yellow ochre. “With a limited palette you have to adjust color choices,” he explains, “and that makes you think.” When judging colors on-site the artist uses a technique he calls “scanning,” where he looks not at, but near, the object or allows himself just a peripheral glimpse out of the corner of his eye. The color he sees in that moment is the color he paints.
|Oak Creek Village
2005, oil, 22 x 30.
“What I exclude in my work is just
as important as what I include,”
the artist says. Here Higgins
excluded a street sign, a trash can,
and roads to keep subordinate
areas as simple as possible.
The artist’s surface of choice is Masonite, which he prepares for use by sanding, gessoing, and adding marble dust. When it comes to brushes Higgins prefers filberts, which, he says, hold more paint and have a nice spring. Recently he’s gone from painting loosely to more detailed descriptions that require smaller brushes. For those he likes Robert Simmons small, soft, pointed brushes. Although he occasionally uses Liquin, his preferred medium is turpentine or mineral spirits. At the end of the day he cleans his brushes with kerosene because it leaves an oily residue, which keeps them more limber. Higgins also likes to use palette knives for, among other things, depicting foreground vegetation, rock formations, and the sharp line of tree trunks.
Higgins works in both oil and acrylic, noting that there are both differences and similarities between the two media. Although he uses the same colors and brushes for both, Higgins says that when working in acrylic he can’t wipe out to create color variations in the underpainting nor can he scrape off paint and restate the way he does in oil. Instead he has to paint over previous layers. Additionally, using a palette knife is more difficult with acrylic, and he must keep in mind that acrylic dries more quickly and to a darker value. To help combat the quicker drying time of acrylic, Higgins uses two big brushes—one light and one dark—for painting large areas, such as skies.
Whether he’s painting in oil or acrylic, Higgins says you must stay open to the unexpected. “No matter how carefully you plan, surprises happen, and the surprise element increases the enjoyment,” he explains. “After all, it’s not painting by numbers. It has the potential for growth or failure. To be in the midst of a painting that’s going well, that is an exhilarating experience.”
2002, oil, 22 x 30.
2004, oil, 22 x 30.
About the Artist
Doug Higgins was born in New Jersey and was exposed to art at an early age by his mother, who was a trained portrait painter. Later, he studied with renowned artist Frank Reilly and at the Art Students League of New York before turning to an acting career. Since returning to art as a profession he has traveled around the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Europe in search of subject matter for his plein air paintings. His work has appeared in numerous exhibitions, and he is a master and signature member of Oil Painters of America, a Master of Artists of America, a signature member of Plein Air New Mexico, and a member of North Shore Arts Association and the International Society of Marine Painters. He is represented by Doug Higgins Fine Art, in Santa Fe; Sage Creek Gallery, also in Santa Fe; and the Sylvan Gallery, in Charleston, South Carolina. His work can be seen online at www.dhfa.net, along with valuable instruction in landscape and figure painting.
Linda S. Price is an artist, writer, and editor living on Long Island, New York.