10 Nov 2013

Work in progress: notes on the process of painting

I only manage to find time to paint during about a month in the summer, which, as far as I can see, is insufficient to progress very much in the process, or indeed in terms of the results. But I do have a few ideas about the way I am able to deal with this process of painting what may appear to be more or less simple figurative landscapes.

The painting above, which I began last summer in Gascony, is an example of work-in-progress, since it has in fact changed a bit since I took this photograph of it. As the picture below shows, it started out as work done in front of the landscape that inspired it. But its evolution, like that of the human eye and memory, has also taken into account several other parameters other than the purely formal and technical obstacles that present themselves during the painting process. The way the painting then develops, once away from the initial subject (or even in front of it for that matter), can vary a lot. One may choose to reduce distance and give greater importance to areas by enlarging them, or more impact by simplifying them. Colours will be adjusted of even totally changed for pictorial reasons. In fact the painting itself as a subject/object gradually takes over and dictates its own terms, becoming more important to me that the scene initially looked at.

As David Hockney has clearly shown in his work on the way the human eye and brain operate, including in his polaroid landscapes, one "sees" an object, and especially a complex one such as a landscape, from more than one point of view at a time. Not only is one's immediate vision binocular, with two slightly different perspectives, but also many particular details, such as the texture of a freshly-cut wheat field, will catch the eye and stimulate the imagination so that it takes on a greater importance than will be shown up in a monocular photograph of the landscape in question, more or less framed identically to the painting, as can be seen below. And of course, during the period during which one stands in front of a subject, the number of perspectives will be multiplied by the number of different head positions (unless one paints with one's head held in a vice), not to mention the role of visual memory and personal inclination. 

In fact, apart from particular approaches such as hyperrealistic work, I can see no point in attempting to reproduce "exactly" what one sees. The process that links the eye to the brain and one's emotions is a complex one that cannot be resumed by such an approach. Yet the beauty that one sees and feels in a landscape pushes one to some degree of realism. Making a landscape painting uses many elements from the scene seen, but also incorporates elements taken from similar or related scenes, or details enlarged beyond their true proportions. Here is a detail from the above landscape that has taken on a greater place in the painting than in the photograph of the same landscape.

In the process of modifying colours, shapes and textures as the painting develops, things seen elsewhere during the same period are often incorporated or used, when it becomes necessary to saturate colours further, enhance a detail or flatten perspectives, for example. The aim being to produce some form of credible synthesis of a landscape, but definitely not a reproduction of the one initially witnessed. And this painting can of course be entirely composed from fragments observed. Here are a few photographs taken near to the initial scene, of different views and at different times of day, all of which have some bearing, consciously or not, on the painting that is under way.

Maybe at some point I will show the "finished" work, but probably together with other things that have developed alongside it since. Because a painting is a form of dialogue that may have echoes in other conversations or comments.


  1. Try this method I give to the adult professional ( mostly medical ) students I take on . First .. you need to understand consistency ... not time .. is the key . e.g. Try painting [ in your case ] 5 -15 minutes five days a week rather than trying to block out a large amount of time to do so and see if your painting doesn't improve at a faster and more consistent rate . Seriously ... a blob here ... a bit of work on a corner there etc . It works !

    PS; Thanks for the M/C update ... I'll be curious to see how the reliability plays out over time

    1. .... oh ... and when on the road ... away from the easel etc ... in your case do a lot of seemingly mindless doodling [ on napkins / scraps of paper etc ] to keep the mind/hand thing going [ with my students I get them into travel guitars ]

    2. Sounds like good advice Guitar. I'll take to traveling with a sketch book again. Makes sense and I agree with your comment on consistency (or should that be regularity?)