Saturday, October 31, 2015

Subject or Object?

Slide Rock Apple Barn - 12x16 oil/canvas by Michael Chesley Johnson
Available - $800 - Contact Michael

In my plein air painting workshops, I often get students who make the mistake of confusing object with subject. I can hear you asking, "But aren't these the same thing?"

Maybe in common art workshop parlance, but for the moment, let's change the definitions a bit. (As in mathematics, I'm treating these two words as variables, which means I can define them in any way I wish. I'm doing this now to help clarify an issue. After the blog post, you can reset these variables to their usual meanings.)

"Object" is the thing being painted. It might be a person, a tree or a vase.

"Subject" is what the painting's about. It might be the way the lights and darks create a certain attractive pattern.

Learning how to paint outdoors is all about the subject. In most cases, the subject is the light.

For example, the subject might be how the warm light falling on a barn is intensified thanks to the contrast with the cool shadows under the eaves. The subject is the feeling that this contrast stirs up in us. It's the frisson of delight that we might experience as we walk past the barn on a beautiful autumn day.

But the painting isn't about the barn. The barn is the object in the painting. It's not the subject of the painting. The subject of the painting is the contrast of light temperature.

You will have better success at creating a sense of realism if you paint the subject and not the object. Painting the object, especially for beginning painters, leads to distracting detail, inconsistent lighting and a loss of the moment. Painting the subject instead solves all these things: The detail is sufficient, the lighting is consistent, and the moment is captured for eternity.

So when I make my rounds at the workshop and ask what you are painting, don't tell me you're painting a stump.  Tell me about the light.

(I will teach you how to not paint the stump in my plein air painting workshops.  This winter, I am giving workshops in Sedona, Arizona.  For details:

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