Thursday, June 16, 2011

Adding Wildlife to a Painting

Reflecting on Life, 16x20, acrylic on linen panel, copyright Jan Blencowe, 2011

detail of the Mallard and ducklings from Reflecting on Life 

It's been a very, very long time since I've included any animal life in one of my landscapes beyond the occasional distant bird in flight. I have a painting of cows in a pasture from 2009 but that's about it. Why?

I suppose there are both philosophical and technical reasons. Philosophically, my paintings are about the influx of Divine energy in nature and following that, nature as a way to encounter the Divine spark of life in all created things. The paintings are an exploration of the special characteristics of light, both how its physical manifestation can transform a place and create a mood or a sense of reverie, and its metaphorical qualities and symbolic meanings. Illumination of the heart, mind and soul can be accomplished through the contemplation of sunlight and moonlight and observing how the degree and type of light changes the landscape. Because in truth the amount of spiritual light we have within us can transform the interior landscape of the heart, mind and soul, and my paintings are meant to show how a certain quality of light can transform an ordinary place into a place of sublime, transcendent beauty, much in the same way as God's light with in us can transform ordinary people into vibrant icons of Himself.

Light, earth, sky, water and flora have always seemed adequate elements to employ in my visual explorations. The interesting thing though, is that I love animals of all kinds and you would think it natural for me to include them. But many animals depend on camouflage and stay hidden during the daylight so we don't often encounter our wildlife neighbors and it seemed necessary to edit them out of the landscape. Plus, having been a plein air painter for many years I can also tell you that when you're on the spot painting and a fox runs by or a heron mounts skyward there simply is not enough time to capture them on the canvas and unless you are exceptionally familiar with their anatomy or you have a photographic memory you're better off leaving them out of your painting.

Which brings me to some of the technical reasons. First, the moment you introduce an animal to the painting, its difficult to keep that critter from becoming the subject of the painting. The viewer's eye will seek out and land right on any living creature in the landscape (ditto for a figure or anything man made), so the painting as a pure landscape is diminished. Placement is extremely important, as the composition needs to be built around the animal for the most part. Dropping in some cows, sheep, or large birds like swans or egrets as an after thought at the end of the painting can be a deadly mistake. Any compositional arrangement or center of interest you had created will be upstaged by the animal. Second, I have seen many, and created many, attempts at including animals only to have them look "pasted" on to the surface, failing to create a believable integration of the animal into its surrounding habitat. Third, unless you have excellent drawing skills and have spent a considerable amount of time observing the animals you want to include in your painting you are likely to create "cartoon" animals and not realistic renditions of them.

Probably five years ago my father-in-law made a comment to my husband, wondering why when I painted so many landscapes I never included animals in them. At the time, I knew that the answer was because that's not what my paintings are about .  But that was then and this is now, and over recent months I've been considering the idea that my work is ready to expand and move into a slightly new direction. Two things are happening in my mind and work right now. I am beginning the painting looser and more expressively than ever before. Second, I am learning to develop very select areas of the painting with highly detailed elements. The challenge is to not let that detail over run the whole painting but to find a dynamic way to balance high detail and very loose expressive passages. Those two elements will need to be held in creative tension, and that requires a great deal of thought an analysis during the painting process. However, by developing some areas of the painting with tight detail those areas provide the perfect place to include wildlife! I find that an exciting possibility. Of course I realize that that means embarking on a new area of study, redoubling my efforts to find and observe wildlife, plan trips to the zoo and natural history museum to draw animals from life and educate myself further about the animals that are likely to be in the environments that I paint. Exciting isn't it? 

One of the greatest benefits of being an artist is that you are always learning, growing and developing, and life is a joy when those things are taking place in your life. 

1 comment:

Joan Cole said...

Hi Jan,

I'll be eagerly waiting to see how many critters you tuck into your paintings. You are always exploring! I love that energy in you.