But 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 to a long-ago 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 light clouds or dark 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. Do you agree?