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Painting the Plan

Years ago, when I was just beginning my career as an artist, an older, more wizened artist gave me some advice. He said, “Don’t paint the painting. Paint the plan for the painting.” I confess - that sagacious tidbit puzzled me for years.

I was, after all, a struggling “representational” artist, doing my best to hone my skills, so that I could faithfully reproduce whatever dropped into view. I was getting pretty good at replication of photos and landscapes. My job, as I saw it, was “literal” interpretation of the world around me: if it’s in the scene “put it in”, if it’s not “leave it out”. It all seemed pretty straightforward.

I produced some pretty fair paintings. They weren’t necessarily overly detailed and photo realistic, but, like a “photo-realist”, all they really had to say was “See how clever I am?” I was a decent painter, but I hadn’t yet become an artist. I was making paintings, but I wasn’t creating works of art.

So what’s the difference?

You’re probably getting tired of hearing me say this, but “It’s not our job as representational artists to tell people what they already know”.

Each of you is an individual, with unique experiences and a distinctive voice. No other human being sees, and relates, to the world the way you do. It’s imperative that your art express your single perspective on life. A painting becomes a work of art when it is imbued with your individuality.

You select a subject to paint because it excites you. There is some personal connection. You want to communicate that personal connection to the viewer. So you map out your inspiration. You design within the rectangle. You select objects and move them around. You pick a palette of colors to convey mood. You pick a horizon line, and become cognizant of the vanishing points. You decide what details to include, or exclude. You compose and recompose until you are satisfied that it conveys “your personal statement” about the subject.

Now you paint the “plan”.

This is making “art”.

No photo or arrangement of objects is ready-made to express your own personal experience. You need to bring your “one of a kind” voice to each painting.

Over the years, I’ve pretty much relegated photos to the category of “data”. They, of course, are very useful if I’m painting historical paintings and I need a modicum of detailed accuracy. But, in general, I use them as springboards for ideas, and not much more. I tend to rely more on my sketchbooks for inspiration, and photos to supply a few convincing details. Because the paintings in my sketchbooks are “sketchy”, and lack excessive detail, they allow me to bring much more of myself to the finished product.

This is a sketchbook painting of some boats on the Isle of Mull, off the coast of Scotland. I love traveling and painting in Scotland, and this watercolor triggered a vivid memory my experiences on the island. It’s a fresh piece, and pretty much captured the feel of the day. 

 “Mull Island Boats” 8x11 wc

This is the important part of this lesson:

I’ve found a subject that interests me, and I want to use that as a springboard for an oil painting. What I don’t want to do is simply reproduce that painting.

I consider each painting that I create as a sort of self-portrait of me at a particular moment in my life. The watercolor “Mull Island Boats” is a successful expression of what I saw and how I felt at that moment, on that day in Scotland. Today I’m not the same person, my mood is different, and I’m thinking about ways to construct my oil painting in order to communicate to the viewer how I feel about my subject today. For instance: I’m in a tranquil mood. I’ve got a nautical soundtrack playing on the stereo, and I’m contemplating ways to introduce some drama into my painting etc., etc., etc.

So I’m cogitating on the “plan”. In my mind’s eye, I see the finished product, and I’m mapping out an approach to achieve that end. I know that if I’m faithful to my “plan” I should be able to achieve my objectives. Nonetheless, since the only thing in life that is certain is uncertainty, I always say “Film at eleven”.

Oil Demonstration – “Boats on Mull”

Unless it’s significant, I’m not going to list the mixtures of colors that I use in each step. Mixing colors is an instinctive process, and breaking it down into “two parts this”, and “one part that” gets a little cerebral. So instead, I’ll give you an inventory of the pigments on my palette:

Ultramarine Blue
Cobalt Blue
Alizarin Crimson
Cadmium Red Light
Cadmium Orange
Transparent Oxide Red
Cadmium Yellow Medium
Hansa Yellow
Quinacridone Gold (Green Hue)
Titanium White

Sometimes I use all of these colors in a painting. However, depending on the subject and the effect I want to achieve, I sometimes use as little as three primaries. I do, however, keep all of them out on my palette, so that they are handy if I need them.

Step One:

The watercolor lacks detail, and that gives me some latitude for interpretation. So I begin with a few simple lines to generally indicate the placement of objects in the painting. As you know from my past oil demos, these lines will disappear, and the elements in the painting will get drawn and redrawn as I apply paint. If I put too much information in my drawing, it makes me want to stay between the lines. My inclination is to always give the painting a chance to discover itself.


Step Two:

I put some very thin color indications on the boats and up on the quay. I needed to get some warm tones in early, because I know the overall backdrop to the piece (sky, distant mountains, trees and water) will be fairly cool, and I want to be aware of that relationship as the painting unfolds. A few semi-darks on the backsides of the boats will also help me to judge subsequent values.


Step Three:

Using Cobalt Blue and Viridian, with touches of Cadmium Red and Quinacridone Gold, I paint the sky, distant hills and the water behind the quay. These cool tones set the stage for the light that bathes the scene, and they will be a good foil for the warm, light-struck boats. The paint has some substance to it, but not so thick that I can’t paint back into it without creating mud.

Step Four:

I begin to negatively sculpt my boats. I put some warm and cool tones (slightly grayed) on the sea wall, some warm ground above the quay, and  I mass in my tree line. These areas are pretty flat and simple. I’ll model them later, if I feel like they need it.

I’ll make a confession here. I painted the trees in once, and they were good. Too good! I realized when they were done, that they were too busy, and would end up competing for attention with my main subjects – the boats. Once you choose your main actors, you have to take care to sublimate the supporting actors. So I scraped them out, and repainted the trees in a flatter, less descriptive style.

More often than not, I like working the whole painting at the same time. Using that approach, the areas get finished in relationship to one another. However, when I know I’m going to have reflections in water, I find it helpful to save my water area until I finish the objects that are going to be reflected. I have to constantly remind myself that, in this case, the top half of the painting is not the whole painting, and I have to guard against finishing it off as if it were. Plus, when you have a huge area of the canvas that is pure white, the values you paint will seem darker than they really are.
Notice how dark the back ends of the boats seemed in the last step, when they were surrounded by white. Look at their relationship now that I’ve painted the dark sea wall around them.


Step Five:

I put some dark shadows behind the big boat, the middle boat and at the base of the sea wall. Suddenly, the sea wall doesn’t seem as dark and flat, and the warm and cool colors pop out. Always be alert to how a single stroke of the brush can change the relationship of the tones and values around it.

Step Six:

I paint the shadowed sides of the wheelhouses, and further refine my darks around the back ends of the smaller boats.


Step Seven:

Now, with thicker paint, I finish off the boats, put in some faux rigging and add a little more interest to the objects on top of the quay. This takes a while, but before I start putting in the water and reflections, I want to take the upper half to near completion.

Step Eight:

The painting seems a bit symmetrical, so I add a dory along the sea wall on the left-hand side. I start painting the reflections, thinking in terms of “vertical”. I keep the reflection at least two or three values darker than the objects that are being reflected. This adds weight to the foreground water area, and “grounds” the upper half of the painting. One of the most common errors I see in paintings with water is that the values of the water and reflections are close, or the same as, the objects being reflected. When that occurs, the landscape and the objects being reflected, appear to be floating in space. There can be exceptions (for instance, reflections in muddy water tend to be lighter), but, as a general rule, keep the value of your water, and its reflections, noticeably darker than your landscape.

Step Nine:

I continue bringing my reflections down, paying attention to what is being reflected.

Step Ten:

I bring the rest of my reflection to the bottom of the canvas, and with a Langnickel Royal Sable brush, I rework, blend and soften the edges in the area until I’m satisfied with the effect.

Final Step:

I paint the reflections of some of the vertical masts. As a final touch, put a few selective horizontal lines on water to create the illusion of surface.

“Boats on Mull” 8x10 oil

As I mentioned earlier, I wanted some tranquility, with a touch of drama. I think the near symmetry and the calm water offers some serenity, while the warms against the cools, and the lights against the darks contribute to a dramatic light effect.

Anyway, the point here is to “have a plan”. Recognize why you chose that particular subject, and what it is that brought you to the dance. How do you feel about the subject? What choices can you make regarding composition, light effect and color that to enhance your chances of communicating your feelings to the viewer? Be an artist, not just a painter. You were born an “original”, so don’t end up a “copy”

Happy Painting!