Anatomy of an Indirect Painting

In previous posts, I described the history of indirect painting and also some of the techniques. In this post, I plan to show you how an indirectly painted landscape can mimic the light effects in nature and create both an interesting and varied surface quality and multiple optical effects. Indirect painting using the Venetian tradition gives the landscape painter a wonderful assortment of techniques to use. There isn’t any one way or a set series of steps which one follows in every instance.  Planning, knowledge of subject, and intuition play a role.

The final “look” of the surface requires numerous layers of varying kinds. So, thinking ahead to the next step is crucial. What I see most often is that students want to rush the process, “going for the finish” too soon by either pulling out the opaque paint or leaving the surface looking unfinished with just a few glazes. The way a painting looks when it is truly finished depends as much on what the top layer looks like as it does on all the layers underneath. The beauty and special quality of an indirectly painted work depends upon the variety of optical experiences it offers the viewer.

So, a big part of my thinking when I start to paint (actually when I start to think about an idea) is how and where I will leave things transparent, use translucent paint over transparent, use opaque paint, finish with a glaze on top, etc. My best paintings are ones where I have done all those things or at least several of them. At least I think so. That variety of surface is what will keep the viewer looking at your work long after that initial glance.

How to decide? Well, some things are obvious. Shadows need to look transparent so using transparent paint there works well. But, generally I use several layers of glaze, maybe up to four or five, before I start in with other techniques. Why? Because those transparent areas give the finished painting a richness and depth, even when large parts of it are covered with translucent or opaque paint. I try to keep as much of it uncovered as I can.

Scumbles are a great tool for creating atmosphere and “air”, softening edges and generally building up layers of sympathetic color. I also like to think about building something from the ground up, or, put another way, like Nature would make it. So, the dark warm earth (transparent ) goes on before the grass or leaves on top and the warmer, darker tree interior goes on before the lighter cooler outer layers of light and mid tone.

But, every painting starts with a transparent underpainting which is about two value steps lighter than it will be in the finished painting. Subsequent glazing will darken the value, so one must compensate by starting out a bit lighter. It is just the first of many decisions that have to be made while thinking ahead. You have to have your next moves in mind before you pick up the brush. There is no straight line between the start and finish, but rather lots of zig zags. Here is what a typical underpainting might look like. Although the values overall are lighter, the value relationships should be correct.

Morning Light 2430 underpainting 72 dpi-3

This next painting is called Farm Pond Morning (16 x 20). Here are a few images which unfortunately have some glare but I think still serve to address some of this. I kept the images large so more detail could be seen. In these I have fast forwarded to the finished painting.

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First, is a detail of that lit up area between the trees. I think you can see the transparent edge right next to the opaque light paint which represents the sun. putting those two things together mimics Nature- light bounces off the opaque paint back into the eyes of the viewer (like the sun) while the light passes through the transparent edge giving it a glow and lighting it up in the same way we perceive it in real life. But, also look at the surrounding areas of foliage. If you click on the image, you will be able to see the layers underneath the translucent paint on top. So in this one area there are three different optical experiences.

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This next closeup is the far left edge at the juncture of the grass and water. The tree reflections are transparent with opaque paint on top for the pond scum and opaque reflections for the sky. The grasses are painted very thinly (as compared to the more robust little bits of opaque paint on the pond), barely a whisper of opaque paint dragged over the underpainting. To the right, an area that is just getting a little light has been lightly glazed with a warmer color on top of that. Just above that is an area where the trees meet the grass which was under painted, glazed, then translucent paint put on top, then a glaze on just that underneath lower area to create warmth and vibration with the greens above.

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Here’s a detail of the area just above the previous one where you can see the grasses and trees a bit better.

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Here’s another detail of the water, this one including the reflection of the sun. Again, from the bottom up, it is transparent underpainting, numerous glazes – first darker (just like I would do if I were painting the tree itself), then the lighter warmer colors on top of that, juxtaposed with the opaque reflections which are also glazed over, and finally the cooler opaque bits floating on top of the water.

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Using indirect techniques offers the landscape painter endless combinations of techniques to create a varied and beautiful visual experience for the viewer.

P.S. Our annual Magic Hours online class, an exploration of indirect painting techniques and painting transitional times of day, starts October 9.  Join us! For those interested in a more comprehensive program of study, we are accepting students for the January trimester of the Atelier programs. Click here for more information.

Why “Paint What You See” Is Not Good Advice

“In every object there is inexhaustible meaning; the eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing.”

Goethe

“Paint what you see.”  Has anyone ever told you that? The other day I was reading something online and ran across a discussion where several artists were offering advice to another artist about how to tackle a particular subject. “Paint what you see.” was the recurring theme of the conversation. I have heard that before, of course. You have too, right? Instructors often give this advice to students in workshops and classes. But before you can paint what you see, you have to learn to see.  The vast majority of landscape painting problems are a result of a failure of seeing.

Emil Carlsen
Emil Carlsen

First, we cannot see what we are not prepared to see. We literally don’t know what we don’t know! For example, unless someone has explained the concept of value and its importance, perhaps relating that to how values can be organized by the planes in the landscape, the beginner won’t see that. He or she won’t know what or how to even look for it. Unless someone explains the concept of color temperature, the intermediate painter won’t see it or even know that he or she isn’t seeing it! Once we understand fundamental concepts like value and color temperature, then we see it because we know what to look for and why it is important. We are then prepared to see it, and we do! Learning to draw and paint is first a matter of learning to see.

Emil Carlsen
Emil Carlsen

Second, once we can see, it is no longer our job to simply “report” on what we see, but rather to “translate” what we see into a work of art. Once we have the technical skills and understanding to truthfully represent nature, it is time to create a work of art. Nature rarely arranges herself into a perfect pattern or design. We take the raw material provided by Nature and make a painting of it. The painting becomes its own thing, separate and apart from the Nature which inspired it. It must stand on its own.

P.S. Our upcoming online class The Painted Sky starts August 7th! Take a look at our previous posts on painting big, atmospheric skies and join us!

Registration is here.