Painting what you feel not what you see

Painting outdoors en plein air can be complicated, frustrating and difficult, as well as fun and exhilarating. One of the things I have learned is to paint fast! Too often the light changes, the wind gets up and tries to blow your easel over, or a van parks right in front of your view. So you have to paint fast.

Now the problem with painting fast is that you cannot capture the detail of what is in front of you. There is usually so much going on and so many tiny details that catch your eye and the impulse is to try and record it all. This usually fails for one of two reasons (or both) – firstly, you don’t need that much detail anyway in your painting (too much detail kills a painting in my view), and secondly, you can’t paint it all in the time allotted. It’s just impossible and completely unnecessary to try and do it.

So how do we get around this? What can we do instead? How do we cope with all that visual information in front of us? My suggestion is that we paint what you feel, not what we see. I believe that if we can learn to do this we will become better artists – not just recording what is in front of us but interpreting it and putting something of ourselves into the image. After all, a camera can record what is in front of us. As artists we need to do something more.

Take a look at my photo and paintings below.

I was painting on this beach last week and in my view were a bunch of complicated rocks, sand strewn with seaweed, cliffs with a myriad of ravines and folds, the waves on the sea. I even had a drone settle above me for a while as someone watched me paint!
How was I to capture all this in a half hour or so? And was it important to get the exact shape of every rock? The temptation was to count them, to draw them all exactly, to try and replicate exactly the scene in front of me. So I took some photos to do just that, and then settled down to record my feelings about the place!

My final paintings were loose, painterly, and I hope captured the essence of the place. No, they didn’t have all the rocks, nor did they have all the correct shapes of the cliffs. But they captured the feel of it all. And that is what is important. In the end I just went for it and painted quickly and simply – from the heart more than from the head.

So, next time you are painting outdoors, don’t allow the details to get in the way of how you feel. Paint from your heart. Go with it. And I’m sure you will be surprised at the result.

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