Bittersweet October, 20x24, acrylic on linen, Jan Blencowe, copyright 2010
Years ago when I first started landscape painting I worked from photos.or imagination with mediocre results. When I discovered plein air painting I was told in no uncertain terms that the best (some said the only) way to paint a landscape was out in nature directly in front of your subject. Photos and studio painting were strictly verboten!
Plein air painting is the best way to become a first rate landscape painter. Indeed working from life, whether that's a model or an actual still life set up with real fruit and flowers (not plastic or silk) will teach you everything you need to know to be an excellent painter of those things. A relationship with your subject is essential to making authentic art.
However, over the years, now that I have many years of plein air painting behind me and a long on going relationship with Nature, I find I am able to work from sources and not just from direct observation.
This allows a few things to happen that I find beneficial....
- sketches, and watercolor field studies allow me to explore the subject in different ways with more freedom
- photographs and video let me capture massive amounts of information about color, texture, lighting and details
- the process of sifting through the resource materials helps me slow down and clarify my concept for the painting
- it allows me to interpret with greater imagination and creative license to capture the essence or spirit of the scene freeing me from the tyranny of copying what I see, rather than painting what I feel.
In the beginning when we are learning to paint it is a mistake to skip over the years necessary to learn to paint what you see accurately. Without that foundation your interpretations will seem hollow and lack strength of conviction. The evolution from "painting the day", strictly recording what you see to a more personal interpretive vision should evolve naturally. Or you may always choose to "paint the day" with the bold, freshness and ease that plein air painting is known for. Either is valid, both are "right". In reality plein air painting requires a good deal of editing, adjusting and interpreting it's just that the goal of that is to capture what is most important and distinctive about a scene with great fidelity.
The real danger is copying. It can happen when plein air painting, when artist stubbornly paints exactly what they see even if it doesn't make for a good painting. It happens with even more frequency and disastrous results when a photograph is used. A photo is a photo. It's an entirely different art form than a painting and has it's own particulars that make for a successful photograph, which in no way guarantees a successful painting.
Below is the photo I used as the inspiration for this painting....
It's the red/orange tree, the textures of the grasses and the overall color palette that made this worthy of interpretation. Plus, and this is a big one, I had a very strong emotional reaction to this place, it's at the edge of a very old cemetery and something resonated with me when I viewed this whole area.
Now let's look at some of the things I changed....
First off the photo is longer and a different height to width ratio so I had to compress the entire scene. Second, I changed the point of view, you're higher up so that you can see the water continue behind the marsh grasses on the right. That's important because it draws the viewer further into the painting. Third, I moved the immediate foreground grasses from the left to the right hand corner of the picture and thinned them out quite a bit. I also moved the orange tree from the far distant tree line to the middle ground, right. I eliminated the pine tree and the branch with orange leaves on the left and moved the dark, distant tree over there. I also softened that straight line of marsh grass reflection in the center of the painting. I eliminated the cloud patterns in the sky and created a light source in the sky on the left. Finally, I softened the colors and added a fair bit of pinkish atmosphere.
For me this interpretation of the scene captures the feeling I had when I was there. It was both a sober and joyful place, It reminded me of loved ones I've lost and momentarily brought back a flash of grief and loneliness, yet the sheer beauty of the colors and the movement of the grasses reminded me of the Wisdom that set the seasons spinning and has a plan for both life and death. The passionate red of the tree reminded me that to truly live is to experience both suffering and joy and both deeply enrich our humanity. This is a thoughtful painting with many shades of meaning behind it. Even the title Bittersweet October, gives a clue to its secrets. A simple, copy of the photograph, no matter how technically perfect could never have said so much.