Translating the Idea

Armand Cabrera

I constantly see people in my classes and workshops struggling to find the right approach to painting from life. In my demos I try to stress the importance of good drawing and accurate color and value relationships. These tools allow you to make the marks you want to make when and how you want to make them. This is facility but facility only gets you so far. Many people think if they can just copy what they see the painting will be successful. The problem is you can’t copy, ever. What you can do, once you have the facility to make the marks you want is translate what you see into an intended arrangement of shapes.

Translating is the key to a successful painting from life. Everything you do, no matter how tightly or expressively you paint when working from life, is always translating.

Translating is turning 3 dimensional objects into 2 dimensional marks on your painting surface. What separates the more successful artists is the ability to only use the information that enhances the painting and doesn’t detract. This is easier said than done.

Everything is relative- color, value, shape and edges. All must be used in service of an idea that you hold in your mind for the finished painting. Translation requires more thought and ability than copying which is why so many artists struggle with painting from life successfully. You must understand that you are trying to fool the eye for the viewer and at the same time be aware of the marks you make and how they relate to the whole as just marks of color and value. It is this last part that gives the viewer the emotional response to your work. This is especially true for outdoor work.

When you paint outdoors you are always keying the color and value. Keying is limiting the range of color and value available to you in pigment and observed in nature. It is your exaggeration and sublimation of the information presented by you in an intelligent way that leads to a finished painting with clear intent.

No one is an artist unless he carries his picture in his head before painting it, and is sure of his method and composition. Claude Monet

3 thoughts on “Translating the Idea

  1. Some how I found your blog, I find it very interesting, I like the fact that you combine theory, history of art and your own art, I will pass often and learn.Cheers

  2. Hi Armand,

    You’ve packed a lot of thought provoking information into a compact article here. There are many years of practice and bad paintings in the wake of what you call facility.

    How to see color and how to mix the colors you see are just one of the facilities you speak of. How to use the tools of making art; brushes, painting knives, easels, and the list goes on is another required facility. I wouldn’t want to leave out drawing. That alone can take years to master. It’s no wonder that people try to just get a copy of what they see outside when you think of everything else that you have to think about. There is just no way anyone can come home with a work of art without years of practice. So then there is the question, what should I practice? The only ways I can approach this daunting task is dividing and concur. Don’t try to do everything at once and don’t expect to have a work of art for a long time.
    Spend time on each facility and feel good about advances you have made in each one. Decide what your weakest facility is and spend a lot of time on that. You will get better. How quick you become proficient at a facility depends on the amount of time you are willing to spend practicing.
    Also, don’t listen to loved ones. When your spouse or close friends tell you how wonderful your paintings are, say thank you, but don’t believe it. Put your painting up next to one of Armand’s or Matt Smith’s (for example) and judge for yourself how good they are. All I can say is keep trying and never be satisfied. Don’t get stuck in “that is good enough”. Gradually your facility will improve. Then you can start to think about using those tools to make art.

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