Finding Meaning in the Details of My Painting

18 Apr 2011

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.

Featured Product

Figure Painting Realistic Skin Tone with Patricia Watwood DVD

Availability: In Stock
Price: $49.95


Capture the vibration of rich color and life in natural flesh tones.


Related Posts
+ Add a comment


peterworsley wrote
on 19 Apr 2011 3:12 PM

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 (

on 2 May 2012 7:21 PM

Notice the chalk lines drawn over the figure to assess and check the proportion and length of her limbs