Painting Outside the Lines

Using Massing to Break Childhood Habits

Most of us had our first experience with art through coloring books filled with line drawings. Next in our progression came the obvious tool of convenient necessity, the pencil (a wonderful medium, and, in the hands of a master, a true thing of beauty). Pencil drawing lends itself to working in a linear fashion but can also be used as shaded technique, which more closely mimics the concepts found in painting. From there, most of us were exposed to tempera paint and water color in elementary school and jr. high. By high school it was on to vine charcoal and if you were lucky enough, acrylics and oil. But one of the biggest hurdles when one finally learns to paint is the tendency to revert to our childhood and see the visual world as a series of objects surrounded by lines.

They say that by age four a child has developed the personality traits that will be with them for the rest of their life. If that’s so, then the possibility that we look at the physical world through the prism of line drawing makes sense and becomes a sizable obstacle to overcome when learning to paint. The skill of drawing is absolutely essential to creating a successful painting and at the same time a challenge for our visual understanding. The reason is there are really very few actual lines in nature. There are no lines surrounding and delineating one object from the one next to or behind it. Lines as such, are really nothing more than artistic conventions that we all have come to know and understand as a means of expressing a visual idea. So with this in mind, it is the challenge of the painter to, while maintaining the essence of the lessons learned, look beyond the conventions of drawing transform that understanding into a new visual reality known as massing.

Massing is the act of filling in large areas of the canvas to simulate the value and coloration of different parts of the scene or objects to be painted. By massing the artist gets to the abstract heart of the subject quickly and at the same time sets up visual relationships early on in the painting process. These visual relationships are the things that paintings are made of, since expression in painting is not the thing itself, but a representation of the thing, through the use of pigment.

It is important to remember that no matter how well a passage is painted by itself it will always fail if it is not painted correctly in relation to the other passages in the painting. It’s the big picture that counts regardless of how well the individual parts may look. One advantage that massing has over other procedures is that it frees up the artist to be more expressive in the application of paint and thereby gain better control of edges as well as a certain paint quality. Once these large initial masses are established the artist can then go on to modeling the forms by applying the paint in a more painterly fashion. Along with all of the other benefits mentioned massing has the added benefit of filling in the canvas with an under-painting that is conducive to what will come next. It also produces a surface that is favorable to the application of subsequent layers and at the same time covers those pesky little pieces of white canvas that can poke through a finished piece, sometimes causing the final look of the painting to seem unfinished.

Certainly, a massing approach is not the only method to use when starting a painting, but it is a good way to proceed in many instances. As you grow artistically, it is a good idea to experiment with various beginnings from impressionistic starts, complementary underpaintings, to a direct approach with no preliminary structure at all, just to name a few. You will find that through experimentation that certain scenes will call for different approaches and that some are more suited to particular subjects. In a future article I will try to cover some of these other approaches, until then, enjoy massing.

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