Here’s to Plans, and Avoidance of Same

Last week I decided to write about planning a painting because I am working on that painting above, which I have planned, sort of. I got started on the blog entry, roughing it in and collecting a few illustrative bits. Then I dropped it. Every day I would think about it, but every day I found more compelling projects to work on. What does this mean? Not only am I averse to planning, but I am also averse to thinking about planning?

If that answer is “yes”, maybe that’s why I enjoy plein air painting. Despite the almost universal recommendation from more experienced artists to make a preliminary value study before beginning a plein air painting, most of the time I dive right in, trying out my choices right there on the canvas. After all, all wrong strokes in oil painting are correctable. Getting the canvas covered as quickly as possible seems important when you know you only have a few hours to capture all the information you need. But I have to admit, the few times that I have taken the time to start with a sketch, the painting has turned out well. Here’s an example.

On the other hand, a few days after I painted the one above, another (the one below) turned out well without any pre-sketching. OK, I have to confess that another painter had admirably captured this scene in the morning, and I decided to try the same scene in the afternoon. Does that amount to using a pre-sketch? No! Inspiration is not the same as a plan, but it comes close enough for me sometimes.

The advantages of pre-sketching, I conclude, lie in my natural reluctance to do something over after I have spend significant time on it. But since pre-sketching is no guaranty of perfection, an oil painter like me must be ready for lots of do-overs anyway.

For painting in the studio, most of the planning has gone into the selection and cropping of a photograph that inspires me. An exact copy of the photo normally does not result. Compare these two photo inspirations on the left and the paintings that resulted, on the right:

The second one is an example of inspiration alone furnishing the plan for a studio painting, somewhat like the plain air painting that was inspired by someone else choosing to paint that particular scene.

But occasionally–well, at least once–I have gone to extreme lengths to plan a painting. (“Extreme” to me is standard operation procedure for many other painters.) In this single example, I wanted to faithfully reproduce the placement of the structures in the photograph. Therefore, I employed a grid to help in the drawing. By the way, the photo on the left is not my original, gridded photograph of the scene; it is a later one that I got when I went back looking for signs of life, i.e., the boat. Thus the angles may look a little different.

2d photo w boat sketch with grid

final painting with boat and boy added

For an earlier and more extensive history of this painting, click here. I added the little boy fishing from the dock after writing that blog entry, which had asked for the readers’ opinion on whether to add a figure.

If the Waterfront painting represents one extreme of planning, the painting below represents its opposite. I started with large smears of dark greens and browns scraped on with a knife, from which I drew out the forms that more or less embodied a piece of forest photo-graphed two days before. You’ll have to take my word for it, because I have lost the photograph, but this painting is way more interesting than the photo.

My current project is the Farmer’s Market, which I mentioned a few weeks ago (here) when it was first getting underway. This is a large painting with lots of figures, and so qualifies, I think, as “ambitious.” I could not grid it like the Waterfront because there exists no single view of the scene that encompasses all of the elements I want to include. I had to piece the composition together from many different photographs. These are a few:

I wisely decided to start with a paper and pencil sketch:

There is a child in the stroller in the foreground whose hands are reaching out to its mother. I decided to make those hands my focal point, so I practiced them in the margin.

Here is where I was last week with it:

I have done some more work on it since capturing this image, and am finding deficiencies that better planning might have protected me from. But that’s OK–I’m not afraid of Do-Overs. Next Monday’s topic may well feature the Do-Overs.

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