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Replicating vs. Creating

by Keith Bond on 3/12/2012 10:02:30 AM

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.


Some artists paint exquisite plein air paintings.  Yet, when they return to the studio, they simply enlarge their studies.  Often, the studio piece has less life than the plein air.  It’s just a copy and feels like it.  The plein air is full of emotion, but the studio work is static and stale.

There are other artists whose plein air work is rough and unfinished.  Yet their studio work is powerful and beautiful, full of emotion.

What is the difference?

One artist has learned to replicate.  The other has learned to create.

Of course not all artists fit into these two camps.  There are those whose plein air and studio work are both emotionally powerful expressions.  

I think one of the biggest reasons that some artists’ studio work fails is because they have not developed their memory skills.  They are keen observers while on location.  They have mastered the ability to capture the relationships of value, color, atmosphere, etc. while the subject is in front of them.  

However, once they are in the studio, they have nothing additional to say about the subject.  They have no new insights.  They aren’t searching for a better way of expression.  They are merely trying to replicate their plein air success in the studio.  What is the purpose, then, of painting it again?

There must be a valid reason to explore an idea again in the studio.  Either there needs to be an attempt to improve the composition, find better ways of expression, or to explore different ideas prompted by the scene.

Those artists who develop their memory skills can take their plein air work as a springboard for more expressive or creative works in the studio.  

Memory retains only the essential elements of the scene.  The non-essentials are forgotten.  Also, the memory retains the emotional response to the scene.  An artist who is able to tap into the most important elements and the emotional connection to them while eliminating the superfluous will create more powerful works of art.  

An artist who is too literally tied to the scene often has a hard time rearranging.  Sure they may move trees.  They may divert the stream a bit.  But do they move mountains in their work?  It is often difficult to make drastic changes.  And it is often difficult to filter out those things that are not essential.  Likewise, there is so much stimuli while on location that it can often be difficult to understand just what your muse is telling you.  

Allowing your memory to distill the information is a powerful tool.  It frees an artist from replicating, and allows an artist to orchestrate and rearrange.  It enables artists to move mountains.  Memory work is a critical component of creation.  Creation is at the heart of pure artwork.  Replication is a step or two away.

Don’t get me wrong.  Working from life is essential to understanding the subject.  One cannot recall from memory something that was never put in there in the first place.  The focused observation while working from life is essential to putting things into the memory bank.  Recalling them is another matter.

So, how do you develop your memory?  I’ll share a few ideas and exercises next time.

Best Wishes,
Keith Bond


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Topics: advice for artists | art appreciation | art education | creativity | FineArtViews | inspiration | Keith Bond | originality 

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I agree, the artists who shout 'paint only from life' are just letting us know they haven't developed the studio skills to go further and say something more. I love plein air painting, but I look at it as a means of taking notes to be creatively expanded on in the studio. If I get a plein air piece that looks finished and captures the freshness of the scene, Bonus - Frame it and sell it.

jack white
Keith, good instruction.

I found that in plein air one stroke says a lot, then when we replicated that area in the studio, it takes a lot of strokes for that shot of sunlight.

Outside we are racing with the sun and are forced to nail things quick. Back in the studio we may spend three days on a larger version. There is not the same urgency.

Moran did several small watercolor sketches that he later made into huge oil paintings. He used them to jog his memory.

Esther J. Williams
Keith, I am doing this sort of work right now, taking a workstudy and creating a large studio piece from it. I am the type that will make a rough plein air worksketch. It is a springboard to something totally new for me. Each time I look at it I find something that I want to expand upon in the larger work. Especially the larger proportions giving freedom to more expressive brushstrokes. As I am painting a plein air piece, I am thinking of atmosphere, quality of light and it`s affect on the colors and values, plus overall mood of the scenery that I perceive. Each brushstroke on the canvas is a recording of a mental and emotional expression. That study carries the memory of it permanently which can then support the artist in the studio. I abstract from it, creating a totally unique new piece. That is the beauty of being an artist, we are in a constant state of creativity and only need to trust ourselves that deep down inside we will tap into our pool.

Barbara Reich
Keith - I have a few favorite plein air locations that I returned to many times. This repetition naturally improved my memory of "place" and allowed me to work on studio pieces that I believe were improved through remembering the "feeling" of certain locations, as well as periods of keen observation. I can still close my eyes, inhale deeply, and slowly recall intimate details (lay of the land, birdsong, wind, smell of the fresh earth)of our farm in Gladwin, MI. We have since moved, but my memory remains clear. Hopefully future paintings of this lovely location will ring true - according to my fond memories.
Barb Reich

Judy Mudd
Keith, in plein air, I find that one thing that speaks to me, what compelled me to paint the subject in the first place. Then everything else in the scene is how do I make that one thing say more. While, in plein air I may stick to the subject matter in front of me, but when I get back to the studio, I feel free to make the scene more impressive and work toward exploiting that "one thing." It zeroes it down for me and helps me eliminate the unnecessary.

tom weinkle
Nice article. I think there is another factor that creeps into studio painting besides memory.

I don't quite know how to term it, but often artists get caught up in overworking, or trying to capture a detail that is actually unimportant to the essence of what was seen on site.

I like what Judy said, and Jack..sometimes people lose sight of what captured them. It's the memory of the scene, but also the emotional imprint. I think the best plein aire grabs onto something special in a scene and the artist is able to hold on through the finish. It can get lost in the studio if one is not in touch with their feelings.


Of course there are exceptions. A master might put much more time into a detail, and that is what was needed.

Judy Mudd
Thanks, Tom. Yes, sometimes in the studio, you almost have to meditate and recall the feelings you experienced while out painting. Hopefully, they will come through with the finished product. And, yes I agree with you that a master may know exactly what is needed, having painted so often and just knowing how to make a painting sing with emotion.

Donald Fox
Last year an exhibit shown in Houston entitled "Sargent and the Sea" contained two versions of his painting “En Route pour la pêche,” the larger of which was painted for the Paris Salon. Both it and the slightly smaller version were studio paintings based on a plein air study. Included also were other plein air studies done at the same time in the same area of Brittany. These included some of the same figures in different poses. About a dozen drawings of figures and seashore were also included. Not only were the two larger paintings varied from the plein air study (composition adjusted, colors enhanced, details added), but they were also varied from each other. It was easy to see elements of the drawings and the painted studies in both larger paintings. Sargent had thoroughly immersed himself in the landscape and noted his impressions, which he then used to create the studio paintings. He was only 20 years old at the time. We can learn a lot by observing what others have done, even the young masters in the making.

If you paint from photographs you are a photographic painter. One who paints from photographs. That is how I view it.

Keith, I am not good at plein air but I keep trying and I love doing it.

While on my morning run a few days ago I ran across a lady painting the beach, I haad to stop and talk to her. She said, she no longer takes picture or brings her camera to her paint site. She now does value sketches and makes herself remeber the moment along with her small plein air to do a large work up in the studio.


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