From inspiration to composition and several steps in between
Professional Artist Ray Campbell-Smith discusses the importance of being selective when composing a painting
Most artists are naturally inspired by subjects with strong visual appeal which almost cry out to be painted, but there are occasionally times when we want to paint but have no particular subject in mind and may even suffer from the artistic equivalent of 'writer's block'. We know only too well that, unless a subject really grabs us, we will not do it justice. The only answer then is to seek out an appealing subject and the landscape artist, for example, will scour the countryside for inspiration. It is not just a matter of finding an attractive view and then producing a predictably pleasant landscape - we should think rather of producing an interesting painting, with an attractive basic design, with effective tonal contrasts and pleasing colour combinations.
In these quick watercolour sketches the panorama looks somewhat flat and dull, while the closer study of a small section of it is far more interesting, not least because its form gave me the opportunity to make the most of the strong tonal contrasts.
The only way to achieve our aim is to cultivate an ability to capture the threedimensional world and express it in two dimensions. We then have to arrange the shapes of our subject and the spaces between them onto our paper. Clearly this has to be done so that they fit comfortably onto our paper, without appearing either too cramped or too small and insignificant. At this stage we should consider our angle of sight. A conventional viewpoint may lead to a run-of-the-mill composition whereas a more original viewpoint may add life and interest to our subject. Whatever our approach we must be selective so that we do not automatically reproduce everything before us, omitting not only irrelevant detail but even some of the features of the subject in order to produce a more pleasing and balanced composition.
We must now consider the important subject of tone more fully. In landscape subjects tonal contrasts are naturally stronger on sunny days and we do well to make the most of them, perhaps exaggerating them to produce a more dramatic effect or moving objects so that tonal contrasts are enhanced, as illustrated in these sketches.
Here the dark copse has been moved to produce tonal contrast with the white cottage.
Inexperienced painters are often attracted by impressive panoramas but such broad expanses can often look distinctly unimpressive and disappointing when condensed onto a modest size piece of paper and groups of nearer, smaller objects may well produce more interesting compositions.
Now for composition
Good compositions result when the features in our paintings are so arranged that a pleasing balance is created. Balance would be lacking if, for example, all the darks were on one side of the painting. This does not, of course, mean that the lights and darks should precisely balance and a dark hill on one side of our paper may well be balanced by a cloud formation on the other (right).
This watercolour painting, 'Sailing Barge off Tilbury' (below) illustrates some of the points we have considered. The overall effect takes precedence over detail and the main feature, the sailing barge, is little more than a dark brown silhouette. The dark barge, against a pale patch of sky, captures something of the luminosity of the scene.
The sea and sky are also both simplified and are described with boldly applied watercolour washes, with the wet in wet techniques much in evidence. I used just three colours for this painting - Raw Sienna, Light Red and Ultramarine Blue. The sunlit clouds and their reflections were diluted Raw Sienna plus the merest touch of Light Red, while the cloud shadows and smooth waves were a blend of Ultramarine and Light Red. When applied with plenty of water, the Light Red has a way of bleeding slightly into adjoining areas - a happy, though foreseen accident! The boats were simply blends of Light Red and Ultramarine, some pale, some dark.
This quick maritime impression took just under twenty minutes to complete but it captures some of my impressions of the subject.
Visit www.raycampbellsmith.co.uk to see more of Ray's paintings and to pick up some helpful watercolour hints and tips
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