What goes into a painting

Have you ever wondered what all actually goes into making a painting what it is?

There are plenty of terms to describe various art principles. Most of us have learned at least a little in school about composition, horizon line, value, hue, perspective; and some of us even learned about balance, proprtions, center of interest, and color harmony.

But there is even more, such as the concept of the path of the viewer’s eye, message, brush strokes, emotional impact, the Golden Mean, and secondary points of interest.

You can easily find hundreds of books and articles written about each of those topics separately, but how much of that actually goes into each painting? Some artists are unaware that they are practicing some of the principles and paint how they feel. Other artists have been known to spend hours preparing for just one single brush stroke. I’ve never done that, but I have been known to spend up to twenty minutes to  mix just one color on my palette.

Local Grand Rapids artist, Jim Connelly, once passed on to me that creating a picture is as much about art as it is about science.  It made me think about how there are many artists out there who are very creative, but lack the technical skills. On the flip side, there are artists who have developed tremendous skills, but their paintings lack the life needed to create an emotional impact. It is strange to realize how such a detailed painting seems to need something that beckons you to come back for more once the novelty of it all passes.

So when you are looking at a painting, how do you know if the artist is both creative and skilled?

The creative part is easy. When you look at the picture, do you find it interesting? Do you find yourself thinking about it after you walk away, or returning to it many times to find new and exciting things you never noticed before? Does it make you feel different, change your mood, make you think, or remind you of something nostalgic? Those types of emotional connectinos come from the heart of the artist, but what about the technical skills?

My wife puts it best when she looks at one of my paintings and says that she is not sure why,but it “just does not look right.” Well to get it to look right I have to go back to the basics. The big ones are value, proportion, and composition. If you saw in black and white, you would be seeing the value of each color (dark versus light). The values create dimension, making objects come to life. Similar values create patterns that move your eye around the painting and are so important that an artist can completely play around with colors as long as the values are correct. 

This leads us to composition. A composition has to not only lead the viewer’s eye into a painting, but has to move the viewer around the painting and find places of rest without letting the eye wonder off the sides. I sometimes spend hours trying to determine what a person would see first, then second, then third while looking at my painting. I have to make sure they find the center of interest, but are able to leave it and discover other gems, while still being able to find their way back to that center of interest.

Proportion deals with the relative size of things. You know, “is that vase way too big for that table?” Nothing ruins a contemporary realistic painting like the edge of a building being crooked or a person’s arm too long and bent in the wrong spot. 

To be honest with you, these are only some of the principles most artists think of while doing each painting. Most of these a viewer will never know about because I believe a good artist can mkae the painting look easy. But that is the beauty of a good picture. There can be so much  more than just the fact there is a flower pot on the table that is pretty, or that there are red and blue buildings that remind you of your hometown.

So the next time you find yourself looking at a painting you enjoy, try to look harder. Get up close and look at the brush strokes, or pick out the larger shapes by squinting your eyes. Try to figure out what you first see when you look at the picture, and then what you find yourself looking at next. The reward will be yours, because you will see what the artist sees.

And trust me…that is a wonderful way to look at the world around you.

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