More on Construction in Painting

by Armand Cabrera

I want to talk more about construction for landscape painters. Figure painters know that construction is an important aspect of their training. With figure drawing and painting you learn the ideal and then adjust and apply the specific to your understanding. This type of training rarely takes place for landscape painters. Landscape painters tend to copy what they see for good or bad. While this approach can work over time, great landscape painters, like great figure painters, understand their subject on a deeper level. Their method is partly based on observation and partly on construction. It is as much from what they know about something as it is about what they see. This combination of construction and observation helps to strengthen the painting.

                                                                          Thomas Moran
 Everything has an anatomy to it; understanding this underlying structure helps you paint with a more authoritative approach. Observation alone can fool the viewer into believing they are seeing something they are not. How many times have we been fooled by some foreshortened object in the landscape thinking something looks a certain way when in reality our view of it is giving us false information? If you understand the anatomy of the thing you are looking at there is little chance for confusion since you can visualize what is going on even when its shape is distorted in your view.

William Wendt
A constructive approach can aid the design and the elegance of your depiction too. It can help with an interpretation based only in part on naturalism. Many great painters have used their understanding of the landscape and flora and fauna to create paintings truthful to nature but utterly unique to that artist. This approach requires a thorough knowledge of the subject, the ability to pick out what’s important and strip away what isn’t. For the artist, it creates a completely personal view of the world irrespective of the subject matter.

Maynard Dixon

11 thoughts on “More on Construction in Painting

  1. Your first paragraph really spoke to me. I'm an atelier trained painter, and have been working the last year on learning more about landscape painting. I feel like I'm just beginning to grasp the tip of the iceberg of construction.

    Thanks for your blog, I look forward to it every week.

  2. Excellent post Armand! These artist were masters at it! To paint a tree is one thing, to get that tree to sing is what I think you're talking about.
    If a tree can tell yo a story next to a campfire, well that's an artistic blessing to exsperience!

  3. thanks armand! your blog posts are one of my top 5 favorites out of hundreds of blogs i look at. so much meaty goodness in only a few paragraphs.

  4. These posts on construction are great. I was lucky to be so exposed to design considerations before I began painting – construction was sort of second nature. Always great information – thanks!

  5. Hi Armand, I appreciate all the effort you put into these informative pieces. I agree about the synthesis of construction, observation, and visualization paving the way for a more personal result. I am just entering that phase after years of painting solely outdoors for myself, and painting in the studio at work for my job.
    In fact, I can say that my observational work has benefited my studio work quite a bit over the last 12 years, however, I'm only just now bringing the studio discipline into my personal work. One reason I stayed out of the studio was because I wanted to be outside after being cooped up in an office. Not only was it good therapy, but studying light and color in nature taught me so much that I could never have learned from looking at photos. Its a long and interesting journey… often humbling, always something new to learn.

  6. Bill,

    I was the same way when I first left full time game production. I just wanted to be outside. Now I enjoy both and believe both are important.

  7. I agree. You can take it somewhere in the studio that you rarely can when confronted with nature. On the other hand, Jean Stern keeps reiterating in some of his essays the importance of studio work, but in doing so, tends to classify plein air as a mildly 'inferior' body of work….inspiration and fodder for something greater to come out of the studio. I think some of the best plein air work has the character of an improvised jazz solo on a theme… it happens in real time as a direct and visceral response to nature, and when it is successful, utterly transcends the 'limitations' of direct observation. That just aint' gonna happen in the studio. There's room for both!
    Some of Sargent's watercolors come to mind in this regard.

  8. Bill,

    What Jean is warning against is the hordes of bad paintings done by people who have little or no skill in drawing. They use outdoor sketches as an excuse for mediocre work calling it a style. He was clever to point out that large paintings take much more skill to pull off well than a little 9×12 that someone slops out in an hour.
    I think the type of outdoor painting you are talking about is as rare as Sargents talent.

  9. Well put, however I'll venture that there are many large, mediocre studio paintings floating around as well, especially when you point out that they are harder' to pull off. Probably fewer though, since they take longer to paint.

    What I get from Jean is that he keeps saying that plein air's true value and function is as a means to an end in the studio, which I understand, whether I fully agree with his premise or not. I've not the read direct charge of mediocrity, but perhaps I missed that essay!

    Let's be honest: mediocre work can come from anywhere! it's certainly possible that there's a greater proportion in plein air, as it appears to have become a lifestyle/hobby for many, regardless of their skill level.



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