by Armand Cabrera
Observational painting directly from nature opens your eyes to a world filled with color and light. There are very few situations outside that shadows aren’t filled with ambient and reflected light. Colors of local objects are affected in unusual and unpredictable ways. The organic groupings of rocks and the undulating flow of the landscape are always more interesting than imagined.
There is a drawback to observational painters though; the information is overwhelming at first. Learning to translate the 3d image of what you see is harder than copying a 2d photo. It is hard to decide what to use and what to ignore. The organic patterning of trees and other elements are hard to organize. Too many easel painters don’t transcend the observational aspects of painting. They cannot construct what they cannot copy. They lack the basic knowledge of construction to elevate their drawings past the mundane.Until they learn to visualize their compositions tend to be weak always depending on what is in front of them, whether a figure model or scene.
In the book on the biography of the Payne’s, Edgar’s daughter Evelyn remembers “He sometimes planned his studio painting in the evening; he very often sketched penciled compositions as he sat listening to the radio. They were little composition sketches, working out artistic problems. It was interesting to watch him draw; his hands moved very rapidly, and he held his Venus 6B pencil in the same fashion you would hold a piece of charcoal when drawing on canvas…” What she is talking about is construction and visualization.
A constructive approach is the one often used by comic book, illustrators and production artists. In these industries many times you learn the rules governing perspective and anatomy and construct the scenes out of your head. Color schemes follow strict rules of theory to maximize impact. Little time is spent using models under real world lighting conditions if at all.
Visualization is also used in these disciplines, creating worlds, creatures and characters from the imagination or scenes from antiquity. The skill is an important one in painting and drawing because it allows for manipulation of elements to suit the image. Artists are not tied to something observed and more focus can go toward design and composition.
The problems arise when people rely too much on these systems for a completed painting and ignore observation. A lack of understanding of how light actually works or natural effects really look can over simplify a scene. Too many illustrators ignore real world observation and use only construction and visualization for their subjects, relying solely on these skills which can never match the lighting in a real world situation. Their lighting is simplistic with the shadows too dark and their colors too saturated and color combinations monochromatic.
NC Wyeth maintained his plein air painting his whole life he incorporated impressionist observational studies into his illustrations to great success. His illustrations were painted using the places he knew giving them life.
Painting from life doesn’t just benefit the easel painter. Construction and visualization are not just good tools for the illustrator or the painter of historical subjects. Any painter serious about their painting should incorporate all three of these skills in their work. It requires a lifetime of dedication and practice.
Combining all three, visualization, construction and observation will take your art to the next level and your paintings can only improve no matter what the final use for them is.