Monday, May 03, 2010

The Importance of Photo-Sketching

Sometimes painting en plein air is more than I can handle, as I experienced on a recent trip. In spite of full-spectrum sunshine accompanied by a banquet of cloud shapes - just pick one that builds the composition - , the wind was howling and the temperature plummeted. Though I was completely absorbed in what I was doing, I finally realized that I couldn't feel my hands and my easel was listing. I had wondered why the painting had taken a turn for the worse in the last few minutes. It was time to fold up and run for the car.

I was in one of the most picturesque spots in the country and couldn't bear wasting any of my limited time there, so I made sure I had a fresh battery, a backup, and a large memory card and hit the road with my camera. In this instance, I was with a fellow artist, so sudden stops and back-ups were not objectionable. We chose a little-traveled back road with eye-popping subjects at every turn and frequently abandoned the car to explore a setting on foot. After all, the masters suggest walking entirely around a possible subject before deciding on a viewpoint.

Similar to thumbnail sketches, these photo series are a great tool for trying out compositions before committing a canvas to the effort. "What if I cropped it here?" "Maybe a vertical composition would be better." "Make the sky more important." "What if I did a closeup?" "High horizon?" "Low horizon?" A two-thirds, one-third split?" "What mass should dominate?" "Where are the subordinate masses?"

As we drove, we found several herds of livestock - cattle, goats, and sheep - and spent a portion of our time shooting (not literally) them. With this resource material, I can rearrange the groups for compositional purposes. I can do this as I paint live subjects, but a dozen shots of the critters as they move about gives me more options. I just have to remember that they were in motion, whether slight or swift, and to paint them that way. No frozen statues, please.

Oftentimes, such photo excursions lead to the elimination of subjects that seemed so exciting at the moment I stumbled on them. Time and a more critical evaluation can prove them to be mundane and uninteresting. Just think how much painting time I've saved by the perspective I gained by experimenting with several views.

After all, I found even better gifts further down the road. Better compositions, better shapes, better vantage points.

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