Changing the Composition

Sometimes it’s only when you’re back in the studio that you see.

Plein air painting is a challenge: the light’s always changing; there are bugs and heat (or cold), etc., etc., etc. James Gurney recently posted a list and video on plein air painting disasters. Well, here’s another one: sometimes you don’t see the inherent weaknesses of your composition until you’re back in the studio.

 

Stephanie Benedict mustard and goldfields en plein air
The original study for Mustard and Goldfields, on the easel. This one is too squished.

At the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge last month, they took us to a portion of the refuge not normally open to people. Which was fabulous and much appreciated. The day even cooperated a bit: the light got better as the high clouds started to move out.

So I set up my easel under the canopy the refuge staff kindly set up for us on that unseasonably hot day* and went for it. I wanted to try to capture the wide expanse of the scene, the feel of the sun shining, the open sky.

But I only had squarish boards: 9″ x 12″, 8″ x 10″.

So I tried squishing the composition to fit the board. I thought I could get both ends of the composition and leave the middle out**. The image above is that first version, painted on site.

Once I got back into the studio, I saw my experiment had failed. Oh, the day is warm, and the greens are close to right, but—eh. The painting doesn’t sing.

So I changed the composition, after this time doing some value sketches. Here’s what I’m getting. This one’s not quite done yet, and as I look at the photo I can see things that need changing. But this larger one has much more the sense of the open space, the big wide world that I almost always want to portray in my paintings.

Work on progress by Stephanie Benedict
Mustard and Goldfields in progress, by Stephanie Benedict. Oil on canvas. 12″ by 24″

I guess this is more reason to switch my plein air materials from pre-made boards to something I can manipulate—either cut or mount—later. So I can get the compositions better the first time round. AND be more rigorous about those doing those thumbnail sketches first!

What are you looking for in landscape paintings?

*or maybe this is the new normal in the Central Valley: almost no rain, and 90 degree days in April.

**And yes, I can think of lots of other solutions NOW, back in the studio.

 

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