7 Step by Step: Even pros can get it wrong…
Capture the idea on paper
The beginning of all art is most likely a sketch. This is one of my sketches on toned paper that eventually became an oil painting. My original intent was to finish a sketch a day, not thinking that it would become a full painting. This sketch captures my intent.
working up the concept in gouache
I painted this gouache study while at a convention, again not thinking that it would go beyond this stage. I actually completed an oil study after this as well. However, in the translation from sketch through the gouache study, I feel that I’ve lost something in the finished piece. Read on to find out why…
falling at the final hurdle
My POV is too high for the figures under the wreck and we can’t really make them out, which robs the viewer of a scale reference – thus defeating the purpose of the painting. I wanted to show this because I consider the painting to be a failure on some level and to show that even pros can mess it up!
Foreground vs background details
The level of detail apparent in the foreground tower provides all of the information needed to tell us what the details might be on the distant mid-ground tower. There’s no need to paint things in distant objects if you can describe them in close-up elements. If you need to paint distant details, keep them confined to the lit areas of the object, and suggest them loosely and sparingly.
Placing details within shadows
The amount of detail should also be kept to a minimum within shadows. In my painting Dust Devil, the details are merely suggested in the shadows and are progressively reduced by the time I get to the background vehicle. Even though the distance from foreground figure to the background vehicle isn’t that great, I still want to keep the details to a minimum. This helps keep the focus on my main character.
The value of the human figure
Placing a human figure into a scene is an easy way to help convey scale relative to other objects in the environment, even if those objects are fantastical in nature. In my painting Rendezvous, the figure next to the wheels of the foreground rover enables the viewer to understand the true scale of the background rover – even though we don’t see the entirety of the foreground one.
Placing a figure into a scene is an easy way to help convey scale
Using textures in the foreground and background
Texture can provide an artificial sense of detail and thus a closeness that you may not want in distant objects. The sky appears to us to be texture free and smooth compared to the rocks at our feet. Here, I’ve kept the background atmosphere smooth so as not to draw attention to itself. It can be hard to eliminate this when painting with oils on canvas, but very easy to control digitally. As the rock cliffs recede into the background, the amount of detail and texture is reduced.
Make edges do the heavy lifting
Decreasing sharpness where it’s not required can help to separate foreground objects from background objects, particularly where those elements overlap. John Singer Sargent was the master of edges – study his paintings!
The right colour palette
With the understanding that colours will decrease in intensity the further away they are, communicating scale and depth can be helped by limiting the choice of colours of distant objects to a more neutral palette. Restrict the more intense colours for your focal point and allow the receding elements to progressively become less intense. In my painting, Sky Burial #3, I set out to showcase the bold colours of the foreground wreckage against predominately muted colours.
A lot of landscape painting is primarily the art of painting with a variety of greys that have been shifted towards a particular colour. Think of a grey of the required value mixed with a hint of colour, rather than a raw bright colour dulled down. It’s faster to start with a neutral grey and tint it with pigment – traditionally at least – than drag a full-blown colour down to what’s needed.
Good lighting design isn’t restricted to scale, but is needed in all good picture-making so I’m briefly covering the topic here. I start with a light/no light situation, rendering either digitally or traditionally, and establish what will be in light and what will be in shadow. This is done at the lowest resolution level of the picture. So in this sketch there are two values: white for light and a grey (pencil or marker) for shadow. The justification of that lighting scenario can come later.
Don’t get hung up on the ‘how’ at this point – concern yourself only with the design of the relationships between light and shadow. The focal point is not always in light and can very often be in shadow against light.
Keeping things simple often results in a strong piece
This tip is pretty self-explanatory but it’s always good to be reminded of it. Keep it simple. Simple composition, simple concept, simple execution, simple tools and materials and simple presentation. Those points combined will, more often than not, produce powerful results. They are also achievable, which means you’ll finish the piece and that’s the point. Finish the work, learn from it and move on to the next one.
I start with a light/no light situation, and establish what will be in light and what will be in shadow