Learning to See: From Auto-Editing to Active Decisions
In the last post I spoke about compositional signposts. I want to follow up on that, and dive right in to the second demo that Joseph did. As you can see from the reference photo below, the location was very busy- lots of docks and overlapping boats. Difficult interlocking shapes to paint. Still, he seemed to like the boat with the green fabric, and chose it for his subject. He walked closer and leaned in, checking things over and getting a sense of the details. Then we set up shop back in the shade, which is where the photo was taken.
Since the boat was to be the subject, he opened up the foreground. Perhaps the location looked more like it does in the painting, when he walked up closer to it. Perhaps not. Either way, he wanted your eyes to move to the main subject, so he changed things to fit the needs of the composition. He kept a number of the boats in the background, including the dock they were tied to, but not the connective one on the right. The goal, I’m presuming, was to simplify the background while still creating depth and a sense of setting. Remember- competition with the main subject isn't the goal of the background. Of course, he removed the fellow sitting in front- who was there for only a short time anyways. He then added the people on the boats (who weren’t there at the time), to develop the story.
I have to admit, at first the changes Joseph was making were so large, I almost wondered why we were painting the subject. Why not paint with more fidelity to what was in front of him, so it reflected more of what was there? We had an interesting experience, however, the next day, when we did a painting of the Yacht Club, that gave me food for thought.
We were looking at a jumble of details, assessing what to include and what to exclude, when Joseph suggested we tell our brains to find a color. "Turn on red," he said, or some such thing, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t suddenly see red peppered around here and there. "Now turn on yellow" came next. I defocused my eyes and let myself see yellow, and again, yellow appeared here and there where I hadn’t noticed it before. Not only was this a useful compositional tool, as we looked for bits of color to grab on to, but it was also a mini-revelation in terms of perception.
What became very clear to me from the exercise is that it is not our eyes that are seeing, but our minds. We are "auto-editing" things all the time, but are unaware of the fact that we’re doing it. Even when we think we are just painting "what’s in front of us", we're not. We’re painting what is getting unconsciously filtered through our brains. The painting isn’t a reflection of reality- it’s a reflection of you.
This thought was rather liberating when thinking about my own painting subjects, and how chained I’ve sometimes felt to the details in front of me. Recognizing the amount of mental auto-editing that was occurring all the time helped me feel freer to do as I saw fit when building my compositions. The real goal, as I see it, is to develop the ability to better see what you are seeing, to gather all the information available to you, and then to listen to yourself, and hear what you have to say about it. Then we won’t be on autopilot, but instead will be more actively choosing what we want to create.
As Joseph said before- when you’re done, all you’re left with is the painting. It needs to tell the story you want to share. This is part of why I think Joseph edits and creates with such impunity. He understands he is painting what his mind sees- he has a story he wants to tell, and arranges the details as need be, to best tell that mind-story. If your painting is a jumble, then your mind is a jumble. When things come out that way, that’s when we know we aren’t clearly seeing … what’s in our own mind, and instead are just allowing ourselves to mentally auto-edit the details provided by chance.
Yacht Club Demo-
I want to use some of this thinking, and apply it to a demo Joseph did on the second day. Once again, the foreground subject was overly complicated and difficult to paint- the docks wandered around and were full of little bits and things. All kinds of details that didn’t help the scene tell a compelling story.
Like a good editor, Joseph took the raw footage and went about trimming off one bit and highlighting another, removing the docks and adding a boat or two for interest, while generally bringing the focus to the main building.
Of course, Joseph led us through the mind-seeing exercise I discussed above, where we picked out bits of color here and there, or shades in certain shadows and structures that we might have just taken for granted normally. He took the whole lot, and sifted through them, figuring out what he wanted to include where.
One of the other interesting things to notice was how the shadows fall in the reference photo, versus the painting. It was morning, so the right side of the building was in full sun. Joseph moved the shadows around to get some interplay of light and dark on its surface. In truth, they’re coming from an impossible direction (the north), but as before- when you’re done, you’re only left with the painting. I admit, although I’ve moved shadows around before, I’ve always felt a bit tied to being in the northern hemisphere! Hahaha! It was amusing and liberating to watch Joseph move things around as the painting needed- including the sun!
Here’s my own version of the subject and a second reference photo that shows more of the dock-
I decided to simplify a step further, and leave the foreground completely open. My feeling was that the dock was difficult enough, without upping things by introducing a new shape (the boats) that I don’t have much experience with. I decided to follow Joseph’s thoughts on the shadows, but instead of making them come from the North I simply moved into the future, when I knew the sun would be rotating around the building’s form. My final painting actually looks a lot like the reference photo, but when I started the shadow patterns were very different. I also decided to include the flagpole and scooch it over to the left a bit, to provide a second small point of vertical focus.
As we were working, Joseph went about doing a smaller, second sketch of the subject-
This quicker one excluded one the boats in the foreground, much as mine did, but there are a variety of subtle differences between the two. Joseph let the sun light the pylons down by the water, and goes through the trouble of preserving the pale reflections on the water with negative painting (instead of dropping in darker shadows with active brushstrokes, which he primarily did in the first painting). All told, it’s a much sunnier, brighter image. It was interesting to see him paint the same subject twice, as he made a variety of different choices.