Last week I posted that I work from photos. True, but only to and extent – I should clarify.
There are two aspects (at least) to any landscape, there’s the man-made world and there is nature. For man-made items – houses, boats, bridges etc – it is important to get the details right. I am speaking from the perspective of a representational painter, which I am. I was annoyed some time ago, when I painted a boat heading out to sea. I worked from a photograph, and I was happy that I represented the boat well. I decided to re-enforce the location by painting the Hook lighthouse in the background. I thought it all worked out well. Later- to my horror – I noticed that I had inadvertently painted an extra hoop on the iconic lighthouse. I hadn’t referred to any photo for the lighthouse itself, I painted it from memory!
Nature, and natural things are different. The sky, trees. grass and so on, I think these need to be approached in a freer manner. Some do and can, paint an absolutely perfect copy of a photograph of a wave, for instance. Photo-realism. I admire this, but its a bit like playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ exactly like the original Led Zeppelin version. Admirable, but not as much fun as jamming, (check out the Boys from Nashville County / Tribute to Led Zeppelin- Irish trad jam session version – brill).
In watercolour, in particular, you have to let certain aspects of the painting do their own thing. You can paint a perfect watercolour sky in minutes, but you have to allow the water and the paint do their magic, and besides if you copy a cloud perfectly as it is, its gone again before the paint is even dry. I decide whether I want a clear blue sky or a stormy sky and choose my colours accordingly. I wet the paper, I apply the paint, the colours mix and blend, I create clouds by lifting off paint, and I am usually pleasantly surprised at what emerges. Its fun, just like jamming.
I paint the sea in the same way. I have a feel for the sea. I apply the paint lightly. I add darker tones to achieve waves, using gum arabic at times to keep it all fluid. I keep splashing away until it looks right to me. I might continue to add touches for days, or weeks even, as in the case of the painting above.
So, reference photographs are essential for man-made items in the landscape and for the outline of iconic scenes (like the Skelligs), gut a good feel for clouds and the sea, for trees and the countryside is imperative. This is only achieved by going out there, by observation and immersion. Only by feeling the sense of a place can you properly capture it in a painting. Photographs are useful, but they can be limiting.