This article is by Keith Bond, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.
Not long ago one of my students said to me, “I don’t even know what I want to say [in my paintings].”
We were discussing the reason/purpose/motivation/inspiration for doing a painting. His technical abilities are at the point where he can take his art to the next level by having something to say – by having meaning in his painting.
There is a difference between merely rendering a subject and feeling something about a subject and then expressing that emotional connection. Don’t get me wrong. Rendering is important. It isn’t about rendering vs. expressing. It is about rendering and expressing. It is both observing and feeling.
I have felt my student’s frustration as well. It took me years to understand on a deeper level what I wanted to say with my art. It took a long time to understand my muse. Often, I would be out painting en plein air and come across a scene that spoke to me. I had to paint it. But I didn’t know why it spoke to me. I didn’t know what it was saying to me. I just knew that I responded in some way.
You might be at that point, too.
Let me share a simple, yet often overlooked exercise to help you identify why you respond to a subject. If you understand why, you will make better decisions when it comes to determining how to paint/draw/sculpt/photograph/sew your subject.
That’s right. Write.
Suppose you are standing in front of a beautiful landscape that caught your attention. Take out your sketchbook and begin writing what you like about the scene. Is it the light, the textures, the colors? Is it the arrangement of shapes? Is it the solitude? The peacefulness? Is it a mood – hope, optimism, melancholy, excitement, awe? Is it the majesty of the mountains? Is it the vastness of the prairie? Maybe it’s the chaos of tangled brush, twigs, and briars. Perhaps it is the evidence of man living in harmony with nature as seen in well tended fields. Maybe you see the scene as a metaphor for something you are experiencing in your life. The list is really endless.
This exercise works for any subject, not just landscape.
I have found that if I spend a few minutes trying to articulate on paper what I see and feel, then I gain greater clarity and understanding. Searching for words helps me understand what I am feeling. You will find that your understanding as well as your emotional response will deepen over time. You will begin to respond on multiple levels to your subject. You will begin to have a relationship with your subject.
With this insight, you can then manipulate your medium, your composition, your color choices, etc. to find the best way to express your emotional response to the scene.
After making a few notes, do a few thumbnail sketches in your sketchbook. Ask yourself, how do I express x, y, and z? Does a square format or a rectangle best support the idea? What proportion of rectangle? 1x2 proportion? Does a low or high horizon express the idea better? Horizontal? Vertical? Do I crop in tight on the subject, or give plenty of space around it? An intimate scene, or a panorama? Large canvas or small?
How can I manipulate the composition to support the idea? How can I rearranging the elements to add to the composition? Do I divert the stream? Transplant the trees? Move mountains? What elements can I leave out? Where do I place the center of interest? How do I lead the eye? Where are my sharpest edges? Lightest lights and darkest darks? Do they support or hinder my idea?
What quality of brushstrokes do I use? Thick and bold, long and fluid, short and choppy? Thin and feathery? Transparent, opaque? What combination/variety can I use? Where? Do they support or distract from my idea?
Notice, with all these questions there is one common denominator: Do they support the idea?
You will move away from simply rendering a scene – as beautiful as it may be – to expressing an emotional response to the scene. Your art will be filled with more meaning, because the subject has more meaning to you.
In time, identifying what you respond to, and knowing how to express them will become more intuitive and will flow more naturally. You won’t need to walk yourself through every question all the time. You will already know. This exercise is designed to help you get to that point.
So start today. Write. Analyze. Do it with your next artwork. Then do it with the one after that. Continue to do it until you discover that you already know intuitively what you want to say.
Go, now. Take out your sketchbook. Write.