As we explore our wonderful coastal North Florida scenery, I take a variety of reference photos for landscape painting. Some photos, like this one, comprise an overall view of a place I might paint in the future. Others record odd bits of information: everything from close-ups of particular tree trunks, to interesting cloud formations, to ripple patterns on our rivers or ponds. One wise word of advice for landscape painting I have heard from more than one instructor is, "Don't make it up." Of course, we do use artistic license to move elements around or to add, say, an appropriate water bird to one of its favorite habitats. However, for me at least, it is crucial to see and photograph the actual water bird or examples of a particular variety of tree in order to paint them convincingly.
While studying reference photos, I make rough sketches of possible compositions based on that location. I try the horizon fairly high, then lower; place only a few tree trunks in the scene, then sketch it with more trunks in a different pattern. In the sketches (often with 5 different grey to black values of markers on cheap paper), I also vary the values, placing the darks, mid-tones, and lights differently each time. A composition with equally distributed values is usually much less interesting than a composition with mostly one value, some of another, and just a bit of the third main value.
For the scene in this photo, I decided to leave out some of the bushes behind the grassy area to reveal the river running behind them. A bench or chair would appear near the riverbank to invite the viewer to enter the scene and rest awhile. Choosing what seemed the most promising small sketch, I outlined the major shapes on the canvas with vine charcoal, which rubs off easily later and which acrylic paint covers well. In some compositions, I begin by "sketching" with a brush and paints in the family of colors I plan to use (more about the palette chosen for this piece in the next post), but for this one, the balance and rhythm of the lines seemed important to place first.
In the top photo, you see a beginning placement of some of the values, especially some of the darkest areas. The foreground shadows first attracted me to the scene and will provide a visual path to the focal point (the bench and its surroundings). The other darkest elements will be some of the tree trunks and the hanging branches at the top of the canvas. Unlike some paintings, this one was pleasing even in the early stages; the composition and value "map" felt right.
Question of the day: As in other creative pursuits, including problem-solving in work and daily life, we are all very different regarding the degree to which we plan ahead. Clearly, I am a planner--how about you?