Monday, August 15, 2016

Going for the Grand View


"Passamaquoddy Sunset" 12x24 oil on panel by Michael Chesley Johnson.
Commissioned studio painting created from field references.

Here's something I've learned over the years:  A big landscape requires a big canvas.

I'm sure it sounds obvious.  But I bet many outdoor painters, like me, have tried to cram an awe-inspiring vista into a 9x12 panel only to discover it just doesn't work.  The scale is wrong for creating the impression of depth and distance.  Plus, so many objects are included within the frame that they fight for both space and attention.   Looking at a painting like this makes me claustrophobic, and I just want to flee, seeking air.

This error in painting, I believe, happens for a couple of reasons.

A student going to a plein air painting workshop may travel a long distance, so he may bring only small canvases to lighten the load.  Also, workshops tend to be held in beautiful spots.  I take my students to grand vistas all the time, but my demonstrations typically focus on just some small part of it.  However, the student, deeply moved by the beauty, aims to record all of Grand Canyon on an 8x10 panel.

Also, with the ready availability of images on the Internet and the proliferation of small computer screens, we have gotten too used to viewing big artwork on tiny screens.  Seeing Fredric Church's "Heart of the Andes," which is nearly six feet by ten, on an iPhone presents a much different experience when seen in person.  But seeing artwork in a much-reduced format has gotten us used to painting in a small format, and we forget to step back.  If we stepped back, we'd realize instantly that the small format is inappropriate.

Here's my advice.  If you must paint the whole view and it's a wide vista, work on a 12x24 panel (or even a 12x36.)  If the scene requires a squarer format, where foreground and perhaps sky are as important as the view, work on an 18x24 or 24x30.  Otherwise, small panels (8x10, 9x12) require you to crop the scene severely.  You are better off doing small studies of parts of the grand view, and then taking them back to the studio to be used as references for a larger piece that can properly portray the moment.

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