Improving your observational skills is the subject for this Masterclass

In his admirable article about the ideal curriculum for an art school, Bernard Dunstan states ‘it seems clear that as far as amateur painters are concerned, figurative painting from direct observation (my italics) is very much alive and kicking. By far the largest majority paint landscapes, figures and still-life, and show little desire to keep up, or down, with the avant-garde.’ What I would like to discuss in this article is what is meant by direct observation. At its simplest, it means sitting or standing in front of nature and painting what you see.

We have all heard that cunning phrase, ‘Ah but I saw it like that – everyone sees differently,’ usually uttered when a teacher suggests a change of tone or colour.  An out of place tone is demonstrable, but colour is more difficult. That we do have different feelings about colour is well attested, not only in our description of the hue, but also in our emotional response. Why is green considered unlucky in Ireland? - is it, as some think, because the landscape is so green, and if so, do people who live in deserts dislike yellow and brown? Why do the Chinese mourn in white and we in black? Why do we wave a red flag at a bull and not a blue one? Would the effect on the bull be the same if we waved a blue flag of the same tone and intensity as the traditional red one?

The number of explanations I have heard to these questions range from the psychological/sexual/environmental to the mechanistic behaviour of the eye. (Trevor-Roper in Art through Blunted Sight goes so far as to quote Leibrich, that Turner suffered from ‘secondary astigmatism that may accompany lens sclerosis’.  Would that we were all so afflicted!)  How much our eye problems or our behaviour affect our vision is of interest to the eye specialist and the psychiatrist; what concerns us as artists is that we do have vision and we do have a response to the world around us.

It is foolish to dismiss the question of the meaning of colour in quite such a cavalier fashion as I have done, but the point I wish to make here is that it does not matter whether you are the result of an inhibited childhood or have curious eyesight – what matters is what you choose to do with it.  In other words, what you have to say as a painter.

Much has been written about significance and the need for you to make an important contribution.  Even more has been written about how you can say something with no training because ‘it is you’; you have, in short, some talent.  All this is so much rubbish.  In my experience, most good painting (given that we are discussing objective painting) comes from a ‘commitment to struggle’ to find an expression of what is in front of you.  The definition which I gave of painting from direct observation is not quite as simple as I propounded it earlier.  Is it possible to get a more meaningful description of what I suggest?

For those of you who find that which I write tortuous, please do not read on; but for those who have an inkling of what I am concerned with, please attend.  Yesterday, in discussion with a group of accomplished part-time painters, talk centred around ‘how do you paint directly?’  What this group of artists was saying was, ‘We accept the general premise that we should paint from observable facts; but what does this mean, and how should we paint?’

As an objective painter, I am so involved with translating the world around me; a world full of changing colours, nuances of tone, with one object near and another which I can hardly see, that I sometimes forget that the world in which I live is three-dimensional and the canvas on which I paint is two-dimensional.  I people my canvases with images which, when I paint, I feel are three-dimensional, on my flat canvas.  When I try to paint a far distant tree, I put it back on my canvas and pull the near field towards me.  Though it is useful to remember that the canvas is flat, the objective painter ‘thinks’ of the distant objects painted on it as being further back.  These are indeed major considerations when you paint from nature, and affect the way I behave as an objective painter.  But the question still remains, ‘how do I, and perhaps here I should add, do you, approach the painting?’

Always go back to the beginning.  How big is the canvas on which you are working?  (Ideally I hope very small or very big – the 16 by 20 inches support creates more problems which are irrelevant to your idea).  In the landscape you have before you, can you see the leaves on the tree nearest to you?  On the canvas on which you are working, could you paint all of these?  Painting, because it is an abstract exercise (i.e. making a two-dimensional image of a three-dimensional subject), demands that you should choose one aspect, one element of your subject, at the expense of the rest.

Objective painting is not an exercise in copying what is in front of you.  Would that most aspiring painters believed it were and would castigate themselves because they had not described every detail which was in front of them.

Far too much time is spent in thinking how to find the simple expression of what you see in front of you in nature.  You would be better employed in caring about everything rather than in searching for ways to simplify it.  The most difficult thing for a painter to learn is to analyse his work critically, and at the same time, to remember that a criticism which is tempered only by a sense of failure is destructive.  Self-criticism must always be constructive and by this I mean if you are in doubt about something, repaint it.  If it is not perfect, why?  Alter what you  see; make the criticism specific; relate what you wish to paint to the size on which you are working; do not make general comments such as, ‘the trees are not very well painted’.  Rather, say that the tree on the left is not right in tone and is a little too pale.

Remember, it is the business of the artist not just to see, but to try to see more clearly;  to throw off what he has learnt and to feel it as a child, as if for the first time.  Painting is always difficult at this level, but it is this caring which makes it worthwhile.