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Planning Values In A Hurry When Painting Outdoors

6 Jul 2011

A gray-scale photograph of my plein air oil painting subject.
A gray-scale photograph of my plein air oil painting subject.
If you read my last post, you know I'm a believer in spending time planning a composition before diving into a plein-air painting. Yet, I also want to get started as soon as possible. So, to work out my composition quickly, I usually take 5 minutes or less to sketch out the basic shapes, altering them as needed to enhance the gesture of the subject (Sketch A). Once I've settled on the bare bones of my composition, I spend another 5 minutes doing quick thumbnails to try out different patterns of value-shapes.

What do I mean by value-shapes? Well, back in kindergarten many of us learned that a shape is a space defined by its edges, as in a ball is a circle or a box is a square. But when artists talk about shapes, we don't mean the objects themselves but a space that's defined by a fairly consistent value. That's why I prefer to use the term 'value-shape.'

In art, a tree in its totality is rarely a single value-shape. A tree will probably have a light side and a dark side, and because of that difference in values, the tree will be made up of two value-shapes. And if the thing next to the light value side of the tree—say another tree behind it—is roughly the same value as that light part of the tree, then the two areas will "read" as one value-shape. Same for the dark side. Thus, any one value-shape can and usually does contain parts of multiple objects. So when artists talk about the "big shapes" in a painting, they are referring to the big expanses of different values in the subject that you see when you squint.

Plein air sketch A.
Plein air sketch A.
But as always, you don't have to paint exactly what you see. Before I start an outdoor painting, I look at the value pattern that already exists in my subject, and I ask myself, Is there some way to make this better? Answering this question is easy—and therefore quick to do—because there are only three things that are really important:

1. What and where is my focal area, and is the highest degree of contrast in value-shapes found there?
2. Do I have a good variety of sizes and contours in my value-shapes?
3. Of light, medium, and dark values, is one category of value dominating as it should be?

Look at a gray-scale photograph of my plein air oil painting subject. This is roughly what you'd have seen if you were on location and squinting. Notice how the highest degree of contrast is way down in the lower left corner. This could work as a focal area if it were properly balanced, but a focal area this close to the edge of an image will cause tension. Tension is not the mood I would go for in a tranquil morning scene like this, so I'm going to move the focal area.

Plein air sketch B.
Plein air sketch B.
Plein air sketch C.
Plein air sketch C.
Plein air sketch D.
Plein air sketch D.
For a nice, pleasant, stable composition like the one I want to create, nothing beats positioning the focal area at one of the four circled intersections of an imaginary tic-tac-toe grid laid over the subject (Sketch B). One option would be to use the value contrast that's there but just move it up that river bank slightly and modify the values in the corner so that the highest degree of value contrast falls closer to the lower left intersection.

To round out the composition (Sketch C), I make a mental note to not go quite as dark in the background, especially in the shadowed areas, so that the background doesn't compete with the focal area. (Notice, by the way, how the distant stretch of the river and the undersides of the trees on the right combine to make one value-shape.) With this loosely drawn-out plan, middle values will dominate the composition, which is good. As a final check, I observe that there is plenty of variety in the sizes and contours of the value-shapes.

But there are always other options. Near the upper left intersection, there is already a fairly high degree of contrast. I could lighten the lights and darken the darks there to create more contrast, while downplaying the value contrast in the lower left corner (Sketch D). But again, I finish out the composition by letting one category of values dominate and ensuring variety in my sizes and contours of value-shapes.

So in a matter of minutes, I was able to figure out two possible value-shape patterns, either of which would work better than the actual pattern of value-shapes in the subject. As I see it, that is the value of composing with thumbnail sketches before you paint: You get to take all the beauty found in nature and make it even better.

I'm curious to know what you think. Do you do thumbnails? If you do, what are you thinking about when you draw them? How do you evaluate them? There are probably many ways to quickly start a plein-air painting on location, and mine is probably just one of many that will work, so share your own methods. Can't wait to hear,

Jennifer


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