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                                                      Too Loose, Lautrec?

All too often I hear artists declare that they want their paintings to be loose. They look at painters like Richard Schmid, in oils, or Charles Reid, in watercolors, and they figure that these guys are loading up their brushes, swinging from the hip, and everything just lands in the right spot.

If only it were so.

I studied with Richard Schmid, and watched him paint a number of portraits and landscapes. I’ve also watched Charles Reid paint three full-sheet watercolor demonstrations, and, believe me, these two aren’t slinging paint. Their execution is thoughtful and deliberate. There is nothing haphazard in their techniques.

So why do their paintings look so bravado and spontaneous?

It’s because their paintings are representations of the way humans actually see.

Try this. Make a fist, extend your arm and focus on your hand. Now, while maintaining the focus on the details of your hand, notice that all the things behind your hand, and in the periphery, are just vague, blurry impressions. This is because we humans, with our complicated and splendid eyesight, are still only able to focus on one thing at a time. Every thing else plays a subordinate role to our main focus.

This is how we actually see, and this should be the model for orchestrating the multitude of data in our paintings.

Paint your main focal point so that the viewer feels like he can touch it, smell it, or even eat it. Treat the rest of the peripheral stuff as the out-of-focus supporting cast. A careful rendering of your center of interest will, by contrast, lend an air of bravado and spontaneity to the unfinished, supportive elements in the rest of the painting. The amount of finish needed for the supporting cast will be dictated by the degree of finish used on the center of interest.

The artist who wants to loosen up simply needs to cease giving equal importance to all the objects in his painting. Outside of his center of interest, he needs to see the rest of the painting not as individual objects to be rendered one at a time, but as an interconnected conglomerate of shapes, values and color (see March 2011 newsletter “Interconnectedness”).

If you are going to put the whiskers on the kitty, then you shouldn’t put the veins in the leaves of the plants.

When I paint on-location, I only take my paintings to what I consider the 70% mark. When I get them back to the studio, ninety-nine times out of one hundred I find that I’ve said enough.

A good example would be a harbor scene with boats, masts, buildings, piers, people, buoys, and gulls. No way could I accurately get all that into a one, or even a two, hour sketch. So I synthesize the scene down into some basic elements, and try to capture the general feel of the moment. Then I take some photos for data that I can later incorporate into a larger studio painting.

Now the camera is a great tool. However, unlike the human eye, it fails, for the most part, to discriminate. It, treats everything in the scene with equal interest. So we end up with an image that has wonderful fidelity and an overwhelming amount of detail.

So, when I’m in the studio, and I want to create a painting from my complicated harbor photo, I employ a trick that keeps me focused on the big picture, and not the details. I turn the photo upside down, and, ignoring all the dots and dashes that comprise the detail, I concentrate on blocking in the big shapes – paying attention to their colors, values and edges. When the block-in is done (and not before), I turn the painting and the photo right side up and begin my plan of attack.

After the block-in, I usually begin by painting the heck out of my center of interest. When that’s painted “to the nines”, I have all this wonderful out-of-focus stuff surrounding my main character. I now can choose to what degree I want to finish my supporting cast. Often a good portion of the original block-in will remain untouched.

I usually retain this ploy for photos of complicated subjects, like harbors, markets and street scenes, but it works well on even the simplest landscape.

To give you an example of what I’m talking about, I’m going to paint a demonstration of a snow-covered mountain, using an “upside down” block-in.


I select a photo of autumn in the mountains. This seems to have some pretty clear-cut shapes, and should work well for this demonstration.

Now I turn my photo upside down. When I lightly squint at the photo, I see some obvious shapes; each comprised of a certain value and color. The longer I stare at this inverted image, the less concerned I am with what these shapes symbolize. My subject has been reduced to a tapestry of abstract shapes, and my job is to render them as faithfully as I can, paying attention to their shape, size, color and value.


Step One:

I begin by toning my canvas. I put in some warmer tones at the top, and some cool grayish tones on the lower half. This is done with a thin amount of paint mixed with mineral spirits. I very lightly blend some areas with a soft paper towel. This dries almost immediately.

Step Two:

I go after my lightest lights. Instead of painting each of them individually, I mass that area in using white mixed with a touch of Cobalt Blue and Terra Rosa. This slightly grayed mixture knocks about a half value off pure white, and leaves me something in reserve, in case I feel like I need a brighter tone or two at the end.

I strike in that warm red band at the top of the painting.

I’ve painted these two areas rather broadly. No problem. I’m going to mold their shapes when I paint the darker shapes around them.


Step Three:

Now I address those cool blue shapes in the middle of my white area. I paint the three large, obvious ones first. Then I scumble in some of the more apparent lighter blue shapes.

Step Four:

Inside my three large blue shapes, I dab some darker blue indications where they seem evident.

Step Five:

Now I darken the top of my red area, and establish some of those middle green tones at the top of the canvas.

As you’ve probably noticed, I generally work my block-ins from light to dark. I’m pretty loose with my lights, knowing that they will later be formed by the surrounding darks. This allows my shapes to share some color, and the edges are far more interesting than if I painted one shape right up to the next.

Step Six:

I mass in that dark green shape in the upper left hand corner.

Step Seven:

I finish off my block-in by painting the long dark shapes above and below my red shape. All of this takes about an hour.

Now comes the big surprise. I invert both my canvas. Even if I were to do no more work on the painting, the scene is pretty well established. This never fails to amaze me. Going after big shapes, and paying virtually no attention to detail or the objects they represent, one can still come up with a solid foundation for a finished painting.

Now I need to establish my center of interest.

Those white snow masses are pretty arresting. So I decide to focus my attention on the mountain. I spend most of my time carefully rendering the center and right center of the painting. If I can make this believable, the rest of the painting will take care of itself. In this area I utilize a couple of those “brighter brights” that I held in reserve in Step Two.
This takes about forty-five minutes.

Other than a few impasto strokes, and a couple of tree trunk suggestions, I do virtually nothing to the foreground area. I want this area to have interest, but I don’t want it to compete with my focal point. The foreground takes about fifteen minutes.

“Last Days of Autumn” 11x14 oil

Now, if I could only learn to stand on my head when I’m painting on-location, I could become one heck of an en plein air painter.

I hope that you will give this “upside down block-in” thing a try. It’ll loosen up even the tightest painter, and it’s a lot of fun.


     Happy Painting!