The heart, the mind and the method in-between
When we think of the great artists of the past, I guess we all have this gilded idea of how art should shape our lives. It has an aura to it, something of a mysticism if you will. Looking through the pages of a book of the ‘sketches of Raphael’ I drool over red chalk images and dashes of ideas with awe. The mind can revolve around how we expect to find art, in ourselves and well as out there. It is training the eye to observe, as much as it is learning the mind to translate that which we see. To simplify and record. To master the art of representation. Our hand, bless it, whether it be the left or right, is consumed only at the end of this long and complex process.
I often find that sometimes there can be too much to take in. For example, when one’s eye is trained to detail, we can be overcome with ‘too much image.’ As with the old saying, ‘you cannot see the forest for the trees.’ And you realise that there is a great deal to be learnt from simplifying what you see purely for the method of translation. In so much that, that which the heart desires, must be simplified for the mind to translate.
A great example of this is plain air painting. One can sit before a scene and find it sometimes overwhelming and difficult to understand. There are of course many varied and well publicised ways to aide this process. I find that apart from focusing on one point, it can also be helpful to scale the scene down into simple light and shade. This leads on to conducting the image in either pencil or charcoal and chalk. This process allows us to focus on simply the areas of light and dark. And we can also use a surface colour as our medium colour in the scale. Therefore, only using dark (charcoal) and light (chalk). And as in painting itself the lesser the amount of pure white, the brighter the highlight might shine.
When one is used to oil painting you begin, as with all other practised processes, the methods and steps needed to produce the work. But when so well accustomed to such a process, one can find that this might indirectly hinder simplification. And it may be better in many ways to re-educate oneself. I find I look at an image and intuitively begin to sort colours and layers to the palette I most commonly use. Blues, greens and through to shades or reds to browns are picked upon quite quickly. Shadowing for example is often seen in warmer deep tones of purple and then through to the obvious blues. But when sketching it can be difficult to pare back these observations. To teach oneself to ‘unsee’ so much detail. And the only way to overcome this is through practice. It can help greatly to produce work in a limited palette, and in the case of sketching just using two colours. And there is no reason not to reproduce detail, but itself in a paired back way. Looking only at dark and light, not through an array of colours.
This is where I would refer to classical drawing. And I often use classical images for source material. In this way I find it has helped me a great deal when trying to understand how to simply an image. See Fig 1.
Fig 1. Mother and child with book, pencil and chalk on stone pastel paper.
Through these drawings I begun to better understand my processes for producing artwork and even paintings. Trying to set forth the process before it has even begun. And as with many things in life it is better not to ‘over think’ or ‘over analyse’ the image. Instead breaking it down to more manageable stages and processes.
This method can also be of great help when ‘sketching in paint.’ I must admit this is something I have come to rather enjoy. It is not only a challenge because of its restriction for making mistakes, but it also encourages you to be bolder with the marks that you make. And with time can help greatly with confidence. I have tried quite a few different styles in this regard and have found the freedom of application very addictive. From watercolour sketches through to oils. I have tried portraiture and landscapes in this fashion. And have found much success with representations of skin tone also. See Fig 2 and 3.
With watercolour I personally prefer a much more settled style. Using the mediums practical advantages rather than using it simply for a type of finish. And in doing so using it as much as a sketching medium, as for a translation to oil paint. See Fig 4, an example of a watercolour rendition of an oil painting by Ingres. In this sketch I used watercolour to capture the image, but also as a teaching tool for understanding the planning of an oil painting of the same image.
Fig 4, A Watercolour sketch after a painting by Ingres.
For me the methods of the past have been my greatest teacher. And there is always much to learn. I don’t think there is ever a time when we do not need to practice, or to gain more knowledge. And each to our own, we should work the way which best suits our minds and most of all, helps us the most. But never let the desire to make art, the heart, be dampened by or lost in its translation to the mind. One cannot work without the other. They must both instruct and yet both listen. And hopefully we can produce something we are proud of.