Things Will Get Worse Before They Get Better

How many time have you heard that “things will get worse before they get better”…? Many times it’s quite true, especially when we’re in the process of learning new — or different — ways of doing things.

That’s exactly where I am with my art right now. I’m having fun trying different media, but I’m also doing a lot of serious study to improve my landscape oil paintings. You’ve been following along as I’ve learned about color theories, light temperatures, high-key and low-key values, and so much more!

It’s a lot to grasp hold of. Fellow blogger Glenn Davis from Rough Times recently pointed out that a problem with teaching ourselves is that we want to know it all — all at once. So true, my friend.

On the morning when Glenn shared that thought with me, I was in the midst of a very serious study lesson. I’d spent at least an hour going through notes on pigments, color families, temperature, and chroma. I’d spent more time sorting through my oil paints, categorizing them as warm or cool — or, actually “Warm Warms” or “Warm Cools” or “Cool Cools” or “Cool Warms”. I was definitely feeling inundated by information.

I used a bit of my knowledge for my daily “color theory quick study” — which you’ll be seeing soon — and after a quick break I returned to the easel to continue my study of focal points. As I looked at the reference photo I was going to use, questions hit me — hard.

Oh, my goodness! First, where exactly is my focal point? How can I develop this point compositionally? What is the light temperature? Is the palette primarily warm or cool? Wait… is that determined by the light temperature? Can I have warm light but use cool colors? Yep, my mind was spinning out of control.

And what about values? Would my painting be high-key? Low-key? No-key? Oh, yes, indeed, my brain was doing so many flips and flops and crazy somersaults that I probably wouldn’t have known my own name if you’d asked me right then and there.

I took a second break. I needed it! When I returned, I made a few very basic decisions. The painting would be low-key — using darker values — and I’d use a warmer palette. I wanted the warmth of the scene to predominate.

As I’m learning all of this “scientitic” information, I’m also trying various new methods of painting, using different brushes and different brushstrokes. Again, there is a lot I’m learning — all at once. And because I’m learning so many new things and trying so many different approaches, I’m coming to that point where I can say without doubt that, yep, things are probably going to get a whole lot worse before they get better.

Here’s today’s study:

Quick Oil Study on Canvas Paper

After painting this, it was time for a quick reassessment. Question number one — how did that focal point turn out? Oops! What focal point? In all my concerns about light temperature and colors and values, I neglected the single most important thing in this piece. I was supposed to concentrate on the focal point. It was intended to be an area directly to the right of the tree’s trunk. Originally I had a lighter value there, but it somehow got blended away as I tweaked the foreground.

As for the other questions, yes, I think I achieved my intent of creating a relatively “low-key” painting. I think, too, that I was successful in making the warmer colors predominant.

One issue was compositional — I wasn’t happy with the overall shape of that tree. I have problems going either “too thick” or “too thin” with foliage. I’m working on it.

Technically it was a challenge to properly place the “warm light” on the tree and in other areas. I’ll keep working on that, too.

As I continue working on all of these different principles of art, studies of composition, and technical exercises, I expect to see eventual progress. But be forewarned, folks. Things are probably going to get worse before they get better.

Bear with me, please.

18 Comments

  1. Nice landscape study, Judith… The composition works… Agree with your critique if you intended the area right of the tree trunk to be the primary focal point … Think the hue of the golden field to the left is one reason… Most of color in nature is not so intense… Colors are restrained… So, in going for a realistic landscape, you can add a touch of gray or a complement to dampen the hue… Thomas Cole and the 19th Century Hudson River School landscape painters are a great example of this technique… Just my opinion, of course… Enjoying your journey…

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    1. Thanks. Yes, I intended to have more contrast at the focal point, but then got carried away and blended the light right out! I’m really learning a lot, but it will take a lot of practice before my painting skill catches up to the knowledge I’m gaining. I appreciate your comments and suggestions. I’m currently reading “An American Paradise” about Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and the other Hudson River Artists.

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  2. Hello Judith, so happy to have come across your blog. Thanks for the follow. I am a watercolorist but I am considering taking a plunge into oils in some time. Your study looks lovely. I cannot wait to see what you do with it in the main piece. x

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    1. Thanks. The studies I’m making now are just “lessons” for learning about color temperature and light, so I won’t be repeating these as “finished” paintings. I’m just hoping to learn from them so I can carry that knowledge with me going forward.

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  3. When you do a painting you have to ask yourself and then answer 1000 questions! It stops me sometimes when I can’t decide on how to start on even a background if I’m painting at home. That’s one reason why I like painting in plein air. Questions like high key or low key, warm or cool colors in comparison to each other are answered by trying to match the colors and values of nature. If you’re not going for plein air you have to make more decisions but then it also doesn’t matter if your colors are unrealistic as long as you like the colors you use. And you can always do the focal points last, either way. A landscape is the kind of subject that gives you so many questions as compared to an abstract where you can wing it with a few colors you like and see what happens. So, I think the landscape is more challenging than an abstract in that way.

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    1. Interesting comparison to abstract art! Yes, there really are a lot of questions, and since I tend to overthink things anyway, that makes it worse! Of course, right now it’s challenging as I’m learning new things. Hopefully it will become “second nature” in time.

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      1. I overthink too. It’s ok to overthink. you have so many choices to make. It’s still a challenge for me after a lot of years. I don’t know about second nature. Maybe some artists feel that way.

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      2. I don’t know. That sounds boring, but who am I to say? I like to keep learning new things too so how do you get to get to second nature? Do the same thing every day? Find a formula?

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  4. Well, that is a lot of learning you’ve done.
    I think you’re trying to learn a lot theoretically as opposed to practically trying things out.
    It maybe beneficial not to focus on theory that much, but to try painting by feel and by intuition.
    I don’t think I’d have ever painted anything if I had started out with so much knowledge.
    I just published a post how I started out many decades ago, and since there was obviously no internet, not even TV, I just developed my style around what I see and how I feel about that.
    I’m not sure where you are located, but North American art frequently focuses too much on technical perfection as opposed to emotional aspects.
    I think you could make the process way easier just by not thinking that much about color temperatures, but implementing them as you see a fit. My point is that anybody could get lost in all sometimes quite controversial theories about what’s right and what is not.
    Every person and artist is different. I think working out the brushstroke is essential. Things which allow working out compositional elements are simple sketching and value sketching with line or adding watercolor wash and following the basic principles if they fit your intention.
    Not every painting has a focal point, indeed. We can establish that by color, too. I am somebody who creates all color mixes intuitively because I simply do not like some colors and love some others. Who cares what theory says!
    I love you colors in the study. I’d say use them with more confidence and make a bit more distinctive in value, that’s all. I always tell my students to add either darks or highlights. Fixes everything.

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    1. Good advice about adding darks and highlights. I will definitely try that. For sure there are lines to be drawn being “knowledge” and “practice”. I took this project of spending 100 days seriously studying specific theories on how to increase “mood and atmosphere” in oil painting, and I am starting to see results. I’m doing a lot of “hands-on” work to go along with what I’m studying. Tomorrow, in fact, you’ll be seeing more of my simple little landscape studies on canvas paper where I practiced using different “warm” and “cool” combinations. It’s been interesting to study all of this. At the same time, “intuitive” art is often the best. 🙂

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