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.