Jerry Lebo, 2007
"A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people."
People often ask me how I keep my paintings “loose”. I think what they mean by "loose" is that my paintings look like they were done spontaneously—and do not appear overworked or over-polished. However, my wife will tell you that they don’t always come out this way. She often comes into my studio and tries to stop me from continue to work on a painting when she sees it is going well. Many times I have ruined a painting trying to "improve" it—an experience that I am sure you have had yourself. It is very easy to do the wrong thing to an otherwise good painting thinking you are going to improve it—only to find that it has become dull or drab. As Degas says, you have to keep some vagueness and mystery in you paintings—even if your gut reaction is to paint it away in the name of making it look more refined. Degas also always said that "no art was less spontaneous than his"—and that the final output as the result of “reflection and study of the great masters.” Appearing spontaneous takes a lot of work!
One of my students has asked me to help her paint more loosely, so I have been working to design some exercises to assist her development in this regard. In my mind there are two parts to get a spontaneous feeling in your paintings. First, you have to paint with clarity and conviction—and not be afraid to let the process take over a bit. Second, you need to understand what is important to making a painting work. That is, what is essential to a painting so that it can hang by itself on a wall and draw people’s attention?
One can talk about what makes a painting good or bad for hours (and people do), but I wanted to design a practical exercise to help my student discover it herself. So I thought I would share with you what I have come up with.
You will see that I am going to undertake the demonstration as a monochrome painting. One reason is to show you that making your paintings appear spontaneous does not require you to splash colors all over the canvas haphazardly--which I see a lot of out there. In fact, it is more likely to ruin your painting—than make it better. Also, I want to show you that, regardless of how spontaneous your paintings look, good value relationships are important. The student I am working with has a good sense of how to see value relationships—which I think the beginning painter needs to spend a lot of time focusing on before moving to the next step. If you cannot see values clearly—it is going to be difficult to loosen up your style and keep in all under control. So work on values first if you are just starting out—you can see my previous post for some ideas on how to do this.
In my mind, the key to painting “loosely” is rapid and confident decision making. When you move your brush from the palette to the canvas—you need to think of the stroke you are about to make as an indication of a shape and value, not the actual shape or value. If you have laid out your palette correctly, with your values clearly set out, then once you have loaded the brush with paint--the value decision is done. Thus, moving to the canvas to put down a stroke is your shape decision. What I mean by "indication of shape" is that you don't want to try and match exactly what you see so much--so much as what you feel is there or what you want to say about that shape. Simplify what you are seeing to its most basic form.
Here is an exercise you might try to better understand what I mean--a timed painting which limits in the amount of time that you spend at each phase. Get yourself an egg timer or kitchen timer and do the following exercise with whatever subject matter you feel most comfortable. A small still life or landscape study is fine--but I would suggest using a smaller canvas. Before starting, set out your palette in a seven or nine value scale with black and white at the ends.
1. The sketch (five minutes)--give yourself five minutes to put a sketch down using your next to darkest value. Don't block in any values--just focus on the silhouette and making out the major shapes and shadows. You can correct the drawing as much as you want during the five minutes--but when the timer stops---you have to work from what is there. I did this last night--the following sketch took 41/2 minutes.
2. Large Masses (10 minutes)--working from dark to light, give yourself 10 minutes to block in the major value changes in the painting mainly using your middle value ranges--stay away as much as possible from the darkest darks and whites during this period--you will need these later. You should be looking all over the painting to make sure the relationship between the various objects and background make sense. Do not paint any details--or go for perfection. Get the canvas covered and make corrections to the largest masses until you have something that sits well on the canvas. Here is my demonstration painting at 10 minutes.
3. Dimension and Light (10-15 minutes)--focus on getting a sense of mass and light into the picture. If you have done the second step correctly--the objects will be there in roughly the right relationship--but lack a strong sense of light or mass. Focus on two areas of work for 10 minutes. First, transitional values, look for areas where two values are coming together--but the change is too abrupt so that it draws the eye too much. Put a value between the two values down as a transitional value--don't make them up--look for them in what you are painting. They are there--but a bit harder to see. Avoid putting too many transitions in the area you think will be the final focal point--you want to keep at least 1-2 sharp transition here. Once you have a few nice transitions down--move to your lighter values and darks and begin to work the highlights and shadows. Look for places where a bit of your darkest dark or lightening of a high value in a certain area will bring up the sense of light. This is basically subdividing the larger masses into a darker dark and lighter light--but you want to think about how this effect light. Don' t do it everywhere--only where you think it will bring up the overall sense of light in the painting. once you feel the sense of dimension and light is going well--take the last 5 minutes of this part of the exercise to really develop and draw the viewer to the focal point/area. This is where it is okay to add some details to the painting and sharpen transitions. If you are adding detail--do this with small one-value, or less, changes within a value area you are working. If it is place where light is hitting the object--go for increasing the value change--for instance--see if there is a place to but a black to white transition (or similar) in the focal area, for instance, where a dark shadow and lighted area met near a shadow. You should only have one large value change (black to white) in the painting--so if there is another part of the painting where you have such a variation--this is the time to revise that one, for instance--rather than white to black. In the secondary area, try taking the white and black up and down one value in the scale--they will still read as light--but not compete with the focal point.
5. The evaluation. Step back and give yourself five minutes to consider the painting and make final changes. This is the last chance--but if the first phases have gone well--there should only be minor changes needed. A good way to see what the painting needs at this point--which should be small strokes or adjustments,--is to step far away and look at the painting from 10-15 feet away. Or leave the studio and reenter as if the painting was there and you were looking at it for the first time. Look at it quickly and make the first change that comes to your mind with either a brush or finger. You are looking for small tweaks at this point that will improve the painting--not perfection.
In total, this exercise should take 30-45 minutes--but not more than an hour in any case.
Try it out--let me know if the results are more satisfying to you. Let go of your fear of making a bad painting. Also, remember that whatever you come out with--there will be people who cannot see what you were after and would liked if if you had done it differently. It should satisfy you--and say something about what you were trying to acheive.
All the best, sixtyminuteartist.