Subject matter


One of the most frustrating things in an artist’s life is his search for a good subject. How many times do you find the perfect subject, composed just the way you want it, with interesting lighting and desirable painting conditions all at the same time? The answer is – never! Something always has to be re-arranged to satisfy the composition, some adjustments always have to be made. You can do a fine job of actual painting, but if the composition proves awkward or unbalanced, you will immediately know that there is something wrong with the final picture. When you do, you begin to study it from all angles, sometimes even turning it upside down to discover the discordant element. You may find this right away, you may never find it. The painting just didn’t come off, you decide, and either wash it off, or toss it into a corner of your studio with other discards. Maybe an artist friend will drop in, pick it up and, seeing it with a fresh eye, will immediately diagnose your trouble. Perhaps there is too much foreground, too much sky, or there are really two pictures in your one painting. Or you may suddenly find that by cropping it down to a smaller size, you have the picture you wanted in the first place. This has often happened to me, and my original thirty-inch painting ends up being twenty inches or smaller.  

Although it is not always a sure thing, usually by planning beforehand with small sketches in pen or pencil you can greatly improve your chances of good composition. In the small sketch you can think of the big compositional lines alone, and try a few different arrangements of the picture elements until they are pleasing. It is good exercise to play around with abstract lines and forms like this, trying to arrive at a satisfying unity and balance, but when you have found it, why stop with the abstractions? Why not go further and make a picture out of it, one with real beauty and meaning to other people?

Often, by holding your hand or a finger before your eye, you can blot out an object to judge whether or not it should be removed from your painting, or whether perhaps something should be added to improve the overall effect. It’s really not so different from arranging the furniture in a room, where every piece wants to be in the most pleasing and most meaningful position possible.  In a painting, however, one’s eye should be led to a single centre of interest. If there are two or more centres, the eye alternates from one to the other with a resulting uncomfortable sensation. The picture will not prove pleasing. Likewise, if you have ill-advisedly put your most brilliant colour or contrast off in a corner, the eye will be attracted by it and away from the true centre of interest. As a general rule, the interest should not centre exactly in the middle of the canvas, but rather a little off to the left or right-hand side. The compositional lines should have movement around the painting, avoiding a static, uninteresting design, but they should not slide out of one side of the picture. Another compositional error which is often seen is the division of a picture into equal areas – also static and monotonous in design.

Newburyport:  Oil

A road leading into the picture in perspective, from the foreground to the background, gives excellent opportunity for depth.  In the painting Newburyport (above) all the lines of the street and the buildings converge on one focal point. The eye is drawn irresistibly into the picture and up the street to where it curves to the right and disappears behind the buildings. The masses of the buildings are heavier on the right than on the left so that the compositional balance is not static.

Salvagers:  Oil

In the painting Salvagers (above), I again used lines to lead to the centre of interest by means of the long pieces of wreckage and the white foam and rocks, the centre of interest being of course, the men who are salvaging. The spacing of the three men together might have proved monotonous if it were not for the fourth figure to relieve the design. The burst of spray behind, spotlighting the figures makes them more important. There is no question that all these things can be worked out much more easily in the quiet of one’s studio, but in painting from nature there are so many other elements to contend with, all at the same time, that a bad composition can easily occur. You become involved in trying to catch the light and the atmosphere to your satisfaction, in keeping the sun off the canvas – and sometimes even keeping it from being blown away!

I always frame the subject with my hands and try to visualise it as a picture, deciding where to place things, what to change, what to add or subtract, what is necessary to my composition and what is not. You can cut a viewer out of cardboard for the same purpose, and one friend of mine uses a square reducing glass framed with black leather.

After you have settled your composition in your mind, it is a good idea to study the landscape for a few minutes before starting, making mental notations of the relation of colours and values from foreground to the distance, and deciding more or less what colours and values from foreground to the distance, and deciding more or less what colours to mix for the various tones. Now you are ready to draw your composition on canvas with charcoal or brush. I draw it lightly in with a thin turpentine wash of grey; here it is easy to make changes if the design does not look well.

At the beginning I try to cover the canvas as quickly as possible with an approximation of the colour and tone I want, and this requires large brushes and thin washes like watercolour. Then I usually recapture some of the drawing with a smaller brush, preferably a sable. If there are bare trees in my picture, I leave the sky thinly washed in approximately where the trees will be, so that I can paint over it without getting involved in any heavy paint. This is a great deal easier than painting the trees first and then putting the sky in between the branches because the paint on the trees may become mixed with the sky colour, or there may be bare places left beside the branches where the brush did not cover. If the sky is very light, these are not important issues. It’s impossible to paint all the limbs on a tree, so they are indicated with dry brush and a tone lighter than the trunk and main branches. Autumn Haze (below) has a group of such trees done very quickly. If there is thick summer foliage, you paint the sky over the foliage colour to open the trees up in places. Regardless of what method you use, trees are difficult things to paint and one is often inclined to lose the form of their masses or to get the foliage too green. You have only to hold a bright green colour up against a tree and you will see by contrast how much greyer the colour of the leaves really is. The same thing goes for the sky and water which the beginner is apt to paint much too blue and cold in colour, particularly where the sky nears the horizon. Except where there is a lot of mud or silt in the water, its colour depends on the sky which it reflects.

Autumn Haze:  Oil

To get back to painting, after the canvas is covered with the light washes, I start working with heavier paint on one area after another getting more of the true colour and value that is before me in nature. As I am limited in time, I do not stick to one little section but keep all areas of the painting going in about the same state. Each part is related to the next, and I try to see and paint it that way, as a whole. You should step back a few feet from the painting every little while to see how it is progressing, as you cannot see the picture as a whole when you are too close to it. Later on, your painting will be hanging on your wall or in an exhibition where it will be seen from several feet away, so you want it to look well from a distance. The reason many pictures do not seem to hold together or have a unit of tone, colour, or composition, is that the artist has not bothered to step back from his picture while working to study it properly.

One of the chief troublemakers for the outdoor painter is the sun itself. In the first place you have to set your canvas so that it is shaded, which is easy enough to do if you are painting with the sun in front or to one side of you. But when the sun is directly behind you, the canvas must face away from the subject, making it necessary for the artist to twist half around. Of course the back of a stretched canvas also has to be covered with something opaque so that the glare will not shine through it. Then the sun has a way of creeping around and getting in on your picture. When this happens you have to move the easel to compensate, and sometimes one of the legs of the easel will go into a hole - and you can imagine the rest.

Landscape painting certainly has its trials and tribulations!

Annisquam River:  Oil  16” x 24”