Scouting

The search for a motif undoubtedly is like similar activities in all areas of the arts. Where does a composer find a tune, or a writer find a plot? If one wishes to paint outdoor scenes, what do you choose to paint? It is a dreary process. I’ve spent days in my truck, driving around, looking for something that will stimulate me. John Carlson wrote that great compositions surround us everywhere we look, and he probably had a point, but I’ve gone through a lot of time and gasoline looking. I call the process scouting. I mean, I literally call it scouting. In the little black book in which I record my business expenses and mileage, time spent looking around for something to paint fits under the category “scouting”. Logic tells us that it’s as important a use of one’s time as stretching canvases, cleaning brushes, or actually painting. But it’s a lonely and frustrating time. It makes me feel unemployed.

I have no sage advice to offer others in how to scout out scenes. In recent years I’ve tried to limit myself to a set number of miles to drive, but I don’t particularly recommend that.

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Good locales occasionally drop in your lap. In June 0f 2017 I parked alongside this spillway, which I’d passed hundreds of times for several years. I ended up spending most of the summer there, working on two versions of the same scene.

More usually, you wander around, make sketches, think about it all. I took a still life class taught by Richard Luschek a few years ago, and his procedure was to accumulate a collection of objects — glasses, statuary, fabric, knickknacks and the like. Luschek had his students grab a few objects, study them for a while, and then wander off by themselves, without the objects but with a scratch pad. In this fashion, you construct a picture from your imagination, making use of the objects you chose.

Similarly, you go out scouting, thinking about what you see, and eventually you assemble all of it into what you hope will be a good picture.

Luschek insists that if something in your still life setup needs to be changed, one changes it physically, rather than maniupulating size, shape or position with a paint brush. The setup is king, as is the screenplay to certain film directors. Similarly, I don’t believe in changing what I see once a motif has been found, except when necessary to change the positions of things. For example, if a line in a scene leads the viewer’s eye outside of the picture, a tree or shrub can be placed there to block the exit.

Okay, I can give you one rule. No matter how lonely a day you have scouting, make a point of coming back with something. I carry a stack of canvas panels. A half-hour spent sketching a scene, any scene, can be very encouraging. The sky is always fun to paint. But pretty much anything will teach you something about what paint will do.

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Today there were no clouds and no people. So I pulled alongside a lake and sketched what I saw.

I seldom am able to sell stuff like this except to other painters. But it’s a good way to end a day spent in search of the elusive composition.

The Fine Art of Upstaging

A picture ought to be about something. One of the differences between painting up until the middle of the 19th century and what followed is that pictures, for the most part, ceased being about something literary and became about things purely visual. The subject of, for example, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People to Victory was the triumph of the 1830 revolt against Charles X, or about the triumph of freedom in general.

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Liberty told of events and the human condition. Jean Francois Millet, similarly, painted haystacks as a comment on farm life.

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But haystacks can be contemplated in other ways. Monet and his colleagues took the subject matter surrounding them and used them as an evocation not of life or the human condition, but of the very act of seeing.

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It would be tough to imagine a more dispassionate rumination on haystacks, or of anything else. With the French Impressionists came an exploration not of what we see, but how we see. The change, and the work these people did, are so familiar to us now that it’s easy to overlook what an overhaul this was in how pictures were conceived and executed. Subject matter and its overtones became pretty much irrelevant. Hawthorne famously taught his students that the loveliest motifs were the ugliest ones. He loved sending his pupils to railroad yards. The poetry to be sought wasn’t in what things were but how they appeared on the retina of the eye.

It’s a very different sort of way to conceive pictures, and it’s fallen out of fashion over the past decades. But it’s still a legitimate way of building paintings. I find it very much worth pursuing.

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For example, last Saturday I blundered on this scene. There’s nothing in the way of literary content here, no genre subject to explore, although in fact I was standing in a farmer’s market, which could well have offered a human story to tell.

But what interested me here was something else. I made sketches to try and isolate what it was that I wanted to build a picture around:

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I was feeling out what intrigued me here, but I was cropping the scene too closely to really see it, and I tried again:

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This was it. The zigzag formed from a mound of land, its diagonal descent, and the flat plane surrounding it, framed by three trees, was the story, if you could call it a story.

Anyone who’s painted landscape for any length of time will soon get bored with a horizontal ground plane, parallel to the lower border of the canvas. One searches for some relief from it. And here it was, my zigzag. It, the trees framing it, and the cloudscape above, where what I wished to describe. Not a profound comment on the human condition. Just something that looked cool. I went at it.

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Ninety minutes later, my 18x24” canvas was covered. An hour or two, generally, is as long as an effect is going to last, so unless your visual memory is superb, you have to limit your work time each day.

The shadow of passing clouds on the foreground was something I wanted and waited to see, although the shape and the edges of this shadow are somewhat vague. The blue of the distant trees on the left are really unseen on the right, but its lack looks strange; i would have to invent a line of distant trees on the right.

If you’re smart, you’ll learn to love day one. I loved this one. When I was done, I packed up, went home, and left the canvas on the dashboard of my truck to bake in the 88º sunshine of this Indian summer day. That night, the paint had set, and I scraped it all down with a palette knife, to bring about a dry and cooperative surface for the following sessions.

Two days later I returned. Same time of day, roughly the same conditions. My target, again, was the zigzag ground plane. I noodled with the sky some, but had decided that its lines and shapes were what I wanted, so I only made some minor adjustments to values and hues.

Day Two can be very difficult. The visual impression which one rapidly and uncritically recorded must be refined and clarified; otherwise, why go back at all? But the energy of the first lay-in is extraordinarily easy to lose.

As you can see, I did add that distant treeline to the right, and I made an earnest effort to describe the topology of the land whose zigzag I so wanted to describe. But Day Two was disheartening. I didn’t like the ground and wasn’t terribly thrilled with the sky which, after all, was assigned the largest real estate in the canvas.

Autumn effects are fugitive. The scene might look about the same for another day, but that’s about it. The weatherman believed that tomorrow there’d be one more warm sunny day. I could either try to get it then, or stick this thing in the attic, to await another attack in October of 2019.

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When the next day came, I had to make a decision: do I chase after my zigzag ground plane, or do I just go after what my eyes saw that day? I chose the latter. My ground plane was sacrificed to the sky before me, which I painted rapidly.

If we’re speaking of the fine art of upstaging, that’s what happened here: the sky, which had been cast as a supporting player to a zigzag land mass, became the star. Like the ingenue in The Wisdom of Eve, my sky took its understudy role, ran with it, and upstaged the ground.

I’m more and more convinced that in order to paint a cloudscape, one must fine one point of focus, one finely seen cloud, and let everything else fall out of focus. I believe that this is one of the secrets of a well-painted sky. Clouds are huge, and the eye cannot focus on more than one of them at a time. Nor are all clouds equally crisp to the eye. Usually only one is, usually to be found a few degrees above the horizon. I selected one cloud as the star, the crisply painted one directly above the leftmost tree. I drew it the best I could, and spent the rest of my time finding ways to lose the outlines of the others.

The picture got some nice comments on social media. It’s about as good a sky as I’ve ever managed to paint. But the aging diva it upstaged, my zigzag ground plane, was the casualty.

That’s life.

Dunlay on my Shoulder

"It takes two people to paint a picture," goes the old saying. "One to paint it, the other to make him stop." Which is pretty sage, and if someone I respect urges me to stick a fork in it, I generally do. But at his recent workshop in Cincinnati, Tom Dunlay offered a far more useful dictum for determining when a picture is done. But before we look at that, let's look at the stuff I've done over the past five days.

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A little sketch like this is fairly easy to pronounce completed, because it is based on a very simple notion: a spotlit figure's white shirt placed over the shadows of the trestle, while his dark legs are placed over the brightly lit dirt road. Once this was accomplished, there wasn't much more it seemed to need.

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The painting was based on this pen and pencil sketch. If a scene appeals to you, you can try drawing it, and then play with different ways of cropping it. I decided not to show the sky over the trestle, but instead to show only the trestle, the road, and some foliage. Doing the drawing gave me the idea of adding the figure. Again, it was fairly easy to call the picture completed, and move on.

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The next day I found a hillside along Roundbottom Road and, instead of doing a pen sketch, I decided to go directly to canvas, roughing in the picture as a series of lights and darks. I used yellow ochre with some ultramarine. Ochre is nice for this because it doesn't much stain a canvas. This means that you can rough in your big shapes and, if you change your mind about anything, it'll easily wipe clean with a rag and turpentine.

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This is how the scene actually looked. There is a big tree on the right, off camera, which I brought into the scene, to improve the shape of the sky mass.

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Still on Day One, I began painting in the sky, and then divided the landscape into middle tones and darks. This is still doing the work I used the drawing for in the previous picture, feeling out what sort of an image seems pleasing to me.

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So this was the end of Day One. It took about an hour and a half. Or maybe longer, if you count the many hours you spend driving around looking for vistas which seem worth building a picture around.

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The next day gave me another couple of hours to futz with the image. One thing that the previous day's rub-in had was a sense of unity, but that sort of unity tends to get lost when you come back and actually try painting color into the scene.

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One way to regain a little bit of that unity is to scrape down the picture. This may sound weird if you've never done it, but it can be very helpful. I let the picture sit on the dashboard of my truck for a couple of hours, which hastened the drying process, and then carefully scraped off all thickness of paint, using a palette knife. This is done for a couple of reasons. One is that the procedure produces an extremely pleasant surface to work on the next day. Another is that it mutes the values and colors a bit, pulling both toward the middle. And lastly, once scraped in this fashion, the picture will be bone dry the next day.

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The "next day" was today. I went back and put in another couple of hours. After that, I realized that the image was nowhere near what I saw before me, and verisimilitude seemed to slip farther away from me the more I tried to chase it.

Which brings us back to Tom Dunlay's dictum.

"When the improvements the picture needs are beyond your technical ability to make them," Dunlay said, "then the picture is done."

This thing needs a lot of improvements. The color's wrong. The topography of the hill is unclear. The values are jumpy. But hell, it's only an 11x14". Maybe later this spring I'll know what I should have done differently. In the meantime, with Dunlay like Jimmy Cricket on my shoulder, I'm calling this one done.