What If?

Updated: Jan 17

I’ve had one of those weeks. It just seemed that my universe was knocked off its axis. As my friend, Janice would say, “Mercury was definitely in retrograde!” I didn’t sleep well and I was feeling whiney. I made myself get up early yesterday to go to the first of an eight-session full-day painting class I am taking at the Beverly Street School of Art in Staunton, an hour and a half away.

That class got my universe back on its axis again. I loved it. I was re-energized. I learned lots of new things, new ways of looking at old things, and reminders of things I already knew but have just stopped practicing. I also got some affirmation that I am doing some things right.

Here are some of my favorite take-aways:

  1. Thumbnail sketches: Before starting any painting, make at least 3 thumbnail sketches of three different versions of the scene you are going to paint, whether it’s a still life or a landscape.

  2. Use a view finder to develop the thumbnails. ( I knew this but do I do it? Not really.)

  3. Painting from photographs vs painting from life: If you have photographs that you really want to use as references, do the thumbnail sketches, spend some time looking at the photograph. Imagine how you will paint the scene. It can be constructed and de-constructed. You have the freedom to edit the photo or the scene you are painting. Then put the photo away and paint from memory and impulse. Remember the feeling you had originally when you took the photo.

  4. Make decisions about every painting:

  • What do you want to paint? Often I see a scene that moves me but when I paint it, I don’t feel the same sense of awe and wonder I saw when I snapped the photo. Using the viewfinder to edit the scene and narrow the scope helps with that.

  • How will you paint the scene? Distill the information and remember that every painting is really an abstraction. Your own perception should be the basis for every painting. This gives you permission to paint from within yourself instead of slavishly trying to reproduce a scene on your phone, camera, or even in life. You transfer your life energy into your painting.

  • Why am I making this painting? What am I trying to say? Whose voice is saying it? Am I trying to copy someone else’s style because I think it will sell or because I think that is what’s expected? Try to find your own voice and paint for the joy of painting a scene that moves you.

If you don’t like where a painting is going, don’t try to fix it. Start again, especially if you are painting in nature. Everything changes when you are painting outside, so your observations of shape, color and light will be different when you start another painting. Change your painting as your perception changes.

Look at a painting and ask “what if”. This was my favorite idea. I learned this when after painstakingly completing one version of the still life I was working on, I asked Ron for advice. He picked up a brush, filled it with green paint and blobbed it right in middle of the background of the still life scene that was set up in front of a cardboard box. I had tried to amp up the color with a bit of orange in the background to give it a little more life. I took a deep breath and watched as he proceeded to smear the green paint around and then gave me the brush and told me to finish the answer to the question-"what if we put a blob of green in the middle of the background? " I did and was amazed by the results.

I know there are artists out there who are rolling their eyes and saying “ I learned all of that in college.” I say to you, I have learned lots of things in my years of college and graduate school, and subsequently in the art classes and workshops I have taken. But learning it, knowing it, remembering it, and using it are all different things! This class is energizing me to do all four. Below you will see my reminder to say “what if” during each painting session. It's going up in my studio. These are the three still life paintings I did after his lecture.

I would love to hear about your experiences with workshops and classes. What inspired you? Please use the chat button on the right below or the Facebook link on the left and let me know your thoughts.

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