Several years back there was a movie — It’s Complicated — about modern-day relationships — which can, indeed, become a bit complicated. I’m fortunate to have a good, old-fashioned sort of relationship. Nothing complicated there, at all.
But, you know what is complicated? Oil painting. I’ve been at it for three and a half years now, and it keeps getting more and more complicated.
Edgar Degas is credited with saying that “Art is easy when you don’t know how,” and while I’m always a bit untrusting of internet quotations, I don’t care who said this. It’s true.
My first oil painting — back in November 2016 — was nothing to brag about, but brag about it I did!
I had actually painted a landscape in oil. It was exciting, and it was fun.
One reason why it was so much fun, of course, was because I had no idea what I was doing. I came away amazed that oil painting seemed so much easier than I’d expected it to be.
Over the last three years, I’ve painted a lot more landscapes. I’ve ventured into still life painting on occasion, and I have even dared do human faces and figures, albeit not very well.
Surprisingly, however, oil painting hasn’t gotten easier. It’s become comfortable — especially in comparison to watercolor painting — but that’s not the same as being easy. It’s not even the same as being simple.
That’s how it was for a long time, though. I read a lot about oil painting, learned different techniques, and I painted. It all seemed to be a fairly simple process. Undoubtedly, most of my paintings could be described in the same way: simple.
Now and then I somehow got things right and ended up with good paintings, paintings that have actually pleased judges at different art shows and have received awards. But it’s not really because of any technical expertise or artistic skill. I just happened to get lucky. The stars aligned. The art gods smiled down upon me. Somehow, without really knowing what I was doing or why, or how, I chose the right colors, put down the right sort of brush strokes in all the right places, and I came away with something I could really call art.
What has been happening over these last three and a half years, is that I’ve been taking in a lot of knowledge — but not necessarily applying it. Now, I’m attempting to take all that knowledge I’ve been storing up in my brain and use it when I’m painting.
Suddenly, now that I know what I’m doing, oil painting is… well, it’s complicated. In the past I had only to find a reference photo or see a scene I liked, decide to paint it, and have a go at it. Not anymore.
Now, I have a lot of things to consider when I choose a subject for a landscape painting.
Is it a good scene for a painting?
This is the first question I have to ask. A good scene I’ve learned is one that’s not too complex, one with no more than five or six basic shapes or masses. While that’s important, it’s only the first of many questions and concerns I must consider.
Why do I want to paint this? What attracts me to this scene? What moods and feelings does it evoke?
I began playing with some of these ideas about two years ago. I was learning then about the importance of painting with intent. Here, again, I was gaining knowledge but wasn’t able to fully use it.
Once I know what I want to paint — and why — there are still many things to think about.
- Focal point
- Color palette
Each of these areas has specific things to consider, too. With composition I need to think about harmony and balance, rhythm, and more. I need to think about how I’ll call attention to a focal point and how a viewer’s eyes should travel through the painting. With color, it’s important to remember how cool colors recede and warm colors advance, and to not just think about it, but to apply those principles when I paint.
I’m now taking time to make note of my background, middle ground, and foreground areas, doing my best to consider the light source, the time of day, and how that affects the length and placement of shadows.
Should I tone my canvas before I paint? If so, what color? Do I need to do an underpainting? Have I made thumbnail sketches? Am I sure this is the right composition? What about doing a value study?
What brushes should I use? What sort of effects do I want to create? Do I have my edges correct? Are they soft in the distance, sharper in the foreground?
Do I have a strong narrative? Does the painting draw me in to its story?
The questions go on and on. Of course, I do tend to over-think things, to over-analyze what I’m doing, but all of these things are important aspects of oil painting. My guess is that natural-born artists and more experienced artists consider these things almost without conscious thought. It’s part of their inherent knowledge and understanding of what art is and how to create it.
For me, though, it is a long, thoughtful — and complicated — process. I think I’m seeing positive results from it, though.
Here’s one of my most recent paintings, Clouds at Evening.
From start to finish, I put a lot of thought into this painting. I can’t say that my execution is perfect or that I successfully applied all the principles I’ve learned, but I will say that I like the painting. I see myself progressing as an artist. I know I’m gaining a much better understanding of art, what it is and what it isn’t. I’m understanding more, too, about how I need to approach painting.
And most of all, I’m appreciating all the complexities involved. Yes, it’s complicated, and no, I’ll never remember all the things I’m supposed to think about and do. But little by little, I’m learning to handle oil paints and brushes. I’m learning how to take the visions in my head and put them onto canvas.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that not only am I learning to see as an artist, I’m learning to think like one, as well.