Planning a painting – Where to start

Today in a workshop someone asked, “Where do you start?”  That is a very good question. It made me think of composers and wonder the same thing. I suppose most start with a simple musical idea and then work from that outward to the finished musical composition. A rare individual like Mozart heard the entire work in his head and then wrote it down. Most however, begin with a seed thought that grows with labor. Even the genius Beethoven heard an idea in his head, wrote it down, and then worked it out at the piano. We know that he anguished over parts of some passages, re writing them until they finally matched his inner vision.

I think my first step is to ask myself why I am interested in the subject. My answer to myself must be in visual terms such as color relationships, value patterns or contrasts, linear movements etc. If my answer is that it triggers nostalgic memories of my childhood, or is simply interesting, then I have to re-think it. I know I can’t paint nostalgia or interesting. I can only paint shapes of value, color etc.

My second step is create another image in my head, this time of the subject as a painting. A friend in England, Ros Ridley explained the process to me as follows.

“…The novice starts with making an output image out of ‘wordy ideas’. Then the student begins to copy what they see, i.e. an input image. Progress comes when they make an input image inside their head and then are able to project that, as an output image, onto the paper. I think what has to happen is that the input image and the output image have to be more joined up in your head, preferably before the pencil touches the paper.”


This coincides with my experience. I see the subject, and it enters my head as an input image. But then it altered as it meets my experience in painting and drawing. Practice and experience builds the tools that forge this new image, an image that looks like a painting. This becomes the output image that directs my hand as I draw the subject-first as a plan for the painting, then as a contour line drawing on my watercolor paper.

So where do I begin the drawing? I start with the area that contains the visual idea that drew me to the subject, and I pick one shape in that area. I visualize where I want that shape in the painting I saw in my head and I draw that shape. Then when that one is right, I move on to its contiguous neighboring shapes. As I add shapes from the subject I watch the image grow in my sketch book and picture what it needs for furthering the idea. I am including a finished sketchbook image so you can see the result of this approach. I add the values for each shape as I go. Some of the shapes are the exactly as observed, and some are shapes that I have reconfigured to match my inner image. So as Ros put it, my input image and my output image exist together in my head, forming the final image on my paper. Often I feel like a participant in the process, even an observer as I watch it happen. There is magic there and I get to participate in it. What a kick!

The more you do it, the easier it becomes, and the more enjoyable it is. I don’t even have an eraser when I am sketching in the field. Most of my sketchbook drawings take from 15 to 20 minutes.


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