Composition is the key to painting. Nothing else in painting matters if you don’t have that a good composition worked out before you start to paint. Here is the story of one of my paintings that illustrates this point. And some tips on how to achieve expressive brushwork, without killing it with overblending.
Cat. No. 1023 And Then The Sun Came Out, Carmel Beach – 16in x 20in – Oil on Canvas.
About the painting
I went down to Carmel Beach in California a few years ago looking for a composition for a painting. I was participating in the Carmel Art Festival competition after a gap of many years. I had returned to the US for my nephew’s wedding, and so I thought, why not try the festival again?
The problem with beach and sky paintings is balancing the cool blue shapes and the warm shapes of the sand. It is important to have a dominant temperature in a painting. Because the sky was the most active part of the painting, and the part I wanted to emphasize, it meant that I needed another blue/blue green shape in order to balance it.
As I worked out the composition, I realized that the shape of the ocean needed to take at least 2/3 of the width of the canvas. This meant I need it to be very close to the water’s edge in order to have a large enough shape for the ocean. This was going to be a little tricky!
I needed a good stable easel because of the wind, and so I setup my Take It Easel, which is a Gloucester style plein painting easel. I have found this easel to be the best design for a outdoor easel when are you are painting on a relatively large size painting support. This easel is highly stable, and also allows you to use a very large palette. It accommodates small paintings very well too – a highly flexible design.
The only problem with positioning yourself at the water’s edge is that it can be bad news when the tide is coming in!
Unfortunately the tide had already turned before I started my painting. So I knew that before the painting was finished, I would be painting in the water. But the composition was king. The was nothing I could do about it. The good news is that here is nothing like a bit of time pressure when you are plein air painting to ensure you have bold and confident brushstrokes!
In general, one of the advantages of speed in painting is that it helps you avoid overblending your work. By showing your confident brushwork, you will end up with a much more expressive painting.
So, the most important thing in a painting that you absolutely must get right, is that you need a really strong composition. No matter how well you copy a scene, if your composition is not working, the painting will fail. When you are out painting outdoors, you may have to sacrifice certain things for your art. Usually it is comfort, but as you can see, there can be other problems when nature has other ideas!
By the way, the water caused a problem with my TakeIt easel. There are holes in the base of the legs for a leg extension. But these holes do not have the waterproofing in them that is applied to the rest of the easel. Being under water for an hour caused the wood to warp, and now the legs don’t slide easily every time the weather is damp. I sanded it four times and it is still a problem. So don’t do what I did!
Final note: Despite all the problems, this painting won the Best Oil or Acrylic Award in the Carmel Art Festival Carmel, California in 2016
Advice for painting students: how to achieve expressive brushwork
Confident brushwork, such as in this painting, has nothing to do with style. It is a function of how well you master fundamental skills such as mass drawing and color observation. You cannot create expressive brushwork like this without that foundation. My recommendation is, if you want to do this type of work, spend a year or two on really mastering these fundamental skills. There is no shortcut.
One of my students wrote this in a letter to me a couple of years ago. This says it all.
“In about 2004 I rediscovered art, becoming a passionate “serious beginner.” Your program was exactly what I was looking for. I found your material to be succinct yet thorough, principle-based vs. “paint-along.” I had been dabbling with materials and “paint-alongs” until I realized that serious art wasn’t about copying, it was about composition. My wife is a musician and she agreed that for her, composition is much more difficult compared to performance. Your units on Notan and thumbnails were just what I needed to gain confidence in composing art. Now that I’m retired I’ve been entering shows and winning some awards with my pastels that I believe are based on the ‘far music’ Notan structure of my work. It speaks to the strength of your program that, even though it doesn’t cover pastel [specific techniques] at all, I have been able to apply nearly all of your lessons to my favored medium of pastel.”