Monday, December 31, 2007

Take the Broad View -- or the Close-up?

When I hunt for a subject, I look for broad views. Sky, horizon, flat water, field -- at least three of these elements usually appear together in my paintings. I like to create a sense of peace, and dominant horizontals do this very well. But sometimes they do it too well, especially if the elements themselves lack interest. A 'severe-clear' sky without clouds, water without a ripple, an unbroken horizon or a field with nary a bush in it can lead to monotony. When this happens, I zoom in and look for a close-up.

We artists know all about looking for the abstract in our subject. The abstract pattern, once sketched in, gives us a foundation to build reality upon. To see this underlying pattern, we squint. Squinting eliminates detail and lets the big shapes become more obvious.

Zooming in can show us the pattern, too. Although it actually increases the amount of detail, the object itself becomes less obvious. Zoom in enough, and the object disappears entirely, out of sight and out of mind. You know the game of 'What is it?," in which you're shown a picture of an item so magnified that you have trouble identifying it. The abstract pattern you see makes little sense because you can't see the object's key features, or they are distorted beyond recognition. The picture may show a beautiful pattern of folds and ridges, but you don't know it's a fingerprint until you're told.*

I don't zoom in quite this far, but I do zoom in enough that I see only parts of objects. There's still enough left to identify the objects, but as parts, they become less important. For example, if I zoom in on a tree trunk and the bit of ground around it, I see the pattern made by the light and dark shapes more easily because I'm not thinking of the trunk as a trunk. It's a reversal of "can't see the forest for the trees." In this case, it's a good thing. I don't think so much about what the object is as I do about how it fits in my composition.

Another benefit of zooming in is that it forces you to consider a dynamic design. Zooming in tends to eliminate horizontal elements. Flat horizons give way to vertical tree trunks, diagonal branches, streams of water that run kitty-corner. This kind of movement can give you a very energetic painting. As someone who usually paints restful scenes, I find close-ups an exciting and invigorating exercise. (And, if my goal is a restful painting, a sometimes-challenging one!)

Accompanying this essay are two of my recent close-ups. One of them ('Canes Beneath the Fir') is still quite restful, but it accomplishes this with colour harmony and not horizontal elements.

Canes Beneath the Fir
5x7, pastel, en plein air

Tidal Snowbank
5x7, pastel, en plein air - SOLD

*(By the way, another interesting game to play is to take an old, empty 35mm slide mount and use it to find small compositions within, say, a 9x12 painting. You'll be amazed at how many good compositions you can find lurking within the larger painting's frame.)

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