Zion River - demo

Philip Howe Fine Art
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This oil painting took approximately 3 days and shows how to achieve a certain amount of realism by just simple shadows into middle tones. Big landscapes are a good way to loosen up the brushstroke and keep the painting looking full of energy. When I do landscapes I try to keep in mind that I am not copying everything I see but the feeling of a place or the atmosphere that reminds me of being a part of it.
I am strickly a studio painter but there is some excellent work being done by the current group of Plein-aire painters. You can find a few links to some of these artists sites on the Links page of this site.

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Brown oil wash over quick drawing
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Start of middle tone block in

After doing a quick brush-line drawing over a white canvas, heavily textured with gesso and modeling paste (acrylic) I let the brown oil drawing dry overnight then added a wash of burnt-sienna over most of the canvas. Here I have begun to block in the middle tones, those tones of middle value that are neither hi-lights or shadows. This is a safe approach for any subject, but especially landscapes. The block-in works best, at least for me, if the paint is put on fairly thick, opaque enough to cover the drawing and have the viscosity I like to give oil drag so that my next strokes will pull off well. If its too thin its too slippery and the thicker the paint the longer it takes to dry, which works best if you want to noodle into a large area and not have the paint setup and get too tacky too fast.

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Blockin refined with shadows

Above you can see how the simple shadows dropped into a fluid middle value area can add enough three dimensional depth to suggest a solid form coming out of what was a near abstract patchwork of color strokes, by themselves meaningless.
I am always facinated by how quickly the mind can determine what is logically a 'realistic' form and what looks 'right' and certainly what looks bad or wrong in a given work. Its not only a interesting thought process that can be used to the painters advantage but a psychological one determined by each person that views your work. To be able to control the viewers eye makes for the best images, I feel, where the artists can control the focus and direction of whats to be seen, but also the mood and meaning. This can give a simple landscape more inner depth and a feeling of being there more than any photo I've ever seen. I don't know if I achieve that, but its certainly my intent. Without this meaning, or mood, a picture would be just technique and that, for me, isn't enough reason to paint something. Copying nature would be a pretty dull experience. Its in trying to capture the mood that excites and can be conveyed to the viewer.

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Top half worked over

Working from top to bottom rather than overall as I used to do gives me more working time into wet paint by doing sections and fairly finishing them as I go, working up to the next wet section. I can always paint over an area overlapping any that might be drying, but I prefer to just work up to a natural edge and, if I can't do the allnighter, then try and continue it the next day.
I have in my head what I think I want and know the effects I want to get with the paint. So to labor over an area is a waste of time and boring. Working wet-into-wet is a luxury and if whats in my head doesn't work and I have no refernce to paint from, then this wet approach allows for more spotaneity and freedom to just push the paint around to explore better visual options. All forms hold to the same physical rules of light and darkness in space, so its easy to 'invent' or makeup areas if the paint can fuse into wet edges, as will be seen below.

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Lower left areas blocked in and being refined
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Lower left near done
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zion river detail
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Zion River final 30x42" oil canvas

Heres the final above... but I'm not happy with the top edge of the big foreground boulder. Its too busy. I thought there was some decent brushwork here but it looked better the moment I opaqued over it and began again, blocking in a few shapes then the shadows, then some highlighting. Again, my intent is not to copy nature but to work with its elements. If nature put everything together for us on a 2 dimensional plane it might be easier to evaluate what would or can't work well on canvas.

As much as I like Sargent, I wish he had created or invented more from what he saw. I think his singular life intent was to get up everyday and go out and copy something. Of course he did it HIS way, and these were some of his best images. But the intent to 'copy' is what may have blinded him to a more creative adventure that guided more creative talents like his friends Edwin Abbey or John Waterhouse. I don't know if these two were as technically skilled, but I'd rather see a creative attempt anyday than simple copied technical bravura. Those are fun to study for techniqe but get ho-hum pretty quick. After reading many of Sargent's letters of frustration for not being able to do more "creative" or "designed" works, especailly when he felt trapped in doing more mundane portraits- its easy to see how even a great technical painter like him would turn to doing work just for himself during the summer breaks where he could escape into the mountains and paint more of what he wanted. Every artist should paint what they want to paint, regardless of whether it will sell or not. If it means painting work that may not sell, then at least they are being true to their concept and inner spirit. I have spoke with a lot of professional painters who make their living off their work, selling in galleries, etc. Many of them are strict landscape or figure painters who essentially copy just what they see in front of them, either from life or a photo, and each piece has their mark of a individual interpretation and a look. But many of these artists, at least the ones I know, will tell me that they are not happy with what they are doing and get bored with the work, yet have trapped themselves with certain collectors and gallery demands, of doing repeat subjects always in the genre that is selling for them. So while selling your work may seem glamorous or a sign of success, I would say the best success comes from just doing what you want and then, and only then, if there is a real market for it, then sell it if you want. I know some of the truest art I have seen was not in galleries but in private homes or studios by artists who had a part or full time job and painted on the side. That way they never painted to sell but to get out their feelings and did much more creative and imaginative, even experimental work at their leisure with interesting results. I am not criticizing anyone, just that each of us makes choices everyday as to how to use our time and energy and I, for one, prefer to not do the same tired subjects but to try and find new ideas in new ways. At least I know I am not bored but excited when I work on my own ideas and unfortunately a lot of the conservative artists, like Sargent in his many letters, was obviously not satisfied doing just work that he did not consider "creative". We can only imagine what he could have done had he let himself go and used that technical ability to create inventive pieces with exceptional creative freedom.

Think about it this way- you go to a museum and see two big shows- one of a technical master who paints nothing but the same pretty pictures over and over, each one beautifully executed and a delight for students who fawn over the technique. But in the next room is a show by an aritst where each new painting is different and varied, full of new content and interesting, creative, even inventive images, even techniques. So long as its not garbage, I'd much rather see that type of artist's works. (I'm just speaking of the tip of the iceberg- realism, not to mention more abstract or other schools.) Each new piece would suggest new ideas and thoughts in each viewers minds. Theres a lot to be said for great technical skill, but I always thought the 'art' came from the more inventive aspect of painting.

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