Painting Things vs.
Painting the Way Things Look

Fine Art is Beyond Accuracy in Detail

The task of painting in a painterly way is a very different concept from what most people think. For one thing, it is less about “things” being painted, and more about the way light affects these “things.” That is why a typical architectural rendering, though usually correct in detail and scale, is seldom on the level of fine art. Also, painting light effects is just as concerned with how much to leave out of a painting as it is with how much to put in. I often get the question from students — “What about all the details?” — as if that is the most important thing to consider when painting. My usual response is, “If you can paint the scene correctly with regard to how light is affecting the various forms in the painting, the details will take care of themselves.” To the student, details are all those objects that will make their pictures more realistic. The problem with this type of thinking is that these “things” become a sort of parts- list (assembly required) mentality that obscures the real job of the painter.

It is extremely likely that approaching the task in this way will satisfy some obsessive compulsive urge in different people, but it won’t make a work of art by their simple inclusion. So with that understanding, think atmosphere, think light and think about this envelope that surrounds and affects everything it comes in contact with. Think about the special way those objects in a particular scene look due to the interaction of this substance, rather than what the various objects are in a sterile environment.

In painting, there are five elements or tools that can be used to accomplish the desired result. These five tools are all we artists have to achieve success. Whenever there is a failure to get the job done, it involves one or more of these measures. There is one other thing though, which provides the inspiration for handling these five tools and that is the ability to “see” clearly. Another way of putting this is to have a visual understanding of what you are seeing and then have the ability to translate that into paint using the five tools. Seeing is directly tied to the five areas; to understand the tools, in a way, is to understand “seeing.” I’m sure this all sounds very cryptic, but it is actually not all that complicated. When we artists look at a scene we try to break down the visual information in terms of drawing, color, value, edges and textural effects. These considerations in turn become the five tools we have to work with. Visual realities can be approached in these terms. While the non-painter looks at a scene and uses descriptive terms like pretty, beautiful etc., the artist must concentrate on the drawing possibilities – (size, shape, design), color considerations, (temperature, saturation….), value possibilities – (how light or dark in relation to….), edge control – (hard, soft, broken……) and lastly texture or (brushwork…… thin, thick, dry brush, fluid stroke….) By thinking in these terms the artist can create the sensation of beauty through how these different elements come together. Knowing these elements and using them when critiquing your own work is also a way to isolate problem areas of the painting and have a concrete way of pinpointing parts that don’t work.

Yesterday I got out to paint with some friends and had a discussion on some of these ideas with fellow artist Aaron Bushnell. He made the point that we are not really painting things, but the way things look through the eyes of the artist. He told me of a conversation he recently had with a friend who told him that he thought computer graphics would someday surpass and replace painting since they are so accurate. Aaron made the point that this would never happen for one main reason: it’s the lack of perfection in a work of art that actually lends to its charm. It’s that human fallibility, the lack of perfection, coupled with the artistic license that the artist brings to a painting that makes it unparalleled to a perfect mechanical rendering. It was a good exchange on art in general and one of the reasons I like painting with other artists on occasion.

It would seem that history has a way of repeating itself after all, when you consider that the same warnings were given to painters when the camera was invented. I have a feeling that we fine artists have nothing to worry about; beware architects!

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