Friday, August 17, 2007

Landscape Painting--how to use technology to improve your painting (Day Two)

"Goshen Field Study", Oil on Panel, 12x10 inches
Jerry Lebo, 2007


Okay, it is day two of using myself as the guinea pig. Yesterday I posted the above landscape study--and set about trying to find ways to improve it. I started yesterday with taking a look at composition. Computers are great for checking alternative compositional layouts. You can crop, move things around, etc. Checking various croppings is the easiest thing to do, anyone can do it with a basic picture editing program.


So let's quickly review the lesson from yesterday--and get going on the next issue to cover--tonal control. Yesterday, I realized two things. First, one problem with this painting is the large amout of foreground space, which fights against the basic composition--which is a "grouped mass" layout (see yesterday's posting to see what this means). Another problem is the perspective. If you look at the trees, they are basically drawn so that the viewer is looking up at them (you can't see the tops). Which is counter-intuitive to having the horizon line (the meeting of the ground plane and the sky) high in the painting. The higher the horizon line, the more the viewer feels he is above the subject looking down. I always suggest (a suggestion which I did not follow) that you should put your horizon line(s) immediately down when you start a landscape painting--as it establishes your perspective lines. If the horizon line is low, the the viewer is likely to feel that he is looking up in the painting and your perspective should be adjusted accordingly. If the horizon line is set high, the viewer will feel like he is a bit above the ground plane--assuming there is not a hill right in front of him/her--and you need to adjust again.


So here is where we are starting today.


Okay, enough said. I have cropped the painting to correct a perspective problem and to improve the composition. Now I want to check the tones. So how do I do this? Most photo editing program have a way to adjust color. Look under this part of your editing software for a way to adjust the "saturation". Sometimes, as in photoshop, there is a option to "desaturate"--in other programs it there is a way to adjust the saturation slowly. In any case, you want to completely desaturate, so set saturation to zero. Here is what my study looks like desaturated.



Not bad--at least I got some things right. If you have read my postings in the past, I highly recommend you read John F. Carlson's book, Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting. The book is a bit out of date, but it sets out a lot of basic principles for landscape painting. I took my copy on the train to work this morning and read it for the 5oth time--and I still learned something.

Without going into details, Carlson notes that the tonal relationships between the major parts of landscape are relatively consistent. Putting aside the highlights and accents, the core tone of the uprights, as he calls them (trees, bushes, etc.), should always be the darkest,. This is due to the fact that the angle of the light from the sun will always be such as illuminate the other parts of the landscape more. The sky, for reasons he explains in his book, will always be the highest tone, while the ground plane will be next. Finally, the slanted planes, such as mountains, hills, rocks, etc, will be the lighter than the uprights--but darker than both the sky and ground plane, as these are recieving light at an angle higher than the ground plane. Of course, if this wasn't hard enough, you also have to remember that as things recede into the background they will get lighter. If you look at my "desaturated" landscape, these basic relationships are correct--more or less.

So the next thing I want to check is the tonal range. That is the range from the highest tone to the lowest. Most photo programs allow you to adjust the brightness, contrast, and sometimes the midtones of a photo. I have a little trick I use, which is to first desaturate the photo, so you do not mistake tone for color. Once you have your tonal range correct, you can always put the color back into the photo. This works for paintings as well. I take the desasturated version of my painting, adjust the tones until I am happy--and record the settings. Then, here is the trick, go back to the orginal phote before it was destaturated and use the setting from the black and white version that worked best. Here is how I applied that here

First I adjusted the brightness, contrast, and mid-tone range until I felt the the tones were more in line with what I was after--and gave the painting a sense of both space and "air". Note: if you tonal relationships are wrong--this will not work. But, since I had roughly gotten these correct in my study--I could go to this step.

So here is the study, I have upped the contrast and brightness, and lowered the mid-tones. By my eyes, the painting is better.



And here is what it looks like with the color put back in:



So what do you think? Is this a better study than the one I started with. I do. This version has a lot of new information to paint from in the studio, and having it around will help me from making the same mistakes as in the first study. I could at this point prepare a new panel in the same proportions as the above picture, and go back into the studio to do another study. If I simply took the time to mix the colors and tones in the above painting before starting and try to maintain them while painting--I promise you it would result in a better painting than the initial study. However, I am still not happy. I still think I can do better. I have fixed the composition, and improved the tonal relationships. But what about color? I still think the colors are off--I get the sense that there is a lack of harmony in the painting. But what to do? Stay tuned--I will cover that in the next post.

In the meantime, good painting. All the best, Sixtyminuteartist.

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