Sunday, December 18, 2011

Pushing the Illusion: The Secret They Don't Tell You


I'm about to embark on the oil version of the pastel study I did a few days ago.  With that in mind, I thought I'd post a photo of my oil studio setup:


One benefit of working from my pastel study is that I have now moved beyond the literal representation of the scene presented in my photo and sketch references.  I can work hard at making all the elements in my scene work together harmoniously to create a finished painting.  In real life, it's rare for all the elements to work together like that.  You'd almost have to be painting in a landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmsted for that to happen.

When I'm in the field with my students and teaching them how to observe the landscape better,  the well-tutored ones will often recite the old plein air painter's maxim:  "Paint what you see, not what you know."  This is useful advice, but when I demonstrate in the field, I'll often say something like, "Well, I don't really see any blue in this spot, but if I add it, I know it'll help the viewer understand what's going on."  This goes against the wisdom handed down by the masters.

Now I'll give you the secret the masters don't hand down.

I do think it's very important, when you're first learning to observe, to "paint what you see."  But at some point, in order to turn those plein air sketches into well-crafted paintings, it's important to take the next step.  You may need to push, or even add, certain effects to create a sense of reality.  In this case, it's "Paint what you know, not what you see."

For example, I know that on a clear day blue skylight will spill down into the shadows, cooling them off and creating a temperature contrast with the warmer, sunlit areas.  Even if I don't see the blue, I may add it, just to help the illusion.  There are many cases like that.  Quite often, I will use what I know to help with the sense of distance and atmosphere.  I may not see it, but I know that if I add it or enhance it, it'll help my viewers understand what's going on.

So if that's the case, why do you still have to observe carefully?  Why can't you just paint the shadows blue, if you know they are?  Because you'll end up with a cartoon - blue shadows, yellow sunlight and rocks that look like something out of The Flinstones.  In order to get beyond the cartoon to something that looks real, you still must observe the details that define and distinguish the individual.


7 comments:

Deb said...

Some painter-I can't remember who- said "exaggerate or diminish- never tell the truth". There's certainly something to that. As you say there is a time to enhance what we see in order to further the illusion.
As far as "paint what you see" the biggest hurdle is learning to see! And then gaining an understanding of what we are seeing. I know that I see things happening in regards to color and temperature that even a year ago would have escaped me. Hopefully in another year I'll be further along the observational road. Beginners would probably do well to spend as much time simply observing as actual painting-

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

I like to say, "Painting en plein air is first learning to see - and then learning not to see so much!"

Dianne Panarelli Miller said...

A lot of the times, students need to depend on the rules because they are not able to paint what they see yet. Doing things because they know they should. Later with more experience, we can use those rules to our advantage to exaggerate or enliven. I tell my students that we are magicians creating an illusioin to keep the viewers attention.

Bob Ragland said...

Thanks for your photo of you studio set up.
Bravo!!!!!!
Bob Ragland

Michael Chesley Johnson said...

Right on, Diane! Thanks, Bob!

biswaal said...

you could not be more truer michael.. i was all the time juggling between what -is-on and what-i-know while doing plein air.. !!.. so deep down i feel vindicated.. thanks for lifting the load.. cheers

Celeste Bergin said...

or...."don't let the facts get in the way of a good story"! great post.

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