We've had some cloudy and rainy conditions the past few days, which has impacted my painting efforts. Regardless, over the weekend, I started laying in paint on a large painting showing a specific perspective of the Japanese bridge. I did an elaborate underdrawing on the canvas which allowed me to start painting without having to figure out the perspective lines. I'm still in the early stages of the painting but I wanted to share some photos since seeing the process can be interesting and educational for others.
One of my goals for this residency is to do larger paintings en plein air; I've had this in mind since arriving in Giverny. My only limitation involved the logistics of carrying the canvas and setting up in the garden in a way that wouldn't inhibit the gardeners. I'm definitely at the maximum size canvas that I can handle within these parameters.
If you're thinking about doing some larger paintings then I have some strategies to share. The first thing that I'll say is that I applaud anyone who paints on a large scale. It's one of the greatest challenges as a painter. I know size can be subject, but to me anything over 3 feet qualifies as large.
A main thing to remember is that a large painting requires more paint and more time. More paint is obvious, but remember that the time factor also includes preparation and preliminary work on the painting. Cutting corners or starting something willy nilly won't turn out well. It's good to start a larger painting with a clear plan of attack. Think about it like writing: writing a short story is very different than writing a 800 page novel (or so I'd imagine).
With that being said, I feel that it's important to do something ambitious in order to expand my comfort zone. Even if it doesn't work out, at least I've tested my limits and I can gain the confidence and reference experience. For me, I've started to become more accustomed to larger canvases as I figure out what works for me. However, I needed to laugh at myself when I went to the Louvre and Versailles and saw these paintings which are like 20 feet by 30 feet. But those paintings were usually group efforts which would take months or years.. so it's not fair to compare myself that way.
Anyway, I encourage you to push yourself and explore new ways of working. If you start something, then follow it through and don't give up halfway. I guess this applies to things other than painting, but if you want to try something ambitious in your life then try and see what happens!
When I first arrived in Giverny, I started thinking about ways that I can differentiate my paintings from the iconic views that Monet painted. The last thing I want is to do any Monet-style copycat pictures; I want to do something unique and decided that one way to achieve that is by changing my viewpoint to get a variety of perspectives.
With that in mind, I've been developing this new Japanese bridge painting. The idea came from a sketch that I did as more of a panorama view. I eventually decided to do an oil study, but from the other side of the bridge and with less of a perspective angle. I liked the study and decided that it will work as a larger painting.
I did the underdrawing on the final canvas today so that I can begin painting tomorrow morning (with weather cooperating). I don't always do such an elaborate underdrawing, but this bridge has a very specific shape and I need to get the curvature correct before begin the painting. I feel like an architect or designer when I do work like this and it's a change since my process is usually more spontaneous.
It's hard to tell from the photo, but the final canvas is fairly large and will take some time to finish. Wish me luck!
This residency has given me a newfound appreciation for the importance of Daily practice. Being able to focus on my painting has made me think more deeply about the importance of consistency in order to improve my skills and to find my individual style and process. I feel a higher level of comfort and painting is a normal part of my day like getting dressed, cooking, eating or anything.
If you do something consistently it doesn't matter if you skip one day, but if you don't do something consistently and then you do it a few times it also doesn't matter. A good analogy is working out: if you go to the gym every day, then taking a day off doesn't affect you (In fact a day off is a good idea). But if never go and then you go one time or a few times it's also ineffective. The consistency is what provides the results.
I avoid thinking that I can work for a period of time and then just coast. I've been painting for a long time and drawing for an even longer time and I always need practice in order to improve or at least maintain my skills. I get rusty pretty quickly and I've found it is a never-ending maintenance project to keep my skills sharp.
One of the keys is to just get started so you can gain the momentum. If I just get up and go then I don't give myself time to make excuses. The initial shift in gears to get the ball rolling is the biggest hurdle to clear. I'm not saying it's easy, but it is crucial to improve as an artist.
Starting a Painting
One of the important things to remember is that no two paintings can be done the same way. If something works one time it may not work again the next time. When getting started, it's good to keep principles in mind instead of a specific progression. One principle which helps is to think "Big to small" which means "masses before details". These broader concepts are looser and provide for flexibility.
One thing that I never do in the beginning is to generalize. By this, I mean to put a homogenized tone down simply to cover the canvas. I begin very loosely (almost abstractly) but I want accuracy from the start and not a lazy "just cover the canvas" approach. I'd rather leave areas of bare canvas than to smear across a general tone.
What about drawing on the canvas before painting? This is a good question and it's something that varies from artist to artist. Some artists draw out the entire composition, but for me, I keep it simple. I prefer to sketch some lines with thin paint at the beginning to divide the major areas of the composition. After that, I just begin painting directly. I used to draw or even trace a drawing onto my canvas, but I found that too much drawing makes me timid and I lose the spontaneity. BUT, you can never ignore drawing and I recommend you sketch as much as possible.
There's an idea in oil painting of "thick over thin" or "fat over lean". This has to do with the structure of a painting and is important for the longevity of your painting. I won't go in-depth about it because there is a lot of info available about it, but I personally don't use too much of anything in the beginning. Too much solvent causes a drippy effect and too much thick paint can cause other problems. I do enjoy playing with thinner paint or thicker paint, but I usually follow my gut and experience to guide me.
Another consideration when starting a painting is time constraints. How much time or how many days can I work on this? If I have a limitation of one session then I will adjust my approach accordingly. My painting example below doesn't have a time limit per se, but the garden still changes and flowers don't last forever so I still feel a sense of urgency. My painting shows how much I accomplish in about a 2 hour window before I return the following day to continue working. It's not a small painting, but it's not huge either. Obviously the size of the canvas affects the process; a larger painting requires more paint and thus, more time.
Lastly, I aim for beauty from the start. If something happens and I can't continue, does the painting still have something to offer? Even as a rough beginning, did I accomplish something? Remember that it's all a process and each painting represents a different challenge to you as an artist.
Work continues in the studio and en plein air as well. My large evening pond scene is going well and I'm learning a lot by working on it. As I've said previously, it feels very freeing to work on this large scale. We had a ton of rain last night so the garden was wet and drooping this morning, but I enjoyed a morning session regardless.
I'm feeling positive about my work and I'm very motivated to continue on larger paintings. Also, happy 4th of July to everyone back home, hope you all had a nice holiday with BBQ's and fireworks!