Importance of preliminary work

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The great American painter, Edgar Payne, states in his book “Composition of Outdoor Painting”, that a pictorial representation is always a translation. Nature suggests ideas for interpretation; the artist supplies ideas of how the interpretation is to be made.

It was late September, some years ago, following the recommendation of a collector of my work that I went to Holmes County, Ohio. Located kind of near the center of the state, the attraction was immediate. It’s hard to put into words how the area made me feel; the emotional experience ran deep. The well-kempt farms, rolling hills, and quiet roads made this the idyllic motif for future canvases…and there have been several. I felt, if I were to stay, I would be right at home…not with the Amish lifestyle…but with the inspiring landscape which I felt would provide sufficient painting material for the rest of my life. But, you know, the feelings really ran deeper than merely experiencing the physical beauty of the landscape…and it’s those deeper feelings that are hard to explain; somehow they manage to be expressed when painting.


Have you ever wondered why is it, when two people viewing exactly the same thing can have an entirely different emotional response to it? I think it’s that intangible something that creates the difference…life experiences, I suppose.

The painting “Late September”, is my translation of all those emotions and I’d like to share with you how it came to be. Payne points out that nature provides ideas for the interpretation. “When approaching nature for depiction,” he says, “the primary consideration is the station point which will give the best translation of the motive.” (what you want to communicate). “To get a proper view and idea of any subject, one should study it from several angles. The idea is to locate the easel at a point which will reveal desirable variations, not only of the size of masses, but quality in line, values, and color.” Please note, these comments also apply when taking photos.

Photo reference used to create "Late September"

Photo reference used to create “Late September”


For “Late September”, I certainly did my share of walking around the area before deciding on this view. Back in the studio, with multiple photos in hand, a selection was made and a color study created. The studies help me nail down the composition and palette selection. I don’t seem to have the ability to clearly visualize a finished painting before its completion, but I sure admire those that can. To overcome this handicap, I create small preliminary studies. In these there is freedom to experiment and explore many different avenues with a minimal investment of time. Sometimes I create one, other times there will be several. In this case, I chose to greatly simplify the scene by eliminating many shapes, and combining others into simple value groups. By moving in on the focal point, and creating a small pond, the whole scene became more idyllic and intimate…thereby expressing more clearly my feelings of the area. It was a pretty cloudy day when the photos were taken. When working on the study, a decision was made to bring more sunlight into the scene. The only problem with that idea…uncertainty about the shape of the shadow patterns on the barn; hence, a cardboard model was created.

Color study for "Late September" - 4.5"x 4.5" - Oil on gessoed paper

Color study for “Late September” – 4.5″x 4.5″ – Oil on gessoed paper


I find encouragement in Mr. Payne’s words: “As each painter develops his abilities, he adopts methods and chooses subjects suited to his liking and temperament. Some artists paint large pictures outdoors, some make sketches and reproduce them quite accurately, others improvise considerably, and still others may make a number of sketches of one subject and then consolidate them all into the final picture.”

Balsawood model created in order to determine correct shadow patterns on barn

Cardboard model created in order to determine correct shadow patterns on barn


He stressed the importance of a well-considered plan. “Often the painter who has not gone into preliminary study of his subject may find after the work is well underway that the horizon is too much centered, a vertical edge or line divides the canvas in half. Perhaps he has two points of interest, several equal masses, or spaces…one or more of the many errors that cause discord or spoil unity.”

"Late September" - 30"x 30" - Oil

“Late September” – 30″x 30″ – Oil


I don’t always follow his advice but in most cases my best paintings come about as a result of listening to and heeding his words.


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