Yes, I know this one sounds obvious, but after 25 years of teaching workshops, I can tell you the most common mistake artists make is to quit looking. I’ve seen far too many artists veer off into trite and predictable painting after a good, strong start simply because they stopped looking at the subject and the canvas with a critical eye.
This is often the result of what I call “brush-overdrive” which basically means a person will move the brush around on the canvas just because the brush is in the hand. We could also call it “automatic painting” - something similar to automatic writing which is defined as writing without conscious thought. Although we would all probably like some painting spirit hovering overhead telling us what to do next, count that option as not available and deal with the choices at hand. Just because there is a brush in your hand does not mean you actually have to make a mark on the canvas. Moving the brush and actually putting paint down do not always have to go together.
Develop new habits for looking and painting. Try not to make more than 3 or 4 brushstrokes at a time without stopping or pausing to observe. This gives you a place to use some critical thinking and observational skills before returning to the more creative brush mark. Find your own rhythm, but make sure you are not making multiple brush strokes without intent and without stopping to look.
2. Stand comfortably with a good view and remember to step back
Find a comfortable stance in front of the easel that allows you to easily move or alter your stance. (For those artists who sit while painting, try a chair with casters.) Avoid a rigid, fixed stance that prevents you from adjusting your view of the subject and of the canvas.
Even more importantly, stand at a distance that allows you to see all four corners of the canvas. We have a tendency to paint “things” without regard to the spaces around the “things.” Getting in the habit of seeing the entire canvas makes it easier to recognize that each mark and each shape has a relationship to the whole. Staring at pieces of information is an entirely unnatural act. In our everyday lives our eyes are constantly moving so keep that in mind next time you find your nose inches away from your painting.
Stepping back from the painting is not just an exercise program for painters. At one time or another, or maybe more often than we care to admit, we have worked feverishly on a painting only to walk away and realize there is no “there” there. The values and color are nondescript and perhaps the drawing information went awry. Standing in a fixed position and staring at pieces of information is not conducive to incorporating all those pieces into an interesting whole. Moving away from the canvas (or yes, even to the side) on a regular basis allows a different view and is more similar to how we naturally see the world around us.
Also, if you are working on a large canvas, you will need to step back to be able to see the whole of the canvas – all four corners of it. John Singer Sargent would back all the way across the room to view his life-size paintings and then run forward to make a brushstroke.
Take off your glasses, close one eye, squint, or look sideways, but alter how you are looking on a regular basis.
Squinting is the best for value comparison. (It is not good for color comparison.) Squinting simplifies the information and allows us to see patterns more easily. Finding an interesting and strong value pattern is often the foundation for the entire painting.
Closing one eye eliminates depth perception and flattens the image.
Looking sideways or peripherally is an important, but unsung, part of our visual perception. Only the very center of our gaze is optimized for higher visual acuity with the ability to see detail. We don’t usually notice this because we are constantly moving our eyes. This does not mean the rest of our visual field is inferior – only different. Peripheral vision is optimized for coarser information and is used for organizing the spatial scene and for viewing larger objects. Margaret Livingstone in “The Biology of Seeing” suggests peripheral vision is better able to detect facial expressions, and that the spatial imprecision of peripheral vision was an important component of many Impressionist paintings, giving these paintings a sense of time and movement.
4. Mind your brushes
Use the right size and type of brush for the task at hand. The paintbrush doesn’t just define information – it creates it. Whether you need texture, or shape, or definition use the proper brush and don’t just default to the one already in your hand.
Pay attention to how you are holding the brush. While there may be occasion to hold the brush like a pencil, recognize this method is not as conducive to creative and interpretive painting and it is also not likely to create variety and interest in your brushstrokes. Handling the brush like a pencil or pen is most likely to access the neural pathways in your brain that are associated with language and writing. For the sake of simplicity we can call this a left-brain, right-brain problem. The cognitive processes associated with language can easily override visual processing – the parts of your brain that can recognize shapes, compare value and color, find the pattern, and see the whole instead of just the pieces.
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