I never try to change a learner’s style or sense of colour because these are the personal qualities that he brings to painting. But there are, as every professional artist recognises, a few golden rules that cannot be ignored. And it is these rules that I am going to talk about. One of the most difficult things when we first take up painting is the choice of a subject; but as we get more experienced, and know our own capabilities, this becomes easier.
When it comes to choosing a subject, I personally avoid views and panoramas like the plague. I much prefer an intimate close-up. It may be a corner of a shed, part of a street scene, or even a close-up of a figure. They are more interesting to paint and it is much easier to get atmosphere into them.
This photograph shows the whole scene. The camera is incapable of selection but the artist may choose from the many details, add to them or ignore them altogether.
The photograph I show here (see above) of a country lane is typical of the sort of thing I mean. The first thing you must decide on is a focal point. Nothing is more frustrating to the eye than the lack of it. Having decided your focal point then use every artifice to direct the eye on to it, and having done this, keep it there.
In the photograph shown here, there is no figure in the foreground and far too much foreground. In my rough sketch (see below), which incidentally, I did in acrylic paint, I have reduced the foreground and inserted a figure in the road. This helps to balance the picture. You must never feel that you have to reproduce faithfully every item of the scene in front of you and remember, leave out as much as you can. What you leave out is more important than what you put in. The eye likes simplicity and hates being fussed.
Here is my rough sketch of the same scene. Notice I have dramatized the scene by making the shadows darker. I have also added a focal point in the form of a figure to help to balance the scene.
Consider, now, some of the ‘musts’ of a good picture. To put atmosphere into a picture, one of the most important essentials is to get an impression of depth. Three factors give this. Perspective in drawing, colour movement and shadow values. We will skip the first, as this speaks for itself. Take colour movement. Colours move, blues recede, greens stay put, reds, yellows and warm colours come towards you. We use this in a painting by making the far distance blue and fainter. The further the distance, the bluer and fainter it becomes. As you come to the middle distance, strengthen your colours and warm them slightly. When you get to the foreground, give it all the strength and warmth that you can. So much for colour movement, and now for shadow values.
The nearer the shadow, the darker it becomes and vice-versa. Your far distance, if it is miles away, will have no shadows, and then gradually as the picture comes forward to the middle distance and then to the foreground, your shadows get darker and darker. I have illustrated this below. If you now have your perspective correct, your colour movement right and your shadows the right tone, you will have plenty of depth in your picture.
Come back for a moment to composition. This is important, but not nearly as difficult as some people make out. Here are a few rules that will help if you can stick to them.
1. Never let your skyline split your canvas in half horizontally, and do not have anything in your pictures that split it vertically either. Put your skyline either one third, or two thirds of the way up to your canvas.
2. A very safe formula for a composition is ‘mass versus interest’. A picture needs to be balanced. That does not necessarily mean that if you have a tree one side, you must balance the picture with another tree the other side. Below, I have illustrated mass versus interest. The mass of the tree is balanced by the small figure fishing on the left, and this principle can be applied to any composition.
3. Lastly, having decided your focal point, do all you can to take the eye to it. A line of trees, or clouds. A lane or a ridge of distant hills. They can all be used to direct the eye. Remember, the eye will follow a line, be it straight or wavy. It will travel rapidly over smooth material, and more slowly over rough. Bear all these points in mind and you will get a good composition.
Two last points. Even if you have your perspective right, colour harmony and colour movement, and shadows correct, you may still feel that your picture is too hard and unsympathetic. This is probably due to two faults. You may be painting one colour up to another and stopping. This will always leave a hard effect. Edges must overlap foreground, over and into the background. This gives a softer edge to all colours. If you are painting with the line instead of against it, this will also give a hard line. Always paint against the line.
These are only one or two of the golden rules of painting. You must learn the rules first, and the funny part of it is, that when you have done so, you can break every one of them, but you will be breaking them with knowledge and understanding.