Breathing Life into Paintings

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Breathing Life into Paintings.
Should we draw every detail or work with freedom?

I want my paintings and sketches to be full of life, to capture energy, and for the viewer to feel like they are there, in the moment when I saw my subject. It might be a fresh day up on the moors, or an old horse standing peacefully in the sunshine, or the moment when a child finds a shell on the beach; whatever, whenever, I want to convey what it felt like to be there.

People often comment that my paintings look ‘real’. But the more I paint, the more I wonder what we mean by ‘real’. The temptation is to go really detailed, to paint every hair on the horses head, but whatever I draw and paint actually looks more ‘real’ if it isn’t all filled in and finished off.

How is it that leaving part of it unfinished or smudged make it seem more real than a photograph full of detail?

We have to ask ourselves; what is ‘real’? What do we mean by this?

Is this about conveying more than just what it looks like? Do we need to tap into our other senses to feel that energy, and not just the visual? What can we do to connect with the emotion of the moment? And even more interesting, how can we connect the viewer to that feeling?

I know that to connect myself to the emotion, I have to relax while I am drawing and painting, and ‘let go’ of that need to copy everything. I think of it as ‘tuning in’ to my subjects, but as I’m really not  sure how I do this, it can be difficult to achieve!

I work a lot of the time from photographs, but I am increasingly needing to have taken those photographs myself, because they are only part of the process of inspiration and connection. What also informs my painting process are the memories of what it felt like to be there. Was it cold and windy on top of that hill? Or hot and noisy in that street in Barcelona? How bright was the light? What sounds could I hear? If I am painting a portrait, what mood is the model in?

One thing I do know though, is the need to focus on what is important, and the story that I want to tell. A photograph will capture all the detail of the scene in the same way, whether it is important to the story we are telling or not. In real life we focus on something, specifically what is important at that particular moment. If, in our work we can emphasise what the focus of the moment is, we can heighten the sense of reality. When in conversation with someone we tend to concentrate on their eyes and perhaps their mouth. We aren’t really bothering about their hair, ears or chin, or what is behind them, so on our drawing or painting we can soften those features slightly, and sharpen the contrasts and colours of the eyes and mouth. Just by varying our mark making we can change where the focus is.

So, to be more practical, my favourite way of working is to start my pieces in a loose and flexible way, and then gradually heighten the detail on the area of focus, which will draw the eye in. Years ago, when I used to paint theatre scenery, we called this the ‘Lost and Found’ technique. This is fundamental to my whole approach of making something look real. I think that part of the reason this seems to work, is that the areas that are loosely drawn and ‘suggested’, are areas that the viewer ‘fills in’ with their own imagination. This means that the viewer connects with the painting as they see what they want to in it. So these areas of suggestion are as important as the detailed focal point. Each needs the other. It’s as simple as that! I must forget the orders of my 1970s junior school teacher who told us to ‘colour it all in’.
I must say though, before I finish, that this is not every artists approach, and there are photorealist artists out there whose work I absolutely love, particularly Linda Alexander. However, although Linda paints every detail in her exquisite paintings, she also has areas of peace and calm, which balance the areas of focus.

So, if you are an artist, think about how much you need to fill in with detail, and what the story is that you are telling.  If you are a viewer of art, notice from now on what work you connect with and the balance of detail and looseness within it. Food for thought!