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Friday, July 11, 2008

Avoiding The Image Trap: Trust Your Light

On the mast of my easel I have scribbled these words: squint-observe-select-aim-stroke. I know that whatever's in front of my eyes has within it all the information I need to lead me toward a good painting. It's a matter of learning how to see what is actually there.

Artists who continually fall into the image trap limit their attention to what they assume about the appearance of the image. If it's a red umbrella in sunlight, it gets painted red and shaped like an umbrella whereas in the raw image, the eye might not see that much red at all. Actually there might be strong pinks or oranges or even white in direct light and perhaps purples or even greens or blues in the shadows. Values in one shape might be similar to those in an adjacent shape and each might be merging with the surroundings both in light and in shadow.

To fix our attention on the paths that light and shadow are making is to allow us to discover things we otherwise would have missed. If there is a light pattern moving throughout the scene from background to image or image to image, we might capitalize on that visual quality rather than focusing on just the definition of the image. Look what a delightful path of light Pat Weaver found at a racetrack in Kentucky.

Pat Weaver
"Lookin' For A Winner".
Watercolor on Paper
Pat has set the human images within a strong path of dark (you might even call it a shadow path) and celebrated their activity with pools of light flowing in and out from figures to spaces around the figures. Rather than encapsulate each figure with defined edges, she has allowed the light to merge from figures to their surroundings with grace and fluid gesture. The contrast of the strong dark path enhances the brilliance of the light.

When James Gurney speaks of "shape welding", he's talking about this sort of thing where we find similar values among adjoining shapes and merge those values without defining an edge. To look for these things and to paint them is to shift our attention away from the image, finding surprises and excitement that can lift us right out of the image trap toward a successful painting.

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