Trying to be too literal will handcuff your efforts and almost guarantee a poor painting.

This is a very common misstep by outdoor painters. Especially in plein air where the objects you’re painting are right in front of you. Their immediacy almost demands you render them as they are. And, you’re being instructed to carefully observe the subtleties of local color, temperatures, reflected light and intensities. Nonetheless, resist slavishly duplicating your subject or you’re in trouble! Besides, it is an almost impossible task and no one but an exceptional talent could do justice using this approach.

This is one of the conundrums of plein air painting. You need to observe your subject accurately and in great detail – but then not paint exactly what you see in front of you. I can hear you thinking… okay, now you’re messing with me!

Let me try to explain because if you can understand why, and determine what you need to pull from observation and what you need to invent, your work will vastly improve.

What is your painting going to be about?
I’ve often talked about the necessity of having an emotional hook. Your painting is not a photographic representation (cameras do a much better job) but it is your emotional response to what you’ve decided to paint. That response will differ from person to person and what resonates with one artist won’t have equal impact on another. The primary focus of your painting could be the quality of light, the dramatic shadows, the color relationships, the delightful shapes and composition or something else entirely. But it will be one specific thing that primarily strikes you as worthy of painting it. Once you have determined what that major emotional communicator might be then all other decisions relating to size, composition, value, and color will need to be amended to support that major player.

What you need to do.
You need to design your painting. Be an art director and pick the costumes, sets and lights to enhance the stage for your “actors”. If you need to make a tree larger or smaller and move it right or left – Do it! If the tree would look better with an orange tint rather than a yellow one – Do it! If removing a branch would make a better shape – Do it! If adding a shadow in the foreground or stretching or shrinking an existing one makes a better composition – Do it! If the sky would harmonize better if it were a different value or hue – Do it! If the water needs to extend beyond a tree – Do it!

You don’t have to be overly dramatic with the changes you make, but the point is – You can be! You have control and you must decide what changes are required to make the painting express your emotional involvement.

So then, why is close observation so important?
If your are allowed, no make that required, to make so many adjustments to the scene in front of you, then why is it necessary to so closely observe everything? Well, your tree may be larger, in a different place, a different color but it still needs to look like a tree!! The quality of the edges, the value of the sky holes, the value relationships with other objects and the effects of atmospheric perspective must all be accurately observed and rendered. You may have made the shadow a different size, shape and color but it will still be sharper and darker near the base and softer and lighter as it moves away. The sky color will begin to have more of an influence in the shadow color as it moves away from the thing casting it. All very subtle observations but they will “ring true” and make the other changes you made believable. It is the details concerning temperature shifts, reflected light, edge quality and value relationships the require the most sensitive and delicate eye. To see them properly takes practice and training.

I hope this explains the seeming contradiction. That it explains what observations are important to note and what observations can be ignored.

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